The Baptist men’s group in the little West Texas church had wanted me to speak on the traditional topic “The Woman Behind the Man.” (Priscilla Papers, Spring 2001, p. 22). But the more I studied the Scriptures in order to prepare my message, the more the assigned theme changed. As I made my partial survey of the Bible, I had to do it under the revised heading that I have given to these modest columns: The Woman Beside the Man.
In the story of Abraham we have God’s dealings with him and God’s promises to him. He is commonly known as the father of the faithful. In the vital story of God’s establishing his covenant with Abraham, we may think that Sarah played an almost passive role. She was the woman behind the man.
However, at times Scripture gives Sarah a much more prominent place than we usually realize. For example, her maid Hagar could not take Sarah’s place in God’s plan. Hagar could not become a substitute for Sarah in providing the child of promise.
You will remember that God changed Sarah’s name, too, at the same time that he changed Abram’s name (Gen. 17:15). Both forms of her name mean “princess.”1 And God said, “I will bless her . . . I will give you a son by her.” She shall be a mother of nations. “Kings of peoples shall come from her” (17:16, NRSV).
Sarah had a prominent place, didn’t she? God realized that she was as vital to the completion of his purpose as Abraham was. No wonder mention of her is made in Isaiah, Galatians, Hebrews, and First Peter. She is referred to 113 times in all.2
Genesis 18 records the visit of Abraham’s three mysterious visitors. I was then that the aged Sarah overheard the prediction that in a year she would have a son, and laughed in response.
Here is an interesting treatment I came across of the incident:
Sarah is the one who displays an agnostic faith, a faith that wrestles. Not content to bake a meal and stay in the background while the men had dinner and talked, as was the custom in oriental society, she eavesdropped at the door of the tent. Overhearing the promise made by one of the angelic visitors . . . ‘Sarah laughed to herself.’ . . . Contrary to some interpreters, this is not the laughter of ridicule or mockery. Sarah’s half-suppressed laughter arises from the comic disproportion between what is announced and what is possible, between the dream and the reality. Out of her own womanly longing through years of barrenness to find fulfillment in having a child, she knew, better than anyone else, the absurdity of the promise at her time of life.3
I see a great deal of significance in Sarah’s prominent place in God’s plan. The patriarchal period was a male-dominated society. Women often had a low place. Sometimes they were little more than property.
Against that background, God exalted Sarah in a major way.
She is one of the few women mentioned on the famous roll call of faith in Hebrews, chapter 11: “By faith Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive, even when she was too old, because she considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11, NRSV, note).
“She considered him faithful who had promised.” She was a woman of faith as her husband was a man of faith. She is a continuing inspiration and a challenge to those of us who want to be women and men of faith today.
She was the woman beside the man.
- 1. Clyde T. Francisco, Introducing the New Testament, rev. ed. (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977), 171.
- 2. Ethel Clark Lewis, Portraits of Bible Women (New York, Vantage Press, 1956), 22; quoted by Debbie Jo Smith, “Sarah,” P:DTS 992 paper, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX (Feb. 12, 1990): 1.
- 3. Bernhard W. Anderson, “Abraham, the Friend of God,” Interpretation 42:4 (Oct. 1988): 361.