How does one define the place of this woman whose challenges in life, unlike the theological ones facing her husband, seem closer to our human understanding? She is beautiful, for which she pays a heavy price. She is called a matriarch, yet she seems to have spent most of her life longing to be a mother. This class (and the next one – Hagar) will try to begin to look at this life partner of Abraham.
View the introductory video below:
Part I: The Text:
Two stories are told about Sarah’s beauty that became a liability when faced with foreign kingdoms. The first takes place in Egypt (12:10-13:1) and the second in Gerar (20:1-18). Let’s start with the events in Egypt.
Abraham takes his household down to Egypt because of the famine that has struck the land. As Radak (R. David Kimchi of Provence) explains well, Abraham had both livestock and many people for whose lives he was responsible he “could not tolerate a famine.” Being unable to wait out the problem, he heads to Egypt which it is not dependant on rain since it has the Nile.
But going to Egypt raises a different fear in Abraham: Sarah’s beauty is a liability in that country.
What does Abraham propose and what is his reason? Why might Sarah agree to it? Did she agree to it?
We should remember that in those times (and in ours, in some places) a woman had to be attached to a male relative that protects her. We see this in the story of Dinah (Gen. 34), where Simeon and Levy take revenge for their sister. They are her full brothers (sharing a mother, not just a father) and they are responsible for her. Similarly, Absalom takes revenge for his sister Tamar (II Sam 13) since he is her full brother. (Also of significance to our story, Tamar proposes to Amnon that he marry her, his half sister, certain that the king will not object.) Is Abraham proposing a protection system for Sarah? Would he be a better protector as a brother than as a husband?
Unlike the story of going to Egypt, in the story of going to Gerar there is no conversation between Abraham and Sarah. Was the safety plot already a given? Did the conversation take place but the Torah did not need to repeat the motive and logic of the move that we have already seen?
Compare the reactions of Pharaoh and Abimelekh upon discovering that they were misinformed.
Consider the following points: How do they find out? Who has been wronged, in their opinion? How do they feel that they have been wronged? Does either of them get an explanation? Why? How does each of them seem to view Sarah?
The Lack of Children
About 20 generations after Eve-Hava, named so for she is “the mother of all Hai (living)”, Sarah fails in this quintessential role of womanhood in the early passages of Tanakh. Sarah is the first barren woman in the Torah. The yearning for a child has both emotional-biological aspects, and social implications. Reading her story, and keeping in mind other biblical stories that you are familiar with, (and putting aside our modern notions) consider the following questions:
How does a barren woman act?
What is her status?
What is her responsibility to her husband?
How might society view her?
The most extreme action that Sarah takes for the sake of having children is giving her handmaid Hagar to Abraham. We will consider how that worked out when we study Hagar, but do think about how that story fits into the questions above.
So did Abraham in chapter 17, but who remembers that?
In 18:9-15 Sarah laughs upon hearing (from behind the tent) that she is going to have a child in a year from that time.
Why did Sarah laugh?
Laughter can come from many different emotions. Was she overjoyed? Was she cynical? Was she skeptical or full of faith?
Compare her laughter (and its circumstances) with that of Abraham, in chapter 17. Do both laughs come from the same place? If you were to offer a translation, how would you translate each of them?
The only motherly acts that we are told about are in chapter 21.
When Isaac is born Sarah composes a song (21:6-7) in honor of the event. So does Hannah after the birth of Samuel (Sam I 2:1-10).
What might this tell us about the state of mind of these two women who had been barren and faced adversary in their own home because of it?
Interestingly, the birth of Isaac was chosen as the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (New Year). The rabbis chose the story of Hannah and her poem as the Haftara (the section from prophets read at the end of the Torah reading, highlighting some aspect of the Torah portion) for this Torah section.
Sarah’s second motherly act is protecting the interests of Isaac.
Why did she insist on the removal of Ishmael and his mother from the household?
And while we are at it: Why is she absent from the story of the Akeda (the binding of Isaac)?
Her death (23:1-4)
It is at Sarah’s death that Abraham is faced with their fragile existence in the land from a different angle. While God had promised the land to future generation, the family has no parcel of land to call their own. The urgency created by the need to bury her, and the desire to do so properly – in a family tomb – not among strangers, leads to Abraham’s first acquisition of land in Canaan.
Why is Sarah’s death dealt with at length? (Many other are not even mentioned once they leave the story.)
