Faith of Sarah - Beautiful, barren and blessed

Bible Studies on the Real Heroes of the Faith Hebrews 11

Faith of Sarah - Beautiful, barren and blessed

by I Gordon

Let's carry on with our study of the heroes and, in this case, heroine, of the faith. Last time we looked at the call of Abraham to leave his home in Ur and travel to another land that God would show him - a land that would be called Israel, the Promised Land. In this study we'll speak about someone that came with Abraham on that journey... someone at Abraham's side until her death. The next hero of the faith is Sarah, Abraham's wife. We'll start in Hebrews 11 like we normally do and then rush back to Genesis to see an overview of the life of this mother of Israel. Going back and reading her life again has been an interesting process. Obviously her life is completely intertwined with that of her hubby, Abraham. But the first thing that stood out in both of their lives is their humanity... which is actually quite refreshing!

As we have gone through this series we have obviously been talking about some of the real legends of the faith. And sometimes they seem, well, somewhat legendary... somewhat perfect. So perfect in fact that they can at times be hard to relate to. We looked at Enoch who walked with God for 365 years until God, being so pleased with him, took him. We also looked at Noah who was righteous and just in his generation and faithfully built the Ark for something like 70+ years. It is easy to feel rather small alongside such giants of the faith. When you look at the things you struggle with or the fears that you have, or some of the wrong decisions you've made, it is easy to think that you are nothing like these heroes of the faith. Well, if that is you, you... are... in... Luck! This study of Sarah and Abraham shows their humanity. It shows their fears, their doubts, their confusion, their wrong decisions and steps... and yet, through it all, they had faith and made it into the hall of faith. And best of all it shows a God that remained faithful despite such confusion, doubt and missteps. Let's have a look.

Introducing the first heroine

Hebrews 11:11-12 By faith even Sarah  [1]  herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. (12) Therefore there was born even of one man, and him as good as dead at that, as many descendants AS THE STARS OF HEAVEN IN NUMBER, AND INNUMERABLE AS THE SAND WHICH IS BY THE SEASHORE.

As mentioned, Sarah is the first female to make the Hebrews hall of faith. The only other female in the list is Rahab. That's certainly not to say they are the only women of faith in the Bible! We need to remember that Hebrews 11 is far from a full list. What other females, especially of the Old Testament would you add to the list? What about the wonderful faith of Ruth who left all she knew to follow the God of Israel? Or Deborah; who led Israel in the days of Judges? Or Hannah who had to persevere through mocking and bareness maintaining a belief that God could still provide. Or what about the faith of Esther who went before the king unannounced on behalf of her Jewish brethren? All great women of faith and this list is far from complete!

But the lady before us today is Sarah, who, scripture says, received ability to conceive through faith. By the time the promise of God was realised, both Sarah and Abraham were, as scripture states, 'as good as dead' in regards to having children. There was no chance that it could happen. God had specifically delayed the whole event till it was completely and utterly out of the question that this couple could have a child. At the birth of Isaac, Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90. It was a God given miracle. It wasn't just that they were old. Sarah had been barren her whole life. Even in her prime she did not have the ability to conceive. And yet the light of her faith didn't go out. Oh it flickered pretty badly at times! The winds of confusion and doubt blew hard against this flame that was Sarah's faith at times. Yet despite the confusion and some wrong steps, her faith not only remained, but it prevailed. Let's look at an overview of Sarah's life. There are three areas I'll touch on.

  • Her beauty ('if looks could kill!')
  • Her barrenness (the main focus of her biblical story - the God who gives life to the dead)
  • Her blessing (or the three laughs...)

The beauty of Sarah - if looks could kill!

The first main mention of Sarah involves her beauty and we'll pick up the story where we left off last time. Abraham has been called to leave his home and go to a country he did not know. Leaving Ur with him, right at his side, is his faithful wife Sarah. At the age of 65 she was stepping out into the unknown as well. By faith they made it to the Promised Land but soon came their first test... How will they respond? Will they show the same faith in the One who called them to this land?

