When we are first introduced to Abram (aka Abraham), we are told that he took a barren woman as his wife (Genesis 11:29-30). In his culture, that would not have been that big of a deal because he simply would have taken a second wife to bear him a son. But Abram didn’t. He only took Sarai (aka Sarah). In a patriarchal society, this would have been genealogical suicide. Yet Abram seems content to forego a descendant in order to remain with Sarai. Given what we know of the culture he came from – and was going to – this is our first clear sign of the character of Abram and of his love for Sarai.
However, in chapter 12, Abram receives his call from the Lord in which God states, “I will make of you a great nation…” (Genesis 12:1-3). No mention of how this will come about but simply that it will. We, unfortunately, already know the end of the story. Abram did not. All he knew in that moment was that he was suppose to have a child. When he arrives in Canaan, God repeats the promise to him again, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Genesis 12:7). Abram had seen the land; now he needed the kid. This explains the seemingly contradictory story immediately after this.
Abram and his clan kept moving west to Egypt. There, Abram told his wife to just say she was his sister because of how beautiful she is. Apparently Sarai was so beautiful that people had to tell Pharaoh of it. So, Pharaoh took her as his wife. And we read of no resistance from Abram. What?! Let us pause and imagine this interaction:
Pharaoh approaches Abram with his cohort and asks, “Um, hey. Who is that with you?”
Abram says, “Oh, she’s my sister.”
Pharaoh struts over to Sarai. “Is that so?”
Sarai mumbles, “Yeah…”
Pharaoh pivots to Abram and states, “So, Abram. I’m going to take this lovely woman as my wife if you don’t mind. May Ra bless you.”
This is absurd. The only way this makes sense is if Abram was intentionally attempting to set Sarai up in a new life. She was barren and in his mind this wasn’t going to change. Instead of simply taking another wife or a concubine to bear a child, Abram sought a comfortable and safe life for his wife. Abram’s blessing obviously was not going to come through her so Abram was trying to care for her before he found the woman who could fulfill God’s promise.
Regardless of his motivation, God wouldn’t have it. “The Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai” (Genesis 12:17, emphasis mine). Aside from the very obvious foreshadow to the plagues of Egypt1, what is clear is that God wanted Sarai and not just Abram. So, Pharaoh sent them away and they “exodused” Egypt. We have no record of what the conversation was like as Abram and Sarai marched ahead of their caravan but I can imagine it was a bit more than just awkward.
As we continue to read of Abram’s story, God constantly repeats His promise. It seems overly redundant. God repeats elements of His blessing twice in chapter 12, in chapter 13, from the lips of Melchizedek in chapter 14, and the entire chapter of 15. What we miss are the years that span between these chapters – years full of promises but absent of any child. My wife and I have been blessed with healthy children. I could not imagine what it would be like to have accepted never having children and then for some deity to constantly tease you with the promise of having one. This was Abram and Sarai’s story.
So when we come to chapter 16 and there is still no child, you can imagine the frustration of both Abram and Sarai. In Abram’s day, a common and acceptable way of “making” an heir if your wife was barren was to take a concubine if you didn’t want to take another wife (something Abram has already refused to do) but Abram hadn’t. It was only when Sarai came up with idea and told her husband to do it that Abram does. Sarai got a female servant from Egypt earlier named Hagar. Since Sarai thought that the Lord had prevented her from bearing children, this was the only course of action (Genesis 16:1-2). So Abram complies.
And it works. They have a child. But Sarai is jealous of Hagar and treats her “harshly” (Genesis 16:6). For decades Sarai had hoped for a child but never had one. Then her husband, at her suggestion, sleeps with this Egyptian once and she gets pregnant. The storm of emotions and confusions would have been overwhelming. Hagar ran away from Sarai but God came to her, tells her to return, and blesses her child with a blessing eerily similar to the one He gave to Abram (Genesis 16:9-12). Abram names his child, his only child, Ishmael, which means “God will hear.” And Abram’s family moves on. To Abram and Sarai, this will be child that the Lord uses to fulfill His promise. God never even hints that Ishmael is not the promised child…for thirteen years.
Thirteen years passes, Abram was ninety-nine years old and has spent every moment he could with Ishmael who is now thirteen. Then God shows up and tells Abram, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you” (Genesis 17:5-6). Then, after an extremely uncomfortable conversation about circumcision, God turns His attention to Sarai; “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Genesis 17:15-16, emphasis mine). It is no surprise that Abraham laughs and then yells, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:18). Abraham had assumed for the last thirteen years that his son, Ishmael, was the fulfillment of God’s promise and that Sarah was not a part of it. This was what Abram had gotten wrong.
He still wouldn’t fully believe it. In chapter 20 of Genesis, Abram will again attempt to set up Sarah with another king the same way he did with Pharaoh. Again, God will visit the king and scare the poop out of him. Again, the king will send Abraham and his wife away. God was just as highly invested into Sarah as He was Abraham. In fact, God never “saves” Abraham but every time Sarah is about to be removed from the story, God intercedes. He refused to let Sarah be removed from the center of His redemptive work in the world.
God’s promise was never just towards the man, Abram. It was also for the woman, Sarai. God refused to let the blessing for “all the families of the earth” to only come from a man. Sarah, the second Eve, would bear the blessing that would overcome the curse. From Sarah (which means Princess) would ultimately come a King who would right all wrongs. A childless woman would bring forth life into the world. Sarah was the second Eve and the first Mary. She was just as much called and blessed as the patriarch was.
1 It would seem that the Text is suggesting that God’s redemptive action in the book of Exodus was because of His promise to Sarah.