On the plain of Ur, the land of Abraham and his bride
When Abraham left Ur to go to the land of Canaan, he was not alone. At his side was a beautiful woman, taken, untraditionally, from outside the clan. From the pages of the Bible that brings Sarah’s story to us –amidst the interweaving of silences and passions, expectations and frustrations, exploits and deceptions-, hers seems to be reflected in the stories of many women today.
On Sarah’s journey, there is no room for a sense of pride for having been chosen: introduced into Abraham’s family, she finds herself caught up in an oppressive relational system that has been established by her father-in-law's narcissism.
The nickname by which Sarah is called bears the sign of this oppressive situation: not “Sarah”, the “princess”, but “Saray”, where the final “Y” indicates the possessive “my”. By enclosing her in the possession of others, this takes away her dignity and capacity to react. After all, it is not only she, as a woman, who is encompassed, but also her husband; while the latter absorbs the relational mode in which he is immersed to the point of making it his own and by replicating it, Sara suffers it until she manifests the pains of the soul in her body and becomes sterile.
It is a tragedy. Sarah’s tragedy is like that of many women. At the beginning, she lives in silence, hoping that what is happening is untrue; in the disbelief that it has happened to her. There is perhaps the illusion of finding her fulfilment elsewhere, for the man who walks beside her is unable to comprehend, and hence treats her like a sister. Is she loved? Yes, but not desired. Therefore, Sarah, who is present but silent at her husband’s side for a long time, follows the same path, and the anger and frustration builds as she does so. At first, she lets him decide on her behalf, but when she is handed over to the Pharaoh’s harem in exchange for security and goods, she explodes. Life presents her with the sum of so many years of compromise and when her dignity is violated, she is used, and no longer feels like a “woman”. Without children and without a future, where can she rebuild her existence? In the search for a culprit to blame for a failure that is too heavy to bear, Sarah accuses God.
Moreover, and more besides, so she tries everything, for this her sense of lack has become an obsession. Therefore, Sarah draws on a resourcefulness that she had never shown before, and in her search for a human solution to her malaise, pushes an Egyptian woman, one of his slaves, into Abraham’s arms. This is her way, she hopes, of procuring a son, on whom she projects her fulfilment as a woman. However, this solution, which was culturally accepted in Mesopotamia in the second millennium BC -and not dissimilar in substance to today's medical procedures-, does not go to plan. The pregnant Egyptian woman called Hagar is no longer willing to keep her word, and following the birth, she decides to keep the child and the position she has acquired. The solution devised to remedy her pain concludes by amplifying the heartbreak. The child, called Ishmael, is Abraham and Hagar’s son, not Sarah’s. In this added adversity, and because the situation has turned against her, Sarah challenges God to be the guarantor of her right. Sara’s prayer is not a prayer, but the clumsy outcome of someone’s resentment, of whom feels unconsidered by the God of life with whom her husband is in intimate contact. This is not an invocation, but her prayer will be answered. Sarah becomes a mother late in life, despite having reached the physical limits of old age, despite having gone beyond the spiritual limit of someone who has lost hope and has buried her desire. God’s intervention for Sarah is the healing of relationships, and Abraham begins to call her by her real name, henceforth Sarah is transformed. She is no longer the resentful and bitter woman, who is angry with God and the world. She no longer sees herself excluded from life, and in her struggle to feel like a woman, uses others, but creates the conditions for her own unhappiness with her own hands as she does so. Nor is she the disappointed and disenchanted old woman who feels worn out, worn out and discarded like an old and threadbare dress, but who laughs when the word of promise touches the limit of her impalpable faith. God’s intervention has made her generative potential explode: as her body is made capable of conceiving life, so her attitude and her words reveal tenderness and acceptance. With Isaac’s birth, Abraham and Sarah rediscover harmony, between themselves and with the Lord.
Sarah is the only biblical woman whose entire life span is known to us. Sarah died at the age of one hundred and twenty-seven, a figure that evokes a sense of superabundant fullness. Her life is paradoxically ordinary in its extraordinary nature. Many “Sarahs” in every age live long years in silence in the shadow of one or more men. They die in environments that stifle individuality and the free expression of their own identity. They adapt and endure, until they reach their limit and bear these signs on their bodies. They are willing to go to whatever lengths, just to have a child. They discover life’s potential in old age. They experience, amidst hardships, inconsistencies and protests, their faith as a tormented path. Sara offers them hope, and God’s visitation is a path of authenticity and fullness that brings them back to their own identity and makes life abundant.
by Laura Invernizzi
Diocesan Auxiliary (Milan), biblical scholar, professor of the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy and the Catholic University of Sacred Heart.