Once a year (usually in early fall) I read the Bible straight through. I try to finish before the year is over, but since I’m behind in everything I got started late. Even still, each time I do this I understand more about Christianity and the history from which it springs.
Have you ever read something in the Bible that changes the way you think about what you’ve been taught? I sure hope so! The Bible acts as a truth detective and is filled with events and stories of people. It provides us life changing examples of what it means to be faithful to God.
One such story is about Abraham and his wife, Sarah. Abraham was known as the father of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims. His narratives are woven throughout the Old and New Testaments. Before God changed their names they were known as Abram and Sarai. God told him he would be the “father of many nations.”
Because Sarai couldn’t have children, she gave Abram to her servant, Hagar, and they had a son, Ishmael. Later, when she was 90 and Abram was 100, Sarai gave birth to Isaac who superseded Ishmael as the legitimate son. There’s a story about Sarai and Hagar fighting – with Abraham stuck between them – and you can find it in Genesis 21:1-20.
Because I like to switch up translations and versions, this year I decided to use the Archaeological Study Bible. In it I discovered something new – something that changed my thinking about what I’d been taught by well meaning church leaders.
While Abraham is held up as a model of faithfulness for believing God’s promise about a son being born to him, Sarah is often not. She’s portrayed as less faithful because in her impatience, she initiated the arrangement with Hagar and “gave her” to Abraham in order to build a family through her. Not only that, when the original promise was made, she laughed.
What woman wouldn’t? After all, her womb was dead to begin with and trust me, there are physical signs and stages an older woman endures that assured her of this fact.
After waiting ten years for that promise to materialize she took matters into her own hands, so to speak. Abraham was a willing partner in this scheme but still – if only she’d been faithful like him . . .
But this is what I learned about the Mesopotamian culture they were living in at the time: “Laws from ancient Mesopotamia provide various interesting parallels to the Genesis stories. In particular, numerous regulations illustrate the marriage and inheritance issues found in the accounts of the patriarchs. For example: Just as Sarai procured an heir for Abram through her maid (Ge 16; cf. ch 30), the Sumerian laws of Ur-Nammu … allowed a husband to take a concubine after waiting in vain for his primary wife to bear children. As in Sarai’s case, the primary wife might even have initiated the arrangement.”
It goes on to explain inheritance and disinheritance rights which Abraham eventually used after divine intervention (Gen 21:8-13).
So was Sarai really impatient and unbelieving or was she simply availing herself of the cultural laws and traditions in which she lived? After all, her husband didn’t disagree to the use of a young Egyptian maidservant. On this point, I’ve frequently heard, “and what man would?” (insert guffaw).
I highlight this story as an example for us today. In order to be truly informed, we need to read and teach the Bible in context of the time and place in which the characters lived. Then maybe we won’t be so quick to misjudge and characterize people from our modern (and still male dominated) viewpoints.
Your Turn: I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts in this matter. Does this change your previously held views of Sarai?