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SARAH THE PRINCESS
GENESIS 16:1-10; HEBREWS 11:11

2nd March 2003

Some women live incredibly full lives. They possess multifaceted characters and are attractive people. Such a woman of our generation was Princess Diana. In the earliest annals of history, we read of Sarah the Princess, the wife of Abraham. She was such a woman. She was an intriguing woman, full of strength and character, marked by obvious flaws, and with a biography as complex as any we read today.

Genesis 17:15 In her early life she was known as Sarai. The name means She that strives, meaning a contentious person. This is not a name that might be given to a child at birth but later when the child's character developed and the parents are frustrated with her arguable and touchy nature. In Genesis 16:6, 21:10 her contentious character appears. She first appears as a:

1. BEAUTIFUL PRINCESS.

Sarai was the name this woman brought with her from Mesopotamia. The name Sarah, which she received when her son was promised, means princess, for it is the feminine form of the title used by the Semites to designate a ruler. Genesis 17:15-17 "God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." Sarah was called princess, but her behaviour was still contentious. She was also a half-sister to Abraham; they had the same father, but different mothers. Marriages within the family and tribe were common then. She was a beautiful princess. Twice she was desired by kings who wanted her in their harems of women.

This was normally done for formalize an international treaty between two tribes or nations. The idea was that families linked by marriage would not go to war against each other. The first concerned the Egyptian pharaoh. Genesis 12 Because of a famine, Abraham, Sarah and their herds and servants traveled down into Egypt to get food. There Abraham was fearful that the locals would want her, and if they thought she was his wife, they would kill him and take her. So Abraham said: "I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, 'This is his wife.' Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you." The deception worked until the Pharaoh found out, and fearful of the consequences returns her to Abraham. "What have you done to me?" he said. "Why didn't you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, 'She is my sister,' so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!"

Sometime later, they used the wife/sister deception again through the cowardice of her husband Abram. They were in the modern area of Gaza, in an area later inhabited by the Philistines. A local sheik Abimelech, King of Gerar, desiring to be allied by marriage with a man of Abraham's power, sends for Sarah, whom he knows only as Abraham's sister, and for the second time she takes her place in the harem of a prince. But the divine promise is not to be thwarted, even by persistent human weakness and sin. Abimelech discovers the true state of the case, and Sarah is restored to her husband with an indemnity. The beautiful princess was desired by powerful men who wanted a treaty with Abram.

2. COMPROMISED COMMITMENT.

There is a problem here of people lying to avoid trouble. Marriage then with half-sisters was common and the double relationship suggested to Abraham the expedient he twice used when he lacked faith in God to protect his life and in cowardice sought his own safety at the price of his wife's honour. Expediency is the way of a fearful compromiser and those who lack commitment.

3. CHILDLESS WOMAN.

Sarah was childless in a time when infant mortality was high, and the production of many sons was needed to build the family fortune and to care for the elderly. When she married Abram, it is immediately stated, "Sarai was barren; she had no child." By this simple remark the writer sounds the motif that is to be repeated in subsequent events. Because of her frustration of not having a child, she hands over her Egyptian servant girl to Abram to see if she can give her husband the child for whom he hopes. Sarah is trapped in a system that sees women good only for breeding. Hagar is also trapped and devalued. Hagar is not described in any other manner than that she had an effective womb.

We have compassion for childless women who want children and cannot have them, and for women who are treated only as sexual objects. Both those issues are with us today. Many a princess is highly regarded by her husband and his people until she cannot have children, or else she produces only female children. I think of the Shah of Persia whose wives were childless, as was the wife of the Crown Prince of Japan. Who decreed that the childless woman be called "barren" when possibly the fault lies in the husband's inability to fertilize the ovum?

The issue central to the story of the Patriarch's is as contemporary as frustrated people in every IVF clinic. The mystery of conception and the miracle of birth still evoke wonder in those of us who are so blessed. I feel sorry for those who face the frustration of conception in spite of our medical inventions. I feel anger at those who know the sex of the child and who reject the child because the sex is wrong or the doctors report an abnormality or when the child is coming at a time inconvenient to the parents and so is aborted. We have debased and devalued the preciousness and mystery of the gift of a child.

