Forty women 2. Sarai

The Old Testament is a book about infertility. Beginning with Sarai and ending with Elizabeth (whose story may be told in the New Testament, but nonetheless marks the end of the old covenant era), woman after woman fails to get pregnant. It’s all the more pointed because of the many women, named and unnamed, whose sole function in the narrative is to marry and have children. Mothers are ten a penny in the Old Testament. But the women we know, the women we remember, the women whose stories matter, those women are, much more often than not, barren.

And so it is with Sarai, the exceptionally beautiful wife of Abram. She’s followed her husband all the way from Haran into the land of Canaan. She’s gone down with him into Egypt to avoid the famine, and while they were there she even went along with his ridiculous plan to pretend she was his sister so that he wouldn’t be killed by Pharaoh. She’s gone back with him to Canaan and settled in Hebron. And in all that time, she’s remembered what God had promised her husband, that his descendants would become a great nation. Maybe she’d wondered, after all that time, whether God was ever going to keep that promise. Abram certainly did. He worried that he had no children, but then God reiterates the promise. Abram will have an heir of his own flesh and blood, and descendants more numerous than the stars in the sky.

What’s a woman to do, when her husband is supposed to be fathering a vast nation of descendants, but she can’t get pregnant?

She says to her husband, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” (Genesis 16:2)

The slave is to be no more than a surrogate. Her child will not be for herself. Her child will be a means for Sarai to build a family. Because after all, God has only promised that it will be Abram’s flesh and blood, not Sarai’s. And since she can’t have a child of her own, she’ll have to take the child of her slave and make him her own.

She’s resourceful. She’s desperate. And she’s cruel.

Because Hagar does sleep with Abram. She does get pregnant. And she does, as a result, begin to look down on her mistress. The shame of infertility, you see. But Sarai isn’t taking that, not from her slave. She whines to her husband, complaining that he’s done exactly what she wanted him to. And then she’s cruel. So cruel that Hagar, pregnant Hagar, a slave with nothing of her own and no man to protect her, prefers to run away rather than stay another day in Sarai’s household.

Infertility is a curse. When God tells Eve that he will multiply her pain in childbearing, he doesn’t just mean the pain of labour. Everything connected with childbearing is painful and difficult. Menstruation is painful and difficult. Pregnancy is painful and difficult. Labour is painful and difficult. Miscarriage is painful and difficult. Menopause is painful and difficult.

Infertility is painful and difficult.

Infertility makes Sarai desperate and destructive. She jeopardises her marriage, forces another woman into having sex with her husband, and then drives her out of the household, vulnerable and alone, into the wilderness.

And at the end of it all, Sarai is still childless. Because in the story that the Bible is telling about infertility, human intervention isn’t the answer. This isn’t a story about surrogacy, about IVF, or even about adoption, though all of those may be appropriate ways to respond to infertility now. The Bible is telling a different story, in which infertility is the setting for divine intervention.

Again and again, you see, the barren woman gives birth. The old woman, the overlooked woman, the first wife who may be loved, but isn’t blessed. The woman whose hope has long since died, even though her faith remains. The Lord makes his face to shine upon that woman, and is gracious to her.

Sarai’s actions are disgraceful. God’s response is grace.

Not only grace to give her a child. But grace to turn her desperation into true faith. Grace to turn her manipulation and cruelty into gentle obedience. Grace that transforms Sarai into Sarah.

Today I am thanking God for the gospel of grace which gives us all a new name, which transforms our desperation into true faith, our depravity into holiness, and our despair into hope.

Forty women: 3. Hagar