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Twelve Extraordinary Women (Thomas Nelson)

 
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Sarah: Hoping Against Hope

By John MacArthur
Author of Twelve Extraordinary Women

CBN.com

By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised (Hebrews 11:11 NKJV).

Let’s be honest: there are times in the biblical account when Sarah comes off as a bit of a shrew. She was the wife of the great patriarch Abraham, so we tend to think of her with a degree of dignity and honor. But reading the biblical account of her life, it is impossible not to notice that she sometimes behaved badly. She could throw fits and tantrums. She knew how to be manipulative. And she was even known to get mean. At one time or another, she exemplified almost every trait associated with the typical caricature of a churlish woman. She could be impatient, temperamental, conniving, cantankerous, cruel, flighty, pouty, jealous, erratic, unreasonable, a whiner, a complainer, or a nag. By no means was she always the perfect model of godly grace and meekness.

In fact, there are hints that she may have been something of a pampered beauty; a classic prima donna. The name given to her at birth, Sarai, means “my princess.” (Her name was not changed to Sarah until she was ninety years old, according to Genesis 17:15.) Scripture remarks repeatedly about how stunningly attractive she was. Wherever she went, she instantly received favor and privilege because of her good looks. That kind of thing can spoil the best of women.

By the way, the biblical account of Sarah’s life doesn’t really even begin until she was already sixty-five years old. Amazingly, even at that age, her physical beauty was so remarkable that Abraham regularly assumed other powerful men would want her for their harems. And he was right. First a pharaoh, then a king, not realizing she was Abraham’s wife, had designs on obtaining her as a wife. To this day, Sarah is remembered for her legendary beauty. A famous Moslem tradition teaches that Sarah resembled Eve. (That is especially significant in light of another Moslem tradition, which says Allah gave Eve two-thirds of all beauty, and then divided what remained of beauty among all other women.) But it’s not necessary to embellish Sarah’s glamour with fables. From the biblical account alone, it is clear that she was an extraordinarily beautiful woman.

From the time she became Abraham’s wife, Sarah desired one thing above all others, and that was to have children. But she was barren throughout her normal childbearing years. In fact, that is practically the first thing Scripture mentions about her. After recording that Abraham took her as a wife in Genesis 11:29, verse 30 says, “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (NKJV).

She was obviously tortured by her childlessness. Every recorded episode of ill temper or strife in her household was related to her frustrations about her own barrenness. It ate at her. She spent years in the grip of frustration and depression because of it. She desperately wanted to be a mother, but she finally concluded that God Himself was restraining her from having children (Gen. 16:2). So badly did she want her husband to have an heir that she concocted a scheme that was immoral, unrighteous, and utterly foolish. She rashly persuaded Abraham to father a child by her own housemaid.

Predictably, the consequences of such a carnal ploy nearly tore her life apart and seemed to leave a lasting scar on her personality. Her bitterness seethed for thirteen years, and she finally insisted that Abraham throw the other woman out, along with the child he had fathered by her. Sarah’s faults are obvious enough. She was certainly fallen. Her faith, at times, grew weak. Her own heart sometimes led her astray. Those shortcomings were conspicuous and undeniable. If those things were all we knew about Sarah, we might be tempted to picture her as something of a battle-ax—a harsh, severe woman, relentlessly self-centered and temperamental. She wasn’t always the kind of person who naturally evokes our sympathy and understanding.

Fortunately, there was much more to Sarah than that. She had important strengths as well as glaring weaknesses. Scripture actually commends her for her faith and steadfastness. The apostle Peter pointed to her as the very model of how every wife should submit to her husband’s headship. Although there were those terrible flashes of petulance and even cruelty (reminders that Sarah was an embattled, fleshly creature like us), Sarah’s life on the whole is actually characterized by humility, meekness, hospitality, faithfulness, deep affection for her husband, sincere love toward God, and hope that never died.

A study in contrasts and contradictions, Sarah was indeed one extraordinary woman.

Although she gave birth to only one son and didn’t become a mother at all until she was well past the normal age of fertility, she is the principal matriarch in Hebrew history. Although her enduring faithfulness to her husband was one of the most exemplary aspects of her character, the most notorious blunder of her life involved an act of gross unfaithfulness. She sometimes vacillated, but she ultimately persevered against unbelievable obstacles, and the steadfastness of her faith became the central feature of her legacy. In fact, the New Testament enshrines her in the Hall of Faith: “because she judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11 NKJV).

The full spectacle of Sarah’s amazing faith doesn’t really become apparent until we contemplate the many seemingly insurmountable obstacles to that faith.