Genesis 12:10-20 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." (14) When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that she 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, menservants and maidservants, and camels. (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.

Have you heard of the saying 'She is so beautiful, this will only lead to trouble'? I hope you didn't say yes, because I just made that saying up. But if there was such a saying (there isn't), it could apply to Sarah. There is however the saying 'if looks could kill' and while that means something else, Abraham could definitely have applied that saying to his situation! Sarah's looks could kill him (in a roundabout way!) But let's first look at this story and its message for believers today. In scripture, Egypt is a type of the world. As Abraham leaves the land that God has called him to and goes down to Egypt, we have a picture of the believer looking back to the 'richness' of the world when the going gets tough in the paths of God. Unfortunately, it happens a lot, then and now.

This was Abraham's first misstep since obeying the Lord and coming into the Promised Land. Abraham's fears darken his view and God's promises are forgotten. Faith, at this moment, seems to have deserted him and when faith leaves, so does his best friend... courage. You may remember how this chapter started. God appeared to Abraham and said that He would make Abraham into a great nation. So Abraham was essentially bulletproof... until he had a child at least! God would see to that as Abraham had the protection of Almighty God. But Abraham has taken his eyes off the promise and faithfulness of God and now all he can see is the threat of man - and he concludes that he is a dead man! He thinks the Egyptians will kill him because of the extreme beauty of his wife Sarah. According to a note in my Bible, the Egyptians honoured marriage very highly so they knew it wasn't ok just to take someone's wife. That was a no-no. Naughty. Killing the man first and then taking his widow... well, that's fine obviously!

Now what does the human heart do when feeling pressured? It looks for wriggle room. It looks for a way out. It tries to come up with a plan to get free from its bind. This story is just a picture of your heart and mine. So Abraham comes up with a plan whereby Sarah has to say that she is his sister. This is so that '  it may go well with me (Abraham) because of you, and that I (Abraham) may live'  . Nice. That should be lovely for Abraham... but what about Sarah? She will be taken into the palace to join Pharaoh's harem and then who knows what! Abraham!!!??? Now there is a half truth in his story. Sarah is actually a half-sister to Abraham in that they had the same father but a different mother. But a half truth is still a half lie and this little plan was all set out to deceive Pharaoh. So Sarah is taken. Thankfully, the One who promised to 'bless those that bless you and curse those that curse you' is watching on and He, despite the actions of Abraham, is still faithful to His promise (as He always will be). And when different diseases came upon Pharaoh and his household, well, it was only a matter of time before suspicions are confirmed, the truth is revealed and Abraham's little plan is exposed. The story ends with Abraham's visa being revoked and he's on the first flight out of Egypt... Deported in disgrace! But not first without a good old fashioned finger-pointing and arm-waving, telling off. You can be sure that when the world lectures the believer about morality and right actions, you know that something is awfully wrong!

But as we said earlier, this story does of course highlight Sarah's beauty. We can understand Abraham thinking she was a 10 but this isn't just a case of a biased home town judge here. Firstly we read that the Egyptian people see her and they agree. Then Pharaoh's officials see her, agree, and quickly tell Pharaoh about her. Now remember that Sarah is 65 at this stage  [2]  . But most importantly, when you get to the New Testament, it is her inward and not her outward beauty that is spoken about. Peter uses Sarah as an example of this when he writes that beauty:  '... should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God's sight. (5) For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to make themselves beautiful. (1 Peter 3:4-5) 

The barrenness of Sarah

The next mention of Sarah comes here in chapter 16. It is ten years on and Sarah is now 75.

Genesis 16:1-5 Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; (2) so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her." Abram agreed to what Sarai said. (3) So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. (4) He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. (5) Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me."

