Mother Sarah had many sons. And I am one of them. And so are you. So let’s just praise the Lord!
Sarah birthed a baby at the age of 90 after being barren her entire life. It was no accident, but the miraculous plan of God, who brings honor to the shamed.
If you have ever struggled with infertility or walked alongside of someone who has, I’m sure you understand the enormity of Sarah’s decades of struggle as a barren woman. In an ancient setting, she not only dealt with her personal desire for children, but also with the community’s judgement on her as a barren wife. The ancient world blamed the woman for marriages with no children. Also, the woman herself carried the guilt of impotence. I wonder if Sarah felt the reproach and shame intensify with each new promise of God to her husband? We know her story in entirety, but she made her decisions with limited information, and as each of God’s promises were revealed, she must have felt the stress of her shame increase.
Imagine her humiliation as Abraham told her about God’s initial promise to him to make him a great nation (Genesis 12:2). A great nation requires a child. She was unable to bear a child. I wonder if she felt she had no part in God’s plan? Did she feel in the way? Useless?
Perhaps she and Abraham speculated together the role Eliezer, Abraham’s right hand man, would play as heir to Abraham’s legacy. Abraham could adopt him! He could be a surrogate son! No. God clarified the first promise. Abraham’s own son would inherit (Genesis 15:4). Sarah must have felt confused again as she contemplated her exclusion from the plan. What was in this for her? Was God mocking her humiliation by exaggerating the hope of her husband? Count the stars, indeed. She had counted. Cycle after monthly cycle until her flows stopped. Her dishonor increased with every fertile promise God made to Abraham.
The scenario of using a surrogate mother must have been in Sarah’s mind for years, but it wasn’t until God promised a son (Genesis 15:4) to Abraham that she felt the pressure to act. Many Bible expositors like to speculate she suggested Hagar, her personal servant, because she was impatient or because she doubted God, but I firmly believe she did it out of shame. I think Sarah thought that she was the problem. Her old and dried up body was a handicap to God’s great promises. Sarah’s suggestion of Hagar was not a second-rate plan. It was not a work-around to help God out. It was a heart-breaking act of desperation by a woman who was mortified. It was Sarah’s attempt to regain some honor by getting her broken body out of the way.
It was also legal.
In today’s world of liberation and social justice, we call what Sarah did to Hagar-sex trafficking. But in ancient terms, it was an acceptable legal transaction. The Code of Hammurabi gives us some insight into the everyday ethics that determined family life in the era of the Patriarchs. An infertile woman in that ancient time was vulnerable to divorce and a refund (Law # 138). The husband could also choose to take a second wife, with the first wife claiming rank (Law #145). But, if the infertile wife did not wish to live with a harem of wives, she could offer her handmaid to her husband. If a child was born as a result, it was against the law (or custom) for the husband to remarry. Read for yourself:
144. If a man take a wife and this woman give her husband a maid-servant, and she bear him children, but this man wishes to take another wife, this shall not be permitted to him; he shall not take a second wife.
Acting in accordance with the customs of her time, Sarah to Abraham: “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (Genesis 16:2) ” Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham, not as wife or concubine but as a womb. If Hagar conceived and bore a child, Sarah’s position as the sole wife of Abraham was secure, and she would have a child to raise as her own. Sarah’s disgrace would be lifted.
But it didn’t work out that way, did it?
Hagar, belly growing with Abraham’s child, violates the social customs of the day by flouting a status that did not belong to her. She condemned Sarah, her master. Genesis 16:4 says, “her mistress was dishonorable in her eyes.” It is hard to understand the vulgarity of Hagar’s behavior in today’s society of social equality and respect earned through merit. Hagar was assaulting the positional honor of Sarah, “a grave cultural faux pas on Hagar’s part” writes Marvin Newell, author of Crossing Cultures in Scriptures: Biblical Principles For Mission Practice. “Sarah was rightfully offended, even dishonored, by her servant Hagar. Hagar’s attacks were a direct assault on her worth, value and personhood in the eyes of the community. Her position and her reputation were at stake. If she permitted Hagar to persist in her actions, her own worth of belonging would be compromised—even to the extent of a possible disconnect with her husband, Abraham. Hagar put Sarah in quite a vulnerable position.” (http://honorshame.com/sarah-hagar-a-struggle-for-honor/)
Not only did Hagar transgress the cultural values of honor and shame, her actions required a legal response. Consider Hammurabi once more:
146. If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.
Sarah had a case not only against Hagar, but against Abraham who was allowing Hagar to dishonor his wife. “May the wrong done to me be on you!” Sarah declares (Genesis 16:5). She calls on the Lord as witness that she had been wronged. Abraham agrees. “She is your servant. Do whatever you wish with her,” he says.
Sarah punishes Hagar harshly to regain the honor she lost through Hagar’s abuse. In this ancient setting, Sarah’s reprisal was just punishment intended to re-establish the household hierarchy. Sarah was “chief.” Hagar, though carrying an heir, was still a slave.
Abraham had his son. But what about Sarah?
Sarah is honored-finally.
Thirteen years later, God reveals that the promise of family, home and royal lineage was not just for Abraham, but for Sarah as well. What a wait?! Sarah was not in the way of God’s plan. She was not incidental. The shame she bore in the eyes of the community for almost a century was about to become her greatest honor. She was chosen -old, infertile and cynical- to birth the promised son.
In the cardinal chapter of Judaism (Genesis 17), God ultimately completes the Great Promise and seals it with an ancient male ritual signifying fertility: circumcision. It is easy to stop at this significant detail cut into the male flesh of Abraham’s family and overlook the distinction given to Sarah – and to the women of her house. (Paul, God bless him, saw it! Galatians 4)
- God adds a vowel to both names, changing husband and wife into the people of God. (Read more.)
- God promises to bless her.
- She will bear a son.
- She will birth a royal nation.
- Her offspring is the miracle son of promise.
Who mothers is equally as important as who fathers.
The ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures are male-dominated. I believe this androcentrism is a result of the way the world works, not the way God works. Woman has always been a pivotal part of God’s plan. Sarah’s faith in submissive action continued the war against the age-old enemy that her mother Eve began in the garden. Eve’s, and now Sarah’s descendants will defeat the serpent with whom she is at war. The promised one is the seed of Woman.
One thought on “Women in the Text: Sarah’s Shame”
Awesome read. Was taken back by the sex trafficking comment as I’ve never thought of it that way but so true. Also, never considered how desperate she must have been to ask another woman to give birth in her place.