HER BACKGROUND IN UR OF THE CHALDEANS

Sarah was half-sister to her husband, Abraham. In Genesis 20:12, Abraham describes for King Abimelech his relationship with his wife: “She is truly my sister. She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (NKJV). Terah was father to both of them, Sarah being ten years younger than Abraham (Gen. 17:17). We’re not told the names of either of their mothers.

Incidentally, that kind of half-sibling marital relationship was not deemed incestuous in Abraham’s time. Abraham’s brother, Nahor, married a niece; and both Isaac and Jacob married cousins. Such marriages to close relatives were not the least bit unusual or scandalous in the patriarchal era—nor in previous times extending all the way back to creation. Obviously, since Adam and Eve were the only humans God originally created, it would have been absolutely essential in the beginning for some of Adam’s offspring to wed their own siblings.

Scripture made no prohibition against consanguine marriages (matrimony between close relatives) until well after Abraham’s time. No doubt one of the main reasons the Lord ultimately forbid the practice was because of the accumulation of genetic mutations in the human gene pool. When you begin with two genetically perfect creatures, there is no risk of any hereditary defects. Only gradually did the dangers associated with inbreeding arise. Therefore, no legal prohibition against incest even existed until the time of Moses. Then Leviticus 18:6–18 and 20:17–21 explicitly forbade several kinds of incest, including marriage between half-siblings. But the patriarchs should not be evaluated by laws that were only handed down many generations later. It was no sin for Abraham to take Sarah as his wife.

Scripture says virtually nothing about their early years of marriage. In fact, all we know about that era in their lives is the bitter truth that perpetually grated on Sarah’s own consciousness: “Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Gen. 11:30 NKJV). That one statement sums up everything Scripture has to say about the first sixty-five years of Sarah’s life! It is no wonder if she occasionally exhibited flashes of frustration and resentment.

Notice that the biblical account of Abraham’s life likewise doesn’t really begin until he was seventy-five. All we are told is that he had been born and raised in Sumeria, lower Mesopotamia, near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. (That’s close to the head of the Persian Gulf in a region that is part of present-day Iraq.) Abraham’s hometown was a famous urban center known as Ur of the Chaldeans.

Ur was the heart of a sophisticated pagan culture. Sarah and Abraham would have lived there during the very height of its power and affluence. The city government was a superstitious theocracy supposedly under the Babylonian moon god. (This was the same culture that built the famous ziggurats, those massive terraced towers upon which pagan temples were set.)

Abraham, of course, was a worshiper of YHWH. His knowledge of the true God was probably passed down to him by way of his ancestors. After all, Abraham was only a ninth-generation descendent from Shem, son of Noah.

It is obvious that the world cultures of Abraham’s time were highly paganized. Going back even before the tower of Babel episode, love for the truth had obviously been in sharp decline for many generations. By the time Abraham came on the scene, idolatrous worship thoroughly dominated every world culture.

But there was still a scattered remnant of true believers. It is entirely likely that dispersed here and there among the world’s population were faithful families who still knew and worshiped YHWH, having maintained their faith across the generations from Noah’s time. For example, judging from details given in the book of Job, including the length of Job’s lifespan, Job was probably a close contemporary of Abraham’s. Job and his friends (lousy counselors though they were) had a thorough familiarity with the God of their ancestors. They lived in the land of Uz. The precise location of Uz is not certain, but it was clearly in the Middle East ( Jer. 25:20)—yet not in the vicinity of Ur of the Chaldeans, where Abraham’s family lived. So the remnant who still worshiped YHWH were not confined to any single location or limited to any one family.

In fact, in the biblical account of Abraham’s life, we are also introduced to Melchizedek (Gen. 14:18). He represented an order of itinerant priests who knew the one true God and served Him. Abraham met Melchizedek somewhere in the Dead Sea region. Clearly, a few diverse remnants of faithful YHWH worship did still exist in Abraham’s time.

The Lord’s purpose in choosing and calling Abraham was to make him the father of a great nation that would be His witness to the world. That nation, Israel, would be formally covenanted with YHWH. Through them, the truth would be kept alive and preserved in perpetuity. Scripture says “the oracles of God” were committed to them (Rom. 3:2 NKJV). In other words, from the nation that came out of Abraham, prophets would arise. Through them the Scriptures would be given to the world. God would dwell in their midst and set His sanctuary among them. By their lineage a Deliverer, the Messiah, would arise. And in Him, all the nations of the world would be blessed (Gen. 18:18).

Sarah obviously had a key role to play in this plan. Abraham could never become the patriarch of a great nation if she did not first become mother to his offspring. She was surely aware of the Lord’s promises to Abraham. She certainly would have longed to see those promises fulfilled. As long as she remained childless, however, the sense that everything somehow hinged on her must have pressed on her like a great burden on her shoulders.

