Welcome to the second week of our Summer Bible journaling challenge, Women of Valor. Today, we will be studying and journaling Sarah’s story from the Book of Genesis.
This week’s reading: Genesis 12, Genesis 17:15, Genesis 18:1-15, Genesis 21:1-7
This week’s journaling focus: Genesis 18:9-14
Sarah is one of the few characters in the Bible whose name is changed by God. When we first meet her on the pages of Genesis 12, her name is Sarai, which means “my princess.” She is married to a man named Abram, meaning “exalted father.” How ironic, since he and Sarah have no children!
We know from reading Hagar’s story last week that Sarai desperately wanted a child; but after many years of barrenness, she and Abram had likely given up on that wish. Little did they know that God would use them in the telling of His story, and that despite their age (and their doubts), their descendants would number as the stars in the sky and the sand on the shore. Abram would become Abraham, “father of many,” and Sarai would become Sarah, a “princess” in her own right. Her wish— and God’s promise — would be fulfilled. She would become the mother of nations.
Sarah’s Story (in Three Parts)
Part one: Sarah and Abraham travel to Egypt
Sarah’s first mention in the Bible is in the context of a journey. In Genesis 12, God makes a covenant with Abraham, promising to make of him a great nation, and commanding him to leave his home, his people, and all that he knows, in favor of “the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). It must have taken a great deal of faith on Abraham’s part to say yes! Even greater faith was required, however, of Sarah; because while God spoke directly to Abraham, Sarah didn’t receive such a revelation. She had to take the word of her seventy five-year-old husband that uprooting their lives and starting anew in an unnamed place, was a good idea.
But Abraham went, and Sarah followed. And so, the first thing that we learn about Sarah beside her name is that she trusts her husband. We learn in later verses that Sarah is a strong and willful character; but in this verse, we see that her relationship with Abraham is one of give-and-take. In later chapters, Abraham may bow to Sarah’s wishes, but in this verse, it is she who follows him.
Abraham and Sarah resettle in Canaan, where God makes another covenant (Gen 12:7-8), and Abraham builds an altar to the Lord. However, a severe famine soon strikes the land, and Abraham and Sarah decide to move south to Egypt. Sarah is very beautiful1, and Abraham is afraid to lose his life at the hands of the Egyptians. So, he concocts a plan:
“I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.”
Abraham’s lie is actually a half-truth: he and Sarah and half-siblings through their father, Terah. But in making Sarah lie and say that she is Abraham’s sister, rather than his wife, Abraham is putting her in a dangerous position, risking her security and that of his future descendants. Sarah is taken into Pharaoh’s house, and as a reward, Abraham is given servants, sheep, and camels (Gen 12:16).2 As we find out in Genesis 12:19, Pharaoh takes Sarah “for my wife.” But God interferes and sends plagues to Pharaoh’s house, and to be free of the plagues, Pharaoh releases Sarah and Abraham so they can return to Canaan.3
Part two: Sarah and Hagar
We next hear of Sarah in the story of her and Hagar in Genesis 16. By the time this story takes place, God has already promised Abraham descendants multiple times over. But Sarah, perhaps doubting God’s promise, or thinking that “God helps those who help themselves,” takes matters into her own hands by sending Hagar to Abraham so that they can produce her an heir.
To understand why Sarah did this, it is important to understand why children were so important in Sarah’s society. In a world in which women had very little autonomy or personal power, children were a way for a woman to procure a future for herself and her spouse. The child could care for the couple in their old age, and the couple’s legacy would live on through that child and his descendants. Children were seen as a blessing, and sons especially were thought to be an honor to their mother.
Imagine, for a moment, the pressure Sarah is under as Abraham’s wife. Abraham had been promised again and again by God that he would become the father of a great nation. As Abraham’s wife, Sarah may feel that it is up to her to provide that nation for him; but she is barren. Her heartbreak over not having children is likely multiplied by the misplaced feeling that she is somehow disappointing her husband, or getting in the way of God’s promise.
So Sarah tries to push the problem along, by pushing Hagar into Abraham’s arms. Hagar does conceive a child, and thanks to her contemptuous looks Sarah’s way, Sarah is thrown into a fit of rage, treating Hagar so harshly that she runs away. When Hagar comes back, she bears a son, Ishmael. Abraham and Sarah probably think that Ishmael will be the one through whom God fulfills His promise to them. But their story isn’t over yet.
In Genesis 17, God changes the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. He is preparing them for something. What that is, we find out just a few verses later.
Part three: Sarah laughed
Sarah’s story reaches its climax in Genesis 18, when Abraham encounters three visitors: God in disguise. A gracious host, Abraham insists on bringing them water and bread, washing their feet, and letting them rest in the shade (Gen 18:4). The guests ask Abraham where his wife, Sarah is. Abraham says she is in the tent, where Sarah is preparing cakes for their guests. Then God, disguised as the visitors, says,
“I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.”
Sarah overhears this from her tent. The Biblical text tells us that Abraham and Sarah were old, and that “the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah,” meaning that she could no longer menstruate or have children (Gen 18:11). So Sarah laughs to herself, asking, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” (Gen 18:12, NIV).
