Sarah and Abraham 

 

To my mind, there is one example which stands out most remarkably. The record seems to anticipate this in the way the case of Sarah is introduced: " Through faith even Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed" (Heb. 11:11 RV). " Even Sarah herself" is clearly making a point, holding up a flashing light over this particular example. There is every reason to think, from the Genesis record, that Sarah not only lacked faith in the promises, but also had a bitter, unspiritual mind. The account alludes back to Eve's beguiling of Adam when it records how " Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai" (Gen. 16:2) in acquiescing to her plan to give her a seed through Abram marrying his slave girl. The whole thing between Sarah and Abraham seems wrong on at least two counts: firstly it reflects a lack of faith in the promise; and secondly it flouts God's ideal standards of marriage. Sarai seems to have recognized the error when she bitterly comments to Abram: " My wrong be upon thee" (16:5). Her comment that " the Lord hath restrained me from bearing" (16:2) would suggest that she thought she hadn't been chosen to bear the promised seed. Yet because of her faith, says Heb. 11:11, she received strength to bear that seed. 

Hagar was so persecuted by Sarah that she " fled from her face" (16:6). God's attitude to Hagar seems to reflect a certain amount of sympathy for the harsh way in which Sarah had dealt with her. These years of bitterness and lack of faith came to the surface when Sarah overheard the Angel assuring Abraham that Sarah really would have a son. She mockingly laughed at the promise, deep within herself (18:15). Yet according to Heb. 11:11, she rallied her faith and believed. But as soon as Isaac was born, her bitterness flew to the surface again when she was Ishmael mocking. In what can only be described as unrestrained anger, she ordered Hagar and Ishmael out into the scorching desert, to a certain death (humanly speaking). Again, one can sense the sympathy of God for Hagar at this time. And so wedged in between incidents which belied a deep bitterness, lack of faith and pride (after Isaac was born), the Spirit in Heb. 11:11 discerns her faith; on account of which, Heb. 11:12 implies (" therefore" ), the whole purpose of God in Christ could go forward.  

Bitter Prophet

Sarah's screaming indignation can be well imagined. Consider which words were probably stressed most by her: " Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir (just hear her voice!) with my son, even with Isaac" (Gen. 21:10). This is in harmony with her previous bitterness and aggression to Hagar and Abraham.  Her attitude in implying that Ishmael was not the seed is gently rebuked by God in his subsequent words to Abraham concerning Ishmael: " He is thy seed" (Gen. 21:13).  And yet  Sarah's words are quoted in Gal. 4:30 as inspired Scripture! Here we see the wonder of the God with whom we deal, in the way in which He patiently bore with Sarah and Abraham. He saw through her anger, her jealousy, the pent up bitterness of a lifetime, and he saw her faith. And he worked through that screaming, angry woman to be His prophet. According to Gal. 4:30, God Himself spoke through her in those words, outlining a principle which has been true over the generations; that the son of the slave must be cast out, and that there must always be conflict between him and the true seed. Sarah in her time of child-birth is likened to us all as we enter the Kingdom, full of joy (Is. 54:1-4); and yet at that time she was eaten up with pride and joy that she could now triumph over her rival. And yet Sarah at that time is seen from a righteous perspective, in that she is  a type of us as we enter the Kingdom.  God's mercy to Sarah and Abraham is repeated to us daily.

The Discernment Of God

The way in which God chooses the good side of Sarah and recognizes it for what it is can be seen even more finely in 1 Pet. 3:4-6. Here sisters are bidden follow Sarah's example of

1. Having a meek and quiet spirit

2. Not outwardly adorning herself

3. Obeying Abraham

4. And calling him her " Lord" . 

It can be shown that the Spirit in Peter is adopting an extremely positive reading of Sarah.

1. She isn't revealed as having a meek and quiet spirit at all; but presumably, God saw that underneath her anger and bitterness there was a meekness and quietness, perhaps especially seen as she grew older.  

2,3. Concerning not outwardly " adorning" , the Greek text is alluding to the Septuagint of Gen. 20:16, which says that Abimelech told Sarah that he had given Abraham many silver pieces " that these may therefore be for thee to adorn thy countenance" (1). Abimelech is speaking sarcastically (note how he calls Abraham " thy brother" , referring to Sarah and Abraham's family relationship). It was a custom for married women to wear their silver pieces on their face (cp. Lk. 15:8). Presumably she had taken these off, in order to appear single and sexually available. Abimelech is saying: " I've given your so-called 'brother' Abraham 1000 silver pieces, so just make sure you wear them in future and don't lead any more men into sin" . And what does the Spirit comment? " Thus she was reproved" (Gen. 20:16). Her willingness to pretend she was single and not refusing the sexual advances of Abimelech can only be seen in a negative light from the Genesis record. She lacked continued faith in the promises of a seed, and she disregarded God's marriage principles for the sake of an all too convenient 'obedience' to her husband. It may have been that she regarded her inability to have children as partly his fault (cp. the deadness of Abraham's body, Rom. 4:19). The thing is, she had already shown enough faith to conceive (Heb. 11:11), and presumably the effect of this was seen in the physical rejuvenation of her body, which made her so attractive to men, although she was 90 years old. Both Sarah and Abraham had shown faith, she was living with her own body as the constant reminder of God's faithfulness, and yet in the incident with Abimelech she wavered and had to be reproved. Yet she is seen in a positive light by the Spirit; her lack of wearing ornaments, even though it was to show she was single, is commended; as is her obedience to her husband, even though she was reproved for this. The point is, like all of us, her motives were probably mixed. She did want to be truly obedient to Abraham, she did want to have a meek spirit rather than outward adorning. Her wrong motives surfaced, and were rebuked. But God saw deep inside her heart, and saw the good motives, and drags them out and holds them up as an example. 

