Silent and Obedient
Remarkably enough, the very first thing we learn about Sarah is the fact that she was barren: But Sarai was barren; she had no child. This short note occurs even before Genesis 12, even before Abraham is told to go out of Haran, and speaks volumes: If this is the first piece of information we learn about Sarah, then clearly, it was the main thing that defined a woman in that society. A woman’s worth was measured by fertility, and it is in this very society that Sarah “happened” to be barren!
My readers probably know that, even today, a barren wife presents such a huge problem in a Jewish family that her barrenness provides sufficient reason for a husband to divorce her. Undoubtedly, it was much worse in Abraham’s time: For a married woman, being barren was about the worst thing that could happen. It means that the pain of inadequacy, shame, and guilt was something that Sarah had lived with–and had struggled with–for many, many years, since the very first years of her long marriage.
Thus, we come to understand that this story has to be a story of healing: Before Sarai became Sarah in chapter 17, before she was able to become a mother and matriarch, she had to be healed from within. We cannot do our part and fulfill our destiny that the Lord has prepared for each of us unless our heart is whole, unless we are reconciled fully to who we are and where we are. Before the circumstances change, and in order for them to change, an inner healing of the heart had to take place. We need to allow the Lord to transform the invisible first, and then the visible will be transformed as well.
I find it difficult to understand how Jewish sources claim that Sarah, the first Matriarch, was perfect and “entirely free from sin.” Perhaps, down the road, after all the healing work she had experienced, she really did become almost perfect, but the chapters we are going through now, the first chapters of their journey in the Land, show us a woman in a lot of pain, sometimes acting unfairly and unjustly because of this pain. We don’t hear from her much in these chapters; in fact, the very first time we hear her say something, is when she asks her husband to go in to Hagar. Before that, she is completely silent. But then again, even a regular woman in that society was not supposed to be heard; how much more then, should a woman humiliated by “barrenness” be silent and obedient! And Sarah, indeed, was silent and obedient–probably a bit too silent and too obedient. An attentive reader cannot miss the fact that she traveled more in those first few chapters than any wife would normally agree to–unless she had special reasons to agree to it.
The first time Sarah moved with her husband, was in the end of chapter 11:
And Terah took his son Abraham and his grandson Lot, the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abraham’s wife, and they went out with them from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan; and they came to Haran and dwelt there.
The second time she followed her husband in his Lech-Lecha call:
Then Abraham took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan. So they came to the land of Canaan.
Then we see Abraham wandering endlessly through the Land, and it goes without saying that his wife followed him everywhere:
Abraham passed through the land to the place of Shechem…
And he moved from there to the mountain east of Bethel…
So Abraham journeyed, going on still toward the South. 
Eventually, after all this wandering around the Land, they go down to Egypt:
…and Abraham went down to Egypt. 
Why didn’t Sarah ever question or argue with Abraham’s decisions (at least, the Scripture doesn’t mention her doing so)? What was the secret that enabled her to follow her husband so unquestioningly and unreservedly in all of his wanderings? Did she follow her husband out of obedience? Did she follow her husband out of shame and guilt? Did she follow her husband out of hope that she would become fertile, one day? After all, when the Lord called Abraham and commanded him to go to the Land, He did promise him a multitude of descendants:
I will make you a great nation…
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
At that point, Sarah was the only woman in Abraham’s life; I’m certain she hoped and believed that all those descendants that would form a great nation would come through her. Perhaps it was this hope and belief that gave her strength and motivation to follow her husband in all his wanderings and to move with him time and again.
What happened between the husband and the wife on the way to Egypt? Why was she absolutely passive throughout the whole story? She was told by Abraham to say that she was his sister; she was taken to Pharaoh’s house; clearly she became a subject of Pharaoh’s attention and flirtation. However, during all this time, we don’t hear a single word from her. How did she react when her husband, the love of her life, out of fear for his own life, asked her to pretend to be his sister? How would any woman react if her beloved said to her one day:
“Indeed I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his wife;’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.”
Was Sarah offended? Upset? Mad? Disappointed? Whatever her emotions were, whatever storms shook her heart, outwardly she remained absolutely silent–we don’t hear anything from her throughout the whole story. Everything went exactly as Abraham had planned:
So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful. The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house. He treated Abram well for her sake.
Not only did her husband fail to protect her, he actually used her to save his life and to become rich: He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels. Think of it: Not only did Abraham fail to protect Sarah, he actually never tries! This would be an incredible offense to any woman, and I think it must have been an incredible offense to Sarah, as well!
The climax of the Egyptian story happens when God Himself saves Sarah from Pharaoh, by doing what her husband never even tried to do: But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. This short, vague verse presents a wide-open invitation for filling in, and indeed, there is no shortage of midrashic commentary on this verse. However, the Scripture itself doesn’t specify what happened there, or exactly how Pharaoh realized that all those great plagues were because of Sarah, Abram’s wife. All we know is that somehow, probably, by God’s direct intervention and revelation in a dream, Pharaoh did realize it: And Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way.”
I personally believe that from this moment on, God becomes the main passion of Sarah’s life. Her faith, her trust, and her belief in His compassion and His omnipotence–all of that was born out of her Egyptian misery, when God Himself interceded for her. When speaking of Abraham in the first chapter, we said that the “Egyptian episode” was priceless because we learned so many important things about Abraham. The story is even more invaluable as it concerns Sarah, when we consider what we learn about her. I believe that in Egypt, Sarah’s faith was born. I think that when she followed Abraham in chapter 12, she was just acting as an obedient wife (all the more so, since she felt guilty, humiliated, and ashamed because of her barrenness), but I believe that in Egypt, for the first time in her life, she had a personal encounter with God. She experienced for herself the truth that God Himself protects those who are left without human protection, that the Lord executes righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He Himself saved her, and the gratitude, the overwhelming feeling of safety and protection, and the deep inner knowledge that she could always rely on Him, would all stay with her forever. From that time in Egypt forward, she knew that she could trust God completely. Her husband might fail her, as happened in Egypt, but the Lord would never fail her. That is why later, she could say to Abraham: “The Lord judge between you and me”–because she knew she could always rely on His judgment. And indeed, again and again, the Lord did back her up in her arguments with Abraham, as we will soon see.
A Painful Decision
As I already noted, we don’t hear much from Sarah during those first years of their life in the Land. In fact, she doesn’t say anything at all, until the moment our story begins. The very first words we hear from Sarah open our story:
So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.”
Thus begins the story of Hagar and Ishmael. I have written already several times that the Bible seldom comments on the emotions, struggles, and battles that take place in its protagonists’ hearts. The Scriptures describe the deeds only; so when we read: So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, we can only guess what was going on in Abraham’s heart. The same holds true regarding Sarah here: Although we see a woman who is acting very unjustly, both to Abraham and to Hagar, we have to understand that this injustice was rooted in the enormous pain Sarah felt, when she finally had to admit that the Lord had restrained her from bearing children and decided to give her maidservant to her husband.
Sometimes, scholars offer the opinion that giving a maid to one’s husband must have been a regular custom back then, and therefore, it was neither a big deal nor a very traumatic experience for Sarah. The truth is that we won’t understand this story at all if we ignore the fact that it indeed was an extremely traumatic experience for her. It began as a very painful decision, and later, it became a much more painful and traumatic experience than she ever could have imagined. Sarah’s pain is a big part of our story–along with Hagar’s pain, Abraham’s pain, Ishmael’s pain, and Isaac’s pain; this story seems woven of pain! Some chapters later, in Genesis 30, we read about Leah: Leah said, “God has given me my wages, because I have given my maid to my husband.” So she called his name Issachar. From this short verse, we can conclude that giving one’s maid to one’s husband was such a trauma that a reward could be expected from the Lord. And Sarah decided to go through this very pain and trauma.
What a horrible disappointment! What a terrible moment to arrive at! All these years, from the moment they left Haran, Sarah had lived by the evidence of the things not seen; the echo of His magnificent promises kept her through the hunger, the endless wandering, the Egyptian humiliation, and those sharp pangs of loneliness that would seize her whole being whenever she thought of what she had left behind to follow her husband. Sarah was able to go through all of that because she firmly believed that one day she would give birth to a son, and then finally, everything that God promised would start to be fulfilled. After all, God promised her husband: “I will make you a great nation, I will bless you, and make your name great, and you shall be a blessing.” He promised: “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.” Didn’t that mean that she, Sarah, would give birth to a son who would become a father of this multitude of descendants?
However, the years went by, and nothing happened. It wasn’t after two or three or even five years that she gave up. After Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan–after ten years of agonizing waiting and fading hopes–Sarai… took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
Why did she do it? Why would anyone do it? She believed, with all her being, that their family was chosen to fulfill God’s plan, that God’s promises to the seed of Abraham should come to pass. Not only was her disappointment bitter, but her feeling of guilt that after ten years, there was still no such thing as the “seed of Abraham,” was almost unbearable. The guilt overwhelmed her; she felt she was drowning in it, and in the end, it was out of this guilt that she gave Hagar to Abraham. She was certain that it was her fault (the enemy, the one who accuses us day and night, always makes us believe that it is our fault); she was certain she had proved unable (and was therefore unworthy) to fulfill God’s plan. Still, she knew that her husband was chosen by God for this plan, and in her feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, and guilt, she actually started to believe that it was her task to fix the situation and to make things work. In her despair, she developed a plan, and she sincerely hoped that now that she had found a solution (and at the moment it indeed seemed like a brilliant solution). It would end her suffering; it would bring her out of that horrible pit of guilt that threatened to close in around her and swallow her completely.
Oh, how many times I have seen this (and experienced it myself): The most unbelievable, the most foolish mistakes are committed out of the guilt that the enemy keeps tormenting us with. Guilt is an extremely explosive fuel, and if we don’t give it to the Lord, in time, an emotional fire is almost inevitable. Theoretically, we all know that there is really only one effective way to get out of that bottomless pit: to cry out to the Lord, to confess our weakness, and to ask Him to help us out. Unfortunately, I know only too well–doesn’t everyone?–how often we try to fix things by ourselves, hoping that it will end the guilt that is overwhelming us. It’s like a child who tries to quietly sneak cookies from the cookie jar: The cookies fall with a big noise and are left crumbled all over the kitchen floor, and the child becomes terrified of somebody coming in and catching him, so he decides to sweep up the mess, but then breaks mom’s favorite dish while trying to get a broom… On and on it goes, and for somebody watching this scene from the outside, it’s perfectly obvious that he should just call to his parents, confess everything, and ask to be forgiven–and the sooner he does it, the less damage is done. Unfortunately, it’s not quite so obvious for you and I when we are inside this vicious cycle, trying to fix things, then causing even more damage by doing things ourselves–instead of calling upon the only One who can really fix everything and bring us out of this horrible pit:
And He inclined to me,
And heard my cry.
He also brought me up out of a horrible pit,
Out of the miry clay,
And set my feet upon a rock,
And established my steps.
So it was with Sarah: Instead of calling upon Him, Sarah developed a plan–and for a moment, she sincerely believed that her plan would fix everything.
Why did she do it at that specific time, after ten years of living in the Land? What happened that triggered this scheme? Sarah turned 75; probably, she had reached menopause at this point. That is why she finally gave in to the thought that had been haunting her for some time already: While she was still capable of childbearing, she still had hope; but once it ceased, naturally, her hope died too.
I believe that Sarah had had a wonderful relationship with her maid before all of this happened. I don’t think she would have offered her husband “to go into Hagar,” if she had any bitterness, jealousy, or anger toward her, to begin with, or if they had had any kind of unresolved issues or any tensions between them. I think that their relationship had been great, to that point, but still, as I said, it was a very painful decision. Sarah thought it was a right decision, though, and the terrible pain that was attached to it was additional and obvious proof (or so she thought!) that it was right thing to do. Oh, how often we fall into this trap: We really think that if it hurts, it is the right thing to do for God. Somehow, most of the time we think that what God wants from us is something we would definitely never do to ourselves. Thankfully, this isn’t true. Although God does indeed expect challenging things from us often enough, thinking that the fact that we’re going against our emotions is proof that something is from God is as wrong as the prosperity Gospel. When God says that His ways are not our ways, it doesn’t mean that what He wants is the opposite of what we want: His ways neither go the same direction nor the opposite to ours. They are simply high above ours, in a completely different dimension. In His time, God gave a son to Sarah, but when and how it happened, she could never have imagined.