HER JOURNEY TO THE LAND OF PROMISE

Apparently, while Abraham was still a young man living in Ur, the Lord spoke to him, saying, “Get out of your country, from your family and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1 NKJV).

Abraham obeyed, and Hebrews 11:8 expressly commends him for his obedience: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (NKJV). But the journey was long and slow. It appears Abraham did not immediately separate from his family and his father’s house. Instead, he took his father with him. Abraham may have been somewhat reluctant at first to sever the parental apron strings.

In fact, as Scripture recounts the first leg of the move from Ur of the Chaldeans, it appears that Abraham’s father, Terah, was still acting as head of the extended family. “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there” (Gen. 11:31 NKJV). Clearly, Terah was still in charge. Scripture portrays him as the leader of the journey, with Abraham, Sarah, and Lot in tow.

But the first long leg of the journey stalled at Haran, about 650 miles northwest, roughly following the course of the Euphrates. Perhaps Terah was too old to travel anymore. We don’t know how long Abraham and Sarah remained in Haran. But they did not get moving again until Terah died, and that was evidently some time. Scripture says Terah was more than two hundred years old when he died, and Abraham was seventy-five when he finally left Haran for the promised land.

That means Sarah was now sixty-five, the exact age most people today think is ideal for retirement. Sarah was by no means a young woman, even by the standards of the patriarchal era, when people obviously lived much longer and remained agile, healthy, and vigorous well past their sixties. The life of a nomad would be hard for anyone at sixty-five. And yet there is no sign whatsoever that she was reluctant or unwilling to go with Abraham to a land neither of them had ever seen.

In fact, what we know of Sarah suggests that far from complaining, she went eagerly, gladly, and enthusiastically with Abraham. She was utterly and completely devoted to her husband. Knowing that God wanted to make him the father of a great nation, she earnestly longed to give birth to the child who would set that whole process in motion.

Leaving Haran after burying his father, Abraham still had quite a large caravan. Scripture tells us, “Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan” (Gen. 12:5 NKJV).

That account suggests the final leg of the journey to Canaan was direct and uninterrupted. It was some 350 miles on foot (making the total journey from Ur more than a thousand miles). With a large caravan, moving a reasonable distance of eight to ten miles in a typical day, the trip from Haran to Canaan would have required only about six or seven weeks. Abraham seems not to have stopped until he reached Bethel, a fertile area with abundant springs.

Abraham’s first act upon arrival there was the building of a stone altar. At that time, the Lord also appeared to Abraham. He expanded His original promises to Abraham, now adding that He would give all the surrounding land to Abraham’s descendants. Although Abraham and Sarah remained nomads and vagabonds for the remainder of their days, this place and its altar remained their anchor. (This was also the very same place where Abraham’s grandson Jacob would later be visited by YHWH and have that famous dream about a ladder that reached to heaven.)

But circumstances quickly forced Abraham to keep moving south. “There was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to dwell there, for the famine was severe in the land” (Gen. 12:10 NKJV). It was there, for the first time, that Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister. He did this out of fear that if Pharaoh knew she was his wife, he would kill Abraham in order to have Sarah. Abraham’s great faith wavered somewhat at this point. He succumbed to the fear of men. Had he simply trusted God, God would have protected Sarah (as He did in the end anyway).

But Scripture says that before they even entered Egypt, Abraham discussed with Sarah the dangers this place posed for a man with a beautiful wife. “When the Egyptians see you . . . they will say, ‘This is his wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live,” he told her (Gen. 12:12 NKJV). And so at Abraham’s suggestion, she agreed to pose as his sister (v. 13). Abraham’s motives were selfish and cowardly, and the scheme reflected a serious weakness in his faith. But Sarah’s devotion to her husband is nonetheless commendable, and God honored her for it.

Stewards of Pharaoh saw her, pointed her out to Pharaoh, and brought her to his house. Scripture says Pharaoh showed favor to “brother” Abraham for Sarah’s sake, lavishing him with livestock, apparently in anticipation of requesting her hand in marriage (v. 16). Meanwhile, by God’s providence, Pharaoh did not violate her (v. 19). And to see that he did not, the Lord troubled Pharaoh’s house with “great plagues” (v. 17 NKJV).


Somehow Pharaoh discovered the reason for the plagues, and he confronted Abraham with the deception, expelling the patriarch and his wife from Egypt (Gen. 12:19–20). Nonetheless, Pharaoh, preoccupied with more pressing things, did no harm to either of them, and when Abraham left Egypt, Pharaoh’s favor toward Sarah had made Abraham a very wealthy man (Gen. 13:2). He and Sarah returned to Bethel, “to the place of the altar which he had made there at first. And there Abram called on the name of the LORD” (13:4 NKJV).

