Sisterhood of Faith
In the typical Western Christian church we hear a lot about the “patriarchs” – Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph- of the faith. We don’t really get a chance to hear the stories of women leaders of our faith, the Matriarchs of the Jewish and Christian tradition. This isn’t really that surprising as we seldom hear much about women in the Bible in general, unless of course they are pure and virginal or considered to be a prostitute.
But there are so many powerful stories of women in religious texts! There are stories about women like Judith, known and depicted for cutting the head of an Assyrian general . Or Lydia, a business woman responsible for funding Paul’s missions and bringing the gospel into Europe. Or even the ‘woman at the well’- Christianity’s first evangelist. And that’s just in the Christian faith.
In chronicling my own struggle with faith, I’ve found it comforting to learn about the women that came before me. As I’ve mentioned before, women need to know these stories. We need to see ourselves represented in the historical and mythological accounts of our faiths. How will we ever see ourselves as rightful members of this family if we only ever hear about the male characters of our religious texts?
So I bring you the first of what I hope will be many posts about women in faith. Though my knowledge comes mostly from Christianity, I would like to highlight woman for other traditions as well. So if you have a woman in mind, contact me and we’ll connect about how to best highlight her story!
Sarah with an ‘h’
“I will bless her, and she will be the mother of nations” – Gen. 17:6
Studying Genesis, beyond Adam and Eve, is really a study of the history and beginning of the Jewish people according to the Jewish people. In the first chapters we see how the Ultimate Power interacts with humans for the first time (according of course to Jewish and Christian belief). When approached in this manner, remaining conscious of cultural and historical context, the beginning of the Jewish identity and relationship with the Creator is truly fascinating.
I came across this story years ago with my #Suzoforever bible study. Affectionately named Suzugosaurus (Pronounced: Suzo-ga-saurus) for reasons you probably wouldn’t believe anyway, we started at the beginning of the bible and discussed a chapter a week. We moved right along until the incest chapter, took a break, and started again in the New Testament. But this story always stuck with me.
When re-reading the passage for this post I was once again excited to share this interpretation of Biblical text that characterizes the first Jewish Matriarch, Sarai/Sarah as an active force in the development of “a great nation” (Gen. 12:2)
We are first introduced to Sarai at the end of Chapter 11 in Genesis. We get some basic genealogy of the tribe and some information. Sarai had no children (Gen. 11:30), and she was Abram’s half sister (Gen. 20:12)
Other than that we may know:
- Sarai becomes Sarah (Gen. 17)
- Sarah laughs in disbelief at the prophecy of her barring a child (Gen. 18)
- Sarah gave birth to Isaac. (Gen. 21)
And this is pretty much where our thoughts on Sarai/Sarah end. At least that could have summed up all I knew about Sarai/Sarah before beginning the study of Genesis with my bible study.
Now, Genesis Chapter 12 holds a special place in many Jewish and Christian hearts as the chapter of The Call of Abram. But it is also in this chapter that paints “father Abraham” is a fairly disparaging light:
“10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (Gen. 12:10-13)
I’m sorry. But seriously? Isn’t this guy supposed to be the chosen father of a great nation? Isn’t he our patriarch? And he just gives his wife over to the Pharaoh, like cattle, like property. Oh sure it, we should read this in light of the culture (as we should read everything in the bible in light of the culture…), but the fact remains that our great patriarch knew what would happen to his wife if they went into Egypt, he knew the risks associated with the journey. As I spent time studying this and thinking about it more, it occurred to me that it may not be a stretch to think that this has happened before to other tribes. How else would Abram be familiar with the practice of a Pharaoh taking other men’s wives? It very well may have been a common exercise for the king of a large nation to take the wife/wives of the men of a smaller tribe, as a payment of sorts. Sarai’s tribe was after all in Pharaoh’s land looking for food.
However, instead of allowing Abram to have the only active role here, let’s just think about this from Sarai’s point of view.
There is a famine. They are traveling with all of their possessions, their family, all that they had acquired. Sarai must have known the risks associated with going to Egypt. But they needed food to survive.
Even her husband tells her “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me…”
The only way to ensure his safety, and the safety of their entire caravan, is for Sarai to risk her own life, by saying that she is Abrams sister.
“ 14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.” (Gen. 12:14-16)
Take a moment to think about this:
“….and she was taken into his palace.”
You are in a foreign land. You are hungry. Scared. The weight of the entire tribe is on your shoulders. And you are taken.
You are taken from your entire family, your husband, your nephew. You are taken from everything you own, your memories, and comforts of home.
You are thrown into a strange place, one member of a king’s harem, with no identity.
Everything you know, everything you are, is now gone. This is your life now. There is no end-date to this.
Your body is being used by the highest authority in the land, and you are doing this to save your people. It is because you have sacrificed yourself, allowed yourself to be used, to be broken, that your people will survive. Sound like anyone else?
Now, I don’t know about you – but I never heard this preached. Sarai’s bravery, her courage and strength for her people is astounding.
Because she was taken, because she lied to the Pharaoh, because she allowed herself to be taken into his palace – her people survived.
Of course, that’s not it for Sarai. God doesn’t just leave her there.
“17 But the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.” (Gen 12:17-20)
God wasn’t finished with Sarai. There was more in store for her. Abram could have gotten another wife. It is possible he already had other wives. But perhaps Sarai was just as important to this story as Abram was. She was irreplaceable, though she was taken from her home in order to protect and save her family, she was sent back. She was needed for more.
Sarai offers Jewish and Christian women a model for fearlessness. She put her life in danger for her family. Her selflessness and courage saved her people.
Through her womb a great nation began, but through her courage a great nation was possible.
God our Mother,
May we all learn from the character of the woman and matriarch
whom God so abundantly blessed;
what through her strength she became the mother of nations,
brought forth of her aged womb
kings and patriarchs;
and whose namesake
is still carried by so many saints
in all generations.