“Perhaps I shall obtain children by her,” says Sarah in the English Bible. It sounds different in Hebrew: “Perhaps I will be built up from her.” After ten years of fruitless waiting, Sarah felt wasted; she did not want God’s promises to her family to be wasted, as well. She wanted the family to be built up, so she herself tried to build the family. In Hebrew, she uses the same word “to build” that we find, for instance, in the story of Babel: And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Everybody knows the end of this story: It is a sad lesson and a stern warning to everyone who wants to build himself up by his own means. The Scripture is very clear on this: When we try to build something by ourselves, without God or outside of God, the result is always devastating. As we all know, the result that happened for Sarah and her descendants–and is still happening today–was very far from them being built up: Only destruction has come from her “brilliant” idea about Hagar. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.
And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes, the Scripture says about Hagar. We are going to talk about Hagar in the next chapter; for now, let us try to understand what was going on in Sarah’s heart during those nine months.
Again, I find it difficult to understand how Jewish sources can claim that Sarah was “completely free from sin,” when chapter 16 so clearly describes Sarah’s misdeeds toward Hagar. I’m not saying that Hagar’s behavior was easy to begin with, but in a sense, it doesn’t matter: Hagar didn’t deceive Abraham into unfaithfulness. The whole scenario was Sarah’s doing, and being a very wise woman, she should have been ready for the consequences. She wasn’t ready, however. The truth is that none of us are ever fully ready to face the consequences of our own plans or scenarios.
There are three people involved in this story, and definitely, of the three, Sarah is the one who felt “left behind” almost from the very first moment. Despite the fact that the whole plan was her own doing in the first place, she feels deeply hurt and consequently, misbehaves towards both of them. First, she goes to her husband with this completely unjustified accusation: “My wrong be upon you!” I almost hear Abraham asking in disbelief: “What?!!! How is it my fault? You were the one who suggested the whole thing! I was just following your advice!” I imagine, though, that Abraham knew better than to say so. Instead of arguing and fighting, he just said (with great wisdom): “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.” We know already that at this point, Abraham strongly believed that the whole plan was from God; this is why he felt safe to say this. We don’t know whether he had any feelings for Hagar; it’s possible that he did, but that wasn’t the point. He trusted the Lord completely to keep and protect Hagar, since he believed that the child she carried was the son he had been waiting for: the son that the Lord had promised him–the son of the covenant–The son.
The Scripture then says about Hagar: And when Sarah dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence. When our deepest pain and insecurities are triggered, this can bring forth our worst behavior. At this point, Sarah clearly feels that the whole scheme was a mistake, but instead of taking the responsibility, instead of going to the Lord and repenting for what she did, she goes first to her husband, accusing him of something that she in fact told him to do, and then she deals harshly with Hagar (who, as a slave, was just fulfilling her orders), out of hatred for her and her unborn baby. Like the child from our story, she causes new damage in a desperate attempt to fix what was damaged already. The Bible doesn’t provide us any details as to what specifically Sarah did to Hagar, but there is no doubt that what she did was bad enough, if fleeing into the wilderness seemed like a better option to Hagar.
It’s interesting that the only one who realized, almost from the very beginning, that the whole scenario was a mistake was the person who planned the whole thing out. It took Abraham 13 years–and God’s next revelation–to understand that he had been wrong the whole time and that Ishmael was not the son of the covenant. But Sarah knew it right away, right after the pregnancy that she had planned had come to pass. Or did she? Perhaps she was so overwhelmed with her pain that she couldn’t recognize clearly whether the wrong had been done only against her, or whether it had also been done against God’s will.
