7-3-2 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
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.
(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.).