Put yourself in Sarah’s shoes for a moment. The wish for a child was most likely a ‘dream deferred’ for Sarah. After decades of childlessness, she had probably given up hope that her wish would ever see the light of day.
Sarah may have laughed because she didn’t believe God when He said she would bear a son. But laughter and emotion are a complicated thing, and mixed into her disbelief was probably a glimmer of hope. Could it be? Was it possible that after all these years, Sarah would have a child of her own, after all? If she let her imagination get far enough, in that split-second Sarah probably felt an intense joy at the prospect of new life within her, of little feet running through her tent. And maybe there was a touch of sadness. That this didn’t happen when she was younger and better-able to enjoy new motherhood. That this didn’t happen on her time.
Sarah’s laugh was not just a giggle of disbelief. It was a likely a laugh of questioning, of hope, of joy, of confusion, of sadness. It is this moment where we can best imagine Sarah for who she is: a deeply human woman, experiencing God’s hand over her life time and time again, and trying to keep up.
God overhears Sarah’s laughter and asks, ““Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” (Gen 18:13-14). He repeats the promise, and Sarah, most likely realizing only now that this is, in fact, God speaking to her, hastily takes back her laughter, saying that she didn’t laugh. But God knows Sarah, and He heard her laugh and knew all that it meant and held. “Oh yes, you did laugh,” He says.
From here, the Biblical text takes a detour and we learn about Sodom and Gomorrah, and in Genesis 20, Abraham’s half-truth to Pharaoh somehow repeats itself. But sure enough, just a year after God’s visit to Abraham and Sarah’s tent, Sarah bears a son. She names him Isaac, which means laughter. And Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6 NRSV).
Sarah finally gets her deepest wish. She finally has her son — Isaac, her joy, her laughter.
We have now studied Genesis 16 from both Hagar and Sarah’s perspectives. We can see in these stories that Hagar and Sarah both looked at each other with jealousy and contempt. Hagar was likely jealous of Sarah’s freedom, and may have resented Sarah for forcing her to conceive a child with Abraham. Sarah likely felt a deep jealousy towards Hagar for being able to bear the child that Sarah could not, and resented Hagar for the contemptuous looks she threw her way.
We can feel compassion to both Hagar and Sarah. Hagar, because she was a woman without power, who was abused, mistreated, and overlooked. Sarah, because her deepest wish went unfulfilled for decades, and because she had to see another woman have what she so desperately wanted.
How often have you experienced a similar anger towards another woman? Have you ever felt superior, as Hagar felt towards Sarah? Have you ever resented, as Sarah resented Hagar for her gift of bearing children? How might Sarah and Hagar’s story have ended differently if they had bonded over their shared differences? How did God see and hear both Sarah and Hagar, despite their human flaws?
Questions for contemplation:
- What do you think Sarah’s laughter meant? Was it a laugh of disbelief? Joy? Hope? Sadness? All of the above?
- Do you identify at all with Sarah and her story? Are there any dreams that you’ve given up on, or that have come true in God’s timing and not your own?
Out of the long arc of Sarah’s story, we will be journaling Genesis 18:9-14. In these verses, Sarah laughs, and God asks, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” You may wish to draw Sarah laughing, or illustrate through bright colors and textures the mix of emotions she must have felt when hearing God’s promise. Or you could letter God’s words, asking whether anything is too wonderful for God to accomplish or fulfill. Whichever direction you take, let the lessons and messages from Sarah’s story find their way onto the page as you journal today.
Art in image courtesy of F. L. Marriane, A. Swain, and S. Laughed
If you’d like to read more about Sarah and her story, please feel free to check out these resources. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.
- “Sarah” in Women of the Bible: 52 Bible Studies for Individuals and Groups by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, pages 16-19. This is a great book that I’ll be referencing a lot in this series. It reflects on 52 different women of the Bible and includes context, prayers, and reflection questions. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- “The Compleat Woman” in A Faith of Her Own: Women of the Old Testament by J. Ellsworth Kalas, pages 25-36. This is a great book of reflections on women of the Bible, written by famed pastor and professor J. Ellsworth Kalas. It is an easy read and offers new insights. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- “Sarah: Protecting Your Dreams” in Sarah Laughed: Modern Lessons from the Wisdom and Stories of Biblical Women by Vanessa L. Ochs, pages 105-120. This book offers modern-day applications and retellings of the stories of selected women from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- “Sarah, Hagar, and Their Interpreters,” in Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsey (editors), pages 51-55. This is more of an academic text on the Bible, but it provides great background and summaries of scholarship on different women. This book is more academic than faith-focused.
- We can only imagine how beautiful she must have been, to be so captivating even in her old age. In A Faith of Her Own, J. Ellsworth Kalas suggests that this line hints at a deeper kind of beauty, reflected in not just Sarah’s appearance, but in her manner and personality. What some today might call “enchanting.” ↩
- It is often thought that the “female servants” that Abraham is given here include Hagar, whom we encountered last week. ↩
- These are different plagues from the 10 plagues of Egypt we encounter with Moses in the Book of Exodus. Amazingly, however, this story repeats itself in Genesis 20, and then a third time with Isaac and Rebecca in Genesis 26. Like father, like son! ↩