Biblical Portraits: Sarah – Wandering And Wondering

Behind the Curtain

We are back to our Biblical portraits series and we now move on to Sarah’s[1] portrait.  We are going to watch and observe Sarah now. The pages are the same, the text is the same, and yet, I think you will be surprised to discover how different our findings will be compared to what we discovered regarding Abraham.

 

First of all, the setting itself is very different. Gender roles were much more sharply defined during biblical times; a man’s life was very different from a woman’s life. Let us read, for example, the famous chapter 18 of the Book of Genesis—the very same chapter where God appears to Abraham and promises him that his wife Sarah will bear him a son.

 

At the beginning of this chapter, as Abraham is sitting in the tent door, he sees three men approaching the tent and greets them with ritual hospitality. He runs forward, bows, and offers them water and food. They agree to partake of his food, and he hurried into the tent to Sarah[2] and asked her to prepare some food. Sarah makes the food and then the men eat. While they are eating, Abraham is with them, but where is Sarah?

 

From our text, we understand that Sarah stays hidden inside, behind the curtain, as was proper for a woman in the presence of strange men. Yes, she is listening to the conversation—the reason for her famous laughter—but she is listening from behind the curtain, even though the conversation itself concerns her directly. I believe that this picture provides a very vivid illustration of how separate the lives of men and women were. In every tent, there was a front, public section for men, and there was a back part, a private section for women and children separated from the front section by a heavy curtain. In the very same way, in every family’s life, exactly as in a tent, the men held the public position, while women and children remained in profound privacy. Except… there were no children in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. There were no children in Abraham and Sarah’s life!

 

We are touching Sarah’s sore spot here—a sore spot that had been aching for years. For most of her life, Sarah had lived with this terrible pain in her heart. We already saw how much Abraham had longed to be a father, long before he actually became one, but this longing would have been been much worse for Sarah: She had been barren almost all her life, and for a married woman to be barren at that time was a terrible calamity and, in everybody’s eyes, a clear sign of God’s displeasure. As we traverse the very same pages that we have already read for Abraham, let us try to comprehend the incredible pain that welled up in this woman’s heart as the years passed.

Silent and Obedient

Remarkably enough, the very first thing we learn about Sarah is the fact that she was barren: But Sarai was barren; she had no child.[3] This short note occurs even before Genesis 12—before Abraham is told to go out of Haran, and speaks volumes.  If this is the first piece of information we learn about Sarah, then clearly, it was the main thing that defined a woman in that society. A woman’s worth was measured by fertility, and it is in this very society that Sarah ‘happened’ to be barren!

My readers may know that, even today, a barren wife presents a huge problem in a Jewish family, and that her barrenness provides sufficient reason for a husband to divorce her. Undoubtedly, it was much worse in Abraham’s time: for a married woman, being barren was about the worst thing that could happen. It meant that the pain of inadequacy, shame, and guilt was something that Sarah had lived with, and had struggled with, for many, many years, since the very first years of her long marriage.

 

Thus we come to understand that this story has to be a story of healing: Before Sarai became Sarah in chapter 17, before she was able to become a mother and matriarch, she had to be healed from within. We cannot do our part and fulfill the destiny that the Lord has prepared for each of us unless our heart is whole, unless we are reconciled fully to who we are and where we are. Before the circumstances change, and in order for them to change, an inner healing of the heart has to take place. We need to allow the Lord to transform the invisible first, and then the visible will be transformed as well.

 

I find it difficult to understand how Jewish sources claim that Sarah, the first Matriarch, was perfect and “entirely free from sin”. Perhaps, down the road, after all the healing work she had experienced, she really did become almost perfect, but the chapters we are going through now, the first chapters of their journey in the Land, show us a woman in a lot of pain, sometimes acting unfairly and unjustly because of this pain. We don’t hear from her much in these chapters; in fact, the very first time we hear her say something, is when she asks her husband to go in to[4] Hagar. Before that, she is completely silent. But then again, even a regular woman in that society was not supposed to be heard; how much more then, should a woman humiliated by ‘barrenness’ be silent and obedient! And Sarah, indeed, was silent and obedient—probably a bit too silent and too obedient. An attentive reader cannot miss the fact that she traveled more in those first few chapters than any wife would normally agree to—unless she had special reasons to agree to it.

 

The first time Sarah moved with her husband, was at the end of chapter 11:

 

And Terah took his son Abraham and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abraham’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan….[5]

 

The second time she followed her husband in his Lech-Lecha call:

 

Then Abraham took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son… and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan.[6]

 

Then we see Abraham wandering endlessly through the Land, and it goes without saying that his wife followed him everywhere:

 

Abraham passed through the land to the place of Shechem… 

And he moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel…

So Abraham journeyed, going on still toward the South. [7]

 

Eventually, after all this wandering around the Land, they go down to Egypt:

 

…and Abraham went down to Egypt. [8]

 

Why didn’t Sarah ever question or argue with Abraham’s decisions (at least, Scripture doesn’t mention her doing so)? What was the secret that enabled her to follow her husband so unquestioningly and unreservedly in all of his wanderings? Did she follow her husband out of obedience? Did she follow her husband out of shame and guilt? Did she follow her husband out of hope that she would become fertile, one day? After all, when the Lord called Abraham and commanded him to go to the Land, He did promise him a multitude of descendants:

I will make you a great nation…
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
[9]

 

At that point, Sarah was the only woman in Abraham’s life; I’m certain she hoped and believed that all those descendants that would form a great nation would come through her. Perhaps it was this hope and belief that gave her strength and motivation to follow her husband in all his wanderings and to move with him time and again.

 

[1] For the reader’s convenience, we will use the name Sarah throughout the series (except for Scripture  quotations prior to Genesis 17).

[2] Genesis 18:6

[3] Genesis 11:30

[4] Genesis 16:2

[5] Genesis 11:31

[6] Genesis 12:5

[7] Genesis 12:6-9

[8] Genesis 12:10

[9] Genesis 12:2-3

 

Excerpts from my  book “Abraham had two sons”  are included in this  series, you  can get  this book and my other books from  my page on this blog:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/   . Also,  my new book “Unlocking the Scriptures”   is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew BibleI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com).

 

 

 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Angeline

    Wonderful Julia. Your insight is amazing. So much pain, so much sacrifice. Sarah appears to accept her time of childbearing was past but she would not stop Abraham from realising the promise of the Lord, she painfully gives Hagar to Abraham. It pains to imagine what she felt when Hagar became pregnant – so much pain.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words Angeline! Yes, it is really amazing to follow the story of this woman, with all the pain – and all the loneliness – that she experienced. I will try to show it in my next posts.

  2. […] are back to our Biblical portraits series and we now move on to Sarah’s[1] portrait.  We are going to watch and observe Sarah now. The pages are the same, the text is the […]