This week’s parasha is called Chayyey Sarah or “The Life of Sarah”. Approaching things a little differently from what we’re used to, it begins with Sarah’s passing at the ripe old age of 127. Maybe you’ve heard that in Hebrew, while the is future behind you, out of sight; the past is in front of you: in clear view! This kind of idea helps us to understand Genesis 23:1–25:18.
The passage begins with the death of Sarah. Abraham then buys a field with a cave for the burial of his wife. Isaac is now without his mother, and in dire need of a wife! So, rather than letting him fall for a local Canaanite lady, Abraham sends his servant on a mission: “Go to Isaac’s cousins back in northern Syria and find him a good wife from our own family.” A little later, the servant dutifully returns with Rebekah, daughter of Abraham’s cousin. Encouraged by Isaac’s happy marriage, Abraham decides to remarry, and his new wife Keturah bears him six sons, including Midian. Finally, Abraham dies 38 years after Sarah, and is buried by both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael (who has been blessed with twelve sons of his own).
Numbers in Hebrew can always be represented by letters. The age of Sarah when she died, 127, is actually the same value as the word “the onion” (ha-batsal), and this parasha can be read as if we are peeling back one layer after another, to help us remember properly Sarah’s many-layered life. So, beginning from the end, let’s cut into it!
The first thing Abraham did following Sarah’s death was to buy a piece of land for her, rather than leaving her in someone else’s grave. God had promised him the whole land, but so far Abraham had not received one square foot of it! However, when God had earlier made a covenant promising to give the land of Canaan to his descendants (Genesis 15), Sarah cared so much about this promise that (being too old to bear children herself) she offered to let another woman give her husband children to inherit from him (Genesis 16). When Abraham later bought land in Hebron, this was a suitable memorial to Sarah’s own self-sacrificial faith in God’s permanent promise of the land.
Isaac needed comforting after his mother’s death (24:67), so Abraham sent his most faithful servant to find Isaac a suitable wife. God had re-named Sarah “princess” (Genesis 17), promising that she would be a mother of nations and of kings, and that His covenant would be established through her son Isaac. Abraham knew from personal experience how important it was for his son Isaac to have a strong, godly, noble woman of faith beside him, a mother of kings, like Sarah had been for Abraham.
Even when Sarah was 90 years old, just before she conceived her son Isaac, she was still so beautiful that Abimelech king of Gerar took her for himself when he was told she was available, being only Abraham’s “sister” (Genesis 20). Abraham continued to be satisfied with the wife of his youth (Proverbs 5:15-19) all the days of her life, and only when she died did he look to marry again. In a time when polygamy was legal, that was as much a credit to her character as it was to her physical appearance, because true beauty is of the soul, as the apostle Peter said about Sarah (1 Peter 3:1-6).
Finally, we often remember Sarah for the way she forced Abraham to make his concubine Hagar and her teenage son Ishmael refugees, nearly dying in the wilderness (Genesis 21). Although this seems harsh to us, God agreed with Sarah; if she had not done this, it is possible that Abraham would not have had strength to make sure Isaac inherited everything as God said he should. The final, most bitter layer of Sarah’s life was finally unpeeled at Abraham’s death, when both Ishmael and Isaac came together to bury Abraham. Ishmael had been blessed by God with sons, so he had been healed enough to honour Sarah and bury his father by her side in the cave of Machpelah.
Let us pray for the Arab people, the descendants of Ishmael, that they would experience the blessing of the God of Abraham upon them, giving them a fullness of spiritual children (like Ishmael’s twelve sons). Let us pray that when they receive God’s blessings, they would be able to honour Abraham’s wife of the covenant, Sarah, and her chosen descendants Israel. Let us also honour the wives and mothers God has given to us, so that our prayers, like Abraham’s, may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).
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Header image: Waaaaah postcard by Tricia J