We've looked briefly at her beauty but when you read the biblical account, it is her bareness that dominates her story. The very first mention of Sarah in Genesis 11, after saying she was Abraham's wife, says: ' But Sarai was barren; she had no child.' (Genesis 11:30) You can hear the violins playing sad music in the background as you read that. That was the stamp that was placed in bold on her record: 'Barren'. And try as she might she could not remove this blot from her name. Being barren was a massive thing back in those days. It is not an easy thing now either for that matter but especially so in that time when it was seen as a reproach, a disgrace even, for a woman not to be able to raise up a son and preserve the family name. Some in those days even thought that the barren woman was under the curse of God. So a massive social and religious stigma went along with being barren. It is interesting that the Bible lists many cases of barren women.  [3]  Looking through the list (in the fine print below) what we see is:

  1. They were very important, prominent and often godly women.
  2. Secondly, they all had to wait a long time for a child before God enabled them to conceive.
  3. And thirdly, when the God-given child came, it was always someone prominent. There is a spiritual principle here for all those that are waiting upon God for something only He can do. God often does something special when a long wait for fulfilment is required.

So let's get back to our story because while we are in that waiting phase there is often a lot of confusion and that is exactly what we see with Abraham and Sarah here in Genesis 16. As I mentioned earlier, it is now 10 years on from the initial promise given by God to Abraham to make him into a great nation, (10... long... years!) You can imagine Sarah's initial joy thinking 'After all these years, I'm going to have a child!' But the initial delight and hope given through God's promise now has one big fat question mark written all over it. 10 years and nothing has happened apart from the hair has got a little greyer and the wrinkles a bit deeper. You can imagine Sarah wondering and asking Abraham during this time 'Did the Lord mention me in his promise?' 'Or did you at least get the indication that the child would come through me?' The fact is that up until this point the Lord has not mentioned through whom the promised child will come... only that it will be a son of Abraham's. You can only imagine the confusion and doubts that start to enter Sarah's mind and in the end she comes to the conclusion that if they don't do something to help God out, nothing will happen. Like Abraham down in Egypt, she comes up with a plan and suggests to Abraham that he has a child with Hagar, her Egyptian  [4]  maid. And the result of trying to fulfil what God has said He will do... is Ishmael... and then immediate disharmony and conflict. Here was a mistake that has massive ongoing repercussions! They didn't consult God but just forged ahead with their plan and here we are, now 4000 years on from that day and the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac are still in bitter conflict today! Golly!

So how do we apply this to our life? What principles can we take from this story?

  • Sometimes God gives us a promise, maybe for our own life or sometimes for another like the salvation of a loved one, and quite often the exact opposite of that promised seems to occur.  [5] 
  • God often makes us wait longer than we want. Not to be horrible but to strengthen our faith when the promise comes to fruition. We would probably all have situations, even right now that we would like to be out of. We don't like to 'stand still and see the salvation of the Lord' - well not when it means waiting! But God can be pretty good at organising situations that you can't get out of despite your cleverness, plotting and wriggling! The wise old Brethren writer CHM states  'The poor heart naturally prefers anything to the attitude of waiting. It will turn to any expedient, any scheme, any resource, rather than be kept in that posture. It is one thing to believe a promise at the first, and quite another to wait quietly for the accomplishment thereof.' 
  • It is not that the Christian life is passive. There are plenty of things that the Lord calls us to do and sometimes our inactivity is just fear preventing us from acting. The main point is this: whatever we do, whether it is waiting or acting, it must come from faith. The big problem in this story is that Abraham and Sarah came up with their own plan to help God but which didn't involve God! The church is full of Ishmael's - it is full of the latest 'sure thing' programs and gimmicks to try help the Lord that just fall flat... or worse! But how great it is when we don't try to manufacture an outcome according to our own wisdom and efforts but see the Lord work!
  • Sarah and Hagar are also types of Grace and Law, the promise versus our works. After talking about this incident with Sarah and Hagar, Paul writes: Galatians 4:21-26 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? (22) For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. (23) His son by the slave woman was born in the ordinary way; but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a promise. (24) These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. (25) Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. (26) But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 

