Elizabeth Ostring, MB ChB, PhD, a physician and theologian, is an adjunct research officer for Avondale University, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

Abraham looms large in Judeo-Christian theology, but there is less reflection on the lessons to learn from his wife Sarah. Many stories in the Bible demonstrate that God chooses to show mercy to the apparently weak. The demonstration of God’s love and mercy is especially poignant in the plight of childless Sarah.

Isaiah mentions Sarah as he moves toward the epic poem of the Suffering Servant. He pleads,
“Look to Abraham your father
and to Sarah who bore you,
for when he was but one I called him,
and I blessed him and made him many”
(Isa. 51:2).1

The call of God came dramatically to Abraham with a sevenfold promised blessing. But why is Sarah mentioned by Isaiah in the context of a return to true worship, with promised deliverance and comfort? Her inclusion indicates that God’s people need exactly the same miracle that God performed in barren Sarah.2 This is a profound claim worthy of further study.

Denigrated

Sarah is burdened by seven denigratory situations, the typical experience of any weak person. Sarah’s experience forms a chiasm exquisitely centering on blessing from God (which Sarah struggled to accept).

  1. Barren (Gen. 11:30). In stark contrast to the blessing of fruitfulness promised to Abraham and demonstrated by the fruitful generations of Adam (Gen. 5), Noah (Gen. 10), Shem (Gen. 11:10–26), and Terah (vv. 27–30), Sarah is noted, twice, as barren, the first person designated as such in the Bible. She was unproductive, a useless nothing in the context of when she lived. Despite the joy of many promises to her husband, she had nothing.
  2. A liability (Gen. 12:11–20). Sarah was physically beautiful, but Abraham was concerned about the possible danger this posed to himself by Egyptian interest in her. This suggests Abraham believed the promised blessings applied primarily to himself, and Sarah’s barrenness meant she could be sacrificed to protect her valuable husband. But God thought otherwise.
  3. The weakness of human plans (Gen. 16:2–4). Sarah was resourceful. She desperately planned to utilize cultural norms to achieve a child for her husband. Abraham accepted her strategy and took her servant as a concubine. The plan worked, but the now-pregnant concubine understood the reason for her elevation in the family and looked on her childless mistress with “contempt.” Human efforts for the weak to become strong do not work. Sarah, upset by this turn of events, treated her slave harshly and banished her. Sarah’s bullying behavior is typical of people who see themselves as weak and powerless. Remarkably, God Himself spoke to the now weak and banished Hagar (vv. 7–14).
  4. Blessed by God (Gen. 17:15–19). When God inaugurated the rite of circumcision as the sign of the covenant with Abraham, he also remembered Sarah. “ ‘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 be a mother of nations; kings of people shall come from her’ ” (vv. 15, 16; emphasis added). Sarah was blessed twice by God Himself. But Abraham laughed! He was so used to Sarah’s affliction that he saw no remedy for her, not even when God promised! How often do we relegate people to the worthless basket, seeing them as weak and ineffectual, when God plans something very special for them?
  5. Nothing works—no self-esteem (Gen. 18:11–15). When Sarah finally heard God declare she would have a child (although she probably did not recognize the visitor as God), she, too, laughed. Her human plans had not worked, and she could not see beyond them. After years of achieving nothing, she had lost her sense of personal worth. Sarah had lost faith in her own efforts, in God, and in her mission.
  6. Expendable liability (Gen. 20:1–18). The situation in Gerar with King Abimelech chiastically matches the incident in Egypt. Despite the promises to Sarah, Abraham still saw himself as the grand recipient of the covenant promises. Did he not realize the covenant was with his wife as well? Once again confronted with undue interest in his wife’s beauty by what he, Abraham, considered to be men without fear of God (v. 11), he sacrificed her safety to provide a shield for his own protection—incredibly, the same mistake he had made in Egypt. In this sad situation, God spoke to the heathen king, not to Abraham. As Abraham prayed for the infertility curse on Abimelech’s people to be lifted, did he finally pray for his own wife?
  7. Pain in the midst of joy (Gen. 21:9–12). When weak, ineffectual Sarah, after 25 years of waiting (perhaps more like 75 years), achieved the unachievable through a miracle of God’s grace and had a son, Isaac (meaning “he laughs”) at the age of 90, she was derided. In the midst of her rejoicing, “ ‘Who would have said . . . that Sarah would suckle children? Yet I have born him a son in his old age’ ” (v. 7), others did not share her victory. How slow we are to see the power of God’s mercy working in the lives of others. At the moment of great joy, the weaning feast of Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael mocked Isaac, so Sarah demanded the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael. Paul, in Galatians, takes up Sarah’s reaction as an ap­propriate one from an allegorical perspective when grace takes precedence over law (Gal. 4:21–31).

A theology of grace and inclusion

As Paul’s use of the interaction of Sarah and Hagar demonstrates, Sarah’s story is an example of God’s grace to all people, especially those weak and denigrated. Although Sarah is known for her lack of faith and the instigator of the disastrous Hagar episode that sidetracked both Abraham and her from faith and trust in God, God insisted that she be the one he worked through to bring fulfillment of the promised blessings.

This lack of faith in both Abraham and Sarah can be compared with the disastrous molten calf episode at Sinai.3 Both the Sinai disaster and the Hagar episode occur between two covenant settings. For Abraham, Hagar comes between the covenants of Genesis 15 and 17, suggesting circumcision initiated in chapter 17 was actually a sign of grace. For the Israelites at Sinai, the golden calf incident occurs between the dramatic Sinai covenant and tabernacle declarations (Exod. 19–31) and the covenant of grace and mercy in Exodus chapter 34. Both situations display a tragic human lack of faith and understanding of God’s promises. Although never specifically stated, God clearly forgave Abraham and Sarah their mistake (although they suffered for it), just as God forgave the Israelites at Sinai (who also suffered) and inaugurated for them a new covenant based on grace.4

Sarah is notably the first person in the Bible to be healed from a specific, recognizable disease—infertility. The New Testament use of the Greek term sozo for both the healing of the body and the salvation of the soul thus makes Sarah’s physical healing a profound miracle of grace. Paul’s recognition that her healing should take precedence over the legal requirements of acknowledging Ishmael as the firstborn son is highly significant. Sarah was living proof that God saves, God heals.

Appreciation of Sarah

The Sarah story, however, does not end with the birth of Isaac. Notably, the Isaiah text focuses on Abraham when he was “one” (echad). Three usages help elucidate the meaning of echad in Isaiah 51:2. The first day of creation is echad (Gen 1:5). The generic human, ha-adam, became a male, ish, when he became one, echad, with the woman, ishah, whom God had specially created for him, and thus also “one” with God (Gen 2:24). God Himself is famously “one,” echad, both first and a unity (Deut. 6:4).

When did the “oneness” of Abraham occur? He consisted of a company of people from the moment of his call when he left Ur of the Chaldeans (see Gen. 11:31; 12:4, 5; 13:5–7; 14:14, etc.). His “oneness” could be regarded in the sense of “first,” considering his primary place in God’s plan to call out a people dedicated to God and blessing others. But God’s insistence on including Sarah in the plan to fulfill the promises for Abraham to be the father of a great nation strongly suggests his “oneness” was related to his marriage relationship.

Sarah’s weakness and barrenness meant Abraham struggled to see her as truly “one” with him—on more than one occasion, he mistakenly considered her life dispensable compared with his own. But, as the Genesis narrative portrays in different ways, God values the weak as much as the strong, and Abraham had to learn that lesson. Both Sarah and Abraham were part of God’s covenant.

As pastors, it is imperative to see that God can make all people strong through the power of His mercy and grace.

Men called to lead in some great work are honored as if its success were due to them alone; but that success required the faithful co-operation of humbler workers almost without number—workers of whom the world knows nothing. . . . The little rill that makes its noiseless way through grove and meadow, bearing health and fertility and beauty, is as useful in its way as the broad river. . . .

. . . Talent is too much idolized, and station too much coveted. . . . What we need to learn is faithfulness in making the utmost use of the powers and opportunities we have, and contentment in the lot to which Heaven assigns us.5

Funerals are times when the value of people is recognized. A whole chapter, Genesis 23, is devoted to the funeral arrangements Abraham made for Sarah, the longest description of a funeral in Genesis. The high price Abraham was willing to pay for the burial plot (Gen. 23:15, 16) and the ardor he expended in achieving this goal (the first piece of the promised land “owned” by God’s chosen people) demonstrate the value Sarah now finally had in his esteem. It is noteworthy that Abraham both “mourned” and “wept” for Sarah (v. 2), a typical Hebrew repetition to emphasize a point.

Recognize the “oneness”

When Sarah took the initiative and tried to work things out for herself and Abraham, to achieve her goals, suffering and tragedy resulted. Also, until Abraham could recognize the necessity of “oneness” with Sarah, the promises remained void.

As pastors, we need to recognize the “oneness” of all God’s people. It is not productivity that makes us valuable in God’s sight but the capacity to accept His mercy and grace, the willingness to be available for whatever task or in whatever capacity He chooses to use us. When we look to our father-leader Abraham, as well as to our barren mother Sarah, our “wilderness” will be “like Eden,” the “ ‘desert like the garden of the LORD; joy and gladness will be found,’ ” and the salvation of God “ ‘to all generations’ ” (paraphrase of Isa. 51:3, 8). “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing to Zion; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads, they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (v. 11).

  1. All biblical quotes in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.
  2. John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah Chapters 40–66. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 334.
  3. Benno Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible: Exodus, translated by Walter Jacob (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 1992), 984.
  4. Elizabeth Ostring, “The New Covenant in Exodus,” Ministry, March 2022, 10–13.
  5. Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press, 1952), 117.

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Elizabeth Ostring, MB ChB, PhD, a physician and theologian, is an adjunct research officer for Avondale University, Cooranbong, New South Wales, Australia.

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