What Happened to Sarah?

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vector_Binding of Isaac

 

Remember the Bible story about god asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? Did you ever think about Isaac’s mother Sarah? Did god consult her about this proposed sacrifice of her son? Did Abraham?

But before we look at these questions, we need to go back a bit in time, back a lot actually, to see how the role of women was dramatically changed through monotheism. Archaeologists have found hundreds of clay figurines, some dating from 25,000 years ago, that are predominantly representations of females. The female was undoubtedly venerated because of her ability to produce children and continue the tribe. As more formal religions developed in later eras, both female and male deities appeared. By the second millennium BCE, the female goddess started to loose her place. The epic Enuma Elish in Mesopotamia dates from this time. In this story Marduk, one of the male gods, makes a deal to become the chief god. To achieve this stature, he agrees to kill the top female goddess, Tiamet. He succeeds and becomes the head of the pantheon. Remember that the leaders of the Israelites spent fifty years as captives in Babylon and were familiar with this story. In writing the Genesis account, which in some ways resembles scenes in Enuma Elish, they created the first religion without any female goddesses. Yahweh, their god, is the sole god and he is characterized as a male.

Now back to the story of Abraham and Isaac. You may remember Abraham’s wife Sarah was at first barren. Because she could not give Abraham the son he needed to carry on his line (all property passed through males), Sarah agreed to give her maid Hagar to Abraham. A son named Ishmael was born of that union. When Sarah was very old, well beyond her childbearing years, Yahweh told Abraham that Sarah was going to bear him a son. Notice how god took over the fertility theme normally associated with women and goddesses. In this and other stories in the Bible, it was god who made barren women fertile, especially when someone important was going to be the result. Sarah ends up bearing a son and he is called Isaac.

Yahweh decided to test Abraham’s commitment and fidelity to him by asking Abraham to sacrifice his precious son Isaac. Child sacrifice was evident in religions in this same region so it is possible that this story is a turning point in that practice for the Israelites. It is hard to believe that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son if this was not a known practice. In other stories in the Bible, children were indeed sacrificed.

As Abraham prepared to kill his son by raising the knife above his body, an angel of Yahweh interceded and provided a ram to be sacrificed instead, saving Isaac who became the patriarch of the tribe.

Carol Ochs explains this shift to patriarchy as abandoning the first allegiance of a matriarchy, which is to one’s offspring and tribe. She states that in this passage Abraham is renouncing this allegiance by his willingness to kill his child in favor of an alternative, i.e. an abstract obedience to God.[1]

In Sunday school and church, I heard this story numerous times. However, it was just recently that it occurred to me how much Sarah was left out of this story. It is as if she didn’t exist. She bore the son and then her job was done.

In a strong patriarchy such as that in place throughout the Old Testament, women rarely made important decisions or were even consulted. Virtually all the prophets in the Old Testament were men and the same was true for almost all the tribal leaders. Christian Apologists like to respond to this fact by stating that “Well, that’s just the way it was back then.”

But the Bible is not an ancient history text describing wars and battles. It is supposed to be the divine word of god to his chosen people. An omnipotent god could easily have told his people to create a society where women and men are equal. That this didn’t happen is one more piece of evidence that the Bible was written by men, about men, and for men.

It’s time for women to say goodbye to this religion.

 

I am always looking for contributions to my blog. If you are interested in writing, you can contact me here. Karen GarstScreen Shot 2015-07-08 at 3.06.28 PM

 

[1] Ochs, Carol. (1977) Behind the Sex of God. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, p. 46.

 

About the Author Karen Garst