The blessing of Sarah (and the three laughs)

Let's look at the work of God in this case and again we see the humanity of Abraham and Sarah in their initial reaction. But most importantly we see the blessing of God and the promise fulfilled. We pick up the story after another 14 years. Sarah is 89  [6]  and Abraham is 99. Ishmael is 14 and by this stage, any hope that Sarah had of having a child of her own is well and truly gone. And then God appears! In Genesis chapter 17 the Lord appears to Abraham and re-confirms the covenant. But note also that this time, for the first time, God talks about Sarah's role in this covenant:

Genesis 17:15-17 God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. (16) I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." (17) Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?"

Sarai gets a name change too. According to Hitchcock's Bible Names, Sarai means 'My princess' and Sarah means 'Princess of the multitude'. If that is right then God is saying that Sarai is not just going to be Abraham's princess but the Mother of the nation - the princess of the multitude - she would have descendants! There are differences of opinion as to whether Abraham's laugh was one of initial shock and unbelief (as in 'yeah right! I'm an old man!) or whether it was joy and amazement that God would perform this wonder for a couple so old and well past child bearing age (as in 'Wow! I'm going to have a child at 100!) The New Testament seems to side with the later saying:  Romans 4:19-22 Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead--since he was about a hundred years old--and that Sarah's womb was also dead. (20) Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, (21) being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. (22) This is why "it was credited to him as righteousness." 

Now Abraham wasn't the only one to laugh... and this one is clearer... 

Genesis 18:9-15 Where is your wife Sarah? they asked him. "There, in the tent," he said. (10) Then the LORD said, "I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son." Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. (11) Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. (12) So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, "After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?" (13) Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' (14) Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son." (15) Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh." But he said, "Yes, you did laugh!"

This passage makes me laugh! 'Why did you laugh?' 'I... no, I didn't laugh'. 'Oh, you laughed!' Poor old Sarah... it's not easy trying to pull the wool over the Lord's eyes! Our fallen human nature, when caught and put on the spot, can quite often, in fear and shock, respond instantly with a lie before even thinking about it. However godly you are, I think you will be able to relate! But this lie was to the One who knows all... and the response puts her right very quickly - 'you did laugh'. But despite this initial shock and reaction, Sarah did believe.  Hebrews 11:11 'By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.' 

And the Lord would get her to laugh once more, fulfilling what He promised. Let's read that account:

Genesis 21:1-7  Now the LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised.  (2) Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. (3) Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. (4) When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. (5) Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. (6)  Sarah said, "God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me."  (7)  And she added, "Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age." 

We see here that the initial laughter of unbelief has now been replaced with the laughter of joy and wonder! And God seems to have a little laugh as well. The name of the child, as instructed by God, is Isaac - which means 'he laughs'. It seems that the name of this son is a constant reminder to both parents that they laughed initially at what God would do but now they laugh in joy. And how awesome it would have been to see Sarah, at ninety years old, yet radiant with joy as she helped her little promised child. After all those years of confusion, despair and barrenness, now the promised blessing has come!

Conclusion - a few brief points to take away

  • We are like Sarah in that we are spiritually barren without the Lord - we can't produce. We couldn't produce a single thing to save ourselves. We only have Ishmael's. And even as Christians, what can we produce without Him? Jesus said it Himself: 'Without Me you can do nothing.' But with the Lord it is something entirely different. We have the joy that Sarah had knowing that the One we have come into a relationship with gives hope to the hopeless, fruit to the barren and life to the dead. He makes a nobody into a somebody.
  • The New Testament says that 'In hope, against hope, Abraham believed.' (Rom 4:18). We can equally say that in hope, against hope, Sarah believed. Naturally speaking there was no hope. In God there is always hope. Despite all the confusion and some missteps, faith and hope in God prevailed.
  • The New Testament leaves out all the missteps of Abraham and Sarah and just speaks of faith. It is like you are panning for gold and along with some definite golden nuggets you have silt, dirt and grime. The Old Testament doesn't try to hide any of it. We see the good and the bad as we do with our lives. But the New Testament shows the gold... the nuggets and precious metals that come forth. And this, I believe, is how it will be at the Judgment seat of Christ. All of the wood, hay and stubble (the silt, dirt and grime!) will be removed and all that will remain are the gold, silver and precious stones of faith.