Perhaps she could not decide whether her terrible hurt was the result of something that had been done outside of God’s will and therefore against God, or whether she was just being selfish–so extremely selfish that she could not accept a scenario that she was not a part of, even if this scenario came from the Lord Himself. Oh, how confused we can become as we try to peer through the smokescreen of our own pain, try to meet others’ expectations, and try to please God, all at the same time! All she knew was that she was hurting terribly, that the pain was tearing at her heart; and worse than anything else, that she was completely alone in this suffering–for the first time in all her long years of marriage. Though he tried to be sensitive and compassionate, her husband was nevertheless absolutely happy because he was expecting a baby and believed with all his heart that all the promises of God would rest on this child!
Ishmael – Son of Promise?
Then, the long-dreaded day came when the baby was born. As we wrote already, Abraham’s joy knew no bounds. Of course, Hagar was extremely happy, as well. Clearly, only Sarah did not share in this joy. At that point, she must have felt “left behind” completely, excluded from everything. Somehow, none of the plan–that she would be built up, that the baby would be formally hers, that she would “obtain children” by Hagar–had worked out.
We don’t know much about the 13 years that passed between the last verse of chapter 16 and the first verse of chapter 17. All we know is that for all those years, Abraham passionately believed that Ishmael was the son of promise. He believed it until that very moment when the Lord announced to him that he would have another son–from Sarah. All those years, he was absolutely confident that Ishmael was the son of the covenant and that all the promises and plans of God would rest on him.
I can’t begin to think about all the consequences of this situation. If Abraham believed that the covenant and the promises of God would be based on Ishmael, Sarah would have felt excluded not only from motherhood, not only from the joy of parenting–the joy that her husband was experiencing every single moment now! –but from the everlasting covenant as well, from everything that God had promised to Abraham, his family, and his descendants. This feeling must have been absolutely devastating. And if in the beginning she had kept hoping that the Lord Himself would intercede for her somehow, the way He did in Egypt, her hopes faded as Ishmael grew. The Scripture doesn’t tell us exactly what went on in Sarah’s heart during those years; we don’t know anything about her relationship with Ishmael when he was Abraham’s only son. Yet based on the facts that she had started trying to get rid of him when he was still in his mother’s womb and that she eventually succeeded in kicking him out of the family when he was a teenager (quite ruthlessly, I would say), we can guess that she never had particularly tender feelings for him.
As Ishmael grew, Sarah saw how strong the bond was that connected him to his father, how great the love was that Abraham held for his only son. She saw how happy and proud the father was while listening to the boy retell one of those stories about God and creation and how they had left Haran–stories that she used to love and listen to endlessly, but now almost hated, seeing how Ishmael’s telling made Abraham shine with fatherly pride. Remember, we the readers know that Sarah is going to have a son of her own, but she didn’t know it then; she wasn’t even hoping anymore. She felt betrayed by everybody: by her maid, by her husband, and most painfully, by her God. I believe that those first years after Ishmael’s birth were the most difficult years of Sarah’s life.
And yet, at the beginning of this chapter, I wrote that this story had to be a story of healing: Sarai would not be able to become Sarah, would not be able to become a mother and the Matriach if her heart wasn’t healed, if she did not eventually reach peace, if she didn’t become reconciled to her circumstances and her life. Yes, those thirteen years were years of continuous humbling and pain for Sarah; but obviously, through this pain, God had been dealing with her. And healing her. His healing. H Once again, we know almost nothing about those years: They are like a tunnel, and we can’t see what is going on inside. A sad, bitter, and tired woman entered this 13-year-long tunnel, and we don’t see her there inside it. We don’t know how many tears she shed or how many hours she spent crying desperately before the Lord, asking Him to cleanse her heart from envy and jealousy, to strengthen her, and to give her peace. However, the old woman who emerged from that tunnel after all those years, after all those tears and prayers, was not only completely healed, but for the first time ever, she was actually becoming the Matriarch Sarah, so full of peace and dignity, who would be honored and revered for millennia. I almost can see the Lord looking at her with the Father’s loving and approving smile: She’s ready!
Isaac – Son of Promise!
