You may recall several weeks ago when we first looked at the Old Testament record of Sarah’s life, we learned that the two most widely used terms for “God” in the old testament were not confined to one gender. The word “Elohim” is a plural noun which includes both genders. The other word of four Hebrew letters, Y,H,W,H, which is traditionally pronounced Yahweh, although no one knows how it should sound, since the ancient Hebrews were forbidden to say the name of the Holy One. It is also a word without gender; in fact, it isn’t a name at all, it is the active form of the verb “to be”. When Moses asked the Holy One what name he should use to tell his people who had spoken to him on the mountain, the answer was “I am that I am”.
And I hadn’t thought earlier about the creation story in Genesis. In Chapter 1,the very first time God is named, the word Elohim is used for the Holy One and in verse 26, we find “And Elohim said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness.” So, from the very beginning Elohim is a plural Being. Continuing on to verse 27 we find, “So Elohim created man in his own image . . male and female Elohim created them.” It seems to be saying very clearly that both male and female are made in Elohim’s own image. Interestingly, that’s the only thing we are told here about ourselves. Elohim created us with gender and both kinds of humans are identified as being in the image of Elohim.
But, as we know, over the years, it was almost forgotten that the name Elohim has both masculine and feminine sides. The Divine began to be thought of as singular and male. This image of Elohim is SO embedded in the minds of some people that they are shocked at any portrayal of Elohim with feminine characteristics. In most English translations of the Bible, this plurality is not carried through. However, it is there in the original Hebrew text.
The plurality of God is also seen in Genesis 3:22. After Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden we find this fascinating conversation:
“Yahweh said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of US, to know good and evil. Genesis 3:22 (NKJ).
Again in Genesis 11:7, Yahweh is discussing the solution to the whole earth having one language at the time of the Tower of Babel:
“Come, let US go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Genesis 11:7 (NKJ).
The fact that Yahweh uses “Us” in these passages is indeed another fascinating hint to the plurality of Yahweh.
Meanwhile, returning to the story of Sarah, we can perhaps summarize what the Bible tells us about her life as including the following events:
- Sarai leaves her home to accompany her husband to the land of Canaan
- First abduction of Sarai by Pharaoh when they go to Egypt for famine relief.
- Sarai is barren, so she gives her Egyptian slave Hagar to her husband as a wife
- Hagar runs away when pregnant because Sarai mistreats her, but Yah tells her to return.
- Ishmael is born. Sarai laughs when she overhears the promise that she will bear a child
- Sarai’s name (princess) is changed to Sarah (chieftainess)
- Second abduction of Sarah by Abimelech, king of Gerar
- Birth of Isaac when Sarah is 90 years old
- Ejection of Hagar and Ishmael from their home over inheritance issues
- Death of Sarah at age 127.
We know that Sarai was a beautiful woman – so beautiful that kings wanted her even when she was quite old according to our standards. We also know many beautiful women become vain and proud of their looks and often difficult. But not Sarah.
It is clear from Scripture that she never let her beauty dictate or change her character. She obeyed her husband even to her detriment. Twice Abraham told Sarah to not let on that she was his wife but rather to say she was his sister. It wasn’t a lie, we know that they had the same father, but different mothers – and we also learned that since the mother determined the lineage, if their relationship was through the father, the marriage was not considered incestuous. But even if it wasn’t a lie, it was certainly withholding relevant information.
Can you imagine the fear Sarai must have felt when she was basically stolen from her husband and taken to the king’s women’s quarters. It is clear that she loved her husband dearly, because she was willing to put herself in potential danger to protect him from possible harm. Fortunately, Yah protected her and Abraham came in for severe criticism from the kings in both cases.
We know that Sarah is barren. Sarai was barren (Genesis 11:30) so having Lot in the family provided her with the opportunity to be a sort of foster mother to Lot. However, for a woman not to be able to produce children on her own it was believed to be a sign that there was something in the woman’s life that was causing God not to bless her. This brought anguish, shame, and despair to Sarai. The pain of childlessness in that society was crushing.
Sarah had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarah said to Abraham, “Since I have been prevented from bearing children; go to my slave Hagar. Maybe we shall obtain children by her.” And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah. So Sarah, Abraham’s wife, took Hagar her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abraham as a wife.
