I have always blamed Sarah for the whole Hagar-Ishmael debacle. God tells Abraham, “I will make you a nation.” Abraham being the loving husband he is replies, “Well, but, my wife is really old.” Nothing like your husband telling someone your real age. And old lady Sarah decides to come up with an action plan- “hey, just sleep with my servant!”
My first read through of this story, right after having read about Elizabeth in the book of Luke, I am struck by the similarities and differences between Sarah and Elizabeth.* They are both old, barren, childless women. But one has a husband who believes God’s promise (Sarah), the other has a husband who didn’t (Elizabeth.) One takes no agency (Elizabeth), the other takes agency (Sarah.) And finally, one praises God for His promises, while the other, Sarah, mocks God by laughing when she hears an angel reiterate a promised child to come from Sarah.
So, I would like to take a moment to judge Sarah harshly. She has a hard heart. She is rejecting God’s promise not just on her husband’s life, but on hers also. She leads her husband, who is a believer, into an unbelieving attitude and faithless action (Genesis 16:1-6.) She is leading him into disbelief and faithlessness in two specific ways. First, God said Abraham would have a child by Sarah. Second, God had told Abraham, “a servant will not be your heir” (Genesis 15.) So why exactly would Sarah recommend that Abraham take Hagar, a servant who is also not Sarah, to be the mother of his promised child?
Oh, Sarah had a reason, let me tell you. Abraham also had some heart issues to deal with it seems like. He had a quieter version of rebellion that began to pull his household apart and compromise his promise— and Sarah knew all about his issues, as we wives do.
After Hagar becomes pregnant she— who had been given to Sarah as a possession— starts to make a little power grab. She becomes spiteful toward Sarah and uses her baby as leverage to rise above her “station” so to speak. Sarah complains to Abraham. His response shows where his heart is out of tune with God’s. He tells her “you deal with that petty girl stuff, whatever, ech!” obviously a loose paraphrase of Genesis 16:6.
Sarah’s perspective on the matter, which of course she expresses to Abraham is “This is your fault! I put my servant in your arms, but now that she is pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong— you or me!” That actually is a direct quote of Genesis 16:5, just to clarify that though it sounds like you or I having a marital argument, these words are in fact from a heated fight that took place over 4,000 years ago.
At first I completely dismissed Sarah’s words to Abraham: This is all your fault! God will prove I am right! Goodness, Sarah, go pray about yourself, I think. But then, what is she talking about? She gave Hagar to Abraham to sleep with. Is she just delusional and the biggest blame shifter in drama queen history?
Apparently, Sarah is neither delusional nor a blame shifter nor a drama queen. She is just struggling with some major betrayal issues and unforgiveness. Possibly she has post traumatic embitterment disorder— an actual psychological diagnosis, by the way. Abraham did, after all, give her to the Egyptian Pharaoh as a sex slave so that the Pharaoh wouldn’t kill him. (You can check that out in Genesis 12:10-20 and confirm my interpretation of the events that transpired in Pharaoah’s house in Genesis 26:1-11.)
Sarah was so embittered by this that she was fully willing to give away her miracle. She would give away the promise of a child, the promise of an inheritance, of being the mother of a nation. She didn’t want it. She wasn’t going near that old spineless geezer who thought so little of her that he would sacrifice her honor when he should have defended it. Point taken, Sarah, I’m mad at him too now!
I do still wonder though, how is you telling him to sleep with your servant his fault? Well, she has some solid reasoning here: Hagar was an Egyptian, likely given to Sarah while she was captive in the Pharaoh’s house. If Abraham had had integrity this wouldn’t have happened. If he had done the right thing, if he had been honorable, if would have told the truth! Hagar would not have been in their house at all.
“And the Lord will prove me right!” That is bold. By the way, it was his fault, and the Lord does prove Sarah right. When Hagar is forced out into the wilderness “the Angel of the Lord” (aka Jesus, an interpretation sustained by many biblical scholars) appears to Hagar. And what does the angel command Hagar to do? “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority,” (Genesis 16:9.) Here we see a rare appearance of pre-incarnate Jesus, and what is he doing? Solving a domestic dispute for Abraham. Father Abraham seems to have some issues with managing his household. God made an appearance to say to Hagar what Abraham should have said to her.
Abraham did not get away with his sins, though he is the father of our faith. Sarah did not get away with her sins either. Being right didn’t get her much. Together, Sarah and Abraham created opposition for their promise. The angel of the Lord blesses Ishmael when he finds Hagar, a pregnant woman, dying in the desert. Ishmael is blessed but is also prophesied to be a wild man who lives in hostility to his relatives. The Lord took mercy on Hagar when Sarah should have been the one showing mercy. Sarah didn’t show mercy; her unforgiveness toward Abraham poisoned other relationships in the house. Together, Abraham and Sarah created an eternal enemy for their son, one who at every turn would be actively pursuing their descendants’ destruction.
When someone we depend on doesn’t show up for us. When they take the easy road that is more beneficial for themselves, on the hope that we’ll be fine without them following through on their promises or their vows. When they do not say a word— when all it would take is one word! It is so easy to feel completely justified to plant ourselves into a garden of bitterness! Especially because— look at Abraham— he didn’t change. He lacked integrity in Egypt, and he lacked integrity at home. He wasn’t telling the truth, he wasn’t standing up for the truth, he was a path of least resistance guy! And you know what it got him? An enemy for his rightful heir and the loss of a beloved son, Ishmael (Genesis 16:12; 21:8-13, and 25:18.)
Sarah and Abraham co-created a curse where God had spoken only promise. As men and women, particularly those running households together, we have to be relentless in our faith, because even understandable sins like “just a little unforgiveness,” or “fabricating an easier truth” can cause more than fights. It can cause a curse where there was once only blessing.
Withstanding the temptation to hold unforgiveness is incredibly difficult. In a marriage, you are with the person who hurt you perpetually, and they are probably perpetuating the thing that hurt you to begin with over and over again. It is a great example of Jesus telling Peter that you must forgive “70×7” times. I’ve always been taught that 70×7 would have been comparable to saying “infinity” or even more accurately, “to completion.” We have to forgive until it is enough. We can stop forgiving when the amount of forgiveness we have given has done the job. Or until, as Jesus famously said, “It is finished.”
This takes faith. And this faith is not in our partner— it’s not in our Abraham. This faith is in God. Your partner might never change from their hurtful habits. But that’s ok, because, God will never turn away from being good.
* You can read more about Elizabeth and Zechariah in my post: “She went into seclusion.” Luke 1:24. It is part 1/10 in The Proverbs 31 Family series.