Strong Women of Faith: “SARAH”
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterian Church
June 23, 2022
The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.2 Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. 3 Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. 4 And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. 5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. 6 Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” 7 And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”
The child grew and was weaned, and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9 But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.10 So 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.”
Though our summer series is titled ‘Strong Women’ of the bible, this story is far more about God than it is about any particular virtue of Sarah. In fact, I would argue what makes Sarah’s story so engaging is how ordinary Sarah is. She is a survivor in a system that evaluated women by the son’s they bore. If she ‘failed’, at best, she risked gossip and shame and, at worst, she could be demoted or discarded. There was no such thing as gender equity in the patriarchy.
(Two brief notes to keep the story simpler. First, the ages of Abraham and Sarah are more important for their improbability than their literal likelihood. I will comment more on this point later. Second, Abram and Sari were renamed in the middle of the story but for convenience sake, I will not make that distinction and will simply call them by their more familiar names: Abraham and Sarah.)
So, let’s look at her story and try to imagine Sarah as an ordinary woman living in the context of her day. At sixty five, her seventy five year old husband announces he has been called to “leave land and kindred” with the promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
While there is great drama in God’s command to Abraham, it is not so different from the ordinary uprooting of multitudes of women over the years who followed their husbands on the basis of a promised new life. The human dilemma remains the same. Abraham received the promise and the dutiful (faithful?) wife followed. In Sarah’s day, her life and status depended upon her husband. I don’t think for a minute there would have been much discussion about the implications for her. It is only very recently that such discussions might lead to a change in plans. In Sarah’s day, her job was to follow.
She leaves her home in Haran and begins a life as a nomad in the land of Canaan. Unfortunately, there is a famine in Canaan and Abraham decides to migrate south to Egypt to find food. This creates a new problem and Abraham must ask a serious favor of his wife. We read: “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you and that my life may be spared on your account.” (Gen 12:11-13) Abraham’s fear was well founded. Powerful men could claim any single woman and if a desirable woman was married, the simplest solution was to make sure she was single—by killing her husband. Please don’t try to make sense of the ‘morality’, just recognize the threat was real.
So, when Sarah was noticed by Pharoah, both Sarah and Abraham said they were brother and sister. Sarah entered Pharaoh’s court as a concubine and Abraham not only lived, he prospered— “16 And for her sake he (Pharoah) dealt well with Abram, and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels. (Genesis 12:16). When Pharoah realizes that he has been deceived he reunites Abraham and Sarah and sends them away. Sarah and Abraham’s deception not only saves Abraham’s life, it makes him a wealthy man. It only cost Sarah a brief time as a concubine. There is no mention of what she thought of the experience. But she is not the first woman who contributed immeasurably to her husband in a complicated equation of self-interest and self-sacrifice.
Abraham and Sarah are on the move again. They return to Canaan where the story takes a new twist. Failing after eleven years to bear a child, Sarah offers her maidservant (the Egyptian slave girl, Hagar) as a surrogate mother to Abraham. It is tough to be the patriarch of a new people if you don’t have an heir. And as a practical matter, an aging woman who did not bear sons could easily be discarded or replaced. Sarah’s offer of Hagar would have diminished her ‘failure’ and given her a more secure place in the family structure of her day.
In the harem politics of the day, Hagar’s lower status as a slave was largely counterbalanced by her now elevated status as a woman who could bear a child for Abraham. But Hagar overplayed her hand and lost the battle for Abraham’s loyalty when Sarah complained about Hagar mocking her. Abraham gives Sarah full sway and tells her: “Your slave is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her. (Genesis 16:6). This is the first example of Sarah exercising agency on her own behalf—and she does so to secure her own position. It required divine intervention to direct Hagar to return to Sarah.
Shortening the story, In the next 12 or so years, Abraham and Sarah are still wandering and still living as aliens in a foreign land. They once again play the brother/sister card and the Egyptian narrative is repeated. They are resilient survivors. Then, the unexpected and the impossible are promised. Sarah will bear a child. In real life, I have never heard of a 65 year old woman bearing a child but the bible makes sure that no matter how you counted years, it was humanly ridiculous to imagine a 90 year old woman doing so. In fact when given this promise both Abraham and Sarah (at different times) laugh at the prophecy. It is certainly a not very ‘faithful’ response— but who wouldn’t?
Sarah’s last contribution to the story is to make sure the rival to her son’s inheritance is banished. She knew that if Hagar’s son, Ishmael, a 14-year-old boy at this point, remained, he would be in competition with her son Isaac for Abraham’s affection and inheritance. And not incidentally, there was no better social security for an aging woman than to have a son who was the family patriarch. Though ‘greatly distressed’, Abraham consented to banishing his son along with Hagar. It is not a pretty story but it certainly reflects real life self-interests.
In real life, the promises of God are often beyond our imagining and that is the point of this story. God uses the most ordinary, flawed people to work his purposes out. The bible is full of such people. Rarely does God use ‘holy’ people. God uses ordinary people. Sarah used obedience, beauty, cunning and the manipulation of her husband to survive. God did not need her to be good or believing. Depending upon your values system, she was neither. But she was the chosen one to be the mother to a people. Don’t put her on a pedestal. Instead, be amazed that it is God who chooses to love us as similarly flawed, doubting people. That is what faith is about. Every one of us, male and female, have Sarah within us—her obedience, her cunning, her manipulation, her disbelief, and her resiliency. Our job is to trust that God uses such people (as everyone of us) to work his purposes out. It is not up to us to decide who is faithful or who is unqualified.
In today’s world, it is just as hard to believe that love will prevail as it is for a 90-year-old woman to have a child. We live in a world where genocide is a regular human occurrence. We live in a world where power, greed, lying and exploitation regularly destroy lives. It is hard to imagine civil political discourse much less a world of political compromise and service for the common good. Yet we hold fast to the faith that love and regard are what gives life. We hold fast to the faith that God loves—and uses ordinary people. People like you and me. That is what makes the story of Sarah so wonderful. God does not need our permission or our performance to love us.
We yearn for such care every bit as much as Sarah yearned for a son. But in real life, we like Sarah have trouble accepting God’s promise. In the end, the promise to Sarah which evoked skeptical laughter became unrestrained joy. Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” Laugh with her. His promises are true.
It is not up to us. We must have the faith that God loves us and that love will prevail. That is what God promised Abraham and Sarah—and what he promises us today. Let it be so.