Sarah in the Bible

How historical evidence shapes our understanding of this biblical matriarch

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Genesis contains the greatest concentration of female figures in the Bible (32 named and 46 unnamed women). The fact that Genesis consists of a series of family stories (including several genealogies) accounts for the remarkable concentration of female figures. These stories are generally understood by scholars as legends, but that does not sever their link with history.

The families depicted in Genesis may or may not represent actual people, but these literary portraits are valuable sources for understanding the general social and cultural world that produced them. And clues from the larger realm of ancient Near Eastern history can help us understand biblical characters.

Biblical Sarah

Biblical Sarah, Abraham’s wife and the matriarch of the Jewish people, is a strong and independent character.  When she cannot have children, Sarah takes the initiative and gives her maid-servant, Hagar, to Abraham so that he can have children through Hagar on Sarah’s behalf.

Hagar becomes pregnant, and Sarah sees that she “is diminished” in Hagar’s eyes (Genesis 16:4). Sarah brings this problem to Abraham, and Abraham, rather than deciding himself what to do, lets Sarah choose how to deal with Hagar, saying: “Here, your slave-woman is in your hands. Do to her what is good in your eyes” (Genesis 16:6). 

Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar flees.  Hagar comes across a spring, where an angel of God appears to her.  The angel promises her that her descendants will become a great nation, and he orders her to return to Abraham.  Hagar returns and gives birth to a son, Ishmael.

sarah and abrahamAt Isaac's weaning ceremony, Sarah sees Ishmael "playing" (it is unclear exactly what he was doing) and again, Sarah takes the initiative.  She asks Abraham to send Ishmael away. Abraham is reluctant to do so, but God tells him: “Whatever Sarah tells you to do, listen to her” (Genesis 21:12), and he agrees and sends Hagar and her son away.  

 

In this story, Sarah acts independently, taking the initiative to decide the future of her family, even against her husband’s wishes.  How can we account for Sarah’s independent behavior in the patriarchal biblical world in which she lived? Why does Sarah, the woman, act to determine her family’s future while her husband, Abraham, is passive?

Savina J. Teubal, in Sarah the Priestess, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in Reading the Women of the Bible, both draw on historical evidence from the ancient Near East in order to address this question, but come to different conclusions. 

Sarah the Priestess

Teubal argues that Sarah, in taking this active role in the Hagar story, is preserving the ancient Mesopotamian tradition of priestesses, a privileged class of women who play a greater role than their husbands in directing their families’ lives. Sarah, she explains, was a priestess in Mesopotamia, before she chose to leave her family and homeland behind and journey with Abraham to Canaan.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.