And only then, I believe–when Sarah had been completely changed inwardly–does chapter 18 come, bringing into her life an amazing, incredible, inconceivable outward change! We remember that in chapter 17, along with Abram’s name changing to Abraham and Sarai’s to Sarah, God told Abraham that he was going to have a son from Sarah. But it doesn’t seem as if Abraham ran to his wife to share this breaking news with her about her future child. This means that in Genesis 18, when Sarah heard the Lord promising Abraham: “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son,”  it was the very first time she heard it. Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him, and when she heard it, she laughed with that famous laughter “within herself.” Naturally, it was a laughter of disbelief: “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” However, there was much more to that laughter than just disbelief and doubt. Once again, God didn’t fail her; once again, He didn’t let her down; once again, He Himself saved and protected her from her shame and pain; once again, He completely justified and restored her. After long years of feeling humiliated, ashamed, and excluded from God’s covenant and God’s plan altogether–and after long years of learning to be reconciled to this feeling–now, Sarah was celebrating her vindication! She was not excluded anymore; she belonged! He grants the barren woman a home, like a joyful mother of children. It was a laughter of victorious faith!
In Hebrew, we often say “Elohey Avraham,” God of Abraham. We never say “Elohey Sarah,” God of Sarah. However, if you read these chapters attentively, you will be amazed to discover, how many occasions there are in the Scriptures–really crucial occasions, too–where God actually acts as the God of Sarah much more than the God of Abraham. He Himself intercedes for Sarah in both sister-wife stories, in Gensis 12 and 20. He backs her up in the story of expelling Ishmael in Genesis 21. But the greatest help and the greatest miracle of all, of course, is the fact that she did become a joyful mother, after all, against all odds! I would say that Sarah experienced God’s mercy much more than Abraham did: We read much about Abraham’s deeds, which means that the Lord asked much of him and expected much from him. On the other hand, we know almost nothing of Sarah’s deeds. In fact, God did not ask anything of her; instead, again and again we read that the Lord Himself helped her, protected her, saved her! I imagine that her love for God was so great that He didn’t even need proof of this love. Take a close look at this woman, so full of joy and gratitude, with her shining eyes turned to the Heavens and her lips moving in a silent prayer of gratitude! For thirteen long years, she had been felt as if tossed into the dust–and learned to be at peace even there!–but now she could say, indeed, that He raised her out of the dust!
The Scriptures say nothing about Sarah’s pregnancy. Was the situation completely opposite now? Did her maid become despised in her eyes? Was Sarah happy and triumphant? Was she shining with the joy of victory, and only darkening during those brief moments when the son of Hagar caught her eye?
This would be a very natural way to behave. Nobody would be surprised if Sarah had indeed acted like this. However, I don’t think she actually acted that way. She loved God and was a woman of God; she had learned so much during those 13 years; she had experienced His love and mercy so many times. I believe that especially during those nine months, as she was carrying the greatest testimony of His love and mercy in her womb, she wanted to be a testimony of His love and mercy as well. She was willing to be generous and merciful even to those who had not been generous and merciful to her. That is why I don’t think there were any hassles between Sarah and Hagar or between Sarah and Ishmael during Sarah’s pregnancy.
Then, the baby was born. And Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him—whom Sarah bore to him—Isaac. While Isaac was a tiny baby in his cradle, everything still seemed relatively quiet in the family. But then, he became a toddler–a cute toddler, full of energy and extremely curious and impressionable, as most toddlers are–and the family storms began.
What Did Sarah See?
As Isaac grew older and smarter, the complicated structure of his family started to become a reality in his world: He realized that his old parents, as kind and loving as they were, could not play with him at all, and it was at this point that he turned his attention to that really cool brother of his (he didn’t know and didn’t care about the difference between a brother and a half-brother) who was the only youth in the family. Ishmael was always ready to play with him, seemed to know everything about everything, was an amazing archer and, best of all, promised to teach him to shoot a bow as soon as he was tall enough to hold one.
In my opinion, not only did Isaac love Ishmael, he absolutely admired his big brother (as most younger brothers do). He adored him and was ready to follow him everywhere and in everything. I think that it was precisely Isaac’s great love for his brother and Ishmael’s huge influence on Isaac that became the main reason for Sarah’s worry. Think of it: If the reason for Sarah’s reaction in our famous scene had been Ishmael’s bad attitude toward his younger brother, this clash would have happened much earlier, when Isaac was still a baby. Ishmael could have expressed his bad attitude on many occasions before that one. However, the story happened only after Isaac became a toddler, after his relationship with Ishmael became mutual and Sarah could see with her own eyes what a huge love for Ishmael her son held and what a huge problem Ishmael’s influence presented.
