SARAH (Sarai; Heb. שָׂרַי ,שָׂרָה), the first of the four matriarchs; wife of *Abraham. Sarah is first mentioned in Genesis 11:29. Exceptionally, her genealogy is not given. According to Genesis 20:12, Sarah was Abraham's half-sister, the daughter of his father, but not of his mother. It is difficult, however, to reconcile this information with Genesis 11:31, from a different documentary source, where Sarah is identified as Terah's daughter-in-law. Immediately after Sarah's introduction, mention is made of her infertility (Gen. 11:30). This fact serves to emphasize Abraham's unquestioning faith and obedience to the Lord's command that he leave his native land, predicated as it was on a promise of great progeny (12:1–4).
The first incident in which Sarah figures prominently is the account of her descent to Egypt along with Abraham during a famine in Canaan (12:10–20). Immediately before entering Egypt, Abraham becomes apprehensive lest Sarah's striking beauty, which is especially noteworthy since she was 65 years old at the time (cf. 12:4; 17:17; Genesis Apocryphon, 20), inspire the Egyptians to kill him for the sake of acquiring her (Gen. 12:12). Thus, Abraham instructs his wife to claim that she is his sister in order to protect him. Sarah obeys Abraham's wishes, and when her beauty is reported to the pharaoh by his courtiers, she is taken into the royal palace. Abraham is apparently generously rewarded for the hand of his "sister" (12:16). When, however, the royal household is afflicted with plagues, the pharaoh apparently realizes that Sarah is Abraham's wife and that he is being punished for having intercourse with her. He forthwith returns her to Abraham, at the same time ordering them to leave his domain (12:17–20). The entire story foreshadows the plagues of Egypt and Israel's successful departure from there as already seen in the Midrash (Gen. R. (ed. Theodor and Albeck), 385).
It was once thought that this unusual account and its parallel in Genesis 20:1–18 involving the same couple but another monarch, Abimelech of Gerar (cf. also 26:6–11), were illuminated by the *Nuzi documents, which, according to *Speiser, attest to the existence in Hurrian society of a judicial status of wife-sistership, whereby a woman, in addition to becoming a man's wife, was adopted by him as his sister and thereby merited higher social status and greater privileges than an ordinary wife. Speiser's reading though was shown to be wrong (see *Genesis). Sarah's prolonged barrenness prompted her to give her handmaid Hagar to Abraham in order that she might bear him a child in her mistress' place (16:12). This unusual device, found only once again in the Bible (cf. Gen. 30:1–8), is also attested to in the Nuzi documents and elsewhere, where it is stipulated that if a wife is childless, she must provide her husband with a female slave as a concubine. Once Hagar had conceived, her arrogant attitude toward her mistress prompted Sarah to treat her so harshly that she finally fled, only to return in accordance with a divine order (16:4–9). Ultimately, however, after Sarah had given birth to Isaac, she saw to it that Hagar and her son were permanently expelled from Abraham's household (Gen. 21; in Galatians ch. 4 Paul allegorizes this story so that it predicts the displacement of Judaism by Christianity). The extraordinary fact that Sarah would bear a child at 90 years of age was first announced by God to Abraham at the same time that both his and Sarah's names were changed, the latter from Sarai (17:15–17). The promise of offspring was repeated when the angels visited their tent before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:10). These promises were received with incredulity by the Patriarch and his wife (17:17; 18:12), who "laughed" when they heard the news, thus providing the basis for the name of the son, *Isaac.
Sarah died at the age of 127 in Kiriath-Arba, which, the text explains, is "now Hebron" (23:1–2). She was buried in the cave of *Machpelah, which was purchased by Abraham as a family grave from one of the local citizens, Ephron son of Zofar, in strict accordance with legal regulations for land purchase (23:3–20). Outside Genesis, Sarah is mentioned in the Bible only in Isaiah 51:2 as the progenitrix of the people of Israel.
The usual interpretation of the name Sarah is "princess" or "chieftainness," although it may also be connected with the Akkadian Šārrat, one of the designations of the moon-goddess Ishtar. Some scholars have explained that Sarah's original name, שָׂרַי represents an early specialized feminine form, as is now known from Ugaritic, where the termination of feminine personal names is quite common. Others have pointed out that the name Sari may not be a doublet of Sarah, since the Greek translation has the expected doubling of the r in the case of Sarah (Sarra), Σάρρα, but not in the case of Sarai. The latter has been connected with the Arabic word sharā, "repeated flashing."
[Myra J. Siff /
S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]
In the Aggadah
Sarah is identified with Iscah, the daughter of Abraham's brother, Haran (Gen. 11:29), and thus Abraham's niece. She was called Iscah because all gazed (sakkah, "to look") at her beauty (Meg. 14a) which she retained throughout her journeys and even in her old age (Gen. R. 40:4). She was so beautiful that all other people were like monkeys by comparison (BB 58a). Even Abishag the Shunammite, whose beauty is extolled, never achieved half of Sarah's attractiveness (Sanh. 39b).
Sarah should have reached Abraham's lifespan of 175, but 48 years were taken away because of her readiness to dispute with Abraham over Hagar's misdeeds (RH 16b; Gen. R. 45:5). Sarah was originally barren, but a miracle was performed for her after her name was changed from Sarai and her youth was restored (Gen. R. 47:2). After she had given birth to Isaac, many people claimed that the Patriarch and his wife had adopted a foundling and were pretending that it was their own son. Abraham made a banquet on the day that Isaac was weaned, and Sarah invited many women. They all brought their infants with them, and Sarah suckled them all, thus convincing the guests that she was indeed the mother (BM 87a; Gen. R. 53:9). Others stated that Abimelech was the father, but it was disproved by Isaac's striking resemblance to his father (Gen. R. 53:6; BM 87a). Sarah's behavior toward Ishmael, whom she drove away from Abraham's roof, is justified on the grounds that she saw him commit idolatry, rape, and murder (Tosef., Sot. 6:6; Gen. R. 53:11). During her lifetime, the doors to her house were always hospitably open; her dough miraculously increased; a light burned from Friday evening to Friday evening; and a pillar of the divine cloud rested above her tent (Gen. R. 60:16). Her death was caused by the shock of learning about the *Akedah. According to one version, Satan appeared to her and told her that Abraham had actually slaughtered, or was about to slaughter, Isaac (Sefer ha-Ya shar, Va-Yera; PdRE 32). According to another text it was Isaac himself who returned and told her of the event (Lev. R. 20:2). The inhabitants of Hebron closed their places of business out of respect for her memory and as a reward did not die before they participated 38 years later in the obsequies of Abraham (Gen. R. 58:7; 62:3).
Skinner, Genesis (ICC, 1912), 237–335; K.L. Tallqvist, Assyrian Personal Names (1914), 193; E.A. Speiser, in: A. Altmann (ed.), Biblical and Other Studies (1963), 15–28; idem, Genesis (1964), 78ff.; L. Rost, Gottes Wort und Gottes Land (1965), 186–93; N.M. Sarna, Understanding Genesis (1966), index. IN THE AGGADAH: Ginzberg, Legends, index; G. Vermès, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (1961), 96ff. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: N. Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary Genesis (1989); S.D. Sperling, The Original Torah (1998), 78–80.
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