Any series of lessons based on historical characters presents some specific challenges. First, to accurately portray the person, one needs to understand the culture in which that person lives. Though all humans experience some of the same challenges and joys, they are funneled through the guidelines and expectations of their particular society.
Second, because of their cultural setting, we cannot attempt to interpret or to judge in view of this 21st century.
A third challenge is to avoid the temptation of “story fabrication.” Too frequently individuals are guilty of saying “I think . . .” or “I believe. . .” and have no Biblical or historical basis for what is being said. This usually stems from not carefully observing the two guidelines previously stated. When this occurs, we fail to teach with truth and integrity.
This series on key women in the Bible enables us to examine their characteristics and actions in a wide variety of settings. Though they come from varied backgrounds, each one contributes to God’s overall plan of redemption. They definitely aren’t perfect. Some fail at moments when one expects faith and strength. However, they demonstrate how God uses women as well as men in fulfilling His will.
Sarah (first called “Sarai”) enters the Biblical narrative in Genesis 11:29ff. Here she is introduced as the daughter-in-law of Terah and the wife of Abraham. Later, as they are about to arrive in Egypt, Abraham’s concern for his life stems from Sarah’s beauty (12:11, 12). He fears Pharaoh’s wanting to add her to his harem. If it were known she is married to Abraham, Pharaoh might decide to kill him. Keep in mind Sarah is at least 65 years old at this point, yet strikingly beautiful.
As we will see, Sarah, as well as Abraham, were specifically chosen by God for a divine purpose. Neither are perfect. Their faults stand out. But equally evident are God’s blessings. Sarah is blessed of God to be the mother of a nation through whom the world will be blessed.
I. COVENANT PARTNER (Genesis 17:15-21)
A. Sarah’s Inclusion (vv. 15, 16)
15. And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be.
16. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her.
When God comes to Abraham to speak once again of their covenant, he and Sarah have been in Canaan for 24 years. On several occasions, as God forecast the future of a nation of descendants, Sarah was not mentioned as being the mother of those descendants and a partner sharing in the covenant. This may be one reason why Sarah chose the cultural custom of giving her handmaiden Hagar to her husband for the purpose of bearing a child in her place (Genesis 16). This does not justify her action of attempting to fulfill God’s plan, but it may have been a factor.
Now when it is impossible for a birth to occur from the union of Abraham and Sarah, God comes and renews the covenant. Besides restating the previous items of countless descendants and possession of Canaan, there are two new statements. First, male circumcision is to be the sign of the covenant (vv. 9-14). Second, Sarah becomes a partner and recipient in God’s plan. He changes her name from Sarai to Sarah. It probably changed the meaning slightly, from “princely” to “princess.”
In verse 16 the specifics of being included in the covenant are stated. She is to be blessed by bearing a son for Abraham. He will be the beginning of the promised descendants. All the stigma of being barren will be removed. From a cultural standpoint she will have fulfilled the expected role of a wife to her husband by bearing a child, specifically a son. Sarah will also be the mother of nations. Since she has no children other than Isaac, it would seem this is a spiritual dimension reflecting the redemption which will come through Jesus Christ.
The Lord also indicates her child will have kings in his lineage of descendants. This indicates an organized nation with rulers. Most notable of them would be David and Solomon. The fact of a nation with kings further points to her being blessed as a partner in its covenant.
B. Abraham’s Questions (v. 17)
17. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear?
Notice Abraham’s posture. At the news of what is to come, he prostrates himself before the Lord in humility and joy. Jewish interpreters see Abraham’s laugh as one of happiness rather than doubt or disbelief. This seems to be supported by the words of Jesus as recorded in John 8:56.
The questions asked are based on the physical circumstances—age and ability to conceive a child. Sarah’s inclusion as a covenant partner doesn’t lessen Abraham’s position or relationship with God. Rather, it seems to enhance it. The honoring of Sarah brings honor to Abraham.
A strong marriage application stands out here. Anytime one partner receives a blessing or honor, it should be seen as an item for rejoicing and happiness to both. Anytime jealousy enters in such a setting, it reflects a competitive relationship rather than a joint benefit in which the two are one.
C. Sarah’s Blessing (vv. 18-21)
18. And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!
19. And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him.
20. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation.
21. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
It’s so easy to listen, to enjoy and then to want a different way. That seems to be the case with Abraham. Even after hearing God’s plan for Sarah to be blessed with a son and he to be the father, Abraham struggles. What about Ishmael? He too is Abraham’s son. Possibly for over a decade now it has been assumed he would be the covenant son, being the only child of Abraham. But now everything seems to change.
How easily this can happen in our own lives. We develop a plan, but God knows better and chooses a different path.
For a second time God plainly repeats what will happen in the near future. He is going to enable Sarah to bear a child, specifically a son. The name of this covenant child will be Isaac, which means “laughter.” The covenant which stands between God and Abraham will be passed on to Isaac and to all his descendants. Notice this covenant stands forever. There are no time limits or lapses.