Henceforth, the Lord himself would be their dwelling place. Together, they “dwelt in the land of promise as in a foreign country, dwelling in tents . . . [while they] waited for the city which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God” (Heb. 11:9–10 NKJV). That is as good a summary as any of the earthly life Sarah inherited when she stepped out in faith to follow her husband: earthly inconvenience, mitigated by the promise of eternal blessing.

HER YEARNING FOR THE PROMISED BLESSING

Remember, Abraham and Sarah both came from an urban environment. They were not, as is commonly supposed, lifetime nomads or Bedouins who simply wandered all their lives because that is all they knew. Bear in mind that they did not start wandering until Abraham was already in his mid-seventies and Sarah was only a decade behind that. Life on the road was not something Sarah was accustomed to; it was something she had to learn to embrace.

What energized Sarah’s willingness to leave all familiar surroundings, sever ties with her family, and commit to a life of rootless wandering?

Notice the nature of the vast promise God had made to Abraham: “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3 NKJV). That is the first recorded hint of the Abrahamic Covenant, a formal pledge God made to Abraham and to his offspring forever. God’s promise was unconditional and literally unlimited in the scope of its blessings. God would bless Abraham, make him a blessing, and make him a vehicle through which blessing would come to the whole world (Gal. 3:9–14). The promised blessing even had eternal implications.

In other words, redemption from sin and the means of salvation from divine judgment were part and parcel of the promise (Gal. 3:8, 16–17). Sarah understood that promise. According to Scripture, she believed it.

We know without question, from a New Testament perspective, that God’s covenant with Abraham was an affirmation of the very same messianic promise God had already made to Eve in the garden when He declared that her seed would crush the head of the serpent. Just as Christ was the Seed of the woman who overthrows the serpent, He is also the Seed of Abraham by whom all the world will be blessed. Paul wrote, “Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16 NKJV). This same promise is the central theme that extends all through Scripture, from Genesis 3 to its final fulfillment in the closing chapters of Revelation.

Abraham was the human channel through which the world would see the outpouring of God’s redemptive plan. He understood that. Sarah understood and also embraced it. “She judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11 NKJV).

But despite her faith, she knew from a human perspective that her long years of childlessness already loomed large as a threat to the fulfillment of God’s pledge. Sarah must have constantly pondered these things, and as time went by, the weight of her burden only increased.

Yet God kept giving her reasons to hope. In Genesis 15:7–21, YHWH restated and expanded His promise to Abraham, then formally ratified the covenant. It is significant that verse 12 says a deep sleep fell on Abraham; then the Lord single-handedly carried out the covenant ceremony. (Incidentally, the Hebrew word used in verse 12 is the same word describing the “deep sleep” that Adam fell into when the Lord took his rib to make Eve.) This detail about Abraham’s sleep is given to stress the covenant was completely unconditional. The covenant was a unilateral promise from God to Abraham about what He, YHWH, would do. It made no demands of Abraham or Sarah whatsoever. It was a completely one-sided covenant.

If Sarah had simply realized that truth and embraced it, her whole burden would have been instantly lifted.

HER FOOLISHNESS IN THE MATTER OF HAGAR

Instead, Sarah took it upon herself to hatch a scheme that was so ill-advised and so completely fleshly that she regretted it for the rest of her days. As a matter of fact, the evil consequences of that one act had unbelievably farreaching implications. Frankly, some of the tensions we see in the Middle East today are rooted in Sarah’s foolhardy ploy to try to concoct a manmade solution to her dilemma.

To be fair, from a purely human viewpoint, we can understand Sarah’s despair. Ten more fruitless years passed after Abraham and Sarah arrived in Canaan (Gen. 16:3 NKJV). Sarah was now seventy-five years old, postmenopausal, and still childless. If God planned to make her the mother of Abraham’s heir, why had He not done so by now? It was natural for her to think God was deliberately withholding children from her. As a matter of fact, He was. When His time came for the promise to be fulfilled, no one would be able to deny that this was indeed God’s doing. His plan all along was for Sarah to have her first child in her old age, after every prospect of a natural fulfillment of the prophecy was exhausted and after every earthly reason for hope was completely dead. Thus YHWH would put His power on display.

But as she considered her circumstances, Sarah concluded that a kind of surrogate parenting was the only possible solution to her predicament. If God’s promise to Abraham were ever going to be fulfilled, Abraham had to father children by some means. Sarah thus took it upon herself to try to engineer a fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham. She unwittingly stepped into the role of God.

