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Sarah (fl. 3rd, 2nd, or 1st c. BCE)

Sarah (fl. 3rd, 2nd, or 1st c. bce)

Biblical matriarch. Name variations: Sara ("princess"); was originally named Sarai ("mockery"). Flourished in the 3rd, 2nd, or 1st century bce; married Abram later known as Abraham or Abrahim ("father of a multitude," although his original name appears to have been Abram, "exalted father"); children: Isaac (who married Rebekah).

Sarah's dates cannot be secured, since the historical era of Abraham cannot be established with any certainty. Indeed, suggestions range widely, from the 3rd to the 1st millennium bce. Originally, Sarah was named Sarai ("mockery"), while Abraham was known as Abram. In the Biblical narrative, Abram and Sarai were man and wife before they began their migration across the Fertile Crescent from the land of Ur, on the Euphrates River, to the Promised Land of Canaan, accompanied by Abram's father Terah and Abram's nephew, Lot. Terah died at Harran, leaving Abram (then 75 years old according to the Bible, making Sarai 65 at the time) to lead the Hebrews on their subsequent journey. Upon coming to Canaan and passing through Shechem, the Lord is said to have given all observable land to Abram and his descendants. However, a famine soon drove the nomadic tribes to Egypt.

Before entering that rich land Abram, knowing that the pharaoh would find Sarai irresistibly beautiful (if somewhat old by modern standards) and fearing his own murder if it became known that she was his wife, convinced Sarai to pretend that she was his sister. Thus fooled into thinking that Sarai was available, the pharaoh is said to have taken her into his harem, in return honoring Sarai's "brother" with gifts of many animals, slaves and precious metals. The Lord, displeased by the pharaoh's appropriation of the woman otherwise assigned, struck his house with plague. When the pharaoh learned that Sarai was Abram's wife, not his sister, he berated Abram for the deception and expelled the Hebrews from Egypt, albeit with all of the gifts he had previously offered.

The historicity of this episode is called into question by the appearance (somewhat later in Genesis) of an alternative version of the story. In this tale, Abram settled in the Negeb between Kadesh and Shur when Abimelech, the king of Gerar, sent for Sarai. In this version Sarai played Abram's half-sister (being of different mothers), and was released only after Abimelech received a dream from the Lord promising death if the king did not return Sarai to Abram at once. Again, Abram and Sarai are said to have been expelled from the vicinity, but not before receiving significant gifts.

Whatever truth may lie in these accounts, upon the Hebrews' return to Canaan the followers of Abram and Lot are said to have split: the former settling near Hebron and the latter in Sodom, in the Jordan River valley. Soon thereafter, it is recorded that Abram saved Lot (who had been captured by enemies of Sodom), whereupon the Lord reiterated his gift of Canaan to Abram and his descendants. These promises were beginning to wear thin with Abram and Sarai, for she had yet to bear her husband any children. Ten years out of Egypt and fearing her own barrenness, Sarai sought legitimate children through an established custom whereby she gave one of her slaves to Abram for child-bearing with the understanding that if the slave gave birth, Sarai would become the acknowledged mother of the child. The slave chosen for this duty was Hagar , of Egyptian origin. Abram lay with Hagar and impregnated her—to the joy of Sarai—that is, until Hagar came to make fun of Sarai for her inability to conceive. Put out by Hagar's insolence, Sarai approached Abram for support, but Abram threw the problem back to his wife. As a result and with Abram's tentative support, Sarai began to abuse Hagar, who fled. Thus stood affairs until the Lord intervened, inducing Hagar to return to her service with the promise that her child would be fruitful and produce for her countless descendants. Back with Abram and Sarai (now 86 and 76 respectively), Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who became (for the time being) Abram's heir.

Thirteen years later, the Lord is said to have appeared again before Abram to renew their covenant with additional promises that his descendants would be numerous, and with additional demands, including the first mention of circumcision. It was at this time that Abram was renamed Abraham and Sarai, Sarah. More to the point for the future, the Lord specifically promised that Sarah would bear a son. At this, the newly renamed Abraham laughed, for he believed that Sarah was well beyond the age of child-bearing. Somewhat later, when Sarah also learned of the Lord's promise, she too laughed, although she is said to have denied doing so when admonished by the Lord. Despite the skepticism of Abraham and Sarah, the Lord brought forth the long-anticipated child, for when Abraham was 100 and Sarah was 90, Isaac ("he laughed") was born. Thus, Abraham had two sons with different mothers, the older with a slave and the younger with his legitimate wife. Nevertheless, this did not long present a problem for precedence, for after Ishmael once ridiculed his younger half-sibling, Sarah approached Abraham and demanded that both Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Although Abraham initially balked at the prospect, the Lord induced him to act as Sarah demanded, and the pair was driven off, albeit under the Lord's protection.

Hagar (fl. 3rd, 2nd, or 1st c. bce)

Egyptian slave and Biblical woman. Flourished in the 3rd, 2nd, or 1st century bce; born in Egypt; children: (with Abraham also known as Abrahim) Ishmael.

As related in Genesis, Hagar was the Egyptian slave of Sarah , who was married to Abraham. Unable to have children, Sarah gave Hagar to her husband, in accordance with accepted custom, so that his line might continue. Upon becoming pregnant, Hagar mocked Sarah for her barrenness. Furious, Sarah took her revenge by treating Hagar so poorly that the pregnant woman ran away. She was stopped by an angel of the Lord, who told her to go back to Sarah. The angel also announced that she would give birth to a son and name him Ishmael, and that through Ishmael her descendants would be "too numerous to be counted." Hagar returned to Sarah and Abraham, and in due course her son Ishmael was born. According to the Bible, the angel's prophecy about her descendants was proved true, for through her son she became the ancestress of all Arabs.

Thus finally Sarah came to have what she had longed for, a son through whom she could help found a nation. Living to a ripe old age (127, according to scripture), Sarah predeceased Abraham, who purchased the cave/tomb of Machpelah near Hebron (although an alternative tradition places the site near Shechem) from a Hittite named Ephron as her final resting place. There Sarah was eventually joined by Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah , Jacob, and Leah —all major figures of early Hebraic history.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University

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