Until recently, perhaps no other woman in the Bible has perplexed me like Sarai, whose name means, “My Princess.”
Held in high esteem by the Jewish community, her story leaves the uninitiated with more questions than answers. At times she seems to be insufferable, especially in regards to her maid, Hagar.
Ancient texts are like puzzles with borders but many missing pieces. Without recovering important details like context, culture, language useage and other factors, we are often left scratching our heads as to what the story is meant to teach us.
To make sense of her story, I headed over to www.chabad.org and a few other sites with information on the Mishna (The first written work of the Jewish oral Torah). In the Mishna, not all commentaries are in agreement, but they exist to teach us valuable moral lessons. The commentaries I found on Sarai, who came to be known as Sarah, (Princess of the Multitude) shared these common threads: She was a prophetess whose gifting exceeded her husband, she was known for her hospitality and kindness, and she brought many Gentile (non Hebrew/Jewish) women to the Hebraic (monotheistic) faith.
The matriarch enters the Genesis stage at the end of Chapter Eleven, with an introduction to Terah, her father-in-law. Her claim to fame was not a nice one in her age or in any age: "Now Sarai was childless, because she was not able to conceive."(verse 30) This one statement, coupled with the fact that her name is recorded - remarkable as only 5-15% of named biblical characters are female - our hearts immediately begin to empathize with her as we anticipate the first biblical heroine since Eve who walked the earth two thousand years earlier.
At her point of entry, her family is on the move from the land of Ur of the Chaldeans to the land of Canaan. This was no small hike. According to Malachi Martin of the New York Times, over the course of their story, the family journeyed 700 miles to the borders of present-day Iraq, another 700 miles into Syria, another 800 down to Egypt by the inland road, and then back into Canaan - the land now known as Israel. Such a trek would be almost impossible today due to international borders and the complexities of modern politics, but even then it was arduous enough that after the first 600 miles, they chose to settle in Haran for a time (modern day Turkey). While there, the Lord visited her husband, Abram, with a promise to make him into a great nation. Abram was then instructed to resume his journey to Canaan.
Abram, though childless, believed the Lord and at 75 (Abram) and 65 (Sarai) the couple picked up their tents and continued the trek! One has to admire the grit and strong regard for the voice of the Lord in these two, who should have been grandparents, or even great grandparents by this time!
The nomads continued their travels until a famine hit, at which point they turned south to Egypt. Here’s where the story gets really interesting: As they were about to enter Egypt, Abram said to his wife, “Look, I know you are really beautiful. So beautiful that when the Egyptians see you, they will kill me in order to take you. Could you pass me off as your brother?” Rabbinic traditions hold that Abram then hid her in a locked box or crate, hoping she would not be found.
Sarai complied with Abram’s request, cancelling out any hope that she would be part of the covenant that God had made with her husband to make him a great nation. Her compliance is simply too hard to comprehend in modern culture, but the story gets even more complicated!
As misfortune would have it, somebody did find her and when she caught the attention of the princes of Egypt (was she kidnapped or put on the slave market?) she was taken into Pharaoh’s harem, and Abram, given a hefty bride price, was dealt with kindly. (Don't you just love the guy?)
Before you despair, all was not lost as in an unexpected move, Yahweh, named the God of Abram, showed himself to be the God of Sarai too, swooping in to afflict Pharaoh’s household with what was described as a great plague, indicating a severe skin rash or leprosy. Somehow Pharaoh was made aware that all things were not as they seemed, and tracing the affliction to Abram said, “What have you done to me? Here is your wife; take her and go!”
Commanding that the couple not be harmed, and allowing Abram to keep the bride price he had been given, Pharaoh's household must have thought “Goodbye and good riddance!”
By this time, Abram had become so rich that he had to separate his household from that of his nephew, Lot. They had so many servants and animals between them, that the land could no longer support them all. God appeared yet again to Abram to renew the covenant to make him a great nation. Although Yahweh's actions would seem to make it clear to us that Sarai was not simply a tag-along, there was still no direct word that she was included in the Covenant, which perhaps precipitated what came next..
At the age of 75, Sarai had lost hope that Abram's promise would be fulfilled through her. Desperately wanting a child of her own and acutely aware of the negative light in which childlessness was viewed, she resorted to another tactic that would seem unthinkable to us but was common among the wealthy women of her time; she gave Abram her maid, Hagar, as a lesser wife - sometimes referred to as a concubine. The law of the time read that since Hagar was a slave, her child would technically belong to the mistress. Sarai would at last be able to build a family through her maid!
Interestingly, the Mishna refers to Hagar as one of Pharoah’s daughters, most likely given to Sarai while she was either in Pharoah's harem, or as the couple was exiting the country. Hagar must have been the daughter of a lesser wife of Pharoah, as daughters of the First Wife were known, at times, to marry their father when the royal line needed protection.
