Sarah in the Bible

How historical evidence shapes our understanding of this biblical matriarch

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Archaeological evidence shows that both Ur and Haran, the cities from which Sarah and Abraham emigrated, were centers of goddess worship; pictures of Mesopotamian goddesses appear on pottery plaques unearthed from both areas. Once Sarah arrives in Canaan, argues Teubal, she struggles to preserve the matriarchal traditions of her homeland against the patriarchal society in Canaan.  The Genesis narratives thus form a bridge between the matriarchal pre-historic world and the patriarchal historic world.  

Teubal draws on historical evidence from the ancient Near East to prove that, in the Hagar story, Sarah asserts her traditional role as priestess. Teubal cites Paragraph 146 of Hammurabi’s Code, an ancient Mesopotamian legal code:

If a man has married a priestess [of a certain rank] and she has given a slave girl to her husband and she bears sons, if (thereafter) that slave girl goes about making herself equal to her mistress, because she had borne sons, her mistress may not sell her; she may put the mark of a slave on her and count her with the slave girls.  If she has not borne sons, her mistress may sell her.

In treating Hagar as she does, Sarah asserts the authority granted to her as priestess by the legal code of her homeland.  Sarah takes her maid and gives her as a concubine to her husband.  When Hagar conceives, she “goes about making herself equal to her mistress"-- Sarah is lowered in her eyes--so Sarah “puts the mark of a slave on her” by abusing Hagar.

Although Teubal cites an impressive array of circumstantial evidence for her theory that Sarah is a Mesopotamian priestess, there is no direct evidence in the biblical text.  Is there another way to account for Sarah’s active role in the Hagar story? 

Sarah as Paradigm

Frymer-Kensky provides a different theory to explain Sarah’s behavior.  She argues that written records from the beginning of writing in ancient Sumer show that patriarchy was well-entrenched in the ancient Near East over 1500 years before the Bible; the Genesis narratives are not a bridge between some matriarchal pre-history and patriarchal history.   Worship of goddesses did not lessen the actual social subordination of women. How then can we understand the active, independent role of Sarah and the other matriarchs in directing they and their family’s lives?

Frymer-Kensky argues that although the Bible portrays a patriarchal social structure, it has a gender-neutral ideology.  The women in the Bible are socially subordinate but not essentially inferior; they have strong, independent personalities, and they often act to guide the course of events. 

Why does the Bible portray women in such a positive light? Frymer-Kensky explains that women serve as a paradigm for the people of Israel after the destruction of the Temple and the expulsion from the land of Israel.  The Bible, through its portrayal of female characters, provides a model for how the people of Israel, despite their lack of political power, are not essentially inferior and can play an active role in determining history.

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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.