And here we come to that dramatic scene, to the “family dynamics” of Genesis 21. Five people are involved here: two mothers, two sons, and one father. We just watched this whole scene through the father’s eyes; let’s now try to see it through Sarah’s eyes. What is going on here?
So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing.
Isaac is about two or three years old at this time and he’s just been weaned. A big party is thrown on this occasion. Probably, during the party, or around this time, Sarah sees Ishmael, now a teenager 16 or 17 years old, metzahek–“laughing” or “playing” or “scoffing”:
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham: Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely Isaac.
In order to understand verse 10, when Sarah asks Abraham to cast out Ishmael and his mother, we have to understand what happened in verse 9. What did Sarah see?
The Hebrew word metzahek has different meanings, and nobody actually knows for sure what it means here. Moreover, based on the text itself, it isn’t obvious that Ishmael was doing this laughing, playing, or scoffing with Isaac or even about him. From the text itself, it isn’t clear that Ishmael was interacting with Isaac at the moment Sarah saw him. So what did Sarah see and why was her reaction so turbulent?
It’s almost frightening to see how quickly one can lose one’s inner peace when children are involved. This woman who had just recently been full of peace, joy, and dignity–how can she be so emotional now? What happened? Was it, indeed, because Ishmael was laughing and scoffing at Isaac? However, as we mentioned before, if the problem was Ishmael’s bad attitude toward his little half-brother, it would have become obvious much earlier. Personally, I don’t think Ishmael was scoffing. Moreover, I don’t think God would back Sarah up if the issue was just Ishmael’s mockery. Evidently, for God to support Sarah in her reaction, the problem had to be much deeper than that.
Then, if it is “playing” that the word metzahek signifies here, we have to understand what sort of playing it was. Some commentaries even consider the possibility of a sexual context. After all, this is the same word that we find in Genesis 26, where it refers to Isaac and Rebecca, undoubtedly with a sexual meaning: Abimelech king of the Philistines looked through a window, and saw, and there was Isaac showing endearment to Rebekah his wife. Does it have the same meaning here? Was Ishmael sexually molesting Isaac? And was it because of this sexual abuse that Sarah was so infuriated?
From the Scripture, we know that later, Ishmael got married and had children, so it was unlikely that he was engaged in homosexual play with Isaac. Here is one possible explanation: Ishmael is a teenager, and it is almost normal for teenage boys to be engaged in some kind of sexual behavior. Sarah had never had children before and had no idea how boys of this age behave. She might have been totally unaware that “this kind of behavior is well within the norms of adolescent growth and development.” And yet, even if Sarah misunderstood Ishmael’s behavior, God certainly would not have. He definitely would not have supported a reaction born out of misunderstanding. The main question in this story is not why Sarah’s reaction was so strong. The main question, the question that haunts me the most, is about God: Why did God support Sarah?
Why Did God Support Sarah?
Why did God support Sarah? Why did God completely back up what seemed to be a very exaggerated reaction of an infuriated and jealous mother? Sarah could have made a mistake; we have seen her make huge mistakes before. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole situation could be explained away solely as an exaggerated reaction of Sarah’s. As I already wrote, it’s almost scary to discover how easily and quickly we lose our inner peace when our children are involved. I imagine that if Abraham had thought this terrible request was only an overreaction of Sarah’s, he wouldn’t have been quite as disturbed. However, to Abraham’s great surprise and displeasure, God completely supported Sarah in this request:
But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called.”
So Abraham had to fulfill his wife’s request, after all, and consequently, Ishmael and Hagar were expelled from the family. Once again, I don’t think any psychologist or family therapist would approve of it. Humanly speaking, no amount of scoffing or laughing on Ishmael’s part would justify kicking a teenage boy and his mother out of the family. So, how can we explain God’s command to Abraham?
