From the Margins: Sarah’s Story

Soul Thirst

I am called Sarah—Sarai until God changed my name. Sarah. Princess.

For much of my life I thought the title a cruel joke. Princess, I asked God, of what? I felt more a slave than royalty. In the young days of our marriage, we were settled alongside our kin in Haran. I thought it would always be so. Then God came to my husband and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” So my husband went and, because I am his wife, I too, left what was known to me to follow Abraham’s faith.

In those young days I was beautiful. My husband’s eyes softened when they gazed on my face. And yet my beauty, when married to my husband’s fear, cast me into danger and humiliation. It happened this way. Hunger drove us from God’s promised land into Egypt. Abraham, fearful that my beauty would lead to his death, commanded me to declare myself his sister only. We were half-brother and half-sister, for we came from the same father’s seed. But I was also Abraham’s wife and not allowed to claim my role when Pharaoh’s eyes fell on me.

Pharaoh took me into his household to make of me a concubine. I will never forget walking through those wide and sunlit halls, the sheer raiment the people wore, their strange customs and language. Sick with terror, I tried not to imagine my future even a day hence in this place, much less a lifetime. Would I die, old and abandoned, in this place?

But, God be thanked, Pharaoh proved to be an honorable man. When he discovered the ruse, he set me free.

The years went forward. God’s promise of children seemed as dry to me as my empty womb. Each month, when the bleeding came on me, I wept as with a death. God still spoke promises to Abraham, but my husband told me nothing; perhaps he sought to spare me the ravages of hope. In time nature took from me all possibility of bearing the promised child. I did not bleed, but not because a child was growing in my womb. Rather, because age grew there. Death seemed nearer to me than life.

Thinking God must have promised a son to Abraham, but not to me, I offered my Egyptian slave, Hagar, to Abraham as a wife. Her ripe womb bore Abraham a son of long waiting. But then Hagar turned her eyes on me in disgust. She was the princess and I the slave, useful only for kicking. I begged my husband to intercede, as was the law of our people: he was to judge between his two wives. Abraham said I might do with Hagar as I liked, so I unleashed on her the full rage of my bitterness. I did to her all my position allowed me to do and she bore all her position demanded she bear. Until her soul could swallow my abuse no longer; she fled with her son into the desert.

God cared for Hagar there, just as God cared for me in Egypt. She returned to us for a season and I thought her child, Ishmael, must surely be the son God promised Abraham. I took some small solace for having arranged the match, setting aside my place as Abraham’s only wife. I had given my husband his nation; I tried to be content.

My name became “Old Sarah,” its meaning long forgotten. It was too laughable—a ninety-year-old princess.

And then they came: three strangers emerging from the distant dust, making their way to our tent. As our hospitality code required, Abraham set me to work baking bread from our choicest flour while our servant prepared a calf. I busied myself, preparing and serving. My task complete, I hid in the tent folds and listened. A woman in my situation, after all, has few diversions. I could not join the conversation, but I could sit at the edge of it.

One of the visitors, whose voice at once calmed my body and awakened it with curious emotion, spoke to Abraham as if they were friends of long acquaintance: as if they simply took up a conversation left unfinished. I caught snatches…Sarahson. For the first time, the absurd combination moved me to merriment rather than bitterness. Laughter exploded before I could remember myself and repress it.

“Why did Sarah laugh and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” the man asked my husband. “I shall return in due season,” the stranger continued, “and Sarah shall have a son.”

Shamed for having been caught listening, fearful of a man who would speak so sharp and strange, I denied it. But the man would have none of my dissembling. This time he spoke directly to me: “Oh, but you did laugh.”

And I am laughing now, for the stranger made true his promise. I hold in my arms a miracle son. How God produced such hearty fruit from such an ancient womb, I know not. But neither do I care. I never knew my heart could grow so tender until this boy child nestled into my body and slept in my arms. I am a princess, bold and strong, and full of laughter.

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