Who was Sarah?
(1) In Gen 17:15 the woman who up to that time has been known as Sarai (Heb: Saray; Grk: Sara) receives by divine command the name Sarah (Heb: Sarah; Grk: Sarra). (This last form in Greek preserves the ancient doubling of the r, lost in the Hebrew and the English forms.)
The former name appears to be derived from the same root as Israel, if, indeed, Gen 32:28 is intended as an etymology of Israel. "She that strives," a contentious person, is a name that might be given to a child at birth (compare Hos 12:3,4, of Jacob), or later when the child's character developed; in Gen 16:6 and 21:10 a contentious character appears.
Yet comparison with the history of her husband's name warns us not to operate solely upon the basis of the Hebrew language. Sarai was the name this woman brought with her from Mesopotamia. On the other hand there can be little doubt that the name Sarah, which she received when her son was promised, means "princess," for it is the feminine form of the extremely common title Heb: sar, used by the Semites to designate a ruler of greater or lesser rank. In the verse following the one where this name is conferred, it is declared of Sarah that "kings of peoples shall be of her" (Gen 17:16).
We are introduced to Sarai in Gen 11:29. She is here mentioned as the wife that Abraham "took," while still in Ur of the Chaldees, that is, while among his kindred. It is immediately added that "Sarai was barren; she had no child." By this simple remark in the overture of his narrative, the writer sounds the motif that is to be developed in all the sequel. When the migration to Haran occurs, Sarai is named along with Abram and Lot as accompanying Terah. It has been held that the author (or authors) of Genesis 11 knew nothing of the relationship announced in 20:12. But there can be no proof of such ignorance, even on the assumption of diversity of authorship in the two passages.
Sarai's career as described in Genesis 11 was not dependent on her being the daughter of Terah. Terah had other descendants who did not accompany him. Her movements were determined by her being Abram's wife. It appears, however, that she was a daughter of Terah by a different mother from the mother of Abram. The language of 20:12 would indeed admit of her being Abram's niece, but the fact that there was but 10 years' difference between his age and hers (Gen 17:17) renders this hypothesis less probable. Marriage with half-sisters seems to have been not uncommon in antiquity (even in the Old Testament compare 2 Sam 13:13).
This double relationship suggested to Abraham the expedient that he twice used when he lacked faith in God to protect his life and in cowardice sought his own safety at the price of his wife's honor. The first of these occasions was in the earlier period of their wanderings (Genesis 12). From Canaan they went down into Egypt. Sarai, though above 60 years of age according to the chronology of the sacred historian, made the impression on the Egyptians by her beauty that Abraham had anticipated, and the result was her transfer to the royal palace.
But this was in direct contravention of the purpose of God for His own kingdom. The earthly majesty of Pharaoh had to bow before the divine majesty, which plagued him and secured the stranger's exodus, thus foreshadowing those later plagues and that later exodus when Abraham's and Sarah's seed "spoiled the Egyptians."
We meet Sarah next in the narrative of the birth of Ishmael and of Isaac. Though 14 years separated the two births, they are closely associated in the story because of their logical continuity. Sarah's barrenness persisted. She was now far past middle life, even on a patriarchal scale of longevity, and there appeared no hope of her ever bearing that child who should inherit the promise of God. She therefore adopts the expedient of being "builded by" her personal slave, Hagar the Egyptian (see Gen 16:2 margin). That is, according to contemporary law and custom as witnessed by the Code of Hammurabi, a son born of this woman would be the freeborn son and heir of Abraham and Sarah.
Such was in fact the position of Ishmael later. But the insolence of the maid aroused the vindictive jealousy of the mistress and led to a painful scene of unjustified expulsion. Hagar, however, returned at God's behest, humbled herself before Sarah, and bore Ishmael in his own father's house. Here he remained the sole and rightful heir, until the miracle of Isaac's birth disappointed all human expectations and resulted in the ultimate expulsion of Hagar and her son.
The change of name from Sarai to Sarah when Isaac was promised has already been noted. Sarah's laughter of incredulity when she hears the promise is of course associated with the origin of the name of Isaac, but it serves also to emphasize the miraculous character of his birth, coming as it does after his parents are both so "well stricken in age" as to make parenthood seem an absurdity.
Before the birth of this child of promise, however, Sarah is again exposed, through the cowardice of her husband, to dishonor and ruin. Abimelech, king of Gerar, desiring to be allied by marriage with a man of Abraham's power, sends for Sarah, whom he knows only as Abraham's sister, and for the second time she takes her place in the harem of a prince.
But the divine promise is not to be thwarted, even by persistent human weakness and sin. In a dream God reveals to Abimelech the true state of the case, and Sarah is restored to her husband with an indemnity. Thereupon the long-delayed son is born, the jealous mother secures the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, and her career comes to a close at the age of 127, at Hebroni long time her home.
The grief and devotion of Abraham are broadly displayed in Genesis 23, in which he seeks and obtains a burying-place for his wife. She is thus the first to be interred in that cave of the field of Machpelah, which was to be the common resting-place of the fathers and mothers of the future Israel.
The character of Sarah is of mingled light and shade. On the one hand we have seen that lapse from faith which resulted in the birth of Ishmael, and that lack of self-control and charity which resulted in a quarrel with Abraham, an act of injustice to Hagar, and the disinheriting of Ishmael.
Yet on the other hand we see in Sarah, as the New Testament writers point out (Heb 11:11; 1 Pet 3:6), one who through a long life of companionship with Abraham shared his hope in God, his faith in the promises, and his power to become God's agent for achieving what was humanly impossible. In fact, to Sarah is ascribed a sort of spiritual maternity, correlative with Abraham's position as "father of the faithful"; for all women are declared to be the (spiritual) daughters of Sarah, who like her are adorned in "the hidden man of the heart," and who are "doers of good" and "fearers of no terror" (1 Peter loc. cit., literally rendered).
That in spite of her outbreak about Hagar and Ishmael she was in general "in subjection to her husband" and of "a meek and quiet spirit," appears from her husband's genuine grief at her decease, and still more clearly from her son's prolonged mourning for her (Gen 24:67; compare 17:17 and 23:1 with 25:20). And He who maketh even the wrath of man to praise Him used even Sarah's jealous anger to accomplish His purpose that "the son of the freewoman," Isaac, "born through promise," should alone inherit that promise (Gal 4:22-31).
Apart from the three New Testament passages already cited, Sarah is alluded to only in Isa 51:2 ("Sarah that bare you," as the mother of the nation), in Rom 4:19 ("the deadness of Sarah's womb"), and in Rom 9:9, where God's promise in Gen 18:10 is quoted. Yet her existence and her history are of course presupposed wherever allusion is made to the stories of Abraham and of Isaac.
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IBSE, (in the public domain) with minor edits.