The Woman Who Became Mother of Nations
Among the classified names of the Bible are those known as sacramental names, and are so-called because they were names given by God Himself, or under His inspiration in association with a particular promise, covenant or declaration of His, as to the character, destiny or mission of those distinctly named. Thus a sacramental name became a sign and seal of an established covenant between God and the recipient of such a name. Two Bible characters bearing sacramental names are Abraham and Sarah, both of which signify the gracious purposes and promises of God.
The wife of the patriarch was originally known as Sarai, meaning “princely” or “a princess.” Elsdon C. Smith suggests it may signify “contentious” or “quarrelsome,” but was changed, not accidentally, or by the whim of the bearer, but by God Himself that it might be a sign of His purpose, into Sarah, implying the princess, a princess or princesses, the source of nations and kings. Sarah or “chieftainness,” the feminine of Sar, meaning a “captain” or “commander” is repeatedly used in this sense as a common noun as, for instance, by Isaiah who renders it “queen” (Isaiah 49:23). It has been observed that among ancient Jews there was a sort of a cabalistic translation that “the Hebrew letter yod signifies the creative power of God in nature, while the letter hay symbolizes the state of grace—that state into which Sarah had entered after receiving the covenanted promises.” The promise of ancestorship of many nations came with the change of the name of Sarai to Sarah. “I will bless her and she shall become nations.” She was thus associated with her husband in the great blessing of the covenant whose name was also changed from Abram to Abraham. The former, original name means a “high, or honored father,” the latter, “a father of many nations.” The Apocrypha speaks of Abraham as “a great father of a multitude of nations” (Ecclesiasticus 44:19-21).
The root idea of Sarah means “to rule,” and fits the personality of the bearer. It was a name intended as a seal of the promise given to Abraham, “kings of peoples shall be of her.” Paul has an allegorical reference to Sarah as one who typified the gospel dispensation, “Jerusalem which is above … which is the mother of us all” (Galatians 4:26). Thus, Sarah was to be the princess, not only “because she was to be the ancestress of a great nation literally, of many nations spiritually, but also because the rank and power were to be possessed by her descendants, or rather because the people descended from her were to be ruled over by a regal dynasty, by a succession of kings of their own race and lineage, is derived from her.” In the genealogy of the descendants of Esau, Sarah’s grandson we read, “These are the kings that reigned in the land of Edom before there reigned any king over the children of Israel.” The line of kings descended from Sarah terminated in God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, whose “kingdom is not of this world.” The sacramental name of Sarah, therefore, also symbolizes the spiritual seed, the whole multitude of believers of all nations who are “kings and priests unto God.
Then the personal application of the changed name must not be forgotten. Called Sarah by God and the Angels (Genesis 17:15; 18:9), she exhibited the traits of a princess, “wielding a sceptre by the magic of which she could lord it over men’s hearts after her own will, even bring kings to her feet. If she came into the world with a will of her own as her dowry, nature further assisted her in developing it by the great beauty of her face and the grace of her stature. By these gifts she made her wish a command and disarmed opposition.” Both in bearing and character she illustrated the significance of her name. Through the long, long years of the quiet and stedfast devotion of Abraham to Sarah, peace reigned in the matrimonial tent more because of Abraham’s gentleness, kindness and forbearance, even though he lived so long with the more expressive and possessive ways of Sarah. Twice over in the kjv of the New Testament she is referred to as Sara, but the asv uniformly gives us Sarah (Hebrews 11:11; 1 Peter 3:6).
Family Connections—Sarah came from Ur of the Chaldees, Babylonia, and her former name Sarai, “princely,” identifies her as coming from an honored family. She was the daughter of Terah and was therefore half-sister to Abram, her senior by ten years (Genesis 17:17), whom she married in the Ur of the Chaldees. While Abram and Sarai had the same father, they had different mothers (Genesis 20:12). Marriages between near relatives were countenanced in those days and were sometimes common for religious reasons (Genesis 24:3,4; 28:1, 2), but not marriages between those actually by the same mother. Sarai was well past middle life and childless when with Abram she left her own country and with him went out “not knowing whither they went” (Genesis 11:29, 30).
There are various ways of looking at this remarkable woman who through a long span of life was the faithful wife of a prophet known as “The Friend of God.”
