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Sarah (Sarai; Heb. שָׂרַי ,שָׂרָה) was 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). Abraham and Sarah lived and were married in Haran.

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. 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.

When Abraham was 86 years old, Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. 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 so Ishmael would not share an inheritance with Isaac (Gen. 21; in Galatians ch. 4 Paul allegorizes this story so that it predicts the displacement of Judaism by Christianity). Biblical commentators disagree as to the reason why she did not want Ishmael in her house. Some say Ishmael was worshipping other gods, others say he was teasing Isaac or bragging that, as firstborn, he would receive a double portion of the inheritance. God told Abraham to listen to Sarah and the next morning, Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away.

When Abraham was 99 years old, God spoke to him and blessed him with children and land. He changed his name from Abram to Abraham and his wife’s name from Sarai (17:15–17) to Sarah. Three days later, three men approached Abraham’s tent before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:10). He invited them in and Sarah went to prepare food for them. She was listening from the opening of the tent, however, when one of the men, who were really messengers from God, predicted that she would have a child. These promises were received with incredulity by the Patriarch and his wife (17:17; 18:12), who laughed when they heard the news that Sarah would bear a child at 90, thus providing the basis for the name of the son, Isaac, who was born a year later when Abraham was 100.

Sarah died at the age of 127 in Kiryat 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 the Hittite, 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."


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.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Encyclopedia Britannica, Sarah, Volume 10, 15th Edition, 1997; Scriptures: Genesis; The Jewish Publication Society’s translation, New York: 1985.