Dear friends, we are back to our “Three plus Four” series and are now moving to the “Four” part: the Matriarchs. You know, when I started to write this series, the title just “popped up” in my head, seemingly randomly. However, the more I’ve thought about it during these last months, the more meaningful and profound this “three – four” combination seemed to me. You would probably agree that of all the symbolical numbers in Scripture, there are none with meaning so certain and obvious as the numbers three, four, and seven. “Three is the number of God, as in the threefold blessing which the high priest pronounced, the three-fold ‘holy’ in the song of the seraphim, and in various passages”. “The number four is evidently the number of the world, of the manifold mundane relationships of creation in its fullness and variety. This symbolism finds its expression in nature —the four directions in space, the four corners of the earth, the four winds…”  Thus, this seemingly strange and even curious combination – “three fathers and four mothers” – becomes a very meaningful and profound expression of God’s plan with Jewish people. While our three fathers represented God and Heaven, our four mothers connected Heaven and Earth by bringing forth the children—and through these children, the Heavenly plan and purposes of God would continue to unfold on the Earth.
The Story of Healing
The first of the four is, of course, Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Sarah is highly revered in Jewish tradition. According to Jewish commentaries, Sarah was perfect and “entirely free from sin”. However, I find it difficult to accept this point of view. Perhaps, down the road, after all the healing work she had experienced, Sarah really did become almost perfect, but 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. I see Sarah’s story as a story of healing: before she was able to become the mother and the matriarch, she needed to be healed from within. Before circumstances changed, and in order for them to change, inner healing of the heart had to take place. It is true in our lives – and it was true in Sarah’s life as well.
Why did she need healing? What do I mean? Well, the very first thing we learn about Sarah is the fact that she was barren: But Sarai was barren; she had no child. This short note speaks volumes: in her society, a woman’s worth was measured by fertility – and it is in that very society that Sarah “happened” to be barren! The pain of inadequacy, shame, and guilt was something that Sarai had lived and struggled with for many, many years since the very first years of her long marriage. And for many long years, she had been obedient and completely silent. The very first words we hear from Sarai (Sarah) open the story of Hagar and Ishmael: “Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” Can you imagine the enormous emotional pain of these words, when Sarai finally had to admit that the Lord had restrained her from bearing children, and she decided to give her maidservant to her husband? All those years, from the moment they left Haran, the echo of His magnificent promises kept Sarah – through the hunger and endless wandering, and the Egyptian humiliation. She was able to go through all of that because she firmly believed that one day she would give birth to a son, and then finally, everything that God promised to her husband would be fulfilled. However, the years went by, and nothing happened. It wasn’t after two or three or even five years that she gave up hope, but after ten years of agonizing waiting and fading hopes: Sarai… took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
Once again, I find it difficult to understand how Jewish sources can claim that Sarah was “completely free from sin,” when chapter 16 so clearly describes Sarah’s misdeeds toward Hagar. Probably, Hagar’s behavior was not easy to begin with, but in a sense, that doesn’t matter: Hagar didn’t deceive Abram into unfaithfulness—the whole scenario was Sarai’s doing, and being a very wise woman, she should have been ready for the consequences. But she was not ready— none of us is ever fully ready to face the consequences of our own plans or actions.
There are three people involved in this story, and definitely, out of the three, Sarai is the one who felt “left behind” almost from the very first moment. She was hurting terribly, the pain was tearing at her heart, and worse than anything else, she was completely alone in this suffering – for the first time in all her long years of marriage. Though Abram tried to be sensitive and compassionate, he was nevertheless absolutely happy because he was expecting a baby and believed with all his heart that all the promises of God would rest on this child!
Sarai becomes Sarah
The long-dreaded day came when the baby was born. Abraham’s joy knew no bounds. Hagar was extremely happy, as well. Clearly, it was only Sarah who did not share in this joy. At that point, she must have felt “left behind” completely, excluded from everything. And even though we don’t know much about the 13 years that passed between the last verse of chapter 16 and the first verse of chapter 17, we do know that during all those years, Abraham passionately believed that Ishmael was the son of the promise. He had believed it until the moment when the Lord announced to him that he would have another son – by Sarah. All those years, he was absolutely confident that Ishmael was the son of the covenant and that all the promises and plans of God would rest on him.
I can’t begin to think about all the consequences of this situation. If Abraham believed that the covenant and the promises of God would be based on Ishmael, Sarah would have felt excluded not only from motherhood, not only from the joy of parenting – the joy that her husband was experiencing every single moment now – but from the everlasting covenant as well, from everything that God had promised to Abraham, his family, and his descendants. This feeling must have been absolutely devastating. Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what went on in Sarah’s heart during those years; we don’t know anything about her relationship with Ishmael when he was Abraham’s only son. However, based on the facts that she had started trying to get rid of him when he was still in his mother’s womb and that she eventually succeeded in banishing him from Abraham when he was a teenager, we can guess that she had never had particularly tender feelings for him.
Yet, I wrote that this story had to be a story of healing: Sarai would not be able to become Sarah, would not be able to become the mother and Matriarch if her heart wasn’t healed, if she did not eventually reach peace, if she didn’t become reconciled to her circumstances and her life. Yes, those thirteen years were years of continuous humbling and pain for Sarah, but obviously, through this pain, God had been dealing with her and healing her. Once again, we know almost nothing about those years: They are like a tunnel, and we can’t see what is going on inside. A sad, bitter, and tired woman entered this 13-year-long tunnel, and we don’t see her there inside it. We don’t know how many tears she shed or how many hours she spent crying desperately before the Lord, asking Him to cleanse her heart from envy and jealousy, to strengthen her, and to give her peace. However, the old woman who emerged from that tunnel after all those years, after all those tears and prayers, was not only completely healed, but for the first time ever, she was actually becoming the Matriarch Sarah, full of peace and dignity, who would be honored and revered for millennia. I can almost see the Lord looking at her with the Father’s loving and approving smile: She’s ready!
And only then, when Sarah was completely changed inwardly, does chapter 17 come, where God appears to Abram after thirteen years of silence and brings an incredible promise: that Abram would have a son through Sarai. We find several crucial changes here—and one of them is a change in Sarai’s name. God tells Abraham that Sarai, his wife, would be called “Sarah” and will bear him a son. Rashi, a renowned medieval commentator, explains: “you shall not call her name Sarai” – which means “my princess” – “but Sarah shall be her name”, and she will be a princess over all. The change is minor – it’s only one letter ה – but the significance of this change can’t be overestimated: from now on, Abraham’s and Sarah’s names indicate that God’s plan covers the entire multitude of their descendants. When God gives a new name, His plan is contained within this name. And it is in this plan that Sarah, the mother and the Matriarch, would play a central role.
 A. Saphir, The Lord’s prayer, Keren Ahvah Meshihit, Jerusalem, 2001, p.60
 Genesis 11:30
 Genesis 16:2
 Genesis 16:3
Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this series, you might enjoy this book and my other books, they all are Bible-based and have a lot of Hebrew insights – you can get them here.
If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (firstname.lastname@example.org).