God doesn’t overlook the fact of Ishmael’s being Abraham’s son. He too will be blessed and be the father of many descendants. The many Arab nations attest to the fulfillment of these prophetic words.
The fact remains, however, the covenant child will be Sarah’s son, Isaac. God indicates a timeline for Isaac’s birth. Sarah’s pregnancy and the birth of Isaac will be within the next year. This means a 99-year-old husband and an 89-year-old wife are able to look at each other and say, “Next year at this time we will have a baby!”
At this point only Abraham is party to this covenant information. Later when Sarah overhears what is to take place, she laughs (18:9-15). The context indicates her laughter issues from doubt rather than joy; otherwise God’s rebuke would not have been necessary.
This reminds us how we sometimes have difficulty grasping the reality of God’s blessing. Remember, Sarah was not the one who regularly or even occasionally encountered God. Also, from a physical standpoint she cannot conceive a child. Even at her advanced age she learns to grow in faith and accept the blessings of being a covenant partner.
II. WOMAN OF PROMISE (Genesis 21:1-7)
A. Isaac’s Birth (vv. 1-5)
1. And the Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did unto Sarah as he had spoken.
2. For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which God had spoken to him.
3. And Abraham called the name of his son that was born unto him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac.
4. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac being eight days old, as God had commanded him.
5. And Abraham was an hundred years old, when his son Isaac was born unto him.
Once again we see the certainty of God’s promises. Exactly as previously stated, Sarah conceives a child, a son. Verse 1 points specifically to this being a divine action enabling this chosen servant to experience the joy of giving birth to a son. Though humanly impossible, God enters their lives and enables Abraham and Sarah to have a child together. Abraham is 100 years old, yet he will have the opportunity to enjoy this child as he grows into manhood, marries, and has children, for Abraham will live to the age of 175.
Within the first five verses of this chapter, there are three specific references to Isaac being Abraham’s blood son. This further emphasizes the fulfillment of the covenant promise given a decade before. At that time God pointed out the error of Abraham’s thinking Eliezer, apparently an adopted servant, would be his heir. “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (Genesis 15:4, NIV).
When God renewed the covenant in chapter 17, He instituted circumcision as the sign of the covenant people. This action was to occur on the eighth day of the male’s life. We see in 21:4 that Abraham doesn’t overlook this stipulation in the euphoria of the birth of Isaac.
This reminds us of the need for our complete obedience to God’s will. What good would it do for Sarah to have been blessed with the fulfilled promise and then have her husband fail to fulfill all the aspects of God’s covenant?
B. Sarah’s Joy (vv. 6, 7)
6. And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.
7. And she said, Who would have said unto Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? for I have born him a son in his old age.
Most of us cannot understand the deep joy Sarah expresses when she says, “God hath made me to laugh.” Only those desiring to have children, being unable to do so for many years, and then suddenly conceiving a child can possibly relate to Sarah’s experience. Keep in mind she is 90 years old. If she were married at the common age of 15, she has been barren in the marriage for 75 years. Couple that with the fact of her no longer being physically able to conceive a child. Yet she is now a mother. She and her husband are the proud parents of a baby boy.
Previously Abraham laughed at the thought of him and Sarah having a son. This was a reaction to future happiness. Sarah laughed when she overheard the divine messengers stating she would bear a son, believing this to be an impossible dream. This was a laughter of doubt.
Now Sarah can laugh with joy. Others can join in this celebration and laugh with her. How appropriate for Isaac’s name to mean “laughter.” The sorrows and frustrations of decades of barrenness are washed away in the joyous celebration of God’s promise fulfilled in Sarah.
This is the first of several Biblical accounts of women who were barren for many years. Later in our series, Hannah and the birth of Samuel will be studied. Let’s consider others who were in the same situation. Isaac and Rebekah had been married for 20 years before Jacob and Esau were born (25:21). Manoah’s wife was barren until she was enabled to conceive Samson (Judges 13:2, 3, 24). Not to be forgotten is the conception and birth of John the Baptist to the aged couple, Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25).
When God miraculously enters our lives and changes situations, there is cause for joy. This joy needs to be expressed, allowing others to join in. Testimony of God’s actions not only causes rejoicing, but also builds our individual and corporate faith.
III. EXAMPLE FOR CHRISTIAN WOMEN (1 Peter 3:1-6)
This passage provides some “hot topics” for discussion. Before looking at the specifics of these verses, let’s review a few basic principles. First, we need to be reminded of the purpose for Scripture. Second Timothy 3:16 specifies one purpose—to be instructed, or trained, in righteous living. Second, it is important to remember the cultural times in which Scripture was written. This gives us a better understanding, but doesn’t allow us the privilege of simply discarding godly directives. Third, we must be cautious not to taint Scripture with our own feelings. Let Scripture speak for itself.
A. Marital Submission (vv. 1, 2, 6)
1. Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives;
2. While they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear.
6. Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement.
