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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Wife of Abraham, who for a long period remained childless (Genesis 11:29-30). She accompanied her husband from Haran to Canaan (ib. 12:5). Driven by famine to take refuge in Egypt, Abraham, fearing that her beauty would put his life in danger if their true relations became known, proposed that she pass as his sister. As he had apprehended, she was actually taken by Pharaoh, to whom her personal charms had been highly praised (ib. 12:10 et seq.), while Abraham was richly dowered by the monarch on her account. But, visited by troubles, Pharaoh began to suspect the truth; and, censuring Abraham, he bade him take his wife and depart.
Sarai being still childless, she induced her husband to take her Egyptian handmaid Hagar for a concubine, that through her she might be "built up," Hagar, feeling herself quick with child, despised her mistress, whereupon Sarai bitterly upbraided her husband. Wishing not to be involved in the quarrel, Abraham told her to do with her handmaid as she deemed best, and Hagar was soon compelled to flee by the harsh treatment accorded her; but an angel, announcing that her seed would be numerous, urged her to return to Sarah (ib. ). After Hagar had borne Ishmael, God told Abraham, whose name hitherto had been Abram, to change Sarai's name to "Sarah," announcing that she would bear him a son. Incredulous on account of Sarah's age (she was ninety), Abraham burst into laughter, wherefor the son was to be called "Isaac" (ib. ). Sarah overheard that she was to give birth to a son when, at a subsequent visit of the three messengers on their way to Sodom, the promise was renewed; she, too, was incredulous, and laughed inwardly, but when interrogated denied that she had laughed (ib. ).
Abraham next removed to Gerar, where Sarah had an experience with Abimelech similar to the one she had had in Egypt. Abimelech, however, was warned in a dream. Reproved for the wrong done, Abraham justified his and Sarah's statement by the explanation that Sarah was the daughter of his father but not of his mother (ib. 20:1-12). After this, Sarah bore a son, Isaac, which aroused her to say, "God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me" (ib. 21:1-7). The fact that now she had a son of her own augmented her displeasure with Hagar and Ishmael; and Abraham, at her solicitation, sent both away after God had quieted his scruples (ib. 21:10 et seq.). Sarah's death is very briefly recorded as having taken place in Kirjath-arba, or Hebron, when she had attained the age of 127 years. She was buried by Abraham in the cave of Machpelah (ib. , 25:10, 49:31). No other reference to Sarah is found in the Hebrew canon, except in Isa. Ii. 2, where the prophet appeals to his hearers to "look unto Abraham your father, and unto Sarah that bare you."
—In Rabbinical Literature:
Sarah was the niece of Abraham, being the daughter of his brother Haran. She was called also "Iscah" (Genesis 11:29), because her beauty attracted general attention and admiration (Meg. 14a). She was so beautiful that all other persons seemed apes in comparison (B. B. 58a). Even the hardships of her journey with Abraham did not affect her beauty (Gen. R. 11:4). According to another explanation, she was called Iscah because she had prophetic vision (Meg. c.). She was superior to Abraham in the gift of prophecy (Ex. R. 1:1.). She was the "crown" of her husband; and he obeyed her words because he recognized this superiority on her part (Gen. R. 47:1). She was the only woman whom God deemed worthy to be addressed by Him directly, all the other prophetesses receiving their revelations through angels (ib. 45:14). On their journeys Abraham converted the men, and Sarah the women (ib. 39:21). She was called originally "Sarai," e., "my princess," because she was the princess of her house and of her tribe; later she was called "Sarah" = "princess," because she was recognized generally as such (Ber. 13a; Gen. R. 47:1).
In Pharaoh's Harem.
