The Women’s World of the House Church

The Women’s World of the House Church

Modern readers of the New Testament naturally impose familiar surroundings when reading the ancient words of the Bible. Think about it. When you read that Paul sent a letter to a church, do you imagine a group of people sitting in neat rows listening to a reader up on a platform? This is our idea of a church meeting. The reality of the first century church gatherings is worlds apart.

Immediately after the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the Jewish believers in Jesus began to meet in homes.¬†In the house environment, they ate together and also taught Jesus’ words. Paul began each work in a new city by visiting the synagogue, but in every case, the gathering of believers ended up in someone’s personal abode.

And day by day, attending the temple together and¬†breaking bread in their homes…¬†Acts 2:46

And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. Acts 5:42

…Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he¬†dragged off men and women … Acts 8:3

¬†and teaching¬†you in public and¬†from house to house…¬†Acts 20:20

Greet also the church in their house. Romans 16:5

Aquila and Prisca, together with¬†the church in their house…¬†1 Corinthians 16:19

… Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier, and the church in your house… Philemon 1:2

…and to Nympha and the church in her house. Colossians 4:15

¬†DomusitalicaNow lets tackle our perceptions of what an ancient first century house was like. Much of our understanding of Roman houses comes from upper-class Pompeii and Herculaneum. A Roman domus, even the modest ones, would have rooms centered around a central courtyard. Simple houses in Palestine tended to have one central room with an open courtyard in front, and an extra “room” on the roof.

Based on this, consider the physical space of the early house churches. Some were in upper class villas, where there was ample space to divide the service along traditional gender lines, but in the vast majority of domestic structures, there was no room for segregation. Women and men worshiped physically together in the same spaces. Children and animals would be present either physically or within earshot.

Not only was the layout and architecture different from ours, the customs around the house and home life contrast with our modern practices. The home was the domain of women, not men. We see glimpses of this ancient mindset in Proverbs 31, where the wife governs the household affairs. Socrates mentions that the husband and wife are partners in the Roman estate: the wife at home and the husband in public. Philo states that a wife has full authority at home. Hospitality is a key virtue for women in the early church. In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul instructs the married women to be the master of their own house. A wife with good management skills was prized in Roman times. The presence of wives, mothers and widows in the house churches enabled the first churches to blend the traditional female sphere of home with the traditionally male public sphere.

‚ÄúTo step into a Christian house church was to step into the women‚Äôs world.‚ÄĚ (1)

The locale of the church inside of homes led Pliny the Younger and Celsus to criticize the Christians. Because the home is under the rule of women,  they considered Christianity an assault on Roman masculinity.

In is notable that Christian women did not exercise unique leadership roles in the early church, but they reflected the social and cultural shift of a woman’s place in this time. At the time of the early church, a woman’s legal and social status was in flux in Roman secular society. Women were beginning to recline at public functions and own property and businesses. These cultural shifts coincide with the rise of Christianity, and might have been amplified because of the equality of the gospel. Some women in the first century were listed as head of households. Some even held civic political appointments. Women were engaged in business and had funds to disperse.

Mary in Acts 12:12-17, Lydia in Acts 16, and Nympha in Colossians 4 all managed house churches.¬† 1 Corinthians 1:11 reveals that Chloe is either the principal of a household or has an extended network of clients under her. Women would have presided over meals ‚Äď the Love feast as well.¬† It was normal procedure for the one who owned the house to select the menu, facilitate conversation and provide entertainment.¬† Women in the early church were naturally a part of its leadership because the home was their sphere of influence.

So, next time you start reading through Acts or one of the epistles, employ your new understanding and imagine the church the way it would have been – at home.


This article is a brief summary of the ideas found in: A Woman’s Place by Carolyn Osiek, Margaret MacDonald with Janel Tulloch, 

(1) p. 163. 


Her name was Dinah. #metoo

Her name was Dinah. #metoo

Like all of the abuse allegations recently, the story of Dinah is ugly.

Dinah was the only daughter of Israel (Jacob). Ironically, her name means ‚Äėthe one who brings justice.‚Äô It is the feminine version of the name Dan. Lady Justice. I say ironically, because Dinah’s story has little justice. She was kidnapped in broad daylight and nearly abandoned to the men who stole her. Because of the violence perpetrated on her, she was ruined. Her line was barren.

Dinah’s story (Genesis 34)

Newly settled in the land of Canaan, Dinah, who was the imminent matriarch of Abraham’s clan, made the rounds getting to know the women in the area. While she was out and about, Shechem, the local chief‚Äôs son, saw her. He wanted her. But instead of pursuing a marriage contract with her parents, he stole her. This was common in ancient times – bride capture. Both Dinah’s grandmother and great grandmother were captured to be brides and escaped unmolested and unharmed through Divine intervention. Where was God’s deliverance for Dinah?

Shechem stole Dinah, a woman from outside his tribe, and carried her home as plunder. He sexually assaulted her. This is where we get the modern day custom of carrying the bride over the threshold. It is a leftover and forgotten symbol of taking your woman home and declaring her “mine!”

The news traveled quickly to her father, but instead of immediately running to her rescue, he decided to wait until her brothers got home from work. He might have been thinking something along these lines, ‚ÄúI‚Äôm new to this land, and I don‚Äôt want to make waves here.‚ÄĚ Or, ‚ÄúThis must be the way they do things.‚ÄĚ Boys will be boys. Jacob waited. In fact, Shechem‚Äôs father Hamor is the first to act. But instead of taking Dinah home and condemning his son, he sought to pacify his son, the perpetrator.

‚ÄúMy son can‚Äôt live without your daughter!‚ÄĚ Hamor told Jacob. He offered to pay for Dinah. ‚ÄúI‚Äôll even let your sons marry our women! And you can have some of our land. Our tribes can unite with the marriage of Shechem and Dinah.‚ÄĚ

Surprisingly, Jacob didn’t answer one way or the other! Was he considering allowing his daughter to marry these barbarian wife thieves? Who would rescue Dinah? The local government was complicit! Jacob was silent. Who would bring justice for Lady Justice?

Teenagers. Teenagers rescued Dinah.

Moral outrage in the hands of youth is passionate, loud and often inappropriate. But, for Dinah’s brothers Simeon and Levi, the truth was clear. Dinah must be rescued. The perpetrator and those who were complicit in the crime must be punished. If the local government and her father wouldn’t protect her safety, then they would.

At the age of thirteen, Dinah’s two brothers knew they were at a disadvantage against the local strong arms protecting their sister‚Äôs abuser. And so, taking the lesson from their family history, they tricked Shechem into agreeing to circumcise his entire clan. When the pain from the crude surgery was at its worst, they attacked the camp. They plundered. They captured women and children. They killed the men. They brought their sister home.

Yes, it was literally overkill. They went too far in vengeance. Their character was scarred from their retribution (Genesis 49:5-7), but they had punished their sister’s abusers.

Jacob, thinking only about his reputation, condemned their action. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve made my name stink to high heaven among the people here.‚ÄĚ

Jacob, thinking only of his safety says, ‚ÄúIf they decided to gang up on us and attack, as few as we are we wouldn‚Äôt stand a chance; they‚Äôd wipe me and my people right off the map.‚ÄĚ

The boys, who became men that day, replied.

‚ÄúNobody is going to treat our sister like a whore and get by with it.‚ÄĚ

A timely lesson

The Jewish bar mitzvah is the ceremony celebrating the ‚Äúcoming of age‚ÄĚ for boys. It marks the transition to personal responsibility at age 13. Ever wonder why the age is 13? Because that‚Äôs the age Simeon and Levi are calculated to be when they take up their swords to defend their sister. It signifies the ability to gauge right from wrong; to be held accountable for action ‚Ķ or inaction.

Dinah was delivered to safety, but she never had a family of her own. Sexual violence destroys women’s lives. I think Simeon and Levi‚Äôs words should help us point our moral compass better than Jacob‚Äôs.

‚ÄúNobody is going to treat our sister like a whore and get by with it.‚ÄĚ

(re-written from a previous post on Nov. 20, 2011: A time to act or be silent? )

Women in the Text: Hagar Names God

Women in the Text: Hagar Names God

Hagar’s remarkable experience of God¬†is comparable to any of the Patriarch’s,¬†yet it is often overlooked.

Hagar’s History

Hagar was Egyptian. She was most likely given to Sarah by Pharaoh as redress for his bride-napping. She was a stranger in Canaan, different from  the others, marginalized, living in an alien and backward land compared to the grand courts of Egypt. Her accent was different. Her looks set her apart. She most likely faced racial and class prejudice. She was a slave.

Her master ¬†was Sarah. It was Sarah who determined the course of Hagar’s life when she offered her – as a possession – to¬†her husband Abraham. In today’s terms, we call this sex trafficking. In ancient terms, it was an acceptable legal transaction. The Code of Hammurabi gives us some insight into the everyday ethics that determined family life in this era.¬†An infertile wife could offer her¬†slave to her husband. If a child was born as a result, it was against the law (or custom) for the husband to remarry. This saved a barren woman from sharing her husband with another wife, yet still provided an heir.

144. If a man take a wife and this woman give her husband a maid-servant, and she bear him children, but this man wishes to take another wife, this shall not be permitted to him; he shall not take a second wife.

Sarah, acting in accordance with the customs of her time, says to Abraham:¬†‚ÄúThe Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (Genesis 16:2) ‚ÄĚ Sarah gives Hagar to¬†Abraham, not as wife or concubine but as a womb.¬†If Hagar conceived and bore a child, Sarah’s position as the sole wife of Abraham was secure.

Hagar’s grasp¬†for honor

But Hagar had different ideas. And, who can blame her? Her status changed from slave to the mother of the new heir of Abraham. It is easy to empathize with her desire to take any advantage she could! There was also the dynamic of motherhood at play. Hagar, feeling the overwhelming protection of maternity, felt the need to establish a place of honor for her child. Yet, any behavior on her part that was not fitting as a slave, was actually considered unlawful. See Hammurabi again.

146. If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.

Hagar claimed an honor that did not belong to her, perhaps as a wife or mistress of Abraham, and in the process shamed her owner, Sarah. Genesis 16:4 says, ‚Äúher mistress was dishonorable in her eyes.‚Ä̬†Hagar made a power-play to take advantage of her circumstance and reverse her fortunes and confirm the status of her child, but she was out of line. Sarah’s reaction was more than jealousy, it was justice. Hagar had no right to shame Sarah and claim any worth, for her or her child, above that of slave.

Our modern sense of Western justice has a hard time accepting the clout of this honor/shame dynamic that dominated the Eastern world. Even though Hagar was the one behaving badly, we sympathize with her suffering. When Sarah¬†disciplined her harshly, as just punishment for Hagar’s transgressions, we sense a deeper injustice that was ignored. Hagar never asked to be put in this position! She was forced into sexual relations, and required to birth a baby at great personal risk (childbirth has always been a dangerous enterprise). Surely, her arrogance could be overlooked? Right? Give her a break, Sarah!

When Sarah applied harsh judgement on her, Hagar had few choices. Stay in an abusive situation where she had no voice and little value, or attempt escape. She chose to run away; a courageous, if not foolhardy, option.

Hagar runs away…

…most likely headed back to Egypt (Genesis 16:7). Her flight indicates how desperate and alone she must have felt in Sarah’s house. The journey from Canaan to Egypt is like walking from Seattle to Spokane. Pregnant.

Hagar had serious problems. She was a runaway slave, carrying the property of her mistress. She was a fugitive. She was breaking the law. But, she was an abused and terrified woman.

In the middle of this terror of flight, God came to Hagar.

God visited¬†Hagar! An Egyptian. A woman. A slave. An abuse survivor. At that point in recorded history, God had only come to Noah and Abraham. Hagar’s experience with God is thought provoking. When we¬†consider the times God intervened in Person, what was¬†required of the recipient was usually terrifying. Noah had to build an ark for decades to survive a holocaust. Abraham had¬†to mutilate his very private flesh, and the flesh of 300+ of his men. And, God’s visit to Hagar followed suit. God required Hagar to return to her life as the slave of Sarah. Gulp. That is hard to accept, isn’t it? God was sending Hagar back to slavery, back into the toxic situation with Sarah. We could speculate that there were few options for Hagar, and that was the most merciful one, but I find it hard to swallow, regardless. Experiencing a visit from God was alarming and the task was never easy.

God requires hard things. But, God is full of promise.

God gave Hagar a fertile hope.

‚ÄúI will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.‚ÄĚ (Genesis 16:10) Sound familiar? God promised this¬†woman great fertility, just as God¬†promised Abraham (Genesis 15:5). God gave Hagar a prophesy of hope concerning her child that spoke to a mother’s greatest fear.

  • Her¬†son would be born, alive and healthy.
  • She should name him God Hears: Ishmael, because of her personal experience with God.
  • He would be free, not a slave.¬†He would be a warrior.¬†He would have brothers and family and would not be alone as she was.
  • God promised Hagar a future for her son.

Hagar named God.

‚ÄúYou are El Roi, for I have now seen the One who sees me.‚ÄĚ (Genesis 16:13-14) Inspired by her personal encounter with God and her own experience of being marginalized, Hagar teaches others about God’s perception. Perhaps this was comforting to her, because she knew God was aware of all things done to her hidden from the¬†sight of others. As Jesus confirmed thousands of years later, “God¬†who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (Matthew 6:4)”

Because Hagar knew God saw her and promised her son’s future was secure, Hagar had the courage to return to her unfortunate situation. Once at home, she instructs Abraham to name their son Ishmael, and her extraordinary talk with God was immortalized as a place-name in the ancient world. Beer Lahai Roi: the well of the Living One who sees me.

Hagar’s story continues.

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Shame

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Shame

Mother Sarah had many sons. And I am one of them. And so are you. So let’s just praise the Lord!¬†

Sarah birthed a baby at the age of 90 after being barren her entire life. It was no accident, but the miraculous plan of God, who brings honor to the shamed.

If you have ever struggled with infertility or walked alongside of someone who has, I’m sure you understand the enormity of Sarah’s decades of¬†struggle as a barren woman. In an ancient setting, she not only dealt with her personal desire for children, but also with the community’s judgement on her as a barren wife. The ancient world blamed the woman for¬†marriages with no children. Also, the woman herself carried the guilt of impotence. ¬†I wonder if Sarah felt the¬†reproach and shame intensify with each new promise of God to her husband? We know her story in entirety, but she made her decisions with limited information, and as each of God’s promises were revealed, she must have felt the stress¬†of her shame increase.

Father Abraham

Imagine her humiliation as Abraham told her about God’s initial promise to him to make him a great nation (Genesis 12:2). A great nation requires a child. She was unable to bear a child. I wonder if she felt she had no part in God’s¬†plan? Did she feel in the way? Useless?

Perhaps she and Abraham speculated together the role Eliezer, Abraham’s right hand man, would play as heir to Abraham’s legacy. Abraham could adopt him! He could be a surrogate son! No. God clarified the¬†first promise. Abraham’s own son would inherit (Genesis 15:4). Sarah must have felt confused again as she contemplated her exclusion from the plan. What was in this for her? Was God mocking her humiliation by exaggerating the hope of her husband? Count the stars, indeed. She had counted. Cycle after monthly cycle until her flows¬†stopped. Her dishonor increased with every fertile promise God made to Abraham.

A Surrogate

The scenario of using a surrogate mother must have been in Sarah’s mind¬†for years, but it wasn’t until God promised a son¬†(Genesis 15:4) to Abraham that she felt the pressure to act. Many Bible expositors like to speculate she suggested Hagar, her personal servant, because she was impatient or because she doubted God, but I firmly believe she did it out of shame. I think Sarah thought that she was the problem. Her old and dried up body was a handicap to¬†God’s great promises. Sarah’s suggestion of Hagar was not a second-rate plan. It was not a work-around to help God out. It was a heart-breaking act of desperation by a woman who was mortified. It was Sarah’s attempt to regain some honor by getting her broken body out of the way.

It was also legal.

In today’s¬†world of liberation and social justice, we call what Sarah did to Hagar-sex trafficking. But in ancient terms, it was an acceptable legal transaction. The Code of Hammurabi gives us some insight into the everyday ethics that determined family life in the era of the Patriarchs.¬†An infertile woman in that ancient time was vulnerable to divorce and a ¬†refund (Law # 138). The husband could also choose to take a second wife, with¬†the first wife claiming rank¬†(Law #145). But, if the infertile wife did not wish to live with a harem of wives, she could offer her handmaid to her husband. If a child was born as a result, it was against the law (or custom) for the husband to remarry. Read for yourself:

144. If a man take a wife and this woman give her husband a maid-servant, and she bear him children, but this man wishes to take another wife, this shall not be permitted to him; he shall not take a second wife.

Acting in accordance with the customs of her time, Sarah to Abraham:¬†‚ÄúThe Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. (Genesis 16:2) ‚ÄĚ Sarah gives Hagar to¬†Abraham, not as wife or concubine but as a womb.¬†If Hagar conceived and bore a child, Sarah’s position as the sole wife of Abraham was secure, and she would have a child to raise as her own. Sarah’s disgrace would be lifted.

But it didn’t work out that way, did it?

More dishonor

Hagar, belly growing with Abraham’s child, violates the social customs of the day by flouting a status that did not belong to her. She condemned Sarah, her master. Genesis 16:4 says, “her mistress was dishonorable in her eyes.” It is hard to understand the vulgarity¬†of Hagar’s behavior¬†in today’s society of social equality and respect earned¬†through merit. Hagar was assaulting the positional honor of Sarah, “a grave cultural faux pas on Hagar‚Äôs part” writes Marvin Newell, author of ¬† Crossing Cultures in Scriptures: Biblical Principles For Mission Practice. “Sarah was rightfully offended, even dishonored, by her servant Hagar. Hagar‚Äôs attacks were a direct assault on her worth, value and personhood in the eyes of the community. Her position and her reputation were at stake. If she permitted Hagar to persist in her actions, her own worth of belonging would be compromised‚ÄĒeven to the extent of a possible disconnect with her husband, Abraham. Hagar put Sarah in quite a vulnerable position.” (

Not only did Hagar transgress the cultural values of honor and shame, her actions required a legal response. Consider Hammurabi once more:

146. If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.

Sarah had a case not only against Hagar, but against Abraham who was allowing Hagar to dishonor his wife.¬†‚ÄúMay the wrong done to me be on you!”¬†Sarah declares (Genesis 16:5). She calls on the Lord as witness that she had been wronged. Abraham agrees. “She is your servant. Do whatever you wish with her,” he says.¬†

Sarah punishes Hagar harshly to regain the honor¬†she lost through Hagar’s abuse. In this ancient setting, Sarah’s reprisal was just punishment intended to re-establish the household hierarchy. Sarah was “chief.” Hagar, though carrying an heir, was still a slave.

Abraham had his son. But what about Sarah?

Sarah is honored-finally.

Thirteen¬†years later, God reveals that the promise of family, home and royal lineage¬†was not just for Abraham, but for Sarah as well. What a wait?! Sarah was not in the way of God’s plan. She was not incidental. The shame she bore in the eyes of the community for almost a century was about to become her greatest honor. She was chosen -old, infertile and cynical- to birth the promised son.

In the cardinal chapter of Judaism (Genesis 17), God ultimately¬†completes the Great Promise and seals it with an ancient male ritual signifying fertility: circumcision. It is easy to stop at this significant detail cut into the male flesh of Abraham’s family and overlook the distinction given to Sarah – and to the women of her house. (Paul, God bless him, saw it! Galatians 4)

  • God¬†adds a vowel to both names, changing husband and wife into the people of God. (Read more.)
  • God promises to bless her.
  • She will bear a son.
  • She will birth a royal nation.
  • Her offspring is the miracle son of promise.

Who mothers is equally as important as who fathers.

The ancient stories of the Hebrew Scriptures are male-dominated. I believe this androcentrism is¬†a result of the way the world works, not the way God works. Woman has¬†always been a pivotal part of God‚Äôs plan. Sarah’s faith in submissive action¬†continued the war against the age-old enemy that her mother Eve began in the garden.¬†Eve’s, and now Sarah‚Äôs descendants will defeat the serpent with whom she is at war. The promised one is the seed of Woman.

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Submissive Reputation

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Submissive Reputation

Thousands of years after Sarah lived, we learn she was a well-admired woman by those who studied the Hebrew Scriptures.¬†Peter describes her as submissive to Abraham and full of courage (1 Peter 3:5-6). The author of Hebrews extols her faith in God’s promise (Hebrews 11:11). At face value, these may seem like different aspects of her character, but I’d argue they are both referring to the same episode in Sarah’s life: the time¬†Isaac was conceived.

Sarah did not submit to Abraham’s sin.

In 1 Peter 3, the author¬†uses Sarah’s submissiveness to Abraham as an example for women who are married to unbelieving husbands. Sarah herself was not married to an unbeliever, so what aspect of her life is to serve as an example? What was Sarah known for in the time Peter was written? It has been proposed by many preachers, theologians and women’s studies that Sarah submitted to Abraham’s lie and endured the sexual attentions of Pharaoh and Abimalech for his protection. But as I wrote in a previous article, The Sister Story was not a¬†lie, but the truth that Abraham and Sarah publicized in order to¬†survive the culture of licentiousness surrounding their family in Canaan. Abimalech and Pharaoh’s gifts of honor support the facts that they had abused and dishonored Sarah through no fault of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah did not submit to Abraham’s sin because Abraham did not sin in these circumstances of bride theft. Wives married to unbelieving husbands should not use a misunderstanding of The Sister Story as¬†the example to submit to their husbands, even in some twisted way for their husband’s protection.

My lord is old.

So what part of Sarah’s reputation is Peter referring to? Verse ¬†6 says Sarah¬†called Abraham, “lord.” Glancing back at Sarah’s story, this title for her husband was only recorded once. Doesn’t that simplify the context Peter is referring to for us?

So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, ‚ÄúAfter I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?‚ÄĚ Genesis 18:12

Sarah was 89-years-old. She was infertile. This verse records her reaction to God telling her the time had come for God’s promise to materialize as a baby. It was a sensible reaction, yes? She was not a virgin. She understood that to have a baby, she and Abraham were first going to have to make the baby. ¬†Yada-yada-yada, if you understand my Yiddish. Hence her first concern was that her lady parts were worn out and that her “sire” was decrepit. At 99, Abraham would have difficulty fulfilling his job as well. Hebrews even says “he was good as dead.” Even in her cynicism, Sarah’s faith shines bright, and she submits in faith to try once more to make a baby. She believed God.

If you have ever struggled with infertility or walked alongside of someone who has, I’m sure you understand the enormity of Sarah’s submissiveness to the promise of a baby. The fear of failure is overwhelming, yet the hope of success urges you on again and again until your optimism is exhausted. You are wrung out and your heart can only survive with callouses. You learn to quarantine¬†your desire for a child… so you can stay alive. Sarah knew all this for 7 1/2 decades. She probably thought she was over it. Until God’s Word sparked her amusement and re-kindled the dreaded desire to try. just. one. more. time.

She believed God and submitted to Abraham again.

Submissive Sarah cooperated with God (and Abraham).

In the recorded stories of the Bible, God seeks human participation in God’s work in the world. I was recently reminded of this as I discussed baptism with my daughter. Baptism is a person’s action of faith. It is a submissive response that proves to witnesses that we’ve formed a heavenly alliance. My favorite prophet, Elisha, was the master at getting others involved in God’s work. Sure, we could look at this participatory involvement as a “test of faith.” But, I’ve never liked that perspective. Instead, I believe these are acts of grace designed to attract our affections through our cooperation with the Divine. And that is my personal definition of submission.

Sarah cooperated with Abraham to procure their tiny bundle of grace, who she named “Laughter (Isaac)” after the pivotal moment in her life when she faced her fears and hopes with action and courage.

The [women of old] submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. 1 Peter 3:5-6

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. Hebrews 11:11

Sarah¬†believed God’s¬†promise.

Sarah’s submissive reputation was the result of her faith in God’s Word that she would birth a royal family. She cooperated with God’s plan for her and joined Abraham to participate in the act of grace required to conceive a child. Against all the odds, Sarah birthed the¬†promised child.

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Abductions

Women in the Text: Sarah’s Abductions

The capture of wives  in the ancient world

Within a generation after the fall of humanity in Eden, we read that Lamech “took” two women. He became the first polygamist, thereby rebelling against God’s decree that two people become one, and that the man should leave his family and cleave to his wife. Lamech “took” and brought them to himself. The violence of this act is¬†indicated by the subsequent brawl, self-rationalized murder and implied threats to his women (Genesis 4:22-23). The need to guard his female conquests led to the invention of weapons by Lamech’s son, who learned to whet metal into sharp instruments. All the better to kill you with, my dear!

Brutal violence ensued and stealing women became necessary for each clan to procreate, since  men were taking more than their alotted one wife. Women quickly became a desired commodity, with the strongest men claiming monopolies through harems and multiple marriages.

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them,  the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took women Рany they chose. Genesis 6:1-2

The sad prophecy of Genesis 3:16 is exemplified in those verses with the heinous actions of rape and bride theft prevalent throughout the ancient world, resulting in the separation of young women from the protection of their familial home and kin. This is the setting of ancient Canaan that Abram and Sarai embarked through.

The Sister Story

“We are brother and sister.” This was the public story Abraham and Sarah told for decades. The Bible does not tell us their motive for this, except through Abraham’s words we learn that he thought it was the way to save lives.¬†In a discussion¬†he had with Sarah upon entering the wild lands of Canaan, Abraham said:

“Sarai, this is a dangerous land where no one knows God. I’m afraid they will kill me so they can have you. Let’s tell everyone you are my sister only. It would be a mercy for you to call me your brother.” (Gen. 20:11-13)

And Sarah agreed with him.

Traditionally, theologians have guessed that this “lie” was a character flaw in Abraham and Sarah, but¬†Dr. Gordon Hugenberger disagrees. (The following theory is based on his sermon to¬†Park Street Church in Boston, found here.) Sarah and Abraham did not lie, but used the truth -Abraham and Sarah were siblings – to¬†survive the culture of licentiousness surrounding their family in Canaan. They both wished to avoid inciting a violent situation in a land known for lawlessness.

Did Abraham use Sarah to protect himself at her expense?

Consider the ramifications of the traditional understanding that Abraham used this “lie” to protect himself at Sarah’s expense. By telling the world she was his sister, was he advertising she was available for marriage or something worse? Did he want her to consort¬†with a pagan? Did he want to “sell” her off? No. Of course not. No normal¬†husband wants his wife to sleep with another man. So, claiming she was a sister was not to put her on the marriage/sex market to save his own skin.

Did Abraham want to get rich off Sarah’s eligibility?

There is also the¬†bride-price to consider. Some claim that Abraham wanted to get rich off the gifts given by the two kings for Sarah. But, this is a misunderstanding of ancient bridal customs. A maiden girl owned nothing. But when she was married, her husband’s family paid a bride-price which was hers to keep as insurance in case of widowhood. The bride-price was hers alone, often worn directly on her person. (The parable of the lost coin is about a woman losing a part of her bride-price.) So, if Pharaoh gave bridal gifts, they would go to Sarah, not Abraham. This cultural understanding erases a motive of greed on Abraham’s part.

Not only does a cultural understanding of bridal customs expunge Abraham’s motives, it actually validates the reason for The Sister Story. As a sister, she had no inheritance at Abraham’s death. It all went to a male heir. A man who stole her and forced marriage on her would get nothing.¬†But, as a wife, she had a sizable fortune that did belong to her alone and would go to her husband upon her death.¬† As a wife, Sarah¬†¬†was a titled –remember her name is her title – and loaded target. As a wife, Abraham also becomes a target for any unscrupulous, greedy bride thief, especially considering her¬†advanced age.

