Sarah died in Hebron. In Genesis 23, we’re told that after she died, “Abraham came to mourn.” Where did he come from? He likely came from the field or wherever he happened to be when he heard the news of her passing. The Bible here does not give us a distant statement of the historical fact of her death; it’s a close and personal scene shown in real time. We’re presented with Abraham walking into the tent, perhaps passing by quiet and mournful servants, joining Isaac, and weeping over the loss of his wife.
Most of the chapter is dedicated to the procedures of acquiring possession of a piece of land following the customs of the native dwellers. The formalities stand in contrast to the tenderness of the opening scene. But the exchange shows Abraham’s heart. He wants to bury Sarah in the land that God promised to him. He acts graciously and appropriately, showing respect for the people around him as befits the man through whom God will bless all nations. He demonstrates faith in his calling, counting as faithful the One who called him. Abraham surrounds the memory of Sarah with acts of faith. He buries her in anticipation of promises to come. The text repeats several times the fact that Abraham obtained as his own possession this land in Hebron in Canaan. This is clearly a very important event for Abraham. He wants those who think on this grave to know that he and his family believed God.
We’re told in Galatians that those who have faith in God are children of Abraham. To the extent that we as Christians are children of faithful Abraham, we are also children of faithful Sarah. When Jesus presented a picture of the afterlife to His Jewish listeners, He spoke of the righteous resting near Abraham. I’ve often wondered, “What did Abraham picture when he thought about his existence after death?” No patriarchs had gone before him, so I imagine that, just as he was buried next to his beloved wife in death, he looked forward to an eternal life by her side. Abraham loved Sarah, and he made her burial a memorial to the faith that had brought them to this land. And if we want to follow in the faith of Father Abraham, it’s fitting that we take time to reflect on the life of Mother Sarah, the first person of millions to leave this world clinging to God’s promise to Abraham.
Sarah lived a long life. As a rule, you never ask a woman how old she is. The Bible generally follows this rule, but Sarah is an exception. As if highlighting her close, familial relationship to the faithful, God has set her apart as the only woman whose exact age is preserved in Scripture. She was in her late eighties when she heard that she would have a child. She laughed because she thought she was old then. I wonder if she even imagined that she would live another forty years, able to see that promised child grow to be a man.
When we think of Sarah, we often think of the woman who laughed at God’s promise. We’ve heard the stories and seen flannelgraph pictures of Sarah lurking behind the tent curtain, her hand stifling her snickers of disbelief while her husband fellowships with God. We ourselves chuckle at her surprise and her fearful fumbling for an excuse when God reveals that He heard even her inner thoughts. It’s unfortunate that the life of this woman, the most-mentioned woman in the Bible, is so often remembered in terms of her failures. Because what was her failure? She saw God at work around her. She heard the words of His promises. She busied herself in His service, but not so much that she was unable to hear His directions. And when she saw the circumstances around her, when she was unable to understand with her human mind how God could fulfill His promise, and when her own limitations seemed great and out of her control, her immediate response was to quietly express her doubts and amusement at the thought of what God was suggesting.
Rather than dismissing her as faithless, perhaps we would do better to ask ourselves how often we do the same. How often do we read the promises of God, that He will never leave us or forsake us, that He gives grace to the humble, that He always makes a way to escape temptation, that He works all things out for the good of conforming us to the image of Christ, and then, even during the very act of serving Him, doubt that all is as He says it is? In those moments, are we tempted to stop our acts of service until we can see things more clearly? Because Sarah didn’t. Despite her disbelief, she continued in humble obedience. I think more often we stop serving altogether and treat our sin of doubt with indifference, showing even less faith than Sarah. And yet God treats us, as He treated Sarah, with kindness and continuous grace.
So let’s not see her only as a negative example, but as a reminder of the hope that we have in Christ. Let’s remember that when she received the promised son, she laughed again, not out of faithlessness, but out of a joy in God’s miraculous provision, a joy that only comes from faith. Sarah reminds us that times of doubt do not separate us from the love of God or the certainty of His promises, that our victory does not come from the quality or the quantity of our faith, but in the strength, goodness, and reliability of the One that we have put our faith in. In her wisdom, Sarah foresaw this truth and wanted to be remembered in this way. When Isaac was born, she said, “God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.” So when we think of Sarah, let’s laugh with the joy that comes from serving a good and faithful God.
Perhaps we remember Sarah as the woman who convinced Abraham to have a child with her slave Hagar. We picture the faithless wife who troubles and leads astray her godly husband. We frown disapprovingly at her lack of trust in God’s power and at her disobedient choice to follow her own path, and we feel the frustration of Abraham having to deal with this woman that God has given him. How unfortunate when we think of her whom the Bible calls our mother only in terms of her sinfulness. Because what was her sin? She knew the promise of God to her husband. She said, “Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing.” She saw her own shortcomings as a trial that God had given to her. She was confused by the apparent contradiction between the promise that she rightly believed God would fulfill and the situation that she rightly believed God had placed her in. She reacted with a decision to pursue a path that failed to take seriously part of God’s directions.
