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WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY SAYS
By: J. R. Hyland

Chapter 1 - SARAH AND ABRAHAM

The historical record of the Hebrew people begins with the story of Sarah and Abraham[1] who lived circa 1900 B.C. Before the Bible introduces these founding parents of Judaism, it deals only with events of the far-distant past.  There is no way to even approximate the dates of those pre-historical happenings.

Abraham’s story begins when he and his family were about to move from their home in Ur, a Sumerian city in Mesopotamia. Extant records show that Ur had been a thriving metropolitan area for al least 600 years before both Abraham and Sarah were born there.[2]  Located in what is now Southern Iraq, the city stretched out along the Euphrates River. But until 1929, when an archaeological expedition uncovered its remains, its name had been lost to historians. There were no fabled stories about Ur, passed down from antiquity; only the fact that the Bible said it was Abraham’s home kept its name from being forgotten.

The evacuations at Ur uncovered records of a large metropolis that, in the Patriarch’s time, was home to at least 300,000 people. And the kind of life its inhabitants lived would seem familiar even to someone born in the 20th century. Thousands of cuneiform tablets revealed the details of everyday life. There were records of religious and family life, of government and business transactions, of legal and medical procedures.

In one of the legal buildings scores of tablets, in orderly stacks, recorded the sentences of those who had passed through the justice system. Other buildings housed tax records. Although there was no minted currency, everyone was taxed according to the source of their income. Huge store-houses received the wool, cattle, oil and agricultural products that were collected. [3]

Many different kinds of goods were manufactured in Ur. A spinning mill was uncovered in which at least a dozen different styles of clothing were produced. And in this ancient factory, the names of the women who worked there were recorded. Also recorded was the work quota of each person, the amount of wool given to work with, and the number of garments produced.

And then there were the houses. The best of them had 12 to 14 rooms and were two and three stories high. Built around an atrium, balconies ringed the homes on three sides. The homes of those who lived in the fabled city of Babylon, built hundreds of years later, were primitive dwellings compared to these.[4]

The excavations at Ur called into question the idea of Abraham as having always been a wandering herdsman. That pastoral picture made it easier to think of him as   a kind of unsophisticated person for whom it would have been relatively easy to leave familiar surroundings and journey to an unsure future. But when God told Abraham to leave his home and journey to a distant land, he was being asked to leave the cosmopolitan life of Mesopotamia to live in the relatively primitive land of Canaan (Palestine).

The discovery of Abraham’s metropolitan background came as a surprise to biblical students. There were European scholars who could not reconcile this new information with their old beliefs about the Patriarch as a nomad. But Americans, and others familiar with the westward migrations of the 19th century, had no problem understanding that those raised in large cities could leave home and family behind and live out the rest of their lives raising domestic animals or as farmers.

“The Lord said to Abram ’Leave your native land, your relatives and your father’s home and go to a country that I am going to show you…and he started out for the land of Canaan’”[5]

But Abraham’s journey to Canaan was interrupted by a very long stay in Haran. Located in the far northwestern part of Mesopotamia (modern day Turkey), this should have been a place to stop briefly and be refreshed for the next leg of the journey to Palestine. But for some unexplained reason, Abraham stayed there many years and during that time he amassed considerable wealth.

When God called Abraham to leave his country, he left with only his immediate family: his father Terah, his nephew Lot, and wife Sarah.[6] But years later, when the Patriarch was told to leave Haran and resume the journey to Canaan, he was a rich man and had many servants. “Abraham took his wife Sarah, his nephew, Lot and all the wealth and all the slaves he had acquired in Haran and they started out for the land of Canaan.”[7]

This time they went all the way. And after a number of side trips to Egypt, they eventually settled in the fertile Jordan valley of Palestine. By now, Abraham’s wealth was even greater than it had been when he left Haran.[8] This created problems between the Patriarch and his nephew, Lot.

