Sarah, like all humanity, is complicated. Much of her story is resonant with the sex-trafficking underworld we’ve learned so much about in past decades. Sarah was both Abraham’s wife and his half-sister, something the Mosaic law later condemns (Lev. 18:9). Twice, Abraham objectified Sarah’s beauty to save his own life. He offered her to the leaders of the lands to take and “know” as their wife. Like prostitutes controlled by their pimps, she supported Abraham’s misleading story that she was his sister rather than his wife (Gen.12:11-20; Gen. 20:1-7). In Egypt, sold for Abraham’s life and welfare, she acquired her own slave, Hagar (Gen. 16:1). Though Sarah was beautiful, she was barren, unable to bear children. She aged without the comfort of knowing she would have a child to carry on her legacy, to care for her in her old age, and to be her glory. But she was resourceful. Having been traded for sex, Sarah also gave her slave to her husband to bear a child. According to Ancient Near East law, the child born to the slave would be considered Sarah’s own child.1 Though a survivor of abuse, she was also an abuser, so much so that her slave Hagar fled from her into the desert (Gen. 16:1-9). Later, Sarah required Abraham to expel Hagar and her child from the family, and he complied. Intertwined in this story is an amazing degree of freedom and equality between Sarah and Abraham. Though Abraham victimized Sarah, by the time they were old, she had earned his ear and his respect. In fact, Jewish tradition celebrates their oneness and equality.2
Amid the abuse Sarah endured in a patriarchal society, and the abuse she perpetuated— God entered her story and showed himself as a God of redemption. God noticed her laughter as God promised she would bear a son in her old age, and God instructed Abraham to listen to and follow her (Gen. 16:2, 21:12). God ensured the covenant promise came through her rather than any of Abraham’s other wives, “I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen. 17:16). At this moment, God changed her name to Sarah, which is the feminine form of chief or prince (Gen. 17:15-19, 21). “A change of name in the Bible indicates a new phase in that person’s cooperation with the divine purpose.”3 She became a chieftess, or princess, as the leader of the tribe of Israel.
To learn more about Sarah’s change of name, see “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38,” by Anna Beresford in Priscilla Papers, Vol 35 no 4 (Autumn 2021), page 11.
To learn about the Jewish perspective on Abraham and Sarah see: “The Oneness of Abraham and Sarah,” by Aliyah Jacobs in Mutuality, December 24, 2014.
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), 226-227.
- Aliyah Jacobs, “The Oneness of Abraham and Sarah,” Mutuality (December 24, 2014).
- Terrence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis,” NIB 1:459, quoted in Anna Beresford, “Whose Wife Shall She Be,” Priscilla Papers, 35 No. 4 (Autumn 2021): 11.