Sarah had a maidservant, named Hagar, whom she had acquired during their time in Egypt. Sarah apparently reasoned that since she owned Hagar, if Abraham fathered a child by Hagar, it would in effect be Sarah’s child. “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.’ And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai” (16:2 NKJV).

This was the first recorded case of polygamy in Scripture involving a righteous man. The very first bigamist on biblical record was Lamech (Gen. 4:19). He was an evil descendant of Cain. (He is not to be confused with another Lamech, described in Genesis 5:25–29, who was Noah’s father and who descended from the line of Seth.)

Abraham took a concubine, at his wife’s urging. “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (Gen. 16:3 NKJV). This was a sorry precedent for the patriarch of the nation to set. In generations to come, Jacob would be duped by his uncle into marrying both Leah and Rachel (29:23–31); David would take concubines (2 Sam. 5:13); and Solomon would carry polygamy to an almost unbelievable extreme, maintaining a harem of more than a thousand women (1 Kings 11:1–3).

But God’s design for marriage was monogamy from the beginning. “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:4–5 NKJV, emphasis added). Paul likewise made clear what God’s ideal for marriage is: “Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2 NKJV, emphasis added). Disobedience to that standard has always resulted in evil consequences. David’s polygamous heart led to his sin with Bathsheba. Solomon’s marital philandering destroyed him and divided his kingdom (1 Kings 11:4). No good has ever come from any violation of the “one-flesh” principle of monogamy. Abraham’s union with Hagar is certainly no exception.

As soon as Hagar conceived, Sarah knew it was a grave mistake. Hagar suddenly became haughty and contentious toward Sarah: “When she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress [Sarah] became despised in her eyes” (Gen. 16:4 NKJV).

Here, then, is the first outburst of temper we see from Sarah: “Sarai said to Abram, ‘My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The LORD judge between you and me’” (Gen. 16:5 NKJV).

It is true that Sarah was being unreasonable. This whole sordid plan was, after all, her big idea. Yes, as the spiritual head of the household, Abraham should have rejected Sarah’s plan out of hand—but it’s still not quite fair to pin all the guilt on him. On the other hand, this fit of Sarah’s was deliberately provoked by Hagar. Her insolent treatment of Sarah was utterly indefensible. No doubt, Hagar knew all too well about Sarah’s extreme grief over her own barrenness. Now she was deliberately putting salt in Sarah’s wound. Since Hagar was the servant and Sarah the one in charge, this was the most brazen kind of deliberate impudence.

A section of the book of Proverbs deals with precisely this situation:

Under three things the earth quakes,
And under four, it cannot bear up:
Under a slave when he becomes king,
And a fool when he is satisfied with food,
Under an unloved woman when she gets a husband,
And a maidservant when she supplants her mistress (30:21–23 NASB).

The truth, however, is that every party in this whole affair was guilty, and all of them ended up reaping bitter fruit from what they had sown.

Abraham recognized the legitimacy of Sarah’s complaint. He might have been wise to step in as an arbitrator and seek a solution that would have been fair to both women. But given Sarah’s disposition at that moment, he did what most husbands would probably do and simply let Sarah deal with Hagar her own way. “Abram said to Sarai, ‘Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.’ And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence” (Gen. 16:6 NKJV).

To understand Sarah’s extreme frustration, let’s follow Hagar for a moment. Notice first that although Sarah dealt harshly with her maidservant, the Lord showed extreme grace to Hagar. The Angel of the Lord sought her out. In all likelihood, this was no created angel, but a visible manifestation of YHWH himself in angelic or human form. (I’m inclined to think that this Angel was actually the preincarnate Son of God. We meet the same Angel several times in the Old Testament, including Genesis 22:11–18; Exodus 3:2–5; and 1 Kings 19:5–7.) Notice that He spoke to Hagar in the first person as YHWH, not in the third person, as an angelic messenger speaking on YHWH’s behalf would do.

His words to Hagar were gentle and full of mercy. He first approached her by asking where she had come from and where she was going. He addressed her directly as “Hagar, Sarai’s maid,” however, both to make clear that he knew exactly who she was and to remind her of her duty. Then, to make this explicit, when Hagar answered truthfully, the Angel said, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand” (Gen. 16:9 NKJV). As a legally indentured servant, she had no right to run away, and she needed to go back and be humbly obedient.

The Angel then made an amazing, completely unsolicited promise to Hagar: “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude” (Gen. 16:10 NKJV). Prophetically, he described her unborn son for her, saying she would call him Ishmael and that he would be wild, yet dwell in the presence of his brethren (16:12).