Scripture says, “as a wife.” That is important. Not as a concubine. Hebrew has a perfectly good word for concubine but it is not used here. The word is the normal word for wife. Hagar is not just a temporary surrogate womb, but a wife. Ancient law permitted an arrangement for a slave to bear an heir for a childless wife, but it was not expected that a slave would become a wife alongside the first wife.
Writer C. Zavis suggests that Sarah made this offer out of respect for Hagar. Sarah knew what it meant to be simply a “sex object” from her experience in Egypt and, later, with King Abimelech. She was determined that this not happen to Hagar. So Sarah initiated a relationship of caring, of sisterhood. She treated Hagar no longer as a slave, but as an equal. In her generosity, Sarah pushed the boundaries of cultural norms.
This act of Sarah is amazing. It is amazing because it seems so close to the New Testament vision of the kingdom of the Infinite One where, as Paul says, there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, but all are as one. Maybe even Yah was impressed by this act of grace, because we read that the Spirit of Yah promised both Sarah and Hagar that their children would be founders of great nations. The Bible is the story of Yah’s dealings with Israel, but when we read what God promised to Hagar we are reminded that Yah has hopes and plans for other people as well. Hagar’s son would not be dismissed from Yah’s wider family.
However, when Hagar conceived, problems arose. Hierarchy does not disappear from our socially constructed order just because we take a step that direction. Sarah thought Hagar was becoming arrogant. Hagar perceived that Sarah was turning abusive. Finally Hagar fled, no longer feeling comfortable in that environment.
As Hagar wandered in the desert, broken and lonely, scripture says that “the angel of Yah found her.” I find much comfort in the fact that the first time in scripture that an angel of Yah appeared to someone, it was when they were wandering in a desert, broken and lonely.
The angel asked, “Where are you coming from? Where are you going?” Hagar replied, “I am running from my mistress, Sarah.” Calling Sarah her “mistress” is a sign that the dream of equality and sisterhood had crumbled.
Yet God told Hagar to return and not remain alienated from Sarah. Why? Here is a key to this way of reading the story. Hagar must harden her will and return precisely because unjust systems do not disappear from our socially constructed orders simply by taking one step. Maybe Yah wanted to give Hagar strength to stay engaged. God sent her back to talk with Sarah, and to try to live the relationship they both had hoped to create.
Living an alternative model in society, suggests Zavis, is hard work. It takes a strong and resilient heart. It takes persistence and a willingness to stand in the fire.
So Hagar returned. And for 14 more years she and Sarah continued working at this new social relationship. But, eventually it failed. Living the kingdom of Yah is hard when we bump up daily with the realities and limitations of society. The forces of culture, racism, patriarchy, hierarchy, and empire all wage war against the vision of the kingdom of Yah. Eventually Hagar and Sarah succumbed to despair.
Sarah failed her own high ideals most miserably. She would not be the first person to find that her generous impulses outran her ability to keep up. She went back to calling Hagar a slave and demanded that Abraham send away both Hagar and her son. The issue this time was inheritance. Sarah did not think the first born of the second wife should take precedence over the first born of the first wife.
Scripture says Abraham was distressed at Sarah’s request. It felt wrong to him. Yet Yah told him not to worry, but to listen, really listen to Sarah. At first reading of this story, I was surprised that Yah would side with Sarah. I expected God to agree with Abraham. But now that I am trying to think of Ya as inclusive of both genders, I am not as surprised. Maybe Sarah, in making her initial generous gesture and living with it so long, had done all she could. No more needed to be asked of her.
Sarah is my sister. I, too, find life falls short of my highest ideals. I know what it is to have my good intentions run faster than my ability to keep up. When I was baptized (that was before I became a Quaker) I pledged myself to follow the way of Jesus. Even though there are times when I don’t have the strength to persevere, I believe in grace and I still think it is important to make the effort, to aim for the ideal, and to attempt the kingdom way.
Perhaps all efforts to live out the goals of Christ’s kingdom are temporary. Efforts to establish peace founder. Intentional communities fold. Schemes for correcting social wrongs end up creating new problems. Perhaps every attempt to live the kingdom way is not measured by whether or not it is permanent. Sarah’s effort to live as a sister to her former slave might not be judged as failure, but as an inspiring reach for the kingdom of Yah within our human relationships. In fact, Ya also made her “a mother of nations,” and “kings of people” would come from her descendants, including King David and Jesus of Nazareth.
- Bob Bowman, professor of religion at Manchester University, Messenger, April 2017