BIBLICAL PORTRAITS: SARAH- A PAINFUL DECISION

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As we have already noticed, we don’t hear much from Sarah during the first years of her life in the Land. In fact, she doesn’t say anything at all, until the story with Hagar begins. The very first words we hear from Sarah open this story:

So 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.”[1]

I have already written several times that the Bible seldom comments on the emotions, struggles, and battles that take place in its protagonists’ hearts. The Scriptures describe the deeds only; when we read: Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey,[2] we can only guess what was going on in Abraham’s heart. The same holds true regarding Sarah here: the Scripture doesn’t tell us anything about that enormous pain that Sarah experienced when she finally had to admit that the Lord had restrained her from bearing children and decided to give her maidservant to her husband.

Sometimes, scholars offer the opinion that giving a maid to one’s husband must have been a regular custom back then, and therefore, it was neither a big deal nor a very traumatic experience for Sarah. The truth is that we won’t understand this story at all if we ignore the fact that it was indeed an extremely traumatic experience for her. It began as a very painful decision, and later, it grew into a much more painful and traumatic experience than she could ever imagine. Sarah’s pain is a big part of this story—along with Hagar’s pain, Abraham’s pain, Ishmael’s pain, and Isaac’s pain; the whole story seems to be woven of pain! Some chapters later, in Genesis 30, we read about Leah: Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar ((יששכר. From this verse and this name, we can conclude that giving one’s maid to one’s husband was such a trauma that a reward could be expected from the Lord – and it is through this very pain and trauma that Sarah decided to go!

What a horrible disappointment! What a terrible moment to arrive at! All these years, the echo of His magnificent promises kept her through the hunger, the endless wandering, the Egyptian humiliation, and those sharp pangs of loneliness that would seize her whole being whenever she thought of what she had left behind to follow her husband. Sarah 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 would start to be fulfilled. After all, God promised her husband: I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.”[3] He promised: And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.”[4] Didn’t that mean that she, Sarah, would give birth to a son who would become a father of this multitude of descendants?

However, years went by, and nothing happened. It wasn’t after two or three or even five years that she gave up. After Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan—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.[5]

We spoke already about the striking similarity between this story and the story of the Fall from Genesis 3. Both couples involved in the stories—Adam and Eve in the first case, and Abraham and Sarah in the second—did something out of God’s will and breached His original plan. Remarkably, the same verbs are used in both verses and therefore, their actions sound the same in both cases. Eve took ( ותקח )of the fruit … and gave (ותתן ) unto her husband; Sarai took (ותקח) Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave (ותתן) her to her husband

This comparison, pointed out by the author of a wonderful article,[6] brings us to a very clear conclusion: Not only did Hagar not have any part in Sarah’s decision, she actually could not have had. She was as much the object used to fulfill Sarah’s desire as the forbidden fruit was the object of Eve’s desire. In the story of Fall, two people carry the responsibility; you would not blame the fruit for what happened in the Garden. In exactly the same way, there are two people who are responsible for our situation: Sarah and Abraham. “Hagar becomes, in effect, the forbidden fruit”[7] that was taken by somebody and given to somebody else, but in no way can be held responsible for those actions or their consequences.

But what was Sarah’s desire? Why did she do it? She believed, with all her being, that their family was chosen to fulfill God’s plan, that God’s promises to the seed of Abraham should come to pass. Therefore, not only was her disappointment bitter, but her feeling of guilt that after ten years, there was still no such thing as the “seed of Abraham,” was almost unbearable. She was certain that it was her fault; she was certain she had proved unable (and was therefore unworthy) to fulfill God’s plan. Still, she knew that her husband was chosen by God for this plan, and in her feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and guilt, she actually started to believe that it was her task to fix the situation and to make things work. Guilt is an extremely explosive fuel, and if it’s not  given to the Lord in time, an emotional fire is almost inevitable. In her despair and out of guilt, Sarah developed a plan – and for a moment, she sincerely believed that her plan would fix everything.

“Perhaps I shall obtain children by her,” says Sarah, in the English Bible.  In the original Hebrew Scripture she says something different, though:  “Perhaps I will be built from her”             אולי אבנה ממנה .    After ten years of fruitless waiting, Sarah felt wasted; she did not want God’s promises to her family to be wasted as well. She wanted the family to be built up, so she herself tried to build the family. In Hebrew, she uses the same word “to build” that we find, for instance, in the story of Babel: And they said, “Come, let us build ((נבנה לנו ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens”[8] Everybody knows the end of this story. Thus, it is a sad lesson and a stern warning to everyone who wants to build himself up by his own means. The Scripture is very clear on this: When we try to build something by ourselves, without God or outside of God, the result is always devastating. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.[9]

[1] Genesis 16:2

[2] Genesis 22:3

[3] Genesis 12:2

[4] Genesis 13:16

[5] Genesis 16:3

[6] “Hagar, Sarah and their children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2006; Chapter 1 , Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell, Unto the Thousandth Generation

[7] Ibid.

[8] Genesis 11:4

[9] Psalms 127:1

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