She, in return, acknowledged Him by a unique name: “El-Roi,” or “the God who sees,” a reference to the omniscient eye that followed her and sought her out even when she tried to hide (16:13 NKJV).

Consider this, however: Sarah had never received such a promise from God. Sarah’s faith resided in promises God had made to Abraham. Up to this point, Sarah had never explicitly been named in the covenant God made with Abraham. God had already confirmed His promise to Abraham on no less than three major occasions. He first told Abraham he would be the father of a great nation (12:3). He then promised to make Abraham’s seed 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” (13:16 NKJV). When Abraham later reminded the Lord that he still lacked a legitimate heir, God promised once again that Abraham’s seed would be like the stars of the sky in number (15:1–6).

On none of those occasions had God ever expressly stated that Sarah would be matriarch to the nation in question. That was her hope and expectation. But what the episode with Hagar shows is that Sarah’s hope was beginning to wane. She was slowly losing heart.

HER PERSEVERANCE THROUGH YEARS OF SILENCE

When Ishmael was born to Hagar, Scripture says Abraham was eighty-six years old (Gen. 16:16). Thirteen more frustrating years passed for Sarah after that. She remained barren. By that time she was eighty-nine years old. She had lived in Canaan for twenty-four years. Her husband was about to have his hundredth birthday. If her hope was not utterly shattered, it must have hung by a very thin thread.

Here’s where the greatness of Sarah’s faith shines through. She had harbored hope for so long. Year after year had come and gone. She was now an old woman, and no matter how often she and Abraham tried to conceive, the promise was still unfulfilled. Most women would have given up long before this. A lesser woman might have despaired of ever seeing YHWH’s promise fulfilled and turned to paganism instead. But we are reminded again that Sarah “judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11 NKJV). This is what made her so extraordinary.

Finally, when Abraham was ninety-nine, the Lord appeared to him again and once more renewed the covenant.

This was an especially important restatement of the covenant. The passage is long, and there’s not enough space here to cover it in detail, but the Lord once again reiterated and expanded the vital promises he had made to Abraham. Every time the promises came, they got bigger: “My covenant is with you, and you shall be a father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4 NKJV). Not just “a great nation”; not merely descendants as numerous as the stars or the dust; but “many nations.” To this aged man who had managed to father only one son (and that by less than honorable means), God said, “I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you” (17:6 NKJV).

It was also at this point that God gave Abraham his name, changing it from his birth name, Abram (17:5 NKJV). Abram means “exalted father”; Abraham means “father of many nations.”

The Lord also formally extended the Abrahamic Covenant across the generations, making the whole land of Canaan “an everlasting possession” for Abraham’s offspring forever (17:7–8 NKJV). Finally, God gave Abraham the sign of circumcision, with instructions for how it was to be administered (17:10–14). Circumcision became the sign and the formal seal of the covenant. Everything germane to the covenant was now in place.

Significantly, at the beginning of the chapter, YHWH revealed Himself to Abraham with a new name: “Almighty God,” El Shaddai in Hebrew (17:1 NKJV). The name deliberately highlighted God’s omnipotence. After hearing these promises so many times, Abraham might have been wondering whether he would ever see the son who embodied the fulfillment of the promises. The name was a subtle reminder to Abraham that nothing was too hard for God.

Having said all that, the Lord then turned the subject to Sarah. For the first time on record, He specifically brought Sarah by name into the covenant promises: “Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai [“my princess”], but Sarah [“Princess”] shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her’” (17:15–16 NKJV). By removing the possessive pronoun (“my”), the Lord was taking away the limiting aspect of her name, since she was to be ancestor to many nations.

There’s no indication that Sarah was present to hear this; the context suggests that she was not. We can be certain she heard about it from Abraham at the first opportunity. Notice his reaction: “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?’” (17:17 NKJV). There was probably as much relief and gladness in the laughter as there was incredulity. Surely we can understand Abraham’s amazement, perhaps even tinged with a measure of uncertainty. But don’t mistake it for unbelief. In Romans 4:20–21, the apostle Paul, speaking of this very moment, says Abraham “did not waver at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God, and [was] fully convinced that what He had promised He was also able to perform” (NKJV).

Abraham also pleaded with God not to overlook Ishmael, at this point thirteen-years-old and no doubt beloved by his father: “Abraham said to God, ‘Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!’” (Gen. 17:18 NKJV). The Lord immediately reiterated the promise regarding Sarah: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him” (v. 19 NKJV). Sarah’s son, not Hagar’s, would be the child in whom the covenant promises would find their fulfillment (Gal. 4:22–28).

The Lord had one thing left to say: “And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year” (Gen. 17:20–21 NKJV). For the first time, here was a promise, with a fixed date, assuring Sarah of her place in the covenant. With that, the interview was over, and Scripture says simply that He “went up from Abraham” (v. 22 NKJV).