On the journey to Egypt, Abraham hid his wife in a chest in order that no one might see her. At the frontier the chest had to pass through the hands of certain officials, who insisted on examining its contents in order to determine the amount of duty payable. When it was opened a bright light proceeded from Sarah's beauty. Every one of the officials wished to secure possession of her, each offering a higher sum than his rival (Gen. R. 6;."Sefer ha-Yashar," section "Lek Leka"). When brought before Pharaoh, Sarah said that Abraham was her brother, and the king thereupon bestowed upon the latter many presents and marks of distinction ("Sefer ha-Yashar," c.). As a token of his love for Sarah the king deeded his entire property to her, and gave her the land of Goshen as her hereditary possession: for this reason the Israelites subsequently lived in that land (Pirḳe R. El. ). He gave her also his own daughter Hagar as slave (ib.). Sarah prayed to God to deliver her from the king, and He thereupon sent an angel, who struck Pharaoh whenever he attempted to touch her. Pharaoh was so astonished at these blows that he spoke kindly to Sarah, who confessed that she was Abraham's wife. The king then ceased to annoy her ("Sefer ha-Yashar," c.). According to another version, Pharaoh persisted in annoying her after she had told him that she was a married woman;thereupon the angel struck him so violently that he became ill, and was thereby prevented from continuing to trouble her (Gen. R. 41:2). According to one tradition it was when Pharaoh saw these miracles wrought in Sarah's behalf that he gave her his daughter Hagar as slave, saying: "It is better that my daughter should be a slave in the house of such a woman than mistress in another house"; Abimelech acted likewise (Gen. R. 45:2). Sarah treated Hagar well, and induced women who came to visit her to visit Hagar also. Hagar, when pregnant by Abraham, began to act superciliously toward Sarah, provoking the latter to treat her harshly, to impose heavy work upon her, and even to strike her (ib. 45:9).
Relations with Hagar.
Sarah was originally destined, like Abraham, to reach the age of 175 years, but forty-eight years of this span of life were taken away from her because she complained of Abraham, blaming him as though the cause that Hagar no longer respected her (R. H. 16b; Gen. R. 45:7). Sarah was sterile; but a miracle was vouchsafed to her (Gen. R. 47:3) after her name was changed from "Sarai" to "Sarah" (R. H. 16b). When her youth had been restored and she had given birth to Isaac, the people would not believe in the miracle, saying that the patriarch and his wife had adopted a foundling and pretended that it was their own son. Abraham thereupon invited all the notabilities to a banquet on the day when Isaac was to be weaned. Sarah invited the women also, who brought their infants with them; and on this occasion she gave suck to all the strange children, thus convincing the guests of the miracle (B. M. 87a; comp. Gen. R. 53:13). Sarah's behavior toward Ishmael, whom she drove away from his father's roof, is justified on the ground that she saw him commit the three greatest sins, namely, idolatry, unchastity, and murder, (ib. 53:15).
Died at Thought of the Sacrifice of Isaac.
Legends connect Sarah's death with the sacrifice of Isaac (ib. 58:5), there being two versions of the story. According to one, Samael came to her and said: "Your old husband seized the boy and sacrificed him. The boy wailed and wept; but he could not escape from his father." Sarah began to cry bitterly, and ultimately died of her grief (Pirḳe R. El. ). According to the other legend, Satan, disguised as an old man, came to Sarah and told her that Isaac had been sacrificed. She, believing it to be true, cried bitterly, but soon comforted herself with the thought that the sacrifice had been offered at the command of God. She started from Beer-sheba to Hebron, asking every one she met if he knew in which direction Abraham had gone. Then Satan came again in human shape and told her that it was not true that Isaac had been sacrificed, but that he was living and would soon return with his father. Sarah, on hearing this, died of joy at Hebron. Abraham and Isaac returned to their home at Beer-sheba, and, not finding Sarah there, went to Hebron, where they discovered her dead ("Sefer ha-Yashar," section "Wayera"). During Sarah's lifetime her house was always hospitably open, the dough was miraculously increased, a light burned from Friday evening to Friday evening, and a pillar of cloud rested upon the entrance to her tent (Gen. R. 60:15).
The two forms of the name, "Sarah" and "Sarai," are identical in meaning; it is difficult to understand the reason for the change. "Sarai" is probably the more archaic form of "Sarah," though the termination "ai" is unusual in the feminine. The writer of Genesis 17:15 must have considered the "ah" of "Sarah" as implying in some way "yahu" or "yah" (the "Yhwh" element). Accordingly, the change would be similar to that of "Joshua" to "Jehoshua." Perhaps it was the intention to read the name "Sarayahu," the "hu" being added to "Sarai." In that case the meaning "princess" now given to "Sarah" must be abandoned. The element "sarah" is identical with a part of the name "Israel," and "Sarah" and "Sarai" are appropriate names for Israel's mother (Isaiah 51:2; comp. Robertson Smith, "Kinship and Marriage," p. 30; for the forms see Olshausen, "Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Sprache," § 110; Nöldeke, in "Z. D M. G." 1886, p. 183; 1888, p. 484; König, "Historisch-Kritisches Lehrgebäude," II. 1:427). The name "Sa-ra-a" is reported to occur in Babylonian tablets (Cheyne and Black, "Encyc. Bibl." 4:4285, note 3).
