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With Child: Meditations on the Meaning of Motherhood

February 3, 2010

The following is the first post in a series, With Child: Meditations on the Meaning of Motherhood. Join me as I study the mothers of the Bible and discover what lessons can be learned from their lives. Come back each week for a new post in this series . . .

Sarah: A Woman of Paradox
Gen. 16-18

“Hi, my name is Sarah and I’m barren.”

Like the introduction of an alcoholic at an AA meeting, Sarah’s barrenness was worn as a defining shame.

It’s hard for me—living in the 21st century—to understand the shame that would have accompanied barrenness. I understand, perhaps, the disappointment. Imagine the sadness. But it’s hard to comprehend that for a woman in the age and culture that Sarah lived in, producing children—and more importantly a son—was what defined a woman’s life and worth. And to not have the prestige of bearing children would have been more than devastating.

Barrenness is what I first discover about Sarah, wife of Abraham. Then I learn that she was very beautiful and about that little incident in Egypt. But it’s in Genesis 16 the real woman begins to emerge: someone impatient with God’s timing and lacking trust in His plan. Someone who took matters into her own hands. Someone I can identify with.

Sarah decides through Hagar, her maidservant, to “obtain a child” (16:1). She talks Abraham into the idea and forces Hagar to marry and have sexual relations with Abraham. Hagar’s a slave, so her thoughts or feelings on the subject were of no account. Hagar conceives.

Hagar felt she now had one up on her mistress. Perhaps she resented being forced to marry Abraham. Or perhaps she was proud she’d moved up a bit in the world. Whatever her motives, Hagar now has what Sarah wants. And Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress” (16:4).

As dramatic as a soap opera, things get pretty tense in Abraham’s tent. Sarah—instead of repenting for her actions—now blames the whole thing on Abraham and takes her frustration and anger out on a pregnant Hagar by dealing with her harshly. And Hagar runs. I’ll get back to Hagar in another post. She deserves one all of her own.

We see here Sarah at her worse. “Sarah had degraded herself. She had learned what destructive powers a person can unleash in [herself] when [she] wanders away from God” (Her Name is Woman, Gien Karssen). But there is hope for Sarah, just as there’s hope for us.

Hagar comes back and life goes on for a while.

Then three mysterious visitors arrive.

When the three visitors reveal that in a year she’ll have a child, Sarah laughs over this news and then denies laughing, out of fear. This was the first time Sarah’s had a personal experience with God, so bit of holy trembling would be expected. Up to this point Abraham has been the one who’d received words from the Lord. No doubt he shared these experiences with Sarah, but not having had these experiences personally may have contributed to Sarah’s unbelief thus far. But this time news is not related second-hand. Sarah meets the holy visitors herself and is personally promised her son.

God’s promise to Sarah comes true. Sarah’s joy overflows when she exclaims, “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh over me. . . .Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age” (21:6-7).

Looking back at these episodes, I see the negative example of Sarah being impatient and not trusting God, despite the many promises she’d received from Him. Yet this is not her legacy. It is not how she’s remembered. Her failures are there for me to relate and to learn from. I might not ask my husband to marry a slave and have a child with her for me, but in what other ways do I act in unbelief towards God’s promises and strike out on my own?

But, despite all these examples of unbelief, Sarah is the first woman recorded in the list of “Heroes of Faith” in Hebrews. “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Hebrews 11:11, emphasis mine). And Peter commends Sarah’s inner beauty and lifts her up as an example for other women to follow. Could this be the same woman we see in Genesis?

Yes, because “her faith, majestically illustrated at the birth of Isaac, grew during her long life. Life had requested many sacrifices from Sarah. She abstained from many things she loved and wanted. She experienced hardships and disappointments. . . . She was flexible in changing situations. She adjusted herself to her husband. By her obedience to Abraham, she allowed him to obey God” (Her Name is Woman, Gien Karssen).

The woman who once struggled with unbelief is now known for her faith. What a paradox! But isn’t that like God? To take our biggest struggles and work something good out of it? Even if my faith is faltering today, there is hope. There is hope I too may become a woman and a mother of faith.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Bethany permalink
    February 4, 2010 11:15 am

    This is great Danielle!!

  2. February 4, 2010 12:32 pm

    “Since she considered him faithful who had promised…”

    She didn’t when she laughed. But sometime in the course of her life, in the course of that next year, she believed God to be faithful.

    I just love Sarah’s story. She was so human, yet God chose her, and revealed Himself to her in this, her barrenness-become-fruit. It makes me want to cry.

    I’m totally looking forward to the rest of this series, Danielle.

  3. February 4, 2010 2:32 pm

    This was so encouraging. I love stories in scripture where God radically changes ordinary individuals. It gives me hope for the areas that i think will never change. thanks for taking the time to write this, Danielle. It really blessed me today.

  4. February 4, 2010 3:54 pm

    Thanks ladies, for your encouragement! And so glad you were blessed, Laurie, considering all the many times your writing/speaking/life has blessed me . . .

  5. February 4, 2010 4:18 pm

    I’ve related to Sarah in the past — she is, after all, a control freak…a woman of my own heart. And as Kelly said above, she’s so human, so flawed…yet God chose her anyway. That gives me hope.

    Thanks for this very insightful post, Danielle!

  6. February 5, 2010 8:49 pm

    Great insights, Danielle!


  1. Rebekah: A Legacy of Division « Dancing by the Light
  2. Jochebed: Brave Trust « Dancing by the Light
  3. Hannah: A Woman of Prayer « Dancing by the Light
  4. The Widow of Zarephath: A Faith that Lives « Dancing by the Light
  5. Elizabeth: Faith for the Barren Years « Dancing by the Light
  6. Mary: A Humble Heart « Dancing by the Light
  7. Mary: A Humble Heart » Danielle Ayers Jones

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