Sarai would come to regret her well-made plans, for Hagar began to come into her own while the 76 year old Sarai was left on the outside yet again. Their rivalry appeared to be more than Sarai could handle; for in the events surrounding Hagar, we see a jealous princess finally speaking up, even becoming abusive.
It was not until Genesis 17:15 that the covenant of Abraham was clearly spelled out to Abraham; “the promise will be fulfilled through your wife, Sarai!” Sarai, incidentally, was ninety years old by this point. Yahweh then changed her name to Sarah, which means "princess of the multitude," but Abraham fell flat on his face laughing at the pronouncement! Sarah, hiding behind the tent, also laughed but God responded by reiterating the prophecy and gave her a timeline of one year. Then he asked Abram, “Why did Sarah laugh? Is anything too hard for the Lord?" (Genesis 18:13,14) Sarah, shocked at being found out and perhaps embarrassed or afraid, denied it saying, “I did not laugh.” Unwilling to let her off the hook, perhaps enjoying the humour himself, Yahweh replied, “But you did laugh!”
One would think that the couple would finally begin to understand how important Sarah was to Yahweh and to the Covenant with Abraham. But in another tragic twist, sin from decades earlier crept up to bite her again in Genesis 20. Abraham's clan was still on the move, this time settling in a place called Gerar. With his second wife, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael, by his side, the patriarch seemed to have had little qualms with saying to whomever was checking, “Oh, Sarah? She’s not my wife, she's my sister!” Like a nightmare on autoplay, the king of the region, Abimelech, sent for Sarah and took her into his harem.
(Ok, let's take a pause...I know...she was ninety! Having met some stunning seventy year olds, I have yet to see a ninety year old capable of seducing a king! Rabbis have said that she was second only to Eve in beauty, so she must have been something special indeed!)
Sarah said not a word to dispute Abraham’s story! She did nothing to protect herself or guard the Covenant promise God had given her, but allowed herself to be CANCELLED AGAIN!
In Chapter 20 we get some pieces of the puzzle previously missing; Sarai was, indeed, Abraham’s half-sister! (Some rabbinic traditions refer to Abraham as her uncle. In many tribal cultures, cousins and uncles were considered close like fathers and brothers, which could be why there is a seeming disagreement as to whether Abram was her uncle or half-brother. Meanwhile, as the Torah had not yet been given with it's laws against incest, it would seem that due to cultural and religious clashes, the patriarchs preferred marriages to be within their own clans.) We also learned that these two incidences were not unforeseen; a long-standing agreement between this married couple was that in EVERY place they travelled to, Sarai must refer to Abram as her brother, not her husband!
I can’t imagine the insecurity this placed Sarai(ah) in. For years, she would have lived in fear of being taken, knowing her husband would not come for her or fight for her! Though the rabbi tradition holds her as dear to Abraham, so much so that the Mishna says Abram pitched her tent before his own in all of his travels, the fact remained that Abram was no knight-in-shining armour. In present day, at least, he would be described as downright cowardly. So much for the tribal warrior protecting his wife! His actions would suggest that even though he loved Sarah, she mattered much less to him than his own safety. In his mind, she was replaceable.
Maybe, by this time, Sarah's faith was strong enough to expect another rescue operation from Yahweh. Though abandoned by her husband/brother, she was remembered by God! Abimelech (which could simply be the title for a king) had not yet approached her when he was visited in a dream. Yahweh came ready to take Abimelech’s life with the statement, “You are a dead man.” Abimelech pled and bargained with God based on the innocence of not knowing Sarah was married Abraham, at which point the Lord revealed that it was his own hand that kept the king from violating her.
It would seem that Sarah had been apprehended for a few months, for notice had been taken that not one in the entirety of Abimelech’s household had successfully given birth or become pregnant since her arrival. Scripture records that God had closed the wombs of everyone on account of her. Abimelech confronted Abraham with “what have you done?" He then, in addition to giving Abraham sheep, oxen and additional male and female servants, paid out 1000 shekels of silver as a sign of Sarah's innocence. The shekels of silver alone would have amounted to around $250,000 today! I believe Abimelech's concern about perception in regards to Sarah's purity was initiated by God himself because of what came next; God opened Sarah’s womb within the one year promised, and she gave birth to Isaac which, fittingly means, “Laughter.”
Yahweh never forgot Sarah, even in the middle of her hopelessness, her strained relationship with Hagar, her husband's cowardly actions and her own poor decisions and lackof faith. In spite being her own worst enemy, Sarah’s presence brought both wealth and blessing to her home, while a curse seemed to follow any who would harm or defile her.
Truly Yahweh was not just Abraham’s God. If a woman would have had the option or tools to pen the story, perhaps she would have given him the additional title of "The God Who Keeps Covenant with Sarah." She came to know that she was loved by God, protected by God and part of a very special covenant. Sarah mattered, even when no one else thought so!