Sarah/Sarai: Bible

by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Sarah is the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, and thus the ancestress of all Israel. The Bible explains that Sarai was her earlier name and that she was renamed at the annunciation of the birth of Isaac (Gen 17:15).

Sarah’s ancestry is not clear. Genesis 11 relates that Abram and his brother Nahor married Sarai and Milcah, respectively (v. 29). It does not name Sarah’s father, even though it relates that Milcah was the daughter of Haran, Terah’s other son, and then names Haran’s other daughter, Iscah. When Gen 11:31 tells that “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife” from Ur to Haran, it does not call Sarai Terah’s granddaughter. However, in Genesis 20, when Abraham explains his wife-sister ruse to Abimelech of Gerar, he claims that Sarah is his non-uterine sister (v. 12). This contradiction has led some readers to identify Sarah with the otherwise unknown Iscah. But this would make Sarai Abram’s niece, not his half sister; it would not explain why she is identified as daughter-in-law to Terah, not as his daughter.

Sarah and Abraham come to Israel as part of God’s promise of numerous progeny and the land (Gen 12:1–5). Because Sarah’s importance to this promise is not at first obvious, the promise is immediately endangered. Forced by famine to leave the land, Abraham is fearful that Egyptians will kill him in order to take the beautiful Sarah. His concerns make sense in the biblical milieu, for in the Bible, beauty sets up the beautiful to be desired and taken. Indeed, Esther and Judith, at the close of the biblical period, are the first to use their beauty to their people’s advantage. Furthermore, in the ancient world adultery was considered a very grievous offense, possibly even worse than murder. Thus Abraham’s solution seems bizarre; he asks Sarah to say that she is his sister. They would still take her, but they would not kill Abraham, who would thus “share a wife and save a life.” The ruse might have some advantage for Sarah, for a brother was somewhat of a protector, whereas a widow had no protection of any kind. It certainly enriched Abraham, who was given bride wealth for a sister, something that he would never have received as a husband.

Genesis 12 relates this strange wife-sister episode in a matter-of-fact fashion. Genesis 20, the parallel account in which Abraham tries this ruse in Gerar, adds new details that perhaps show concern about Abraham’s actions that developed after the original telling of the story. The Gerar story emphasizes that Abimelech never touched Sarah because God immediately intervened with dreams. Moreover, the narrator is not at ease with the wife-sister ruse and may no longer understand it. So Abraham not only relates that Sarah is his half-sister, but also makes it clear that the ruse is done by the grace and benevolence of Sarah.

Although the wife-sister stories are difficult to understand, the fact that Sarah becomes a slave in Pharaoh’s house serves to foreshadow Israel’s later bondage in Egypt. She herself is not in danger of her life—but the reader knows that nascent Israel is in danger of losing its ancestress. And so God acts to protect Sarah by afflicting “Pharaoh and his house with great plagues” (Gen 12:17) until he realizes the problem and sends Sarah away. Protection and plague foreshadow Israel’s later redemption at the exodus.

Sarah’s barrenness also endangers the promise and prompts her to give her handmaiden Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate womb (Gen 16:1–2), a custom known also from Mesopotamia. The plan goes awry when the pregnant Hagar no longer acknowledges Sarah’s superiority. Sarah feels displaced and turns her anger on Abraham, declaring, “May the wrong done to me be on you!” and “May the Lord judge between you and me!” (Gen 16:5). Her own experience of servitude in Egypt perhaps has made her feel threatened by the Egyptian Hagar rather than sympathetic to her. Her status as first wife is not invulnerable: she has been given away before, in the wife-sister ruse, and she may now be vulnerable to Hagar, who conceives and will bear Abraham’s heir. Abraham then restores the authority over Hagar to Sarah. However, Hagar’s child Ishmael is never considered part of Sarah’s domain; Abraham has all the authority in the family, and he, rather than Sarah, names Ishmael (compare the stories of Rachel and Leah, who do name the offspring of their surrogates Bilhah and Zilpah).

Abraham seems content to keep Sarah out of the loop and to consider Ishmael the child of the promise. The miracles that God performed for Sarah in Egypt have not taught him her importance. God informs him that, although Ishmael will have his own destiny, the promise—as formalized in God’s covenant—will come through Sarah. God therefore renames her and blesses her when announcing the birth of Isaac (Gen 17:15–21).

Abraham falls on his face, laughing (Gen 17:17) because of their age (he is one hundred years old, and she is ninety) just as Sarah laughs when she hears the second announcement of the birth (Gen 18:11–15). God ignores Abraham’s laughter, but reacts to Sarah’s. After all, Sarah should understand how important she is, for God has already worked miracles for her. Sarah’s importance in God’s scheme means that God will have zero tolerance for skepticism from her.

Sarah’s importance is certainly clear after she sees Ishmael “sporting” (NRSV, “playing”; Hebrew mezahek) at Isaac’s weaning. The Septuagint reads “playing with him” (with Isaac), which has led some readers to suspect abuse. But however innocent this act may have been, it was Isaac named as “the one who plays” who was supposed to be doing it. Sarah therefore intervenes, urging Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham, who considers Ishmael his son, is reluctant; but God once again emphasizes Sarah’s importance and tells Abraham to do what she says. As a result, Abraham emancipates Hagar and Ishmael and sends them away as freed slaves.

Having secured Isaac’s position in the family, Sarah disappears from Genesis. She plays no role in the near sacrifice of Isaac. She dies at the age of 127 in Hebron (Gen 23:1–2). Abraham buys his first real property in the land of Israel, the Cave of Machpelah, in order to bury her (Gen 23:19). She is mentioned three more times in the Book of Genesis (24:36; 25:10–12). She is remembered in the prophecies of Isaiah 51 (v. 2) as the ancestress of her people.

