“Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.” (Is. 51:1,2)
In order for these studies to be practical and fully related to the spiritual life of the reader, we have included the following biblical references, which should be read in advance, so that an attempt can be made to answer the questions posed before reading this study. As you read this article, you should also consult the references given throughout the paper.
References: Genesis 11:29-13:4; 16:1-6; 18:1-15; 20:1-18; 21:1-13; 23:1-20; Romans 4:19; Hebrews 11:11; 1st Peter 3:6.
1- Where was Sarah born, in which country did she live after her marriage, and where was she buried?
2- What do you think of Abraham when he exposed his wife’s chastity to risk in Pharaoh’s palace and in Abimelech’s house to rescue his own life?
3- What do you think of Sarah’s faith when the Lord visited her and Abraham and talked to them?
For the first time, the Holy Bible begins in Ge. 11:27 to introduce us to the times, people and places as known to man. Also at this point, recent findings of excavations and historical research start to become helpful in shedding some light on the stories of the Bible. Abraham, the first Bible character discussed in detail, occupies about one fourth of the Book of Genesis (Chapters 11-25). However, these chapters also introduce other characters who have important roles in the history of salvation. It is important to study these characters as a prelude to the life of Abraham. We will begin with Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and his comrade who accompanied him throughout all the stages of his life. As Abraham is considered the Patriarch and the father of all believers (Ro 4:16), Sarah is also considered the Matriarch and the mother of us all (Ga 4:22-31).
Sarah was born in Ur in Mesopotamia, one of the most important cities in the kingdom of Somer. When the land was occupied by the Achadians, Somer dominated the region between the years 3000 and 2350 BC and prevailed in the area until the advent of the Babylonians (1100 BC). They were able to read and write, preceded only by the Egyptians. In the Bible, Somer is known as the land of Shinar (Gn 10:10, 11:2 and 14:1,9).
Ur was located on the West Bank of the Euphrates, now hosting the city of Tel’Maghaer, midway between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf. Sarah was born in about 1870 BC, to an Aramean family. It was the Aramean people who immigrated to Syria and established the city of Damascus, and moved to the basin of the Euphrates in about 2000 BC. They worshiped idols (Js 24:2), particularly the moon, a kind of worship which was prevalent in Ur.
At an early age, Sarah was married to Abraham, her half-brother from their father Tarah. Such marriage between siblings was legally administered in accordance with the laws of Somer as revealed in modern times (also in the marriage of her brother Nahor and Milcah the daughter of his brother Haran, Gn 11:29). Sarah may have been dreaming of a peaceful life in her homeland with Abraham, but this dream was far from being fulfilled. One reason was that she was barren. Since the primary function of a woman in Sarah’s time was to beget an offspring in order to preserve man’s descent, being barren was considered a major disgrace. After man’s creation, God’s first blessing to man was, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth…” (Gn 1:28).
The second reason was that Sarah had to emigrate from her homeland to a strange territory. In about 1850 BC, her husband was directed by God to get out of Ur (Acts 7:1). This call represents God’s intervention, for the first time in the history of mankind, to select one family to deal with in a direct manner, in order to prepare for the descent of His Son from that family for the salvation of man. Sarah had no choice in this matter. However, Sarah’s father Tarah and her nephew Lot also migrated with them, probably due to some political unrest, and the eruption of local wars in the area at that time, as many Bible scholars believe. It is commonly believed that this was part of a general migration of the Arameans between the years 2000 and 1500 BC to Syria, Canaan (Palestine), East of Jordan and Egypt.
The two tribes of Tarah and Abraham headed north along the Euphrates until they reached the city of Haran in Syria (a small town bearing the same name exists in place). The majority of the group settled there and Abraham probably thought that it was the land promised by God since he left his original country by faith, following the command of God. He dwelled in Haran, the Aramean city, for a long time and so the early fathers were called Aramean (Dt 26:5). After the death of Tarah, however, God called on Abraham again in Haran, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you" (Gn 12:1).
Upon hearing this second command from God, the family gave up urban life, and began sojourning without a permanent dwelling place. They turned to the lifestyle of roaming Bedouins, similar to their experience after leaving Ur. They constantly moved looking for water and pasture for the cattle. They probably followed the routes of caravans known at the time, passing through Damascus (where Abraham bought his most faithful servant, Eleizer of Damascus) and Hazor, but they never settled down at any town on their way to Canaan. Wherever they stopped for rest, Abraham put up his tent and built an altar, establishing at that very early date in known history the very first altars for the living God. These remain until today as sacred places for the Jews and others. Now Shechem, Beth-el, and Hebron are remembered as places of pilgrimage to all who visit them, “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain;” (Jn 4:20).
Sarah, Abraham’s sister
Years passed by without any particular record in the Scriptures of this migrating tribe, until famine struck the land of Canaan. There was no particular direction from God, and so Abraham departed to Egypt. This was almost catastrophic to his family as Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s palace. She was a very beautiful woman albeit her sixty years of age (Gn 12:14). The same thing happened to Sarah with Abimelech king of Gerar in the north of Negev desert (Gn 20:1-18), as it happened to Rebecca, Isaac’s wife (Gn 26).
Bible interpreters held different opinions of the three incidents. Some studied them in light of ethical principles of our contemporary times, after the Law and the advent of Christ. In their judgement, Abraham and Sarah’s journey to Egypt was a mistake involving lack of faith. Firstly, they departed the promised land without God’s counsel. Secondly, they lied and therefore exposed Sarah to adultery and their family to a possible breakdown.