Strange though it may sound and seem, the first Jew was a Gentile, for Abraham who came from beyond the Euphrates was the first man to be called a Hebrew, “Abram the Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The word Hebrew itself means, “the immigrant,” and was no doubt the usual designation among the Canaanites. As his wife, Sarah was the first Hebrewess—the joint fountainhead of the great Jewish race (Genesis 11:29-31; Isaiah 51:2). Abraham has been fitly called, “The fountainhead of the Hebrew hero life,” and Sarah is the heroine of such life. She remains the first unquestionably historical woman of the Hebrews, and their first mother. She is, therefore, one of the most important female figures in the world’s history, as the natural source of the Jewish people, through whom the nations of the earth were to be blessed. Only two women are named in the illustrious roll of those conspicuous for their faith: Sarah is the first, and Rahab the second (Hebrews 11:11, 31), both of whom lived by faith and died in faith (Hebrews 11:13). Sarah or Sara have always been popular female names both among Jews and Gentiles.
The testimony of the Bible is that Sarah was unusually beautiful (Genesis 12:11, 14). The lines of Keats were true of her—
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams …
Hebrew folklore has kept alive stories of her remarkable beauty and ranks her next to the most perfect woman the world has known, Eve, “the mother of all living.” Sarah seems to have had beauty that grew more attractive with the passing years. “Of the things that are unfavourable to the preservation of beauty, the Orientals count travel as one that is most baneful, even fatal to it,” says Gustav Gottheil. “Yet when Sarah arrived, after a long journey through dusty deserts and under a scorching sun, at the frontiers of Egypt, she was more beautiful than ever, and this explains the curious speech of Abraham to his wife at that juncture: ‘Now I know that thou art a woman beautiful to look at.’ Did he not know that before? Not so convincingly, explains the rabbi, as after he had seen that even travel had left no touch on her countenance.”
Isaiah says that, “Beauty is a fading flower” (Isaiah 28:1), and a song of old has the stanza—
Beauty is but skin deep,
And ugly to the bone.
Beauty soon fades away,
But ugly holds its own.
But with Sarah it was different, for even when she was 90 years of age she was so lovely that Abraham feared that kings would fall in love with her bewitching beauty—which Pharaoh and Abimelech did, as our next glimpse of her proves. As one of the most beautful women who ever lived we can imagine that wherever she journeyed the admiring eyes of all were cast upon her. “Grave is all beauty,” and Sarah’s renowned loveliness certainly brought its trouble.
When famine drove Abraham and Sarah into the land of Egypt, and they felt that hostile kings might take them prisoners, Abraham came up with the abject, base proposal that if taken prisoners then his wife should represent herself as his sister. Fear of death unmanned him and led him to risk the dishonor of his wife and thereby save his own neck. She dearly loved her husband, and his life was too precious to her to make her think of the shame she might incur. Sarah was utterly wrong in yielding to her husband’s plot. How nobler she would have been had she stoutly refused Abraham saying, “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” But she called her husband “lord,” and evidently he was lord of her conscience.
Abraham felt that if oriental despots knew that Sarah and he were married they would slay him and add the lovely woman to their harem. Married to a conspicuous beauty caused Abraham to be afraid, and he resorted to a falsehood to save his life. If taken, Sarah was not to say that she was his wife but his sister. This pretense was not an outright lie, but a half-truth, seeing that she was his half-sister. They were children of the same father, but not the same mother. It seems hard to believe that such a good man could deliver his lovely wife over to a heathen monarch, but he did, and Sarah entered Pharaoh’s harem. But God protected her by sending plagues upon the monarch. Pharaoh sent her back to her own husband, untouched. The same unworthy plan was carried out when Abimelech, king of the Philistines, admiring her bewitching beauty had her taken to his harem. But again God interfered and commanded the king to restore Sarah to Abraham, seeing she was his wife. Threatened with violent death, Abimelech obeyed, but severely rebuked Abraham for his deceit (Genesis 12:10-20; 20). Years later Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah, used this same form of deception (Genesis 26:6-13,
God expressed His displeasure with Abraham and his wife because of their ill-conceived plot. As the Righteous One, He could not condone such trickery. Had He not called them out from their country for a specific mission? And was He not able to protect and preserve them from harm and danger in a strange land? Was not the halflie told on two occasions an indication of the lack of faith in God’s overshadowing care and power to fulfill His promise? Abraham’s lofty soul suffered an eclipse of the virtue of faith for which he was renowned when he adopted such a plan of deception, exposing his wife to great peril, and also thwarting of the divine plan for and through Sarah. (Compare Hagar.) Abraham’s deception was followed by an attempt to ease an offense, and the patriarch was more blameworthy than Sarah who should have resisted the dangerous plan of exposing herself for the sexual gratification of other men.
A lie that is half a truth
Is ever the worst of lies.