4. Sarah is commended for calling Abraham her " Lord" (1 Pet. 3:6). She is recorded as doing this in one place only: " Sarah laughed within herself, saying, After I am waxed old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?" (Gen. 18:12). She doubted God's promise; she is rebuked for this by the Angel. Yet in doing so, when she came to think of Abraham, in her heart she called him " my lord" . So in the midst of her  lack of faith in one respect, she also had a commendable attitude to Abraham. All this, don't forget, was going on " within herself" . God searched her thoughts, He saw her wrong attitudes there deep in her heart, and He saw what was commendable there too; and through Peter He drags this out and reveals it to us all as an inspiration.  

" Thou God seest me..."

All this opens up a wider issue. There are many Bible characters who appear to behave wrongly, but are spoken of in later revelation as if they were righteous. Lot is a classic example. Why is this? Why, for example, is the Genesis record about Sarah so open about her weakness, but the New Testament commentary sifts through this and reveals the righteous aspect of her motives? Surely it's to show that God sees us very differently to how we appear on the surface, both to our brethren and even to ourselves. He knows every motive, He alone untangles our motives and thoughts; He sees what is truly behind our actions. It is not just that He has the power to do this if He wishes; He does it all the time. God is thinking of us and our inner thoughts and motives every moment. Every piece of body language reveals something, every thought.  

Or consider Elijah. Here was a man of genuinely outstanding faith. He heard in the ears of faith the sound of rain, before he even formally prayed for it (1 Kings 18:40-42 cp. James 5:17,18). And yet, reading through the record, there is ample evidence that at the very same time as he showed such faith, he had a hardness and arrogance which was contrary to the spirit of the Lord Jesus. And Paul had the same feature (see Study 9.4). Samson's remarkable faith amidst a pathetically apostate Israel was marred by an insatiable desire for women. Although articulated in a more respectable way, David's fine spirituality was plagued with a similar malaise. Each of these men (and examples could be added) must have been smitten at times with a sense of hypocrisy. And yet ultimately, they won through in the battle of faith. The fact we may feel deep contradictions within our spirituality should not therefore, and cannot therefore, be shrugged off as an inevitable result of bearing human nature. Such contradictions are deadly serious. But the fact is, many who have endured them all their lives did eventually make good, in God's eyes.  

Because of our nature, we are largely blind to our true spiritual selves. Because of this, the parables imply, the day of judgment will be such a surprise (e.g. Mt. 25:34-40). Both righteous and wicked will find that they are criticized and commended for things which surprise them. There are several indications that because of this, the rejected will begin to argue back with Christ (e.g. Mt. 7:22), until eventually they realize their errors, stop speaking (Mt. 22:12) and gnash their teeth in anger against themselves (Mt. 22:13). This should truly be a sobering thought to us all. We must strive, really, to examine ourselves, to know ourselves, to try to see our motives and actions a little more from God's perspective; because it is His perspective, not ours, which is ultimately important; and it is this lesson which the day of judgment will ultimately teach each of us. Contemplation of the death of the Lord Jesus is intended to stimulate our self-examination and self-knowledge. Those who saw it " smote upon their breasts" (Lk. 23:48), an idiom only used elsewhere for true penitence and realization of personal sinfulness (Lk. 18:13). However, the lesson of how the Spirit writes in Heb. 11, the lesson of how God perceives Sarah's thoughts, is extremely encouraging and positive. Sarah would have been seen as an angry, frustrated old woman. And in her honest moments, probably she recognized that this was all she was, and this in turn probably made her the more bitter. But God saw the good in her which she herself probably didn't recognize, and which her surrounding world almost certainly didn't see; although He never revealed this to her during her mortal life.

So as and when we feel hypocritical, reflect on these examples of Sarah and Abraham and so many others. Remember too that it is a feature of our nature that we can believe and yet disbelieve at the same time. The father of the epileptic boy is the clearest example: " I believe; help thou mine unbelief" (Mk. 9:24). Some of " the Jews" and men like Nicodemus are described as believing, when it is evident that at the time they also harboured serious reserve. The disciples believed (Jn. 16:27; 17:8), and yet at the same time they disbelieved (Mt. 17:20; Lk. 24:25). They perhaps realized their half faith when they asked for their faith to be increased (Lk. 17:5). This is of itself shows that in practice, faith is not an absolute. Study 9 shows how several remarkable believers still had elements of disbelief and weakness in them, right to their dying moments. It is, sadly, only to be expected that we too have our hypocrisies now. This is not to preach complacency, rather an appreciation of what our nature and likely spiritual growth pattern is all about. 


Notes

(1) Gesenius comments on this: " The LXX...gives the meaning correctly" . See H.W.F. Gesenius, Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon p. 407 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1992 Ed.).