A couple weeks ago I returned to the Pentateuch for my devotional reading. During this time, my attention was drawn to several characters found within these well-known stories, and got curious about their participation in the events surrounding them. Over the next few weeks I’d like to look at several of these.
Sarah (Sarai) was told by her husband on two occasions to claim to be his sister upon entering a foreign land. I found myself wondering about her view of these events. In Genesis 12 as they enter Egypt her husband says, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” Abraham did this again when entering the land of Abimelech, king of Gerar (Genesis 20).
On both occasions Sarah is taken from Abraham forcefully. Those taking her did so to make her a wife or concubine. This brings to mind what must have been going through Sarah’s mind at the time. She knew what her role as concubine or wife of either king would include. She will be expected to have a sexual relation with her new ‘husband.’ This makes me ask several questions:
Did Sarah believe that God was going to intervene to prevent their physical union with her?
Did Sarah simply accept the new situation as acceptable within the cultural context?
One must understand that captive brides were not a new thing. Brides were often captured in raids and it was not unheard of for a young man who wanted to marry a young woman to resort to rape to get her family’s approval. In the cultural setting, these kings did what was considered their right—they took an attractive unmarried woman within their realm. Both the woman and the family head assured them she was unmarried. So either Sarah knew God would prevent her from being defiled or she accepted the probability of a sexual relationship with the king.
As we look at Sarah’s life, we do not see a lot of faith. She is very much a child of her culture. When God promised her husband a child as heir she resorts to the practice of her culture to force the fulfillment. By giving her handmaid Hagar to her husband she was giving him, within the context of their culture, a surrogate womb. Hers did not work, so she gave him another one that belonged to her. Later when God promises that Ishmael would not be the heir but that Sarah herself would physically give birth she laughs in disbelief.
Often we see couples where one has more faith than the other. Abraham was the man of faith and it is him of whom scripture says, “He believed God and it was credited as righteousness.” Even this man had no faith that God would prevent his death when entering a foreign land with his wife. Sarah is commended in other places for her obedience, but never for her faith. Since we see that under normal conditions Sarah shows far less faith than her husband and, in these two times before us, even he falls into the cultural norm, it is safe to assume that during these times with other men Sarah was forced to play the part of a woman of her day. On two occasions she was taken by powerful men away from her husband. In her culture this was acceptable and all she could do was go along.
This does not say anything bad about Sarah, but tells us about the mindset of a woman of her day. There were few choices for women and even fewer opportunities. Life revolved around their male relatives and her safety was found within her sexuality. God prevented an actual sexual relationship to preserve Sarah’s purity, but it is likely that Sarah, as a daughter of her culture, in the absence of divine intervention was resigned to it.
So what does this tell us? The Bible, though having its share of spiritual giants is a book that shows the humanity and weakness of the people within it. Poor Sarah was forced to succumb to the wishes of the men around her—this was not her weakness, but symptomatic of her society and culture. Her husband was not willing to protect her virtue, the God of her husband could act, but she had no assurances he would. There is great assurance for us in scripture that even when blown about by our culture and custom; when we do not hear God; when we are not even sure he cares about the situation, he is in control and will accomplish his plan.