Repetitions in the Narrative.
The story of Sarah's life, brief and incomplete as it is, presents nevertheless curious repetitions, e.g., the incident with Pharaoh and a similar incident with Abimelech (Genesis 12:10 et seq. and 20:1 et seq.). Marriages with half-sisters were, in primitive matriarchy, regarded as anything but incestuous. From the point of view of the history of culture these episodes are very instructive. But it is not very probable that Abraham would have run the risk twice. Moreover, a similar incident is reported in regard to Isaac and Rebecea (ib. 26:6-11). This recurrence indicates that none of the accounts is to be accepted as historical; all three are variations of a theme common to the popular oral histories of the Patriarchs. That women were married in the way here supposed is not to be doubted. The purpose of the story is to extol the heroines as most beautiful and show that the Patriarchs were under the special protection of the Deity. The promise of Isaac and the explanation of the name are given in duplicate. First, Abraham is the recipient of the promise, and he laughs (ib. 17:15-21). In the second narrative (ib. ) Abraham again is given the promise, but Sarah laughs. Finally, the name receives a third justification in Sarah's exclamation at his birth (ib. 21:6).
According to Pentateuchal analysis, the references to Sarah in Genesis are divided among the various strata as follows:
- Genesis 11:29 belongs to J (Jahvist);
- 5, 10-20 to J;
- to J (except la, 3, 15, 16);
- 15-21 to P (Priestly Code);
- to J; to E (Elohist);
- 1a, 2a to J;
- 6, 7 to E;
- remainder to P.
Views as to Historical Character.
Concerning the kernel of historical fact underlying the patriarchal cycle in Genesis, and thus also the detached glosses concerning Sarai = Sarah, there is no unanimity of opinion among scholars. Theirvarious views may be summarized as follows:
- The Patriarchs, including Abraham, so likewise his wives, were historical individuals reports of whose adventures and deeds have come down through long and differing channels of oral tradition. According to the theory which they variously assumed to be worked out in the history of Israel, historiographers whose writings are incorporated in the Pentateuch selected from this mass of discordant material what suited their purpose, and reconstructed even this in accordance with their plans. This accounts for the duplications and discrepancies. According to Baethgen ("Beiträge zur Semitischen Religionsgesch." p. 157), "Sarah" is a simple appellative representing a historical character, whose life is given in fragments and with free embellishments.
- The patriarchal cycle represents older Canaanite, pre-Israelitish material, adopted and adapted by Israel. As such, the stories disclose views concerning the relations of septs and clans, as well as concerning political and geographical conditions. Genealogies such as those evolved in the patriarchal story are never of individuals. Tribal antipathies and sympathies, and political and racial interdependence and kinship, are expressed by them; but frequently, in order to complete a system, an individual ancestor or eponym is invented. While some of the names that occur are clearly those of clans, or of localities, Abraham = Abiram is not. It seems to be an appellative; but it is connected with Hebron, an old center. Sarai = Sarah, on the other hand, is the name of a clan—Israel. As Jacob became Israel in another cycle (with Beth-el), so here Abraham (Hebron) is connected with Israel. This is the meaning of the marriage of Abraham with Sarah, as similar ethnic or historical data underlie the story of his dealings with Hagar and Keturah.
- These Patriarchs are regarded by most members of the critical school as the outcome of culture-evolution. That matriarchy once prevailed, that blood-relationship was traced only through the mother, that marriage by capture or purchase was the rule, form probably the historical kernel involved in the repeated narratives of Sarai's marital adventures with men other than Abraham. On the other hand, her dealings with Hagar illustrate the conditions obtaining in the polygamous households of the sheiks of the time and country. The persons are free inventions; the conditions are not.
- Originally, Canaanite local eponyms connected with Israel; the Patriarchs were later ranged and ranked systematically, so as to establish an exclusive descent for Israel and disclose its distinction as the people of Yhwh. In this scheme Abraham becomes the "great ancestor" (Abram), or "the ancestor of many nations." Through his wife Sarah he begets the Isaac-Jacob tribes, or Israel (= Sarah); and through his concubine Hagar he begets Ishmael, who therefore is marked as lesser in her degree of purity.
- The development of religion is typified in these ancestral figures. Abraham and Sarah represent a sort of elementary monotheism, a religion standing midway between pure Mosaism and the Canaanite cults. This is the view of Dillmann, Ewald, and Kittel.
