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Sarah by Tammi J. Schneider

Sarah is an important biblical figure in the book of Genesis. She is a wife of Abraham (Gen 11:29) and the mother of Isaac, the second patriarch (“father”) of Israel (Gen 21:2). Yet, she has some rather eyebrow-raising events in her life. She is brought into the house, possibly “harem,” of two foreign rulers (Gen 12:15, Gen 20:2), laughs in anticipation about having sex with her husband in her old age (Gen 18:12), and expels her husband’s son by her slave (Gen 21:10). God changes her birth name from Sarai to Sarah and informs Abraham that her son, Isaac, will inherit God’s covenant (Gen 17:15-19). But Sarah is barren (Gen 11:30), and her slave, Hagar, bears Abraham a child before she does (Gen 16:15). Through it all, Sarah’s relationship with God is what protects her, often when her husband does not.

How does God protect Sarah?

Sarah often moves with her husband, but she always is in God’s camp, and God in hers. She is born in Ur of the Chaldees, moves to Haran and then to Canaan (Gen 11:31-12:5). Abraham takes her to Egypt where she is taken into Pharaoh’s house (Gen 12:15). God plagues Pharaoh’s house because of Sarah (Gen 12:17-19), which is what leads Pharaoh to return Sarah to Abraham, freeing her (Gen 12:20).

Later, back in Canaan, Sarah gives her slave, Hagar, to Abraham so that (Gen 16:2-5) she may bear his children and thus fulfill God’s promise of offspring (Gen 12:2, Gen 15:2-6). Sarah argues with Abraham and suggests that God decide between them (Gen 16:5). God changes her name and tells Abraham she will be the mother of the next patriarch, despite the fact that Sarah is old and Abraham already has a son (Gen 17:15-19). God sends messengers to deliver the same message to Abraham, apparently to make sure Sarah hears the news (Gen 18:10). Sarah laughs with joy to herself when she overhears the news (Gen 18:13). Later she is accused of laughing at what God can do and becomes afraid, though the text is not clear if she is afraid of God or Abraham (Gen 18:19). It is hard to imagine God would be mad at her precisely when God sends people to tell her she will have the child she has always wanted. 

After Sarah learns she will have a child with Abraham, another foreign ruler, King Abimelech of Gerar, takes her into his house and again God must save her (Gen 20:2). Sarah then bears her son and says God has brought her laughter (Gen 21:5). Following the celebration when Sarah’s son is weaned, God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah’s voice when she tells him to banish Hagar and her son (Gen 21:12). Clearly God is Sarah’s advocate.

How can Sarah mistreat Hagar and free her?

Sarah leaves Pharaoh’s house in Egypt with an Egyptian slave, Hagar (Gen 16:1), an ironic twist since later the Israelites will be enslaved in Egypt. After years of not bearing Abraham children, Sarah offers Hagar to Abraham so that she may bear a son for him, and Hagar conceives (Gen 16:6). As a result, Hagar has contempt for Sarah (Gen 16:4), a serious offense in the ancient world. Sarah abuses Hagar (Gen 16:6). Hagar flees (Gen 16:6) and meets an angel of God, who tells her she will have a son who will be named Ishmael (Gen 16:11). The angel sends her back to take abuse from Sarah (Gen 16:9). After Sarah bears her own son, Isaac, tensions arise at Isaac’s weaning ceremony when Hagar’s son “plays” with Isaac (Gen 21:9). The term play is open to interpretation; it can mean anything from boys rough housing to sexual behavior. (The next time the term is used [Gen 26:8] it clearly is sexual because when Abimelech, king of the Philistines, sees Isaac doing this to Rebekah he realizes they are married.) The result is that Sarah demands that Abraham banish Hagar and her son (Gen 21:10). Abraham does so, after God tells him to listen to Sarah; Hagar leaves and experiences great danger, but she survives (Gen 21:10-2). Abraham provides them few supplies leading some to view this as an act of cruelty, though Sarah’s request ultimately frees Hagar.

Tammi J. Schneider, "Sarah", n.p. [cited 17 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/sarah

Contributors

schneider-tammi

Tammi J. Schneider
Professor of Religion, Claremont Graduate University

Tammi J. Schneider is a Professor of Religion at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California. She is the author of Sarah: Mother of Nations (Continuum, 2004) and Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Baker Academic, 2008).

Sarah, the wife of Abraham was the first matriarch in Genesis.

Did you know…?

  • When Sarah dies Abraham buys a plot of land, which becomes the burial site for all the patriarchs and some of their wives (Gen 23:3-20).
  • Sarah’s burial site, known today as the Cave of the Patriarchs or the Ibrahimi Mosque, is located in the modern city of Hebron and is considered the oldest continuously used prayer structure in the world.
  • There are ancient Near Eastern texts, especially from the site of Nuzi, where men adopt women as their sisters and later marry them. According to some scholars, this may be why Abraham calls Sarah his sister.
  • Sarah does not appear in the story where Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac. Because Sarah dies in the next chapter, some Jewish interpretations of the Bible connect the two episodes so that, for example, Sarah realizes what Abraham is prepared to do and dies thinking her husband will sacrifice her son, not realizing that God will save Isaac.
  • Sarah is mentioned four times in the New Testament (Rom 4:19, Heb 11:11, 1Pet 3:6, Gal 4:21-31).

Gen 12:15

15When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.

Gen 20:2

2Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah.

Gen 18:12

12So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Gen 21:10

10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

Gen 17:15-19

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son ... View more

Gen 11:30

30Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

Gen 16:15

15Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 11:31-12:5

31Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram's wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Cha ... View more

Gen 12:15

15When the officials of Pharaoh saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.

Gen 12:17-19

17But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram's wife.18So Pharaoh called Abram, and said, “What is this you have don ... View more

Gen 12:20

20And Pharaoh gave his men orders concerning him; and they set him on the way, with his wife and all that he had.

Gen 16:2-5

2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” ... View more

Gen 12:2

2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

Gen 15:2-6

2But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”3And Abram said, “You have given ... View more

Gen 16:5

5Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me ... View more

Gen 17:15-19

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son ... View more

Gen 18:10

10Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him.

Gen 18:13

13The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’

Gen 18:19

19No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that ... View more

Gen 20:2

2Abraham said of his wife Sarah, “She is my sister.” And King Abimelech of Gerar sent and took Sarah.

Gen 21:5

5Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

Gen 21:12

12But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is ... View more

Gen 16:1

The Birth of Ishmael
1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,

Gen 16:6

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Gen 16:4

4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

Gen 16:6

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Gen 16:6

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Gen 16:11

11And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your afflictio ... View more

Gen 16:9

9The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

Gen 21:9

9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.

Gen 26:8

8When Isaac had been there a long time, King Abimelech of the Philistines looked out of a window and saw him fondling his wife Rebekah.

Gen 21:10

10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

Gen 21:10-2

10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A Hurrian town in what is now Iraq. Nuzi was a provincial center in the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. A significant collection of cuneiform documents was discovered there, many of which are illuminating for understanding the Bible.

Gen 23:3-20

3Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites,4“I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying plac ... View more

Rom 4:19

19He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered th ... View more

Heb 11:11

11By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.

1Pet 3:6

6Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you.

Gal 4:21-31

The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah
21Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law?22For it is written that Abraham had two sons ... View more

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