A half-truth is always a lie. While it was true that Sarah was Abraham’s sister, the assertion was in reality a falsehood. After the severe rebuke from Pharaoh for their deception, they should have learned their lesson, but to commit the same sin again a few years later, and further imperil God’s plan to make of them a great nation, leaves Abraham and Sarah without excuse. How slow we are to learn from our past failures?
The one great grief of Abraham and Sarah was that through their long life together they had no children. To a Hebrew woman, barrenness was looked upon as a gnawing grief, and sometimes regarded as a sign of divine disfavor. Childless, even when back in Babylonia (Genesis 11:30; 16:1-8), Sarah remained so until at 90 years of age God miraculously fulfilled His promise and made her the mother of the son of promise. Through the long years, “side by side with the prosperity, beat for beat with the pulse of Abraham’s joy, there throbs in Sarah’s heart a pulse of pain … There is as yet no heir.” The constant grief of barrenness caused Sarah to become “The Woman Who Made a Great Mistake.” In spite of the fact that, along with her husband, she had received the divine promise, that from her nations would spring, the possibility of ever becoming a mother died in her heart. Such a cross as barrenness inflamed and intensified her pride, and forced her to find a way out of this embarrassment to her husband. “Sarah sacrificed herself on the cruelest altar on which any woman ever laid herself down; but the cords of the sacrifice were all the time the cords of a suicidal pride: till the sacrifice was both a great sin in the sight of God, a fatal injury to herself, to her husband, and to innocent generations yet unborn.”
Sarah revealed the sad defect of her qualities when she said to Abraham, “Take Hagar my maid, and let not the promises of God fail through me. Through her I can continue your hereditary line.” But all poor Hagar could do was to produce an Ishmael. It was only through Sarah that the promised seed could come. Although it might have been a custom of the time for a man with a barren wife to take a concubine in order that he might have an heir, Abraham, as a God-fearing man, should have stoutly refused to go along with the unworthy scheme, which in the end produced jealousy and tragedy. “Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai,” but the voice was the fatal siren of Satan who sought to destroy the royal, promised seed (Genesis 3:15). As one modern writer expresses it—
Little did Sarai think when she persuaded Abram to take Hagar, that she was originating a rivalry which has run in the keenest animosity through the ages, and which oceans of blood have not quenched.
In our cameo of Hagar (which see) we sought to show all that followed the blunder of Sarah, when she intervened in God’s plan and chose her way to continue her husband’s posterity.
In His forgiving love and mercy God appeared to Abram when he was 99 years old, and assured him that his long barren wife, although now 90 years old, would conceive. To confirm His promise God changed the name of Abram to Abraham, and of Sarai to Sarah (Genesis 17; 18). At such a revelation of God’s purpose, “Abraham fell upon his face and laughed.” Although he marveled at the performance of the naturally impossible, Abraham yet believed, and his laughter was the joy of a man of faith. Laughter is sometimes mad (Ecclesiastes 2:2) but that of Abraham was highly rational. He rejoiced in the thought that Isaac should be born, and perhaps at that time he had a vision of the Messiah. Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day” (John 8:56). As for Sarah, what was her reaction when she overheard the Lord say to her husband, “Sarah thy wife shall have a son”?
The record says, “Sarah laughed within herself,” but hers was the laugh of doubt. Yet when her son was born he was named Isaac, which means “laughter”—a memorial of her sin (Genesis 18:13), and of her husband’s joy (17:17). Sarah’s joy knew no bounds, “God hath made me to laugh” (21:6; 24:36). She had laughter before, but God was not the author of her laugh of doubt. The joy of Sarah in the birth of Isaac reminds us of “the great joy” proclaimed by the angels who made known to the shepherds the birth of Christ who came of the line of Isaac (Luke 2:10; Romans 4:18-21). Paul reminds us that it was by faith that Sarah conceived beyond nature (Hebrews 11:11). It was not only in itself a miracle wrought by faith, but also in earnest of something far greater, even the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Sarah is the only woman whose specific age is stated in Scripture. A girl’s approximate age is given us in the gospels. The only daughter of Jairus whom Jesus raised from the dead was “about 12 years of age” (Luke 8:42). Sarah called herself old when she was 87 (Genesis 18:12), but she was 127 years of age when she died. Abraham had reached the patriarchal age of 175 when God called him home. Godliness has always been favorable to longevity. The “good old age” (Genesis 15:15) was a signal proof of the faithfulness of the Lord. When the Countess of Huntingdon came to die she said, “My work is done, and I have nothing to do but to go to my Father.” Surely the same contentment was experienced both by Sarah and Abraham who were not satiated with life, but satisfied with it. Abraham lived for another 38 years after Sarah’s death before his God-given task was completed.