- Abraham and Sarah are free inventions of unconscious popular poetry, untrammeled by considerations of genealogical data or tribal or religious motives. Wellhausen is the main exponent of this view ("Prolegomena zur Gesch. Israels," pp. 337 et Seq.).
- The mythological theory makes Sarai identical with Ishtar. She and Abraham are said to be lunar deities, or adaptations of the Babylonian Adonis-Tammuz (Abraham) and Ishtar (Sarai) myths (the descent of Ishtar). Winckler (in his "Gesch. Israel's" and other writings) and Stucken ("Astralmythen") advance this view.
The most likely of all these views is the one that makes Sarai an eponym for Israel. Her marriage with Abraham represents the union of the Israel group with some clan or clans settled around Hebron. Ed. Meyer (in Stade's, "Zeitschrift," 1886) is inclined to regard even Abraham as the name and eponym of a clan or sept, and refers to Abi-ezer (Judges 6:34). Cheyne, of course (in Cheyne and Black, "Encyc. Bibl." s. "Sarah"), makes Abraham a Jerahmeelite, whose marriage with Sarah expresses the amalgamation of Israel with the descendants of Jerahmeel.
- Ed. Meyer, Der Stamm Jacob, In Stade's Zeitschrift, 1886;
- F. Baethgen, Beiträge zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte;
- F. Hommel, Die Altisraelitische Ueberlieferung;
- B. Kittel, Gesch. der Hebräer, vol.;
- A. Dillmann, Biblische Theologie, ed. Kittel, 1895;
- I. Goldziher, Der Mythos bei den Hebräern, 1876;
- W. Staerk, Studien zur Religions- und Sprachgeschichte des Alttestaments, 1889, vol.;
- Hermann Guthe, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, 1899;
- H. P. Smith, Old Testament History, 1903.
—In Arabic Literature:
Sarah, the wife of Abraham, was, according to some accounts, the sister of Lot and the daughter of Aran, Abraham's paternal uncle. According to others, she was the daughter of the King of Ḥaran, and her mother was daughter of Kutba, King of Babylon. Sarah was the most beautiful woman of her time and possessed a perfect figure. She resembled Eve, to whom God gave two-thirds of all beauty; indeed, she was so beautiful that Abraham transported her in a chest. When, on entering Egypt, Abraham was obliged to give a tithe of all his goods, he at first refused to open the chest in which Sarah was, and when he was finally forced to do so, the official ran and told the king. Questioned by the latter regarding Sarah, Abraham replied that she was his sister, having instructed her to say the same. When, on that supposition, the king wished to marry her and reached out to take her, Sarah prayed God to wither his hand; and when the king promised not to touch her, she prayed God to restore it. Forgetful of his promise, the king reached toward her once more, and his hand was again withered. This was repeated three times. Abraham was a witness of this interview, God causing the walls of the house to become transparent for the purpose. Finally the king restored Sarah to Abraham and loaded her with presents. He insisted on her choosing for herself one of his slave girls, and she selected Hagar, for whom she had conceived a liking.
Afterward Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham; and when Ishmael was born she became so jealous that she could no longer live with Hagar. On one occasion she swore that she would not rest satisfied until her hands had been dipped in Hagar's blood, whereupon Abraham immediately pierced Hagar's ears so that the blood might be on Sarah's hands. Such was the origin of the wearing of earrings. Abraham then took Hagar and Ishmael away. In after years, when he went to visit Ishmael, Sarah was still so jealous that she exacted a promise from Abraham that he would not alight from his horse.
Sarah is not directly mentioned in the Koran; but she is referred to in sura 11:74, where she is spoken of as standing by when Abraham receives the visit of the angels. Sarah was seventy years old when she conceived Isaac (according to Ṭabari; Baiḍawi says she was ninety or ninety-nine). She lived to the age of 130. She is said to have been the mother of Jacob and Esau also, although some say that they were sons of Abraham by another wife. As long as Sarah lived Abraham had no other wife, but after her death he married Keturah. Sarah was buried in the land of Canaan in a cave bought by Abraham, where, later, he also was interred.
- Mas'udi, Prairies d'Or, Index;
- Ṭabari, Annales, Index, Leyden, 1879-81;
- idem, Persian version, translated by Zotenberg, Paris, 1867, Index;
- Weill, Biblical Legends of the Mussulmans, New York, 1846, s. Abraham.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Sarah (Sarai)'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/s/sarah-sarai.html. 1901.
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