The wife who followed her husband who responded to his call from God.
We can perhaps recall know the story of Abraham living in Ur (somewhere around modern Iraq, Mesopotamia) in about 2000 BC; childless, but told by God that he would be the father of descendants as many as grains of sand etc.
Who was beside him for this promise to be fulfilled – Sarah (known initially as Sarai before she and Abram were renamed by God)?
As I have looked at this story more closely, as it is related in Genesis, I have noticed that Sarah had to embrace the nomadic way of life. That meant living in tents and always packing up and moving on and never owning your own bit of land. We notice the differences from our own times when men and women lived separated in their own tents. The culture may be different, but universal themes shine through. Sarah leaves the home of her ancestors and a familiar, settled way of life to begin a new life following her husband, who is following the call of God. A God she does not receive personal messages from at first and yet she follows. Then there is the burden of always being labelled “childless”. The stigma that must have brought still echoes on down the centuries.
Genesis 11v31 tells us that the journey began when his father Terah took Abram and his childless daughter-in-law and his orphan grandson Lot and travelled from Ur of the Chaldeans with the intention of arriving in the land of Canaan, but stopped in Haran. Ur was a settled city probably with structures and houses, my nearest experience is Mohenjodaro, Pakistan one of the towns of the Indus Valley Civilisation which flourished between 3500 and 1700 BC. beside the River Indus.
Picture of Mohenjodaro above from website Harappa.com
Sarah left this security for a journey to Haran. But then when her father-in-law died her husband received a call from God to leave this land and go to the land “I will show you”. They left accompanied again by his nephew Lot and their accumulated possessions, including slaves, arriving in Canaan. Abram built an altar when he pitched his tent in Bethel and then he headed on to Negeb.
A famine though drove them down into Egypt where Abraham asks Sarah to pretend that she is his sister (for safety?) because she is so beautiful. Later on, Genesis mentions that she was his half-sister, so it was perhaps a way of presenting the truth as it were.
Not sure I know why it was safer to be a sister than a wife unless it was because childlessness was so unknown that it was a way of explaining Sarah. Whatever the answer it must have been a strange decision that Sarah had to go along with. Pharaoh was unimpressed when he found out and sent Sarah and Abraham on their way, having first put Sarah in his harem. Abraham had built up flocks, camels and slaves both male and female. Genesis recounts that Abraham and Lot continue to flourish but can’t live together so split with Abram settling in Canaan.
Life goes on, but despite God’s promise there is no sign of a baby and Abram and Sarai grow older and older with Abram promoting Eliezar of Damascus, his slave as his heir. Ten years after settling in Canaan Sarai takes matters into her own hands. Thinking perhaps that a child of her own slave would be better as an heir rather than the children of a random slave, she tells Abram to sleep with Hagar, her Egyptian slave (perhaps given her by Pharaoh). Hagar conceives and then looks down on Sarah who goes to Abraham who replies “She’s your slave – you sort her out” so Sarah mistreats her so badly that pregnant Hagar runs away to the desert. How often do we think of a plan that seems to work from every angle, only to find that we have made a big miscalculation?
Hagar, is not abandoned by God, who sends her back to Sarah and Ishmael is born when Abraham is 86. Thirteen years pass which would imply Ishmael is no longer a baby and God again promises that Abram will be the father of many via Sarah who is now, we are told, no longer able to bear children, past childbearing age. God renames Abram and Sarai at this point.
There next follows an eventful year – first three Angelic visitors come and tell Abraham that next year when they visit – Sarah will have a child. She, listening, stifles laughter.
Around them the political situation is in flux with fighting affecting Abraham’s nephew Lot (he and his wife and daughters are a separate story of their own). Abraham then pulls the same stunt as previously with Pharaoh when he goes into the neighbouring land of King Abimelech – Sarah has to say she is his sister, the King makes her his wife, nearly sins, doesn’t, has the truth revealed and sends Sarah and Abraham on their way again, not without coins and animals.
After these many tribulations, Sarah conceives and Isaac is born. In Genesis 21v6 we hear Sarah’s voice:
“God has brought me laughter and everyone who hears of this will laugh with me… Who would have ever told Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yes, I have given birth to a son for him in his old age.”
However, she still has that residual jealousy and despite her son and Ishmael playing together she asks Abraham to send Ishmael and by extension his mother, which this time Abraham does.
Isaac grows and then Abraham pulls another stunt which must have shaken Sarah when she found out about it. He takes Isaac, as commanded by God to sacrifice him. God sends a ram at the last moment, for the sacrifice. We can see this episode as a pre-figuring of the sacrifice of Jesus and the mount where it took place later became Jerusalem, but for Sarah it must have been a moment which shook her and all her beliefs and relationships to the core. That the God of Abraham, her husband, who had promised and fulfilled his promise, should then ask for the ultimate sacrifice and that Abraham was prepared to carry through with it. That her beloved only son was tied down and placed on the Altar ready to be a sacrifice was probably an image that did not leave her. Of course, we can think of another mother Mary, who watched her son sacrificed for the redemption of mankind.
Finally, we come to the death of Sarah, which is mentioned, although perhaps Abraham used it as a good way to achieve something he wanted – a piece of land in Hebron, Canaan. Genesis 23 records that:
“Sarah lived a hundred and twenty-seven years. She died at Krlath-arba – that is Hebron – in the land of Canaan and Abraham went in to mourn and weep for Sarah.”
So, in conclusion what does telling the story from Sarah’s point of view give us – we see that sense of following a dream/promise – however impossible it seems. We see that Sarah has to do as her husband says (not suprising perhaps for Sarah) so she has to act twice as his sister, instead of wife, a request of Abraham’s that acts to his advantage, but not to Sarah’s as it places her in a difficult situation twice.
We see the human response of those who want to help the dream along, thus Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham and then regrets that action for the rest of her life. We hear Sarah’s voice when Isaac is born. We hear too her incredulous reaction of laughter and we hear repeatedly that Sarah was beautiful. Despite the tribulations of their long married life together we end the story with Abraham mourning and weeping for Sarah. Perhaps that is a hint of the separateness which had arisen between Sarah and Abraham, as they are not living in the same place at the time of her death. This separateness was perhaps consequent following the near-sacrifice of Isaac. A reconciliation following death is perhaps a reminder to set things right before death.
The Journeys of Abraham and Sarah showing the geography of the area. They travelled through their long life from Ur in modern-day Iraq, through Syria, down into Canaan (modern-day Israel/Palestine) and across to Egypt and many more journeys within the area.
Our next episode will look at Rebekah whose family lived in Haran in modern-day Syria.