The day came, then, for Sarah to leave the world in which she had sojourned so long, and hers is the first grave to be mentioned in Scripture. Although Abraham and Sarah were nomads living in their tent in a desert land, the aged patriarch wanted a more permanent resting place for his beloved wife than the shifting sand of the desert. Here vultures and beasts of prey would wait to gorge themselves off the dead, leaving behind nothing but white bones. Breaking with the ancient custom of the desert burial, Abraham purchased a cave at Machpelah as a sepulcher for his dear Sarah, and when Abraham himself came to die his sons “buried him beside Sarah.” Thus, in death, symbolically, they were unseparated as they had been through their long and eventful life together. When Cornelia, the mother of Caius and Tiberius Gracchus, whom she called her “jewels” died, on her monument was inscribed, “Cornelia, the mother of Gracchi.” Had a monument been erected for the noble woman we have been considering, the simple inscription in enduring marble would have been sufficient—
the devoted wife of Abraham
mother of Isaac.
There is a legend that Sarah died of a broken heart as she learned of God’s command to Abraham to offer their son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. The sword pierced her heart, as it did Mary’s when she witnessed the slaying of her illustrious Son at Calvary. When Sarah saw her husband and son leaving the tent, taking with them wood and a large knife she became terrified with shock and died. When Abraham and Isaac returned—Isaac brought back from the dead as it were—it was only to mourn and weep for Sarah. Had she lived she might have received her dead son back from the hands of God, and heard from her husband how his hand had been restrained by the angel, “Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.” But in the legend it goes on to tell us, eye and ear of the devoted wife and mother were closed to earthly things, and her heart stilled forever beyond the reach of the terrors, to which human flesh, and especially mothers’ hearts, are heirs.
When Paul came to emphasize that law and grace cannot exist together (Galatians 4:19-31), and uses the two sons of Abraham to illustrate the contrast, he mentions Hagar by name, but not Sarah. The Apostle called her “the freewoman” and “mother of us all.” In Hebrews, however, which we believe to be Pauline, the Apostle mentioned Sarah as being one of the cloud of faithful witnesses (Hebrews 11:11, 12). The reason she received strength to bear Isaac when she was so old was because she came to believe in the faithfulness of God. If Abraham is “the father of all them that believe” (Romans 4:11; Galatians 3:7), surely Sarah is their mother. “Sarah speaks of that which is in faith, and by promise, and is free—and therefore is carried on in those who live on God’s promises by faith in Christ, and have that perfect freedom which is alone found in His service, and thus belong to the Heavenly Jerusalem.”
Then Peter takes his brush and adds another touch to the portrait of Sarah (1 Peter 3:5-7), where she is especially distinguished for obedience to her husband, becoming thereby a model of wives in subjection to their husbands. Beautiful, strong-willed and determined, Sarah, although on two occasions she lost her temper, never disobeyed her husband. From the moment she left Ur of the Chaldees with her husband, she became the obedient wife. Martin Luther once declared that if he wanted an obedient wife he would have to carve her out of marble. But Peter, exhorting wives to obedience, holds up Sarah as their model. She called Abraham “my lord” (Genesis 18:12), still her declaration of her husband’s lordship suggested incredulity rather than the obedience of faith. Yet Peter was right because all through her wanderings in desert places, and her occasional waywardness there ran the golden thread of a beautiful and loving submission to her husband’s interests, and in this respect is a pattern for “holy women” to copy. Sarah and Abraham were “two lives fused into one,” with Sarah conspicuous in sacrificial submission. How apropos are the lines of Longfellow as we think of her—
As unto the bow the cord is,
So unto the man is the woman.
Though she bends him, she obeys him,
Though she draws him, yet she follows,
Useless each without the other!
With peculiar force Peter describes Christian wives who manifest conjugal obedience, as daughters of Sarah, as long as they do well and are unafraid (1 Peter 3:6). By her faith and obedience, a Sarai became a princess among women, and she teaches us the lesson that if “Man proposes: God disposes.” It was only after much suffering and sorrow that grace was hers to look up into the face of God and say, “Thy will, not mine, be done!” Applying the life of Sarah with Abraham, Mary Hallet draws attention to Sarah’s weaknesses of jealousy and selfishness as being akin to ourselves, but by sharp contrast her fine qualities point to us an ideal of perfection. Her remarkable physical beauty may be regarded as indicative of inner grace.
We cannot doubt that, living with Abraham in an atmosphere of reverence and worship, Sarah developed a spiritual loveliness. Perhaps this can serve as a suggestion to girls of a modern day to take time for communion with God. For only in quietude, only as we listen, can we hear His unmistakable Voice.
Special thanks to Alphabetical Exposition of Named Bible Women