[1] ↩  A quick note that earlier versions of the NIV have this verse as 'By faith Abraham, even though he was past age.' This is not an accurate translation of the passage as it focuses more on Abraham instead of Sarah. Other versions have it 'By faith, Sarah...' which is accurate and the NIV changed it to that in their 2011 edition.

[2] ↩  But don't get jealous ladies... In those days no one had a face lift or used Botox until they were 120 years plus. An average lifespan around this time is likely to have been around 150-170 years so in today's estimate she would have been like a 30 year old - in her prime!

[3] ↩  It is interesting to take note of the barren women in the Bible because they have some things in common. Who are some of the barren women of the Bible?

Sarah and Abraham : That is the example we are looking at. But when God brings the promised child it is Isaac, one of the fathers of the Jewish race and faith.

Rebekah and Isaac : Then Isaac and Rebekah can't have children because Rebekah was barren (Genesis 25:21). She apparently had 20 years of infertility before the Lord enabled her to give birth - and out came twins, Jacob and Esau!

Rachel and Jacob : Jacob when he had grown, loved Rachel. Leah her sister gave birth to 6 sons and a daughter but Rebekah couldn't manage any. It caused great friction in this marriage. Yet when the Lord opened her womb she gave birth to Joseph - the most important of the 12 sons of Jacob and a very clear type of Christ.

Manoah's wife : She could 'bear him no children' (Judges 13:2). Yet the Lord visited her and she gave birth to the highly prominent judge and deliverer, Samson.

Hannah and Elkanah : Hannah prayed year after year after year for children. She lived through years of ridicule and mocking by Elkanah's other wife Peninnah (1 Samuel 1:1-10). Then she made a vow that if the Lord gave her a child she would give that child back to the Lord for all his days. And the Lord heard her prayer and she gave birth to Samuel -a giant in Jewish history and an amazing man of God. Even at the start of the New Testament we have:

Elizabeth and Zacharias : Luke 1:6 tells us that Elizabeth and Zacharias were righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly, yet Elizabeth was barren and they were both advanced in age. They had been waiting, waiting,... walking with God, waiting... yet no child came. Yet when the right time came, God filled the child with the Holy Spirit right from the womb! And he would become John the Baptist, the messenger sent to prepare the way for the Lord!

[4] ↩  Most scholars are convinced that Hagar has come back from with them from their ill-fated sojourn into Egypt that was mentioned earlier, so again we see the consequences of that little trip interwoven into this.

[5] ↩  My mother heard the Lord calling her son (my brother) when he was a teenager and far from God. It was so strong that she said 'Oh, he's not even my son... He is God's son!' She expected him to be saved straight away. But here we are... some 30 plus years later still waiting for that to happen! : ) No, it did happen. But it still took around 6 years. But the promise was true and accurate from the day it was given even though it took several years to see its fulfilment.

[6] ↩  Very simple quiz question for you: Name two women in the Bible whose age is given.
'Ok...' you say... 'Argh there's Sarah. And argh... there's... um, well, there is also, argh... Hmmm... there is only Sarah!'

Sarah is the only woman, whose age is mentioned in the Bible (maybe because you don't ask a lady her age!) - Sarah's age is important to establish the miraculous birth of this promised child (which is a picture of Christ). With her age given, we know this birth must have been from God and God alone. And the same is true of Jesus (not because of old age but because of the virgin birth).