Sarah: The Long Struggle

Sarah’s story is told in chapters 12 through 23 of Genesis.

Our story, the story of our family, begins with Sarah, the wife of the patriarch, Abraham, father of Isaac, father of Jacob, father of the 12 tribes that formed the beginnings of God’s people set apart for God’s covenantal purpose.

Sarah was born, the biblical commentators say, the daughter of a wealthy tribesman named Terah, himself descended from Noah. Her birth name was Saria, which name God would later change as a sign of God’s favor toward her.

Scripture introduces her as the wife of Abram, whose name also would be changed – to Abraham. The story is set in Ur of the Chaldees. Abram also was fathered by Terah, so Sarai and Abram may have been half-siblings or at least cousins or kin of some sort; they did not share the same mother.  

The story begins with Terah preparing to leave Ur and take his tribe to Canaan. The recitation of the family names includes Terah, his sons, their wives and their children.  And here scripture sets up for us the prominent theme of Sarah’s story: “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Gen 11:30). It is the plotline that will come to define her life. 

Before reaching Canaan, the travelers arrived in Haran and dwelt there. It was from Haran that God called to Abram, telling him to go to Canaan, and promising that he would be the father of many nations, the implication being that Sarai would bear him children. But scripture reminds us again that Sarai remained barren.

So after his father’s death, Abram took Sarai and his nephew Lot and all their household and continued to travel to Canaan as God had commanded him. There Abram encountered a great famine in the land and resolved to go down into Egypt. 

Now Sarai, we are told, was a very beautiful woman. And Abram began to be afraid that the Egyptians would recognize her beauty and would kill him and take Sarai for their own. So Abram proposed for Sarai to say that she was his sister, not his wife, then the Egyptians might still take her but spare Abram. 

And that is exactly what happened. Pharaoh did take Sarai into his household and even rewarded Abram, as her brother, with dowry-gifts of a great many animals and servants. 

God, however, was not amused by Abram and Sarai’s little ruse and brought plagues upon Pharaoh. Whereupon Pharaoh called Abram to account and sent them both away, with their booty.

God, however, was not amused by Abram and Sarai’s little ruse and brought plagues upon Pharaoh. Whereupon Pharaoh called Abram to account and sent them both away, with their booty.

The drama can be interpreted in several ways. Many biblical commentators upbraid Abram for pimping out his wife to save his own skin, forcing Sarai into complicity.  A more generous explanation is that they both were mindful of God’s promise of a great nation to come and risked everything to keep Abram alive. Although Sarai’s life was not in danger, the story was about to go awry: Israel was in danger of losing its ancestress. And there was that half-truth that they were siblings. Abram and Sarai may have played the heroes as they escaped intact. 

Leaving Egypt and returning to the land from which they had departed, Abram and Sarai settled near Bethel where Abram had previously built an altar to God. There Abram reminded the Lord God of the promise and complained that he still had no heir.  God told Abram to look north, south, east, and west and know that all this would be the land of his descendants. God reiterated his promise that the number of his seed would be as uncountable as the stars.

But ten years later, Sarai still had no children. So she relied on a custom of the times: she would give her Egyptian maid, Hagar, to Abram to have a child in Sarai’s stead. It was common in those times that a wife who did not have children after a certain number of years would give her handmaid to her husband for the slave to have children for her mistress. And Abram agreed. 

Once Hagar was pregnant, however, it began to go badly, for Hagar got uppity in her privileged position of being able to do what Sarai could not. Sarai’s reaction was to treat Hagar harshly, whereupon Hagar ran away into the wilderness. There an angel of God found her and told her to return to Abram’s household. She would have a son, the angel predicted, whom she was to name Ishmael. He, too, would have a multiplicity of descendants. Several months later, Ishmael was born to Hagar and Abram.

But God’s covenant with Abram was for an heir was to come from Sarai, not from Hagar. When Abram was 99 years old and Sarai 90, again God came to Abram and renewed his promise. To seal it, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah, indicating that Abraham would be the father of many nations and Sarah would be the mother.  The child of the promise was Isaac, born within the year.

Not long thereafter, the old confrontation between Sarah and Hagar presented itself when, at Isaac’s weaning ceremony and feast, Sarah saw Ishmael “playing with” Isaac. Volumes have been written about the phrase “playing with,” as rendered in the NRSV. The NIV says “mocking” –  other versions say “scoffing” or “making fun of.”   The result, in any translation, is Sarah’s urging Abraham to cast them out.  Concerned for his first son, Abraham turned to God who assured Abraham that Ishmael would also be father of a great nation but again promised that the covenant with God’s chosen people would come through Isaac.  So Abram sent Hagar and Ishmael into the desert again. There an angel of God came to Hagar and assured her that she and the child would survive and from Ishmael a great nation would arise. Today Ishmael is considered to be the father of Islam, one of the three Abrahamic religions.

As Sarah begins to fade from the narrative, scripture inserts the story of Abraham being called to sacrifice Isaac, with the last-minute substitution of the ram caught in the thicket. Sarah had no part in the story, but many biblical commentators conjecture that the stress led to her death at 127 years old. 

Abraham’s last act for his beloved Sarah was to purchase a cave where he could lay her body.  At Hebron, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah. Today it is located in the hotly-contested West Bank of the Holy Land. According to tradition, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, with their wives Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah, are buried there.

Questions for reflection

What is the wisdom we can learn from Sarah? Which of Sarah’s struggles do you most identify with?  

Can you recall a specific incident in which you “waited upon the Lord” to what seemed like no avail? As you reconsider it now from the vantage point of your later years, is there more to be learned than it seemed at the time? 

We are born into certain circumstances and our lives take us into other circumstances.  How did God use both in Sarah’s life? How in yours?

Are there “customs of the times” of which you have taken advantage, wondering if you were doing the right thing?

When have you been outdone by a colleague or an underling? What was your reaction? What do you learn from that now?

For what have you waited a long time?

When have you needed repeated assurance from God that you were on the right track?

When has jealousy won the day, to everyone’s detriment?

What was God trying to birth in Sarah that is symbolized by her long wait for Isaac?

What is God trying to birth in you? What would it take for you to believe in it?

Return to Toward Incarnation – Readings and Reflection Questions page.