Other scholars interpret the incidents from a historical perspective relying on the excavations made in that area where they lived. According to the common laws prevailing in those days, the matrimony contract declared the bride as a wife to the man who would adopt her to be his sister, thereby promoting her status in the family. In those days, it was an acceptable principle that ‘the end justifies the means’ especially in matters relating to the destiny of family or a tribe as a whole. In the days of Abraham, it was impossible to get the necessary food in Canaan during the drought. This is similar to the plight of Jacob’s family who traveled to Egypt because of the drought. Egypt was the natural haven for tribes emigrating from the north known in history as the Hyksos. Some Bible scholars are of the opinion that Abraham’s family was part of this collective migration.
The fact that the Bible registered such stories about God’s men, and preserved them even after the development of human conscience and the consequent refrain from accepting them, is itself considered as strong evidence of the soundness of the Bible and its fidelity in reporting events that have been carried by tradition through many generations.
But why do the Scriptures perpetuate such stories, which some people consider as offending episodes, and which heretics used in the early Christian times as an excuse for rejecting the Old Testament in its totality?
The theological objective of the three stories is quite clear, namely God’s direct intervention in order to preserve the integrity of the family which God gave his promise, “And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you…and in you shall all the families of earth be blessed”(Gn 12:2-3).
The spiritual meaning of these excerpts, which is the final purpose of our studies in the Bible, provides us with a new dimension in the relationship of the Church, and every soul in it, with Christ. This meaning can be traced in the Divine scriptures themselves. When St. Paul reflected on marriage he said, “This mystery is a profound one, but I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church;”(Eph 5:32). If Abraham and Isaac called their wives as sisters, this is a reiteration of those words in the Song of Songs, where we listen to the voice of Christ addressing the Church,“Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove”, and the Church and every soul in it respond, “O that you were like my brother, that nursed at my mother’s breast! If I met you outside, I would kiss you; and none would despise me”(Song of songs 5:2, 8:1).
Therefore, we can look upon Sarah, the faithful wife of Abraham, who was taken to Pharaoh’s palace (representing Satan), as symbolizing the Church, the bride of Christ, having been beguiled by Satan. As with every faithful soul, Satan tries in vain to snatch it from Christ, the true bridegroom, but there is the Lord’s candid promise, “And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my Father’s hand”(Jn 10:28).
St Afraam the Syrian illustrates this relationship in pleasant words ascribed to the Virgin St. Mary, who represents the Church and every faithful person who hears and keeps the words of Christ, addressing the child Jesus,
“How would I call you…would I call you son? ...or brother? …or bridegroom?
Shall I call you Lord, O child who gave your mother a second birth through water?
For I am a sister of yours, from the tribe of David who is father to us all.
I am also your mother because I conceived you. And I am your bride because you sanctified me.
I am your handmaid and your daughter through the blood and water with which you redeemed me and baptized me”.
Sarah grew old and it was impossible for her biologically to beget children to Abraham. Polygamy and concubinage were common in the Old World, even governed by civil laws. There was no civil or legal prohibition of the practice. Even after the Mosaic Law, a number of the kings and prophets of Israel had each more than one wife at one time. This practice was in effect until the advent of the Lord Jesus Christ who put an end to polygamy, saying, “…but from the beginning it was not so”(Mt 19:8).
Perhaps Abraham’s faithfulness and love to Sarah, and his regard for her feelings were stronger than his natural desire to have children. He never contemplated a relationship with another woman other than Sarah. But as soon as Sarah opened the subject, he listened to her without consulting with God who had promised him an offspring “too many to count” (Gn 15:5).
This instance caused much pain to Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, almost bringing about a deep split in the family after the birth of Isaac. At that time Sarah said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac”. Sarah’s words were very displeasing to Abraham, but the Lord God Himself intervened, and told Abraham to follow Sarah’s wish.
Abraham is considered the greatest example of the life of faith in the Old Testament. It is useful to trace the development and growth of Abraham’s faith over the years, and how it was purified in the melting pot of time. St. Paul spoke of the faith of Abraham in two full chapters (Ro 4, Ga 3). However, it is important not to overlook Sarah who for over a hundred years shared with him the life of faith. No doubt, there were moments of weakness, as it is wellknown to those who tasted living with God and experienced the hours of darkness in which one would feel that God abandoned him (Mt 27:45,46). In those hours of darkness, the faithful would cry out calling God for help, but God shuts out his prayer. To him, God is like a foe, like a bear or a lion in hiding, wrapped in wrath, waiting to attack him without pity (Lm 3). Those are the hours, days and years in which faith grows, the faith that can move mountains. This was exactly what Sarah went through for Abraham’s faith alone was not enough. God was waiting to see this faith. Abraham believed the Lord, and He reckoned it to him as righteous (Gn 15:6). Sarah had to go through new pains so that her faith would grow. At last, God appeared to her with two angels by the oaks of Mamre (Gn 18). Here we are given an example of real hospitality to strangers (He 13:2), and see how Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah. We also see how Sarah and her servant stood by them to help them. The Lord, then, asked Abraham, “Where is Sarah your wife” to give her the promise in His Divine words, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life (in the spring), and Sarah your wife shall have a son”. Sarah, who was listening at the tent door behind him, laughed to herself and was exposed by Him that searches the hearts. She was afraid and she lied. However, Lord forgave these weaknesses. Ultimately we hear the testimony of the Holy Spirit for Sarah in the New Testament, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised" (He 11:11).
After the birth of Isaac, Sarah lived for another 35 years, but there is no mention of her during those years in the scriptures. Even when God tested Abraham's faith ordering him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, ther is no mention of Sarah nor did she have a role in that to play. At last, Sarah died in Hebron in the land of Canaan, and she was burried in the cave of Mach-pelah, where later on Abraham, too, was burried, and with them Isaac and his wife Rebecca, her grandson Jacob along with his wife Leah. "These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on earth" (He 11:13).
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