The importance of the announcement of Sarah eventually giving birth to baby Isaac, is seen in the choice of the verb announcing the child. The child was born because of the "graciousness" of the Lord. Genesis 21:1-3 "Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what He had promised." Also important is the reminder that Isaac was the "son ... in Abraham's old age" and that he was born "at the very time God had promised him." The key themes of the earlier promises Genesis 18:10-14 are reiterated with the announcement of their fulfillment in the birth of Isaac.

4. JEALOUS MOTHER.

When a child is born after years of childlessness and perhaps against every hope, there are often unrealistic expectations upon that child, and parental restrictions far from ideal. Mothers can become very jealous for the child against other children and over-protective. I remember as a young minister, a middle-aged woman who was childless, and for whom her lack of conception had become a major psychological problem.

I counseled her in coping with her situation when, miracle! she became pregnant to her husband to whom she had been married for more than twenty years. The shock of the pregnancy sent her husband into a mental spin. She was delirious beyond measure. We were all happy. I have photographs of her newborn son and our first born daughter. Two mothers with two beautiful babies and a church that was full of instant grandmothers! For two years, the little toddlers grew together and our hearts were full of gratitude. I will never forget the shock that sent me racing to their home. The little boy had fallen in their backyard into a shallow dish of water and drowned. That funeral was the hardest I have conducted. The mother's grief was such that she wanted to throw herself into the grave when we buried her only child. The child of promise can change a mother forever.

Sarah, the beautiful princess, changed into a jealous mother. A cruel streak is seen in her treatment earlier of her young servant girl who became pregnant. The Bible says: Genesis 16:4-6 "Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maid-servant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me." "Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her." No kitchen is big enough for two women. No tent Abraham owned was big enough for the woman who couldn't conceive, and the young one who did.

Sarah forced the girl out into the desert to die. But God intervened speaking to the young pregnant girl: Genesis 16:7-10 "Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?" "I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered. Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." The girl went back, submitted to the older woman and I have no doubt was treated badly. But she submitted. Her child was born, a son, and he was named Ishmael. Later Ishmael and his decedents would become the foundation of the 12 Arab tribes, and the forefathers of the Muslim nations of this day. Interestingly, the Hebrew root word for "submit" is the modern Arabic word for "Islam".

Sixteen years later, Sarah gave birth to her own son, Isaac. At the celebration to mark the child's weaning, the teenage Ishmael was mocking Sarah. So Sarah banished Ishmael and his mother into the wilderness to die. "She said to Abraham, "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."" Genesis 21 There is no anger like that of a jealous mother. Hagar and Ishmael were sent to die in the desert. Once more God intervened and they lived. Sarah's jealousy would stop at nothing. In spite of these imperfections of character, Sarah is an example of incredible faith.

5. FAITHFUL BELIEVER.

Sarah trusted God through all her years of childless-ness. God had promised. She believed He would be true to His promise. That is amazing faith!

When Sarah heard she was pregnant, she laughed. Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and every-one who hears about this will laugh with me." She added, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age." Abraham's response to God's promise was similar: "Abraham fell facedown and laughed… "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" This is a Hebrew joke. The name of the child is Isaac - a word almost identical with the word "laugher". Neither Abraham nor Sarah is a person whose faith in God has reached maturity.

The character of Sarah is mingled light and shade. She lapsed from faith that ended in the birth of Ishmael. Her lack of self-control resulted in injustice to Hagar. Yet we see in Sarah, as the New Testament writers point out, Hebrews 11:11; 1 Peter 3:6 one who through a long life of companionship with Abraham shared his hope in God, his faith in the promises, and his power to become God's agent for achieving what was impossible.

Sarah becomes a spiritual mother, in the same way that Abraham is the "father of the faithful". Women may be the spiritual daughters of Sarah. The Apostle Peter said, "You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear." 1 Peter 3:6 Sarah is not an example to us in many of her attitudes or actions, but she is a wonderful example of faith in God's goodness and graciousness in spite of our imperfections. God can still work miracles in ordinary people. Our faith is used to change the ordinary into the extraordinary people of God.

REFERENCES.

  • The Expositor's Bible Commentary. F E Gaebelein Ed 1981.
  • TIME Sept 22 2002. "The Legacy of Abraham." David Van Biema.
  • J. OSCAR BOYD, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
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