Along with the answers that you can think of for this question, it is interesting to note that Sarah spent her life making sure that Abraham had an heir – the first step to realizing the great nation he had been promised. But it is her death that gains Abraham the first foothold in the land which was promised to the great nation that will come.
Part II – Other Sources:
Rashi Genesis 11:29
רש“י בראשית פרק יא פסוק כט
“יסכה“ זו שרה, על שם שסוכה ברוח הקודש, ושהכל סוכין ביפיה. ועוד: ‘יסכה’ לשון נסיכות, כמו ‘שרה’ לשון שררה:
Iscah is Sarah because she would gaze (סוֹכָה) through Divine inspiration, and because all gazed (סוֹכִין) at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom, (נְסִיכוֹת), just as Sarah is an expression of dominion (שְׁרָרָה). – [from Meg. 14a]
Why does Rashi/the Midrash wish to combine these 2 people into one?
Having noticed the intertwined marriages of the future generations, the Midrash seems to have concluded that this might have been the common practice. And if the family took care of Haran’s other two children who were left orphaned, would it not make sense that they also made sure to keep Isca in the family? Finally, in chapter 21 Abraham seems to suggest that there is a family relation between them (in addition to marriage.)
Rashi/Midrash is practicing an old art: Midrash Shem (exegesis of a name) – a Midrash on the name that teaches us about the person/place that bears it. As names in Hebrew are assumed to carry a meaning, this kind of exegesis adds richness to a text that is brief in its very nature. Anyone can create a Midrash Shem, and there is no need to be too particular about proper grammar. Stop to think of Hebrew names of people around you. How well does the name’s meaning suit the person?
Ibn Ezra 11:29
אבן עזרא בראשית פרק יא פסוק כט
(כט) …וקדמונינו ז”ל אמרו שיסכה היא שרה. ואם קבלה נקבל. והאומרים כי שרה היתה אחות אברהם איננו ישר בעיני זה הטעם. ואלו היה כן היה הכתוב אומר: ‘ויקח תרח את אברם בנו ושרי בתו אשת אברם בנו’… גם כן, אלו היתה אחות לוט היה הכתוב אומר: ‘ואת שרי בת בנו’ כאשר כתב על לוט.
And our ancestors of blessed memory said that Iscah is Sarah, and if this is the tradition – we shall accept it. But those who say that Sarah was Abraham’s sister [and therefore Iscah is Sarah] I do not find this reason acceptable. For it was so, the text would say ‘and Terah took Avram his son and Sarai his daughter the wife of Avram his son…’ Also, if she was the sister of Lot, the text would have said ‘and Sarai the daughter of his son’ as it says about Lot.
How does Ibn Ezra argue that Sarah would not have been Abraham’s sister? Along similar lines – what doubts does he raise about Sarah being Haran’s daughter?
Notice that he does not quote text but rather suggests what the text would have said if indeed the Midrash brought by Rashi was correct. Of course, you are not obligated to accept Ibn Ezra’s opinion…
In general: What might be the ramifications of identifying Sarah with Isca, or not doing so?
רש“י בראשית פרק טז פסוק ד
ותקל גברתה בעיניה – אמרה: שרי זו אין סתרה כגלויה, מראה עצמה כאלו היא צדקת ואינה צדקת, שלא זכתה להריון כל השנים הללו, ואני נתעברתי מביאה ראשונה:
And her mistress became unimportant in her eyes: She [Hagar] said, “This Sarai, her conduct in private is not like her conduct in public. She shows herself as if she is a righteous woman, but she is not a righteous woman, for she did not merit conceiving all these years, whereas I have conceived from the first union.”
Rashi places these words in the mouth of Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid. But whose thoughts are reflected here?
It could of course be just Hagar. But is it possible that people viewed children/wealth as a reward from God? Could it be that these were not the words of outside people but Sarah’s thoughts? The emotional toll that bareness has on the family is great. In a time that women were greatly defined by their childbearing ability, such a situation must have eroded the woman’s self confidence, and perhaps also her social/family status.
רש“י בראשית פרק כא פסוק יב
שמע בקולה: למדנו שהיה אברהם טפל לשרה בנביאות:
Hearken to her voice: (to the voice of the holy spirit within her.) We learn from here that Abraham was inferior to Sarah in prophecy.
What might the implications be about Sarah’s relationship with God?
I would like to hear your opinion about this. Why might she have been greater at prophecy? What kind of a relationship did she have with God?