When I sat down to write my first musing on faith, I encountered a scripture that really stood out to me. Hebrews 11:11-12 says:
11. Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised,
12. Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable.
I have mentioned before that I have, in the past, not really viewed scriptural figures as relatable. They have, after all, been preserved in writings that have lasted thousands of years for a reason. Their experiences are extraordinary. And mine, well, are not. Right? But as I pondered the basics of the story of Sarah and Abraham, I realized that this was something I could really relate to. The basics, as I recalled them, went something like this:
The Lord covenanted with Abraham that he would have posterity greater in number than the stars. Sarah could not conceive children. She gave Abraham her handmaid, Hagar, who had a son, Ishmael, with Abraham. The Lord told Abraham that Sarah would conceive a son (even though she was 90-years-old at the time), and she had Isaac.
Pretty straightforward, right?
Given my own experiences with infertility and motherhood, this all felt familiar. Without getting too personal, I do believe in the concept of covenants and I do believe that I was promised children at one point in my life. This is something that I really struggled with when we were unable to conceive. Like Sarah, I made the decision to become a parent based on the child of another woman. And, like Sarah, I conceived when the world saw it as impossible.
So, today I decided to sit down and refresh myself on the specifics of the story (Genesis 15-18 and 21, more or less, for those who want to play along at home).
There was so much more to this story than what I remembered. So much that I could NOT relate to. So much that truly has me wondering why, of all of the women discussed in the Bible based on their inability to have children, Sarah was the one that Paul held up to the Hebrews as an example of faith.
Sarah did give Hagar to Abraham of her own accord. And her purpose was so that Abraham could have posterity. But, when Hagar conceived, Sarah ran her off. Now, I suspect that there is an aspect of “the rest of the story” that we don’t fully get here. In Genesis 16:5 it says:
And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the Lord judge between me and thee.
So, it sounds as though Hagar may have become a bit haughty over the fact that it would be her son that would carry on Abraham’s lineage and not Sarah’s. I can understand that, believing this to be true, having someone make an issue of it with you would be devastating. We don’t really know the specifics of what is meant in the scriptures when it says that Sarah “dealt hardly with her,” but she was obviously harsh enough if Hagar fled. It was only due to divine intervention that Hagar decided to return and have Ishmael (which means “God Hears” because the Lord heard her in her time of affliction).
After Ishmael’s birth, Sarah overhears when Abraham is told that she will conceive. Her reaction?
Therefore Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also? (Genesis 18:12)
(The name Isaac, incidentally, means “laughter.”) It doesn’t appear that it was a joyful type of laughter, but a disbelieving one, since she tries to deny if when questioned about it. She does, however, laugh joyfully later.
But Sarah does conceive, and Isaac is born. And, when Ishmael mocks Isaac, Sarah has him and Hagar cast out, saying:
…Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. (Genesis 21: 10)
I truly can’t understand this reaction. How could she, knowing the promises the Lord made to Abraham that Isaac would be his heir, still send away Hagar and her child (a child that, I’m assuming, Sarah had a hand in raising up to this point)? In doing so, she almost sent the pair to their death in the wilderness. It was only through divine intervention that Hagar and Ishmael were saved, and the Lord’s promises to Abraham regarding Ishmael’s seed were preserved.
So, with all of the details firmly in place, I really am having a hard time understanding why Paul would hold Sarah up as such a shining example of faith. It seems, throughout the story, like her actions were more frequently motivated by fear. Fear that the Lord could not use her to fulfill his covenants to Abraham. Fear that Hagar’s pregnancy could disrupt her own position with her husband. Fear that her age would not allow her to be pregnant. Fear that the Lord’s promises regarding Isaac would not be carried out as long as Ishmael were allowed to stay. The kind of fears that most of us would have, I suppose.
The kind of fears, on a broader scale, that many of us who have dealt with infertility have been through.
But as an example of faith? I’m having a hard time understanding.
Incidentally, I now feel compelled to go back and read the specifics of the other biblical women deemed noteworthy because of their inability to conceive, and the miracles that allowed them to be mothers. I know, among some, that I will find more understandable examples of faith. But maybe they’ll help me understand Sarah, too. I don’t want to be too harsh towards her. I’m just having a hard time coming to grips with how harsh reality seemed to be for Hagar.