The story of Abram and Sarai’s marriage is troubling. Abram treated his wife, Sarai, as his property and allowed men to use her as a prostitute. Had it not been for God’s intervention, who knows how many partners Abram would have forced Sarai to have. As a Christian woman, with a love for and personal relationship with God, I cannot overlook the truth that Abram was not a man of honor; rather, Abram placed no value on his wife, if a woman who is used by her husband and sold to other men for her beauty, can even be called such. For this reason, while reading Genesis 16, I enraged. Sarai’s pain is not duly dealt with in the text. We do not know where she came from just that she was beautiful and barren. The bible ascribes her meaning to these physical attributes not to her life or story of faith.
Sarai wanted to have children yet she was well beyond a traditionally accepted child bearing age. Since marrying Abram, Sarai had, had a rough life full of uncertainty, lots of moving, abuse, and oppression. As she reached the latter part of her life, she found herself married to a man who, at 75-years-old, believed that he had heard a word from God (Genesis 12), saying:
“Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.”
Sarai followed her husband faithfully and without question. Together they were heading to a promised land. Along the way, she would face unthinkable tragedies. In Genesis 16, Sarai concluded that God was not going to show up. She decided to find a solution to her problem without God. And, who could blame her? Sarai married Abram and left her home in search of a new, promised land. Her husband later lied to escape death by calling her his sister and profited from her body instead of fighting for her.
Sarai’s own husband gave her to be used as a prostitute in Pharaoh’s household.
Nevertheless, later in life, Sarai took matters into her own hands. After waiting her entire life to bear a child, Sarai believed that God was against her. Since God kept her from having children, Sarai decided to find a solution to her problem. In Genesis 16:2, it reads:
“… so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
While it is possible to perceive Sarai’s actions as selfish, there is much more to be seen in her life than a woman with baby fever. Sarai had a history of rape. The rape, however, was not before her marriage to Abraham, it was during. When a famine destroyed the food supply, Abram and Sarai went to Egypt. Once they got there – because of Abraham’s fear of death – Sarai ended up becoming the concubine of the pharaoh. We can find Abram’s thought process in Genesis 12:10, it reads:
10 Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. 11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.
Abraham abandoned his wife Sarai so that he could live in a land with food. There, he gained wealth and status by using her beauty to gain access to pharaoh’s favor. In short, she was raped and her marriage was defiled, while Abram lived well. Genesis 12 documents the horrific season that Sarai went through due to Abram’s fear and subsequent abandonment:
14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
This is one of the earliest examples of prostitution. A human being is used as property, assigned a value for their physical attractiveness and an owner is compensated for the use of the property. Abram’s fear and Sarai’s subsequent work as a prostitute was not God’s plan. It was Abram’s. Sarai is not the only woman who married a man and later learned that he was a coward, unwilling to fight for her honor, and willing to do what it took to eat and gain at her expense. And, Sarai is not the first woman to go along with her husband’s schemes perhaps believing she had no other choice. Perhaps, she also believed that he would be killed because of her beauty.
Regardless of the reasons for Sarai’s agreement with Abram’s scheme, I have compassion for Sarai. She was abandoned by her husband whom she had followed into the desert and she was raped in pharaoh’s palace while Abraham benefitted from her sexual slavery. The bible tells us that Abraham traded his wife for sheep, donkeys, cattle, slaves and camels.
17 But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. 18 So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? 19 Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” 20 Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had.
Something happens when a person participates in actions or schemes that diminish their human value. In their dehumanized body, they dehumanize others. This explains why victims of rape, racism, discrimination and other forms of oppression, can be seen using the very same tools to harm others. Thus, it is crucial that we are proactive about how we respond in these situations.
First, have faith in God. Fear is not of God. In 2 Timothy 1:7 it reads, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” What does this mean? This means that you are never at the mercy of anyone. If you are afraid, you must realize that you have power, love and a sound mind. With power, you know you cannot be harmed. With love, you know you can persuade others to act in the interests of humanity. And, with a sound mind, you can solve any problem you face. Reject the solution that reduces your humanity.
Second, for those of us who have already been through situations where we went along with a dehumanizing scheme prepared by someone we trusted, we must acknowledge that it was wrong . This is important. When Abram requested that Sarai be the sex slave of another man to save his own neck, he violated their marriage covenant. He was wrong. Because he was never held accountable for his actions, he eliminated the standards of fidelity in their marriage. Thus, when Sarai was looking for a solution to her problem of not having children, she forced Abram to do what he had forced her to do: to be a prostitute.
Finally, What struck me when I read the passage was how Sarai’s heart was darkened towards Hagar. Hagar was helpless as Sarai’s servant yet, because she could do something that Sarah couldn’t, Sarah hated her.
Not only was her relationship with God broken, her relationship with Hagar was broken. When Sarai took matters into her own hands, she harmed her servant Hagar who she forced to sleep with her husband so that she could have children. Once Hagar became pregnant, Sarai became jealous and mistreated her. Hagar resented her. Sarai’s decision harmed the people close to her and caused a child to be born into circumstances of desperation and confusion. But what’s more, Sarah, who had never given birth before, only saw the outcome and felt jealous. She did not understand what it took to conceive, carry and birth a child; she only cared about the outcome that she could not produce. Sarai also did not consider the pain that Hagar must have felt from being forced to sleep with another woman’s husband. Sarai, who had not given birth before, did not know what it meant to nurse and care for a child. Sarai’s pain led her to dehumanize Hagar, seeing only her ability and not her human needs as a woman who may want her own husband and children not to be someone’s concubine. She only considered her own selfish wants — seeing the results and wanting them with no understanding of the great sacrifice of self required to give birth.
Sarai teaches us that when you take matters into your own hands you harm your most intimate connections: your marriage, your family, those who work for you, your very self. Those who trust in you face the consequences of your actions – the very actions that you took because of your feelings of inadequacy. You become obsessed with an outcome coming about in your own time. In her self-interest, Sarai lacked empathy, caring about nothing more than her own wants.
Sarai’s treatment of both God and Hagar reflect her damaged relationship with herself. Have you ever felt jealous because of someone else’s ability? Has it ever bothered you that someone could do something that you believed you couldn’t? Did you treat them wrongly because they were capable of doing that thing? Why did you do it? I believe that jealousy is a reflection of brokenness that creates a perceived need or lack within oneself. If you have been victim of abandonment or schemes that left you feeling dehumanized like Hagar, acknowledge that what happened to you was wrong and seek to process your experience. Here is a resource that I highly recommend for those who want to think about and process their past pain: