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The Egalitarian Marriage of a True Patriarch
by Dave Leigh
“For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.” (1 Peter 3:5-6, NASV-95)
It is clear that Peter holds Sarah up as an example for Christian wives to imitate. If we look at her example, then, what do we find?
Sarai agreed to lie to Pharaoh, not because Abram was her boss, but to guard his life, even if it cost her something of her own. This is how desperate they were upon entering Egypt (Ge 12:11-13). Once in Egypt, “the LORD afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai” — not because of Abram! (Gen 12:17, NRSV).
It was Sarai’s idea to bear children through her maid. Abram submitted to her wishes (Gen 16:2). “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife” (Gen 16:3). The slave girl was not Abram’s just because she was his wife’s. Hagar was Sarai’s to give. Even after Sarai regretted her decision and argued with Abram and blamed him for what resulted from it, and even after Hagar had become Abram’s wife, “Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (Gen 16:6). In other words, Abram recognized Sarai’s authority and submitted to it.
Since Genesis makes clear by repetition that it is the Lord who opens wombs, it is significant that Hagar gave birth to a son. God also honored Hagar with an angelic visit that included divine promises to her and her offspring (Gen 16:7ff). These promises are repeated only later to Abraham (Gen 17:20).
In Gerar, Abraham and Sarah use the same trick on Abimelech as they did on Pharaoh. Again, God intercedes for Sarah’s sake (not Abraham’s): “God came to Abimelech in a dream by night, and said to him, “You are about to die because of the woman whom you have taken; for she is a married woman”” (Gen 20:3). He did not say, “… because of her husband, for she is a married woman.” Moses also says “the LORD had closed fast all the wombs of the house of Abimelech because of Sarah, Abraham’s wife” (Gen 20:18) — again, not “because of Abraham,” but “because of Sarah”!
When Sarah finally bore Isaac, the birth was as much a fulfillment of promise to Sarah as to Abraham: “The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he had promised” (Gen 21:1).
When Sarah had finally had enough conflict with Hagar, she makes a unilateral decision about the slave. And the slave’s emancipation “was very distressing to Abraham” (Gen 21:11). This distress is a very curious thing if in fact Patriarchs are authoritative heads who rule their wives by divine decree. Why be distressed? Why not just override her decision? But not only did Abraham comply with Sarah’s wishes, so did God! God commands Abraham to submit to Sarah, saying “Whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you” (Gen 21:12). What’s more, Sarah commanded, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Gen 21:10). Not only was this authoritative for Abraham, but Paul takes her words as a scripturally authoritative command to the church in Galatians 4:30! Therefore, we are all required to submit to Sarah’s command.
In the end, Sarah’s grave became the first actual piece of Canaan (the promised land) that Abraham bought and possessed (Gen 23). How significant! Again we find a woman got it first!
What a remarkable woman this Sarah was! And what a remarkably egalitarian marriage this “Patriarch” had!
Yes, she obeyed and complied with her husband when he asked difficult things of her — matters of survival for them both. But she also received the respect of Abraham and of God, who honored her decisions — even when the decisions were somewhat amiss — and who treated her wishes as commands that had lasting authority for the elect.
And so the apostle Peter holds up Sarah and the other holy women of old as examples for women today, not because she was a doormat but because she was a model of a worthy partner. This is why in 1 Peter 3:6 he says, “You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you”? Sarah even serves as a reminder to husbands today that they are to “pay honor” to their wives (even if their wives seem fragile or weak to them), and that they are to treat their wives as equal partners (“co-heirs”) in life, or else have their prayers hindered (1Pe 3:7).
(c) Copyright 1999 Dave Leigh. All rights reserved. Used by permission.