Playing With God

All things catechetical …

What’s in a Name?

You say Sarah, and I say Sarai … does the first matriarch’s name matter?  The Genesis writers clearly thought so, because Abraham and Sarah’s name change is a command from God, announced twice in Sarah’s case (Genesis 17:15 & 18:9-10).  But more of that later.  Before we get to the etymology, it is important to understand her situation.  She gets a bad press, and it really isn’t fair.


Genesis eleven details Abraham’s, and his relatives’ genealogies, but not his wife’s.  All we know about her is that ‘she was barren, for she had no children’.  Or perhaps ‘she was barren, in that she had no children’.  The text doesn’t say, for example, that God had prevented her from having children, as with the matriarch Rachel.  We don’t know why Sarah has no children.  Perhaps she and Abraham are just not having marital relations.


This suggestion is not frivolous.  I suspect Abraham loathes his wife.  They are certainly not portrayed having much of a relationship.   In chapter twelve, the couple relocates to Canaan, just as famine hits.  Rather than go home, they go to Egypt, and Abraham asks his wife to pass as his sister.  He claims this is to avoid him being victimised, should a hostile foreigner want her as a wife.  When she complies, he sells her to the king’s harem.  This is smoothed over in translation, but the text indicates that Abraham negotiates the sale.[1]  He has tricked Sarah into co-operating with her own trafficking.  God arranges her return, but there is no evidence that Abraham had any such plan.  Perhaps he intended getting rid of her all along.[2]


The painting above shows a touching reunion between a wife snatched away by a brutal king, and her relieved husband.  It is a romantic interpretation which owes little to Genesis, and a great deal to imagination.  Of course, if Abraham is the hero the church claims he is, this is the best way to treat the episode.  Unless we ignore it completely.


What can Sarah do?  Leaving is not an option, so how can she prevent the old git from trying again, next time the opportunity presents?  If she had borne him a child she would be safe, but she hasn’t, and getting pregnant now is going to be difficult.  Husbands who are sexually interested in their wives generally don’t sell them to harems.  The ancient world had a solution.  If you couldn’t give your husband children, you provided a surrogate who had them for you.  Sarah asks Abraham to have a child with her slave, Hagar.  Abraham agrees.  To refuse would be to admit he planned what happened in Egypt.[3]


Interpretations of Hagar’s status here differ.  She is variously a wife, a surrogate, or a ‘secondary’ wife.[4]  In fact, the Hebrew writers were very clever.  There is no word for ‘wife’ in Hebrew.  A man has a woman, or women.  So, there is already a level of double entendre when wives are discussed.  There is also a pun.  ‘To him’ sounds exactly like ‘not’.  Add in the flexibility of Hebrew syntax, and you could almost hear that Sarah is giving Hagar, NOT as a wife (or as a woman, even).  As the wording suggests, this situation is anything but simple.


Hagar and Sarah fall out before long.  Unsurprisingly, Sarah suspects Abraham of siding with Hagar, side-lining her.  He doesn’t argue, which suggests she is right.  When Hagar leaves (who can blame her?), God sends her back, but ultimately, she and her son are banished –  at Sarah’s command.  This is after Sarah has been trafficked a second time, and finally managed to have a son herself.  She is protecting her son’s inheritance, and I can’t fault her reasoning.  Abraham cannot be trusted.


What does this have to do with names?  Well, when God announces to Abraham that he and his wife are having a baby, he says: ‘You are no longer to call her Sarai, for her name is Sarah’.  As if he has been getting the name wrong.[5]  This makes little sense, but translate the names, and you get: ‘Stop calling her ‘my princess’.  Her name is ‘princess’.  In other words, ‘Abraham, stop acting like Sarah is your property.  She does not belong to you’.  It sounds like God is saying that husbands don’t own their wives.  So, Abraham’s God is quite feminist, at least where wives are concerned.  He is on Sarah’s side, against Abraham, throughout the story.[6]  The text implies, rather than spells out, that Sarah is God’s priority.  That priority is neatly encapsulated in this one statement about her name.


This is not to say that Genesis is without its problems.  It has a lot of slavery, and God views children very much as the property of their fathers[7] (cue God telling Abraham to sacrifice his son, ignoring the mother’s, or the son’s, opinion). Sarah is hardly perfect, but why should she be?  We don’t expect men to be paragons of virtue in our stories and legends.  Just human.  God taking Sarah’s part, protecting her from her husband’s more antisocial tendencies, shows that to enjoy divine favour, perfection is no more required of women than it is of men.  That must be encouraging.


Picture Credit: ‘Pharaoh gives Sarah back to Abraham’, Isaac Isaacsz, 1640.  Reijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  Public Domain, Permanent URL:

[1] Tammi J Schneider, Sarah: Mother of Nations (New York: Continuum, 2004), pp. 31-4.

[2] Ilona N Rashkow, The Phallacy of Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), pp. 42-5.

[3] Schneider, Sarah, p. 48.

[4] See, for example Schneider, Sarah, pp. 48-9.

[5] Schneider, Sarah, pp. 57-8.

[6] Schneider, Sarah, pp. 35-8.

[7] Ann Marmesh, ‘The Legacy of Abraham’, in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible, ed. by Mieke Bal (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press Ltd, 1989), (pp. 25–58), pp. 37-8.

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