Chapter 1: Sarah and Abraham
The first ten chapters of the Bible, leading up to the story of Sarah and Abraham, tell the story of human beings who had increasingly forced themselves into the rigidly defined, mutually exclusive roles of male or female. The Godlike qualities of love and strength, of power and compassion, common to every human being, were perverted by the attempt to separate them into male and female characteristics.
Power, strength, and a broad sphere of activity were allotted to the man. But because the male principle was unrestrained by love or compassion, his power became violent and destructive. And vigorous activity, without concern for others, became the breeding ground for greed and lust.
The love and compassion that nurtured and preserved life was isolated in the female and assured the continuation of the human race. But because those characteristics were allowed no activity or power outside the domestic sphere they, too, were perverted. Women preserved life by providing the love and tenderness crucial for human development, but when her children were grown, she sent them off to live in a world ruled by greed and brutality. Women also provided an unquestioning home base of service and support for the men who were responsible for the kinds of injustice that became a hallmark of human life.
So in a cooperative venture, antithetical to the spiritual development of the human race, men and women built a world that reflected the violence they had done to their own androgynous nature. It was a violence that led from the world's first recorded murder to the catastrophe of the Great Flood. The Amplified Bible vividly describes the state of affairs that existed.
The earth was depraved and putrid in God's sight and the land was filled with violence (desecration, infringement, outrage and lust for power). And God looked upon the world and saw how degenerate, debased and vicious it was, for all humanity had lost their way upon the earth and lost their true direction. (Genesis 6:11-12)
Unfortunately, human beings did not regain their direction--or their integrity--even after the frightening destruction of the Flood. Noah and the others who survived in the Ark did not know how to live in any other way, so the female remained in bondage, and the male power principle continued to rule without restraint.
The Bible describes a way of life in which the strong and powerful oppressed the poor and powerless. It was a world where brothers killed each other--or friends, or enemies; a world in which men raped, robbed, and maimed other human beings for gain, for revenge, or for sport. And women continued to love and support their men-folk in all their endeavors.
Although the subjection of the female principle to the male had come about as a result of sin, a fallen human race gave this dominion a positive value. It had become a system to be maintained at all costs rather than something to be overcome. Knowledge of their androgynous nature had been banished from consciousness and signs and symbols became the only means of reminding human beings of the truth they had chosen to forget.
This was the situation that existed in the nineteenth century B.C., when God called Sarah and Abraham to mark a new beginning in human history. It was a beginning sealed with the rite of circumcision, the symbol established by God as a sign of the need to diminish the power and scope of the male power principle. Instituted nearly 4,000 years ago, that covenant is still in the process of achieving its goal: the goal of restoring a male/female balance in human affairs.
The biblical narrative of the journey toward that equality--the journey that began with Sarah and Abraham--is unique. Although he is one of the great patriarchs of the Hebrew people, no mention of Abraham is made until after he is married to the woman who will be the founding Mother of Judaism.
The history of other Bible heroes begins with their birth, not their marriage. It was a day and time when men chose to believe that the contribution of a woman in bringing forth children consisted of providing a fertile field in which the male seed could be planted. Under those circumstances, the choice of a wife was viewed as a matter of economics or of a burning desire to bed the object of male affection. In either case, it had little to do with the heritage that the female would provide.
But Sarah is treated differently. From the time of her introduction in the eleventh chapter of Genesis, her contribution to the narrative is pivotal. The same genealogy that names Abraham as the son of Terah also names Sarah as his wife. And from the time that God began to lead the couple along the path that led to the birth of Judaism, Sarah was an indispensable part of the process.
The story of Sarah's barrenness--of her inability to become pregnant for most of her married life--is treated by biblical commentators as one of those situations decreed by the inscrutable will of God. The theological lesson that most of these commentators derive from the situation has to do with the need for patience and faith in a situation that seems hopeless.
But the reasons for Sarah's continued infertility are clearly given in the Bible, and they have nothing to do with the inscrutable will of God. They have to do with the willingness of Abraham to submit to the rite of circumcision. And until he was quite advanced in years, the Patriarch was not able to agree to that covenant: the covenant that would be sealed in his own flesh.
Abraham was a young man when God first promised, "I will make of thee a great nation." But after years had passed and Sarah did not have any children, the couple decided to take matters into their own hands.
Sarah had an Egyptian slave by the name of Hagar, and under the laws of the time, a barren wife could arrange for one of her slaves to be impregnated by her husband. She could then claim the offspring of such a union as her own. It was under these circumstances that Ishmael was born to Hagar: he became Abraham's legal heir.
For many years both Sarah and Abraham accepted Ishmael as the promised son. But thirteen years after his birth, God appeared to Abraham to tell him that Ishmael was not the one; that before Abraham could become the father of a new nation, he had to submit to the rite of circumcision.
