Monday, January 19, 2009

Sarah's Story

Alice C. Linsley

Sarah’s story is one of loss, long-suffering, hope and fulfillment. Though she was born a princess in the household of her father Terah, a high-ranking Hebrew ruler-priest, her life was not without troubles. She married her half-brother, Abraham. After their father died in Haran, Abraham's older brother Nahor ascended to rule over Terah's territory in Aram. Abraham was sent away to establish a territory of his own near a maternal uncle living in the region of the Negev.

Sent-away sons often lived with or near their maternal uncles. This is called "avunculocal residence." Jacob was sent away to live with his maternal uncle Laban. Moses was sent away to live with his uncle, Jethro, the priest of Midian. (The Midianites were descendants of Abraham by Keturah, Gen. 25). It is likely that Joseph, the son of Jacob and Rachel, was sent away to serve his maternal uncle Potiphar in Egypt. 

Sarah enjoyed the life of a wealthy, highborn woman. Her name is derived from the Akkadian word for queen: šarratum. Sarah's high social status was recognized by Pharaoh who was told of her beauty. From childhood, she had servants to attend to her needs. One was Hagar, Sarah's handmaid. 

Sarah had to leave her home and all that was familiar. When Sarah set out with Abraham for the land of Canaan, she was Abraham’s only wife. However, after Abraham relocated to the land of Canaan, he took a second wife, Keturah, his patrilineal cousin. This marriage arrangement was typical of the early Hebrew ruler-priest caste.

As the first wife, it was Sarah's responsibility to produce an heir for Abraham. Sarah's barren state was a cause of great sorrow for her. By the time she brought forth Isaac, Abraham's proper heir, Keturah had already brought forth six sons. Genesis does not say that Abraham married Keturah after Sarah died. It simply states that “Abraham married another wife whose name was Keturah.” The idea that he married her after Sarah’s death is implied by the order of the accounts of marriage and is reinforced by rabbinic tradition. Both Abraham and Keturah were descendants of Sheba the Elder (Gen. 10:7).

In her desperation, Sarah decided to use Hagar as a legal surrogate according to Horite/Hurrian law. Horite family law allowed for a concubine to bear an heir, and this is what Sarah had in mind when she encouraged Abraham to produce an heir by her handmaid Hagar. The son was to be born on Sarah’s lap, symbolically making the child Sarah’s offspring.

Analysis of the marriage and ascendancy pattern of the biblical Hebrew indicates that the proper heir was the firstborn son of the first wife, usually a half-sister. As Sarah was barren, Abraham could lawfully appoint Eliezer, the son of the concubine Mesek, to be the steward of his household. A steward is not the same as a proper heir. 

Mesek was probably Keturah’s handmaid. She is mentioned in the Septuagint, but not in the Masoretic Text. “Eliezer dam-Mesek” means “Eliezer blood/son of Mesek”. Dam mesek is erroneously taken as a reference to Damascus in some versions of the Bible. The appointment of a concubine's son as steward over Abraham's estate would have been "salt in the wound" for Sarah.

Two Wives in Separate Settlements

Two wives were instrumental in establishing and maintaining territorial boundaries. However, the birth of two firstborn sons raises the question: “Which is the ruler’s proper heir?” Among the early Hebrew the proper heir was the firstborn son of the first wife, usually a half-sister. That is why Isaac was Abraham's proper heir, and like his father, Isaac was a man of great wealth. He ruled over his father's territory in Idumea (ancient Edom). Like his ancestor Adam, Esau is associated with the red skin people.

Sarah settled in Hebron at the northern boundary of Abraham's territory. Her settlement was served by craftsmen, herdsmen, shepherds, and warriors. Likewise, Keturah's settlement in Beersheba was well provisioned with servants, metal workers, stone masons, herdsmen, potters, bakers, weavers, and warriors.

The wives' settlements marked the northern and southern boundaries of Abraham's territory. Abraham divided his time between the settlements of his two wives, and after Sarah died, he spent his last years in Beersheba.

The wives of Hebrew rulers exercised considerable influence over their settlements. Sarah ordered her Egyptian servant Hagar to leave the settlement and, though he loved his son Ishmael, Abraham conceded to Sarah’s demand (Gen. 21).

Both Hebron and Beersheba were in ancient Edom, the territory that the Greeks called Idumea, which means the land of red people. These are Jesus' ancestors and many of them are described as having a red skin tone like Adam, Esau, and David.

The biblical data suggests that Abraham controlled a sizeable territory that extended between Hebron and Beersheba and Ein Gedi and Gerar. This corresponds to ancient Edom, a territory associated with the Horite Hebrew (Gen. 36).

Settlements required permanent water sources. The major water systems of Abraham's territory included the Well of Sheba (Beersheba), the Spring of Abraham in Hebron, Ein Gedi, and wells in Gerar. Genesis 26:18 reports that Isaac, Abraham's heir, had to reopen the wells in Gerar.

Keturah's Descendants

Keturah had six sons, and these were clan chiefs who spread across Arabia. Among Keturah's people are the Joktanite clans of Arabia, descendants of Joktan, one of Keturah's sons (Gen. 25).

According to Genesis 23:1, Sarah lived 127 years. She died in Hebron and was buried in a cave in a field that Abraham purchased from a kinsman, Ephron the Hittite (Gen. 23:1-20). In this final act, Abraham honored his wife and half-sister through a costly purchase of land. Genesis 25:9 tells us that Abraham was buried there also.
And his sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, which is before Mamre; the field which Abraham purchased of the sons of Heth: there was Abraham buried, and Sarah his wife.

Related reading: Hebrew Rulers with Two Wives; Cousin Brides Among the HebrewSarah's Laughter; Abraham's Complaint; Abraham's Concubines; The Wives' Settlement Marked the Boundaries

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