As I sat there bored in class today I began to read this weeks Parsha, Chayai Sarah:
“And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah. (Genesis 23:1)”
In the Talmudic era , the Midrash would suggest that this verse implies that when Sarah was 100 she was as pretty as a 20 year old and when she was 20 she was as sinless as a 7 year old (other versions reverse the numbers, but this seems to be the more logical reading). The fact this weeks Parsha is called “The life of Sarah” is a bit misleading, for Sarah is dead from the outset. However, after reading this first verse I began to reflect on Sarah’s life and look back into some of the stories where she plays a major role.
While the Talmud and Midrash say many good things about Sarah, when I re-read all of the stories in Sarah’s life, I came to a bit of an interesting conclusion: According to the simple reading of the Torah, Sarah is not only not virtuous but also seemingly mean, skeptical, and deceitful. I understand that I am making a seemingly crazy claim, so before one judges my conclusion – please follow my argument.
The first time the Torah mentions Sarah (then Sarai) is in Genesis, chapter 11 where she is mentioned in passing as Abraham’s wife. The only other fact that the Torah tells us about her is that she was barren (Genesis 11:30), however we do not know why. Later on the Talmud would claim that “God made her barren b/c he desires the prayers of the righteous”, but this is surly not the simplistic reading of the story. I don’t think that the Torah is making any sort of character judgement here, but rather telling us a necessary fact to understand the background of the next few stories.
The next few times Sarah is mentioned she is always passive. She follows Abraham to Cannan (Genesis 12:5), listens to Abraham pretending to be his sister so Abraham is not killed (Genesis 12:13), she follows Abraham to the Negev (Genesis 13:1), etc. In all of these stories we still see no implication of Sarah being active in any way. She is not even given a voice in the conversation that Abraham and Pharoah have about her!
The next few chapters have very few mentions of Sarah. We know that Abraham was busy dealing with Lot, fighting in a battle, and getting blessed by God, but the Torah makes no important mentions of Sarah.
Then suddenly, in chapter 16 of Genesis we see Sarah act for the first time in her life.
The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (Genesis 16:1)
At this point, Sarah had been married to Abraham for 10 years and still had no children. What makes this all the more stressful is that both Abraham and Sarah knew of the promise that God had made a few chapters earlier, namely, that a great nation would be built up through Abraham. Once she realized that she was unable to have children, Sarah did what is now known as a common occurrence in antiquity, and gave Abraham her maidservant to be “built through her”. While this may seem like a selfless act,displaying Sarah’s concern for Abraham’s prodigy, I think that there is a more simple explanation. Both Sarah and Abraham knew that Abraham will have children. It seems that Sarah was scared that he would take a completely new wife ultimately putting her on the back-burner. Sarah acts quickly and gives her maidservant to Abraham, so she remains the dominant figure.
When Hagar does become pregnant, she loses a bit of respect for Sarah (Genesis 16:4). In reaction Sarah seems to scold Abraham (for some reason), and he in return gives her permission to do whatever she wants to do to Hagar. The Midrash actually notes that Sarah lost 48 years of her life as a punishment for her actions here (Genesis Rabbah 45.5). Once she gains control of Hagar, the Torah is explicit in the fact that Sarah treated her so badly that Hagar ran away (Genesis 16:6). Thus, we see that the first story where Sarah has any active role, the Torah portrays her as being disrespectful and abusive.
The next time we hear from Sarah is during the visit from the three angels/messengers who come to Abraham. Sarah is standing by the door of her tent when she overhears one of the men tell Abraham that in a year’s time she will give birth. Sarah begins to laugh (Genesis 18:12) when she hears this, causing the Ramban, and other commentators, to criticize Sarah for lack lack of trust in God. A reasonable defense of Sarah’s laughter is that she (who had been in the tent the entire time), may not have realized that these messengers were sent by God. In that case it would seem reasonable to laugh, for if a random traveler told any 90 year old women she would have a child, the only appropriate response is laughter. However, in the preceding chapter God tells Abraham that Sarah will have a child (Genesis 17:16). Sarah’s laugh at this point seemingly shows a lack of faith in God’s promise.
Fast forward to the end of the verse, and Sarah actually insults Abraham: “My Lord is old (Genesis 18:12)”. In this case God himself seems to intervene and actually lies when telling Abraham what she had said!
And the LORD said unto Abraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? (Genesis 18:13)
The Rabbis pick up on this white lie, as they famously tell us in the Talmud, that peace between a husband and wife is so great that even God lies to protect it (Baba Metziah 87a). Then, two verses later Sarah actually denies lying when speaking to God, forcing God to correct her (Genesis 18:15). From chapter 18, we see that every single word that Sarah speaking is either inappropriate or is a lie.
Finally, in chapter 21, Sarah gives birth to Issac. She sees that Ishmael is mistreating Issac and immediately tells Abraham to throw out Hagar and Ishmael. It seems that once she had a child of her own, she had no need for Hagar or her son anymore. True, Chazal would later theorize that Ishmael was trying to kill Issac and do other horrible things to him, but this seems more like apologetics dealing with Sarah’s harsh response, and not the simple meaning of the verse. The simple reading of these verses seems to be that at the first slightest annoyance towards Ishmael, Sarah decides to throw him out. Moreover, we see that Abraham was in distress when he heard Sarah’s request (Genesis 21:11). Granted, God does tell Abraham to listen to Sarah, but it is still evident that Sarah was asking Abraham to basically banish Hagar and Ishmael and even risk their death. This is the last time we hear of Sarah, until mention of her death in this week’s parsha.
This seems like a puzzling conclusion, but I honestly don’t know what else to conclude. While it is possible, through Midrashim and other commentary, to make Sarah seem like an extremely righteous person, one would need to completely ignore Pshat (a simple reading), to reach this conclusion. While this conclusion seems counterproductive to the message of Torah, I think that there is plenty of good to be learned out from its depth. I have always noted that my favorite part of Torah is the fact that it doesn’t try to “hide the dirt”. We learn Torah to learn moral lessons and not to read a book of a bunch of angelic beings. Maybe the stories of Sarah teach us that even being married to a very righteous person does not mean that the spouse will become righteous if she/he does not try. Maybe the Torah wants us to learn from Sarah’s mistakes, which interestingly enough are character flaws that are the most common among people (1) being mean when in a position of power 2) insulting people 3) lying. Whatever the reason, the Torah is clearly trying to tell us something special and it would be unwise, and even intellectually dishonest, to ignore this interesting display of “The life of Sarah”.
Like this article? Click on the drop down menu on the top left to see more!