In biblical times, as in all times, men have symbolized masculine potency and power by equating it with the size of the sexual organ. The ancient worship of the bull was on ongoing testimony to that equation. The actual reduction of the male organ that took place in circumcision symbolized the need for the reduction of the male power principle in human affairs. Its totalitarian rule had to be weakened--to be diminished. And until Abraham was circumcised, there would be no divine covenant; no new beginning.
Before he could become the father of a great nation he had to seal the covenant between God and himself, in his own body. The Lord spoke to Abraham: "This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you...you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you."
By the time that the Lord had rejected Ishmael as the child of promise, the Patriarch was quite advanced in years. He had gained some control over the fires that burned so fiercely in his youth and middle years and was able to agree to be circumcised.
But then the Lord gave another requirement that had to be met. In order for the prophecy to be fulfilled, Sarah, the free woman, had to be the mother of the promised heir. Just as surely as Abraham had been called to be Patriarch of the chosen people, Sarah had been called to be its Matriarch.
Hagar, the slave woman, could not be part of this new covenant. The mother of the promised child was to be an equal partner of the father in this new beginning. She could not be a woman in bondage to the male. She could not be the slave of the man.
Up to this time, Abraham had trusted the Lord implicitly. He had followed God's instructions and together with his wife and extended family had journeyed to a strange land. And as he grew older and no children were born to him, he continued to believe that God would somehow provide him with an heir. But when the Lord told him that Sarah was to have an equal role with him, and that she would become the mother of nations, Abraham drew the line. "Oh, if only Ishmael might live before thee!" he exclaimed. It was a plea to have the boy recognized as the heir of God's promise.
"But God said no...." And not only did the Lord say no to Hagar and her son, he specifically identified the woman of the covenant: "...Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her, Then, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall come from her."
Despite his misgivings, Abraham was circumcised and one year later, Isaac, child of the covenant, was born to Sarah. There was much rejoicing over the birth of this son, but there were also many problems that arose after he was born. The Bible tells of the rivalry that developed between Sarah and Hagar, the mother of Ishmael.
As the eldest son, Ishmael was bigger, stronger--more powerful than Isaac. And in biblical times, the murder of siblings for personal gain was fairly common. Isaac could be in a dangerous position in such an environment. The ramifications of this situation became apparent to Sarah at the time her son was weaned.
In patriarchal times the weaning of a child, at about three years of age, was celebrated with a great feast. The Bible preserves a record of the banquet that celebrated the end of Isaac's infancy. He would no longer be always at his mother's side; he would no longer be under her constant protection. This immediately became a problem. At the banquet, Ishmael began harassing Isaac. "Now Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, mocking Isaac."
All Sarah's fears for Isaac, and for his place in the scheme of things, came to the fore. She knew that Ishmael was going to be a problem for her son. Besides his advantages of seniority and superior strength, Ishmael had developed an ongoing relationship with his father. Isaac, newly weaned, was still his mother's child. There had been no time yet for him to develop a strong bond with his father.
After watching Ishmael harass her son at the party, Sarah gave Abraham an ultimatum: "Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac."
Sarah's demand that her son, child of the covenant, be protected against any situation that might endanger him or deprive him of his inheritance, was a blow to Abraham. The Bible reports, "This troubled Abraham very much, because Ishmael also was his son. But God said to Abraham, 'Don't be worried about the boy and your slave Hagar. Do whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that you will have the descendants I have promised."
Although there were very human reasons for the jealousy and rivalry that existed between Sarah and Hagar, their struggle had a symbolic meaning that went far beyond personal rivalry. It was an epic struggle between the forces that would keep woman in continued subjection to the male, and the divine plan to have the female of the species evolve to a place of equality with the male. If the world was ever to reflect the righteousness of God, the compassion, concern, and care that the woman was allowed to manifest in the domestic sphere must be equally manifested in the world beyond the home.
Because of the covenant that Sarah and Abraham entered into with God, their spiritual descendants could look to the Lord for help in their struggle to implement a balanced male/female presence in the affairs of the world. And it would be through the Judaic-Christian culture--the culture that traces its spiritual roots to those founding parents--that the equality of women and men would someday become a reality.
But the Bible also tells the story of the development of another culture that traces its ancestry back to the time of Abraham. The Arab world claims its descent through Ishmael, the child born to Abraham and Hagar, the slave woman. Ishmael was the child conceived before his father had agreed to reduce the male presence through the rite of circumcision. And to this day, the female in the Arab world remains in abject bondage to the male. She is often physically confined to the domestic sphere, as well as being kept in social and political bondage. Four thousand years after the time of Hagar, the females who are descended from the woman in bondage to the male continue to remain in that bondage.
But 4000 years after Abraham and Sarah became parents of Isaac, child of the covenant, the struggle to achieve male/female equality continues in those people, Jewish and Christian, who trace their religious roots back to Sarah, the free woman.