The Sister Story acted as insurance for both of them. And it worked.

Except when it didn’t.

Sarah was abducted.

Sarai was taken into Pharaoh’s house (Gen 12:15).

No marriage contract was negotiated between Pharaoh and Abraham. Sarah was kidnapped and forced to the will of this powerful man, and her “brother” was placated with gifts of honor to offset the shame of having a sister stolen out from under him. In a foreign land, at the mercy of Pharaoh, facing starvation for the hundreds of people under his care, Abraham’s hands were tied.

Pharaoh is to blame.

But God’s were not. God protected Sarah with a plague on Pharaoh’s house.¬†She had God’s promise, and God proved faithful. God punished Pharaoh. God did¬†not punish Sarah nor Abraham. This reveals God’s appraisal of the situation. Pharaoh was the one who sinned. Pharaoh reacted in anger when he learned the full truth, but neither did he¬†punish or harm Abraham for his deception. He did not demand his gifts back. This indicates Pharaoh knew he was the one to blame. Of course he tries to shift ¬†responsibility to The Sister Story with his words, but he does not require anything of Abraham or Sarah except to leave the country – and take your God with you! –¬† because they had done nothing wrong.

Why didn’t Abraham and Sarah learn from their mistakes the first time?

After the story failed to protect Sarah in Egypt, why did they continue to tell The Sister Story for another twenty years? Were they too stubborn to repent? Or does the fact that they continued to publish their sibling relationship indicate it was a successful cover? After all, Isaac and Rebekah used it as well throughout their life. Because The Sister Story acted as insurance for both of them. And it worked.

Except when it didn’t.

Sarah was abducted, again.

Abimalech …took Sarah (Gen 20:2).

Again, no marriage contract was negotiated with Abraham. Sarah was stolen, and a forced marriage was planned. God, once again, intervened to protect Sarah, not in spite of her lies, but because of the outrageous wickedness of this king toward¬†those God promised to bless. Abimalech, like Pharaoh, responded¬†to God’s curses and revelations with anger. His abundant, blame-shifting words tempt us¬†to be distracted from the truth of the situation, but ¬†Abimalech’s guilt is exposed by his extravagant gifts served to placate the anger of Sarah’s God. ¬†If Abraham and Sarah had been to blame, the tale would have ended much differently. And again, we get no sense of God’s judgement on The Sister Story, but on the greedy, licentious behavior of Abimalech.

Sarah’s “beauty”

The Sister Story was used¬†during Abraham and Sarah’s entire lives in Canaan. Why did it fail with¬†Pharaoh and Abimalech? My English Bible says it was because of Sarah’s irresistible¬†beauty. ¬†I find that hard to believe. She was an old woman at 65 in Egypt and 89 with Abimalech. But, I also recognize it is hard to believe she birthed Isaac at age 90. God could supernaturally have kept her looking gorgeous in her old age. Nevertheless,¬†I think it more likely that the Hebrew words describing her fair countenance should¬†be interpreted less literally,¬†indicating¬†the attractiveness of her person as a whole, considering her status as a foreign princess and sister to the esteemed and important Abraham. Kings marry foreign women with the purpose of making¬†alliances and trade agreements. Sarah was royalty with family connection to Ur, and¬†the “sister” of a man with¬†350+ men under his command. She had the blessing of a most powerful new god.¬†Most likely these were the reasons¬†why Sarah was desired by these kings, who did not need wealth, but connections.¬†¬†And¬†they were used to taking what they wanted.

Sarah’s Abductions foreshadow Israel’s story

Generations after Sarah is abducted in Egypt, her grandchildren suffer a similar fate. Like Sarah, they were¬†mistreated even though they had done nothing to deserve it. Again, “Pharaoh tried to kill the boys and¬†keep the girls alive.” –¬†Dr. Gordon Hugenberger. And again, God cursed those who cursed¬†Sarah’s children.