In search of an explanation, let us turn to some other Scriptures, for there is no better commentary on Scripture than Scripture itself. Seldom in the Bible do we find occasions where God fully supports fiery reactions. The first one that springs to mind involves Moses: When Moses saw the people sinning with the golden calf, his anger became hot, and he cast the tablets out of his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. We know that God never rebuked him for doing so. Another one is Yeshua (Jesus) cleansing the Temple: So they came to Jerusalem. And Yeshua went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who sold doves. Is there anything in common between these two seemingly different occasions? Is there anything that might give us a better, deeper understanding as to why God supported Sarah in Genesis 21?
Though at first glance the two situations seem very different, in both cases, we in fact see that God is angry because something that was supposed to be His and belong to Him had been completely replaced with something that people had made themselves: the golden calf in the first instance, and the business in the temple in the second. The obvious conclusion is: God gets really angry when God-made reality is replaced with a man-made one; hand-made and God-made are not to be confused or mixed. God always separates things, dividing what belongs to Him from what belongs to the world. In the very first verses of the Book of Genesis, in the story of Creation, the verb lehavdil–to separate, to divide–occurs more than any other verb and seems to be one of the Creator’s main actions. The Hebrew word kadosh–holy–originally meant to be set apart, separated. For example, the holiness that the Lord expects from His people, from those belonging to Him, first and foremost means being set apart; separated from the world.
Now, back to our “family dynamics” – Regardless of what Sarah saw, Ishmael was a natural, man-made son. He had been conceived and born naturally, unlike Isaac, who was the child of a miracle, conceived and born in a totally supernatural way. There is only one thing that can make me understand God supporting the banishment of a teenage boy from his family: the thought of Ishmael’s huge influence on Isaac and Sarah’s hatred of–and God’s concern about–this influence. In that case, the separation is not only completely understandable, but also inevitable. Had the boys continued to live together, nothing would have come of God’s plan to make His own peculiar people from Abraham’s family. God wanted to separate the son who was born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God, from the son who was born in a natural way and was destined to be part of the natural world. Isaac was supposed to belong to Him completely. The first commandment says: I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD… you shall have no other gods before Me. In Abraham’s case, the Lord personally sees to it that his family and his son will keep this commandment.
Thus, we are beginning to understand that for Isaac to grow up in God’s covenant and as a testimony to God, he had to be taken away from Ishmael’s influence, and that is why the boys had to be separated. This is why Ishmael had to be sent away. It always amazes me to see that God still carries out His will and His plan through absolutely ungodly thoughts and reactions. I suppose most of my readers know the story of Joseph and his brothers at the end of the book of Genesis. In that story, through all the bad things that the brothers did to Joseph, God still implemented His plan–for Joseph and for Israel. The same is true here: Although Sarah’s reaction was very emotional and evidently exaggerated, separating Isaac from Ishmael and leading them both to completely different destinies was God’s plan in the first place. And Sarah, with her love for God, understood this.
-  Genesis 11:30
-  Genesis 16:2
-  Genesis 11:31
-  Genesis 12:5
-  Genesis 12:6-9
-  Genesis 12:10
-  Genesis 12:2-3
-  Genesis 12:11-13
-  Genesis 12:14-16
-  Genesis 12:17
-  Genesis 12:18,19
-  Psalms 103:6
-  Genesis 16:5
-  Genesis 16:2
-  Genesis 22:3
-  Hebrews 11:1
-  Genesis 12:2
-  Genesis 13:16
-  Genesis 16:3
-  Revelation 12:10
-  Psalms 40:2
-  Genesis 11:4
-  Psalms 127:1
-  Genesis 16:4
-  Genesis 16:5
-  Genesis 16:6
-  Genesis 16:6
-  Genesis 18:10
-  Genesis 18:12
-  Psalms 113:9
-  Psalms 113:9
-  Psalms 113:7
-  Genesis 21:2,3
-  Genesis 21:8,9
-  Genesis 21:9,10
-  Genesis 26:8
-  Genesis 21:21
-  David Zucker, What did Sarah see? , jbq.jewishbible.org
-  Ibid.
-  Genesis 21:12
-  Exodus 32:19
-  Mark11:15
-  John 1:13
-  Exodus 20:2-3