Abraham must have immediately found Sarah and reported to her all that the Lord said. Whatever her reaction, she certainly understood that Abraham believed the promise, because he immediately was circumcised, and he had every male in his household circumcised as well, whether they had been “born in the house or bought with money from a foreigner” (vv. 23–27 NKJV).

HER JOY IN THE FULFILLMENT OF THE PROMISE

The next time the Lord appeared to Abraham, one of His express purposes was to renew the promise for Sarah’s sake so that she could hear it with her own ears. Genesis 18 describes how the Lord visited Abraham with two angels. Abraham saw them far off, and (perhaps even before he realized who they were) immediately had Sarah begin preparation of a meal for them. He promised them “a little water . . . [and] a morsel of bread,” but he actually had a calf slain and gave them a feast (Gen. 18:4–8 NKJV). Sarah’s willingness to entertain guests so elaborately on such short notice is one of the marks of her submission to Abraham mentioned by the apostle Peter when he held Sarah up as a model for wives. Peter wrote, “In this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (1 Peter 3:5–6 NKJV). This was the very instance Peter had in mind. In fact, while Sarah is always portrayed as submissive to Abraham, Genesis 18:12 is the only place in the Old Testament record where she referred to him as “my lord” (NKJV).

While they were eating, the men asked, “Where is Sarah your wife?”
(Gen. 18:9 NKJV).

“Here, in the tent,” Abraham replied, establishing that he knew she was within earshot. Scripture describes the details of the conversation that followed:

And He said, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life,
and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Sarah was listening in the
tent door which was behind him.)

Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in age; and Sarah
had passed the age of childbearing. Therefore Sarah laughed within herself,
saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?”
And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall
I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At
the appointed time I will return to you, according to the time of life, and
Sarah shall have a son.”

But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. And
He said, “No, but you did laugh!” (Gen. 18:10–15 NKJV)

Sarah’s laughter (just like Abraham’s earlier) seems to have been an exclamation of joy and amazement rather than doubt. Yet when the Lord asked, “Why did Sarah laugh?” she denied it. That denial was motivated by fear. She was afraid because she had not laughed aloud, but “within herself.” As soon as she realized this stranger had such a sure and thorough knowledge of her heart, she knew instantly and definitively that it was the Lord.

The year that followed was a difficult and busy year for Abraham and Sarah. That was the year God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:16–19:29). And during that same year, Abraham journeyed south again, this time into the land ruled by Abimelech, king of Gerar. Sarah, though now ninety, was still beautiful enough to stir the passions of a king. What had happened in Egypt twenty-five years earlier was replayed once more. Abraham again tried to pass Sarah off as his sister, and Abimelech, smitten with her beauty, began to pursue her. But God spared Sarah, by warning Abimelech in a dream that she was Abraham’s wife (Gen. 20:3). Scripture underscores the fact that Abimelech was not permitted by God to touch her (20:6), lest there be any question about whose child she would soon bear.

Abimelech, having been frightened when YHWH appeared to him in the dream, was gracious to Abraham and Sarah. He lavished gifts on Abraham and said, “See, my land is before you; dwell where it pleases you” (20:15 NKJV). To Sarah he said, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is your vindication before all who are with you, and before all men you are cleared” (20:16 NASB).

Immediately after that incident, according to Scripture, “The LORD visited Sarah as He had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as He had spoken. For Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him” (21:1–2 NKJV). Sarah named him Isaac, meaning “laughter.” And Sarah said, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me” (21:6 NKJV). Thus she confessed the laugh she had previously tried to deny.

We’re given a fascinating insight into Sarah’s real character by the fact that she saw genuine humor in the way God had dealt with her. “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age” (v. 7 NKJV). Despite her occasional bursts of temper and struggles with discouragement, Sarah remained an essentially good-humored woman. After those long years of bitter frustration, she could still appreciate the irony and relish the comedy of becoming a mother at such an old age. Her life’s ambition was now realized, and the memory of years of bitter disappointment quickly disappeared from view. God had indeed been faithful.

HER HARSHNESS IN HER TREATMENT OF ISHMAEL

Sarah plays a major role in only one more episode recounted by Scripture. Isaac was finally weaned—and from what we know of the culture, he would therefore have been a young toddler, probably two- or three-years-old. Scripture says, “Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned” (21:8 NKJV). It was a time for celebration. But something happened that was the final straw for Sarah in her long struggle to accept Hagar as her husband’s concubine. She saw Ishmael making fun of Isaac (v. 9). Scripture doesn’t say why Ishmael was mocking. It was probably for some silly, childish reason. As any parent will attest, such behavior is by no means out of the ordinary for a child Ishmael’s age. He was probably no older than fourteen at this point, just emerging from childhood into young manhood—old enough to be responsible for his behavior, but not old enough to be wise.