“Abraham left Egypt and went to the southern part of Canaan with his wife and everything he owned and Lot went with him. Abraham was a very rich man, with sheep, goats and cattle, as well as silver and gold...Lot also had sheep, goats and cattle, as well as his own family and servants. And so there was not enough pasture land for the two of them to stay together because they had too many animals.”[9]

“Abraham said to Lot choose any part of the land you want. You go one way and I’ll go the other.” His nephew chose the best pasture land in the Jordan Valley and went off to live in the nearest city, which was Sodom. It turned out to be a really bad choice. The Bible says he was still living there when both Sodom and Gomorrah disappeared in an explosion of fire and brimstone.[10]

When this catastrophe took place Abraham was safe in Hebron, many miles to the north. And it was there that once again the Lord appeared to him and promised him a great inheritance of land and of many descendants. But after ten years, his wife was still barren and getting on in years. So Sarah’s slave, Hagar, was selected as a surrogate mother: this meant that the child would, legally, be Sarah’s.

The child conceived was called Ishmael and for many years Abraham and Sarah accepted him as the son promised by God. But when the boy was 12 years old, God once again appeared to Abraham and said that Ishmael could not be his heir. Before he could become the father of a great nation, Abraham had to submit to being circumcised.

In biblical times, as in all other 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 an ongoing testimony to that equation. And 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—diminished. That totalitarian rule, claimed by men and supported by women, rejected the female virtues of compassion and kindness in the world beyond the home. It considered those qualities to be signs of weakness that would lead to certain defeat.[11]

By the time the Lord revealed that Ishmael was not the promised heir, Abraham 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 willing to be circumcised. But then the Lord gave another requirement that had to be met: Hagar, the slave woman, could not be part of this covenant. The mother of the promised heir had to be an equal partner of the father. She could not be a female in bondage to the male. She could not be the slave of the man. It was Sarah, the free woman, who had to be the mother of the promised child. Just as surely as Abraham had been called to the Patriarch of the chosen people, Sarah had been called to be its Matriarch.

Up to this time, Abraham had accepted God’s decrees without dissent. But when the Lord told him that Sarah was to have an equal role with him, under the covenant with god, Abraham protested. He pleaded to have Ishmael, son of Hagar, recognized as the heir of God’s promise. “Oh, if only Ishmael might live before thee”! he exclaimed.

“But God said no…” And not only did the Lord say “no” to Hagar, He made it plain that the woman’s role in the covenant was just as specific as Abraham’s. “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.”[12]

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.[13] 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.14] He would no longer be 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).”[15]

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.”[16]

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, ‘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.” [17]

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 women 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 the care that the woman was allowed to manifest in the domestic sphere would have to 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—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.[18] 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 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, many females who are descended from the woman in bondage to the male, continue to remain in that bondage.

The Bible records the ongoing struggle of the female principle of compassion, nurturing and nonviolence to function in the world beyond the domestic sphere. That struggle received enormous support in the proclamations of the Latter Prophets of Israel and found its ultimate validation in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ.

And 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.


[1] Events such as the creation of the world and all its inhabitants; the loss of Paradise; the Great Flood and the destruction of the Tower of Babel.

[2] In 2600 B.C., during the first dynasty of Ur, it was already being called the “Capitol of the World.”

[3] Details of the findings at Ur and neighboring cities are recorded in the publications of C. L. Wooley,  the archaeologist who uncovered the ancient ruins: Abraham, Recent Discoveries and Hebrew Origins (1936); Ur Excavations V, The Ziggurat and its Surroundings (1939); Ur of the Chaldees (1954)

[4] This disparity between earlier luxury and later, reduced circumstances mirrors the uncovering of Pompey whose amenities were far superior to cultures that appeared much later.

[5] Genesis 12:1, 5 TEV

[6] Genesis 12:1     TEV   

[7] Genesis 12:5     TEV

[8] The means of acquiring of this additional wealth might be seen as exploitative and is described in Genesis 12: 10-20.  TEV

[9] Genesis 13: 1, 2, 5, 6

[10] For details of this catastrophe see chapter two of this book.

[11] For a detailed discussion of circumcision and its meaning in biblical history see SEXISM IS A SIN: The Biblical Basis of Female Equality,  J.R. Hyland, Viatoris Publ.,© 1995

[12] Genesis 17:15, 16  NAS

[13] For example, the attempted murder of Joseph; Absalom’s murder of Amnon, and King Solomon’s murder of his brother.

[14] Genesis 21:8          NAS

[15] Genesis 21:9.         NAS     The New Testament also refers to this incident in Galatians 4:29 TEV, saying that Ishmael “persecuted” Isaac.

[16] Genesis 21:10.       NIV

[17] Genesis 21:11, 12. TEV

[18] Genesis 21:13        NIV

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