Rather than proudly judging her actions, perhaps we would do better to reflect on how often the same kinds of thoughts enter our own minds. Do we ever see a contradiction between what we know is true from God’s Word and what we know that God has providentially allowed to happen in our lives? When that happens, how often do we feel that there is some hidden aspect of God’s will that we need to figure out in order to fulfill His purposes? Without excusing the sinfulness of her actions, we can actually see something positive in how Sarah, rather than lashing out in anger at her situation, submitted herself to what she saw as the will of God. She showed enough confidence in God’s Word to believe that there must be a solution, even a solution that meant sacrificing a piece of her relationship with her husband. When we’re in a similar situation and we simply stop trusting altogether or choose to live as if God’s Word isn’t true, we’re showing less faith than Sarah showed at her lowest point. And yet God does not reject us when we disobey, just as He didn’t reject Sarah.
So when we think of her transgression, let’s not judge her character or her standing before God. Instead, let’s remember the hope that we have in a God who takes all things, the good and the bad, even the bad that we make for ourselves by following our pride and self-sufficiency, and works them together to grow us into the image of Christ. It was after the incident with Hagar that God gave her the name Sarah, or Princess. Our sinfulness can never quench His love or nullify His promises, and His promises always lead to a mature faith and glorious blessing.
When we think of Sarah, we may remember how twice her jealousy and anger sent Hagar into the wilderness—once when she was afraid that Hagar threatened her rightful place as Abraham’s wife, and once when she feared that Ishmael threatened Isaac’s rightful place as the sole inheritor of the promise. We shake our heads sadly at the lack of love and compassion, the pride at work in her that drove her to look down on her servant and to disregard the feelings of her husband. She feared that Hagar was usurping the place of blessing that rightfully belonged to her, even right after God showed His faithfulness to her in giving her a son. We see Hagar, the powerless slave, persecuted by people who were supposed to be her examples, providers, and protectors, a woman who so often found herself in need of special comfort from God, and we sympathize with her, as well we should. We recognize selfishness in the actions of Abraham and Sarah, as well we should. But just as we forgive the faults of Abraham, the one who actually spoke to God as a friend, in light of God’s justification, how much more should we forgive Sarah, who did not have the same advantage of God’s direct revelation?
Rather than merely holding Sarah up as a shameful example of someone who disrespects and mistreats people, perhaps it would be more helpful to compare her attitudes and actions to our own. Do we ever forget about the effect that our actions have on the people around us? Do we fail to think about how easily we can hurt the people closest to us? Or perhaps we know perfectly well how we can cause pain and frustration to others and deliberately decide to do so. When we feel that our rights are being taken away by our circumstances, by our fellow Christians, by Republicans, Democrats, or immigrants, do we respond by clinging to God’s blessings rather than to God? Do we ever act so that the people responsible for our own losses, or even the people who simply don’t sympathize enough with us, will experience their own loss and have a taste of what we’re going through? In this we are no more righteous than Sarah. And yet the Holy Spirit holds her up in 1 Peter, not as an example of disrespect or rebellion, but as a picture of Christian love, respect, and deference to a leader chosen by God, as a model for wives who seek Christlikeness in their relationships with their husbands.
So let’s see in Sarah a picture of hope in the God who brings peace. He graciously brings peace between us and Himself, and He spreads that peace out over our relationships with each other. He digs out the poisonous roots of bitterness from our hearts, even the ones we plant ourselves, and plants His love there instead. Let’s see in Sarah a model of faith in the God who loved us first, who had compassion on us first. Hers was a faith lived out in countless acts of obedience, leaving her pagan homeland to sojourn with her husband, finally being laid to rest in the promised land by her miracle son and loving husband. Let’s rejoice in a God who takes us, hateful and violent as we are, and uses us by His grace to bring glory to Himself and to show the world that He makes all things new.
The testimony of Sarah, the normal woman chosen by God to be a princess, the mother of a holy nation, a sinner justified by God’s grace through faith alone, has earned her a fitting place in the inscriptured Hall of Faith of Hebrews 11. The New Testament here gives an example of how we should view her life. She is a picture, not merely of a broken and sinful person—we have enough pictures of that already—but of what God can do despite human weakness. Sarah, who was unable in herself to bear a child, was the one chosen to bear the promised child through whom the salvation of the world would eventually come. And we, who are unable in ourselves to produce any righteousness before God, have been chosen, like Sarah, to receive by faith the power to bear fruitfully the gracious gifts of God.
When Abraham died, he chose to be buried with Sarah in the burial place he possessed in the promised land, sharing the certainty of a final fulfillment of God’s covenant. He was followed by Isaac and Rebekah, then Jacob and Leah, all of them buried in the same place. All of them demonstrated a shared understanding that the resting place of Sarah, surrounded by a land that was not her own, was a picture of faithful hope. Hers is a death that leads to a rest in God and in His Son, who is before Abraham, and that looks forward to when we can declare,
“Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? … Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“And this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith.”
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”