The name Sarah, or its previous iteration of Sarai, appears more frequently in the Bible than that of any other woman, 55 times in the Old Testament and 4 times in the New according to the womanist Hebrew Bible scholar Wil Gafney. Granted, the list of women with names in the Bible is a pretty short one, but this points to the significance of Sarah in the story of God’s people.
Despite her importance in the narrative and her role as the matriarch of the people of Israel, I know I tend to only think of her as a supporting player in the stories of others – in the wanderings of Abraham, in the abuse and exile of Hagar and Ishmael, in the birth of Isaac.
But in today’s reading from Genesis God points to Sarah by name as being blessed by God (twice in fact, God repeats the words “I will bless her” two times) and that “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”
Of course this proclamation is not spoken directly to Sarahm but to her husband Abraham, and I wonder how much he might have told her about his conversation with God. After all, Abraham does not have a good track record of treating her well or protecting her. Abraham is her husband, but also her brother, and he switches between those roles throughout the narrative depending on what best suits him and protects him. This happens most famously in the chapters before this one, as Abram and Sarai travel through Egypt and Abram travels as Sarai’s brother and gives her, traffics her in the word of one Biblical commentator, to Pharaoh in order to secure his own safety and wealth.
Interestingly, at the conclusion of that part of the story, when Pharoah realizes he has slept with Abram’s wife, it is God who is furious and punishes Pharoah (the text says that God afflicted him with ‘great plagues’) and not Abram himself. God seems to be more aware and present to Sarai’s trauma than her husband.
Another source of Sarah’s pain, I might suggest, comes from being unable to bear children. During this time and this culture, being childless would be one of the worst shames for a woman, who was (at least in the Bible) always considered the one to blame….the metaphor being a barren field rather than unfruitful seed. But in today’s reading God announces that Sarah and Abraham, despite their very advanced age and inability thus far to have children, will indeed bear a son and this son will be the sign of God’s covenant and promise and hope.
God has articulated this covenant three times before to Abraham, but this is the first time God names Sarah in God’s promise. Right after the passage we heard this morning, Abraham suggests that God might consider Ishmael – his child with Hagar – as heir instead. Abraham sees a child being born by Sarah as a ridiculous impossibility given their age and Abraham tries to point God toward a more realistic and achievable plan.
But God names Sarah. As in their journey through Egypt, God is there for Sarah even when Abraham is not. In Egypt God saw Sarah’s pain even when her husband did not, God stays in relationship with Sarah even when her husband offers God an easier alternative, God promises life to Sarah even after she has suffered so much pain even at the hands of her own husband.
This is not just a story of the way God stays in relationship with Sarah through pain and trauma, but the story of how God stayed in relationship with the people of Judah during a violent and traumatic time in their history. (and with all of us). One scholar suggests that we might read the Book of Genesis as ‘survival literature”, written by the people of Judah in the time of the violence and trauma of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BC. Many of the stories of the Book of Genesis, including the ones of Sarah and Abraham, were likely written during this period, known as the “Babylonian Captivity”, when the center of Jewish life and worship was destroyed by the Chaldeans led by Nebuchadnezzar, the monarchy was killed, and many were deported to live in exile in Babylon.
Through these stories, through characters like Sarah, the Jewish people tried to make sense of what was happening to them and where God was in the aftermath of the unimaginable. God meets Sarah in the midst of her trauma and abuse – of being childless and married to her brother and trafficked to Pharaoh – and renames her and reiterates God’s promise to HER – that life will be created in HER body, that she will be the mother of a new nation. God does not take away her pain or her past but meets her in it and creates the possibilities of new meaning and new life from that pain and loss.
I, for one, need to hear these stories right now, in this time and in this Lent. One year ago today, this very day, the first case of Covid was announced in Oregon and recently we have passed the unimaginable number of 500,000 deaths. There has been a renewed reckoning with the violence done to black and brown bodies through the systems of white supremacy and the state. And many of us, I know, have our own stories of particular grief and loss throughout this year.
Yet, just as God was with Sarah, God is with us, offering a horizon of hope. These stories were written millenia ago to help our ancestors of the faith make sense of a hard time. I think they invite us to similarly tell our stories, to share our pain, with each other and with God, so that we too might see how God is with us and is calling to us by name. Last Wednesday, I had the privilege to help lead the first in our Lenten series from grief to joy, 28 people came together to learn about lament and to name their own particular laments in this time. It was a holy time and a holy space
I think by telling our stories of pain and grief, by listening to the stories of others, we meet God in a powerful way. God met Sarah in the most painful part of her story, in her childness and in her marriage to Abraham, and offered a relationship and the possibility of new life. God did not take away the pain of her past but rather offered a new way to make sense of it through relationship with God.
The first hymn we heard this morning was “The God of Abraham Praise” and it is one of my favorite hymns, but I do think we have too long given short shrift to Sarah….a complicated and brave and really human character. God named Sarah, God was with Sarah in her pain and trauma, God made an impossible promise to her and God was with her when that promise was fulfilled. So yes, let us praise the God of Abraham, but let us also praise the God of Leah, the God of Rebekah, the God of, Hagar and the God of Sarah and the God of all those whose stories of survival and hope speak to us still. Let us praise the God who was there with them and is here with us now and will always be with us forever.