But it was too much for Sarah to endure. She immediately said, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac” (v. 10 NKJV).

For Abraham, all the joy instantly went out of the celebration. Ishmael was, after all, his firstborn son. He genuinely loved him. Remember Abraham’s earlier plea to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!” (Gen. 17:18 NKJV).

Was Sarah really being overly harsh? In truth, she was not. Virtually any woman forced to share her husband with a concubine would respond to a situation like this exactly as Sarah did. She was Abraham’s true wife. Hagar was an interloper. Besides, according to the promise of God Himself, Isaac was Abraham’s true heir, promised by God to be the one through whom the covenant blessing would eventually see fulfillment. It confused things beyond measure for Ishmael to be in a position to claim the right of the firstborn over the one true heir appointed by God to succeed Abraham. Ishmael was a threat to God’s purpose for Abraham’s line as long as he remained in any position to claim that he, rather than Isaac, was Abraham’s rightful heir.

So what may appear at first glance to be an extreme overreaction was actually another proof of Sarah’s great faith in God’s promise. God Himself affirmed the wisdom of her demand: “God said to Abraham, ‘Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called’” (21:12 NKJV).

Ishmael was by no means totally abandoned. The Lord promised to make a great nation of Ishmael too—“because he is your seed” (v. 13 NKJV). YHWH subsequently appeared to Ishmael and Hagar in their extremity and promised to meet all their needs (vv. 14–21). Furthermore, some kind of family tie was continually maintained between the lines of Ishmael and Isaac, because when Abraham died, both sons working together buried their father alongside Sarah (25:9–10).

The apostle Paul uses the expulsion of Hagar as an illustration of the conflict between law and grace. He calls it “an allegory” (Gal. 4:24 KJV), but we’re not to think he is denying the historical facts of the Genesis account. Instead he is treating it as typology—or better yet, a living object lesson. Hagar, the bondwoman, represents the slavery of legalism (the bondage of trying to earn favor with God through works). Sarah, the faithful wife, represents the perfect liberty of grace. Paul was reminding the Galatian believers that “we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise” (v. 28 NKJV)—saved by grace, not vainly hoping to be saved by works. “But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now” (v. 29 NKJV). Just as Ishmael taunted Isaac, so the false teachers in Galatia were persecuting true believers. Paul’s conclusion? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman” (v. 30 NKJV). Harsh as it may have seemed, there was a very crucial, necessary, and positive spiritual principle in the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. This symbolized the important truth that the kind of religion that is dependent on human effort (symbolized by the carnal scheme that conceived Ishmael as an artificial fulfillment of God’s promise) is utterly incompatible with divine grace (symbolized by Isaac, the true heir of God’s promise). And the two are so hostile to one another that they cannot even abide in close proximity.

HER HAPPINESS IN HER WANING YEARS

After Hagar was cast out, Sarah returned to a healthy, monogamous life with her beloved husband and their child, Isaac, who was a perpetual reminder to both Sarah and Abraham of God’s staunch faithfulness. As far as we know, the rest of her years were lived out in joy and peace.

Sarah doesn’t even appear in the biblical account of Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac. That whole event was uniquely meant as a test of Abraham’s faith. Sarah seems to have been kept completely isolated from it until it was over. It occurred in the land of Moriah (Gen. 22:2). (In later generations, the city of Jerusalem surrounded the area known as Moriah, and Mount Moriah, at the heart of the city, was the precise spot where the Temple was situated, according to 2 Chronicles 3:1). Moriah was some forty-five miles from Beersheba, where Abraham was then residing (Gen. 21:33–34). In any event, Sarah’s faith had already been well tested. She had long since demonstrated her absolute trust in God’s promises. And the stamp of God’s approval on her is contained in those New Testament passages that recognize her for her steadfast faithfulness.

In fact, in the very same way the New Testament portrays Abraham as the spiritual father of all who believe (Rom. 4:9–11; Gal. 3:7), Sarah is pictured as the spiritual matriarch and the ancient epitome of all faithful women (1 Peter 3:6). Far from isolating those memorable instances where Sarah behaved badly, it commemorates her as the very epitome of a woman adorned with “the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Peter 3:4 NKJV).

That is a fitting epitaph for this truly extraordinary woman.


Reprinted with permission. Twelve Extraordinary Women, John MacArthur, copyright © 2005, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Nashville, Tennessee. All rights reserved.

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