As Peter penned these words, he used an example of a woman (Sarah) who lived about 2,000 years prior to the founding of the church. How could this be relevant? The answer is twofold. Cultural change during that time period was minimal. Structures and concepts were very similar. Also, God’s principle for righteous living transcends time.
The second challenge is the cultural norms. In the patriarchal society, the husband/father stood as the legal and spiritual head of the family. Within some of the people groups, women and children were the property of the husband/father, to be treated as he willed. However, this is not the structure God originated in the Garden for Adam and Eve’s relationship. Sin always degrades.
Note that women were given higher status in the Israelite society than those of their surrounding neighbors. Also, the Romans—whose empire surrounded the Mediterranean Sea—provided a greater opportunity for women than did many other people groups.
A third challenge is for us to see the complete picture of Peter’s writing. Submission does not just pop into the narrative. In the previous chapter he speaks of submission to the laws of the land and of servants submitting to their masters (2:13, 18). At the beginning of the third chapter he addresses the relationship between husbands and wives. Peter does not speak of inferiority or superiority of one gender over the other.
Peter points to the need for Christian wives to continue in submission to their unbelieving husbands. Religious difference doesn’t negate the subordination which comes due to the sin in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3). Just because a wife becomes a believer and experiences freedom in Christ, she is not exempt from the obligation to her husband. Even the cultural norms of the time expected her to recognize the position of headship which was given to the husband.
A woman’s proper actions may become the stimulus that eventually leads her unbelieving husband to come to Christ. Rebellion always causes strife and separation. In contrast are behaviors and words that are uplifting and unifying. The word translated as conversation in 1 Peter 3:1 means “behavior.” Here we stand reminded of the power of an ongoing godly lifestyle. This form of evangelism convinces unbelievers of one’s Christianity. It also provides power when words are spoken.
In verse 6 the author suddenly includes Sarah as an example to be followed. She was a partner in the covenant who conceived and bore the promised covenant son. She was greatly honored by God. Yet she continued in submission to her husband, Abraham.
Peter views all believing women as the daughters of Sarah, as they live appropriately within the headship of their husbands and “do not give way to fear” (v. 6, NIV). Maybe some were fearful of their submission being interpreted as inferiority. However, this should never appear in a Christian marriage where men are to love and respect their wives. Ephesians 5:25-29 and 1 Peter 3:7 describe how a husband is to love his wife. When he loves in that manner, submission isn’t really an issue.
B. Inner Beauty (vv. 3-5)
3. Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel;
4. But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.
5. For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands.
Because of these verses, along with 1 Timothy 2:9-10, some of the most conservative Holiness groups teach women are to keep away from specific actions of beautification. This translates in some instances to no cutting of their hair, having only simple hairstyles, using no cosmetics, and wearing no ornamentation. The opposite extreme interprets these verses as applying to a limited cultural directive for a particular time. Both views fall short. The first simply focuses on the “thou shalt nots” without seeing the bigger picture of the passage. The second view says such teachings are inconsistent with freedom in Christ and thus do not apply today. This view misses the bigger idea.
It would seem Peter is not opposed to caring for and beautifying the outside. Being ugly or having a sloven appearance is not a Biblical principle. The bigger issue is one’s motive. What is inside a person determines who she is instead of the outer appearance. First and foremost should be the ornamentation of the inner person. A gentle spirit continues to be radiant even when one’s physical beauty fades with the aging process. There is a spiritual beauty that transcends physical beauty. It shines to an even greater degree as a person consistently demonstrates a godly life.
We have no record of the specific beauty features of Sarah. There are no hints of how she wore her hair or if she wore any type of jewelry. However, the Scriptures do indicate she was a woman of beauty—both physically and spiritually. Her spiritual beauty was not due to her being chosen to participate in the covenant and become the mother of the promised son. Rather, it stemmed from her spirit and actions directed toward her husband, Abraham.
Sarah’s life demonstrates how God works to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Though our faith and human understanding may be limited in some circumstances, He will take us to places of joy and fulfillment that seemed impossible. We see only the limitations, but our God knows the realities He intends.
GOLDEN TEXT CHALLENGE
“I WILL BLESS HER [SARAH], AND GIVE THEE [ABRAHAM] A SON ALSO OF HER: YEA, I WILL BLESS HER, AND SHE SHALL BE A MOTHER OF NATIONS” (Genesis 17:16).
God’s covenant with Abraham was also a covenant with Abraham’s wife and family. God had always planned for Sarah to be the one through whom He would fulfill His covenant. It would be from her womb that the promised heir would be born. God changed her name from Sarai to Sarah, meaning “princess.” Her new name indicated the influence and leadership she would have as a person and a mother. Along with Abraham, Sarah’s influence would extend to future generations—including nations and kings.
God would use Sarah particularly in her role as a mother. This is a powerful affirmation of the role and influence of women as leaders and mothers of leaders. This role may extend not only to their immediate families but also to people and nations around them.