Bibliography

Biddle, Mark E. “The ‘Endangered Ancestress’ and Blessing for the Nations.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109 (1990): 599–611.

Bledstein, Adrien J. “The Trials of Sarah.” Judaism 30 (Fall 1981): 411–417.

Eichler, Barry. “On Reading Genesis 12:10–20.” In Tehillah Le-Moshe: Biblical and Judaic Studies in Honor of Moshe Greenberg. Indiana: 1997, 23–38.

Exum, J. Cheryl. “Who’s Afraid of ‘the Endangered Ancestress’?” In The New Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible, edited by J. Cheryl Exum and David J. A. Clines. Sheffield, England: 91–113.

Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.

Trible, Phyllis. “Genesis 22: The Sacrifice of Sarah.” In Not in Heaven: Coherence and Complexity in Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: 1984, 92–116.

9 Comments

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I learned something from the internet!!!

Very interested history. I have a theory that perhaps may clarify the issues with Sarah and Abraham as brother and sister. And this is the theory.Gen 11:28 clearly sets the stage for events that are about to happen next in the following verses.
Verse 29 revolves around the death of Haran for Najor and Avraham to take wifes for themselves, yet the verse does not in any way says that Sarai is related as daughter to Haran, even though some other literature claims so. Some even say that Iscah is another name for Sarai, yet I find that to be a stretchy. The very next verse perhaps can shed some light in the issue, keeping in mind that is not there in vane and that it is writtwn for a reason and that is that Sarai was barren. This is where perhaps thw story can unfold according to the Torah only without any other intervention from any other source; which bringa us to the question as to why would it say that Sarai is barren when she has only been taken by Avraham for a short period of time and she is already up in age. The theory lies on the assumption that Sarai is not daughter to Haran but another wife that Avraham's brother Haran had along with the mothwr of Lot, Milcah and Iscah and Avraham is moved to take her becuase of his kindness and also because of the knowledge of the Torah that He must take the widow of his brother as a wife, something the other brother Najor would not be interested in for not practicing the Torah or not knwing about it. Thus theory also corraborates the fact that on their way to Egypt ans by the river Avraham expresses recognition of her beauty because He had never laid eyes on her as she was his brother's wife. The only thing left then is to clarify his statements to Abimeleck regarding his relationship to her. Because Avraham is a righteous man, he cannot lie but rather, he manipulates the truth about his relatuonship to her other than a wife, because Sarai was his sister but "in law" which is a term clearly defined inthw English language as well as " daughter in law" or "son in law" or "Father in Law" or "Mother in Law"
The terms are not unfamiliar to the hebrew ancestry and we have proof of that in the Torah where Yakob calls Yosef' sons as his and the fact that if Sarai was married to his brother Haran, then Sarai would be his " sister in law" and his father would call her "daughter in Law"
The theory is not strange to actual facts gather within the Torah because if husband and wife are to be as one flesh and Avraham has to raise a child for his brother, then she, Sarai is not far from being his sister.
The only weakness to this theory is that then Isjak would be a son of Haran and not that of Avraham. But I tink is better than marrying a sister which is prohibited under the written Torah. The book of Jubulees say that יהוה gave the knowledge of Hebrew to Avraham so that he could learn some scriptures in his Father's house that were written in Hebrew

Sarai is Haran’s daughter. But Abram and Haran are half brothers, same father Terah but different mothers. This will make Sarai as half half niece of Abram. I think incest will only follow on direct blood line of families, halfies or half lings will break the blood line. As I suspect Lot’s daughters are not his real blood daughters but of his wife that she brought into Lot’s house, possible in Sodom & Gomorrah sexual lasciviousness, so Lot’s wife could be cheating on him.

Can you recomend any good book on the life of Sarai

Your question about Sara will be answered. Please read the book of Jasher. Chapter 12 verse 44.

It says that:

And at that time Nahor and Abram took unto themselves wives,the daughters of their brother Haran. the wife of Nahor was Milca, and the name of Abrams wife is Sarai. And Sarai, wife of Abram was barren. she had no offspring those days.

It is clearly stated that Sarai was the daughter of Haran.

According to Genesis 16:11, God choose Ishmael's name.

Sarai probably was the daughter of a woman, that had her by some other man, then she married Terah, this would have made Sarai his step daughter, or step child.ÌøåÈåÀThe words, step child, or step daughter, or step son, were not used back in the Bible days, also incest did happen back then, but was frowned upon and completely outlawed, when God gave us the law in LEVITICUS 18:6-30.ÌøåÈåÀ Genesis 11:26-32 says that Terah had three sons Abram, Nahor and Haren, Haren died, Abram and Nahor both married. The wife of Abram was Sarai, and the name of Nahors wife was Milcah.Milcah was the daughter of Haren. Verse 31 says that Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot, son of Heran, and his daughter in law Sarai, to Canaan.If Sarai was Terahs daughter by birth, he would not have called her his daughter in law.ÌøåÈåÀ

God is in control of all things.He is alpha and omega the first and the last. Finally a direct quote. He said I am God and beside me there is no one else. And the thing that bless me the most is God always back his word.Amen

Outstanding article - complete and academically wonderful. I'm using it, in conjunction with Tamar Kadari's article onj Sarah in the Midrash, for a course: Wives, Mothers, & Women of Ill Repute - Feminine Portraits in the Bible. I wish Tikvah was alive and writing. How muc h I'd have loved to discuss this and her other articles with her!

How to cite this page

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Sarah/Sarai: Bible." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on February 27, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sarahsarai-bible>.

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