“HARDLY A HERO”
AUGUST 3, 2008
We have just read from two different Bible translations this morning. You may have noticed a slight difference in what I read and what you read. You read from the Revised Standard Version. I read the New Revised Standard Version. This version (RSV) was translated from Greek and Hebrew into English in 1951. This version (NRSV) was translated from Greek and Hebrew into English in 1989, and it’s an improvement on this Bible, and I am sharing all this with you this morning, not to gloat, but to highlight a major change from this Bible to this Bible when it comes to Abraham’s wife Sarah.
Turn with me to Hebrews, chapter 11, on page 209 of the New Testament section of your pew Bible. As you turn there, let me remind you that the 11th chapter of Hebrews is known as the “Who’s Who” of faith. It contains the names of people whose faith is worthy of emulation, and I share all this to let you know that Sarah has been eliminated as a hero of faith in our new translation. Let me show you what I mean. Look at verse 4 in the 11th chapter of Hebrews. It reads,
By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain ...
Then the rest of the verse is devoted to Abel’s faith.
Next look at verse 5. We see another hero,
By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death ...
And the rest of the verse is devoted to him.
Next look at verse 7,
By faith Noah ...
And we have a description of his great faith, and then in verse 8 we come to Abraham’s great faith,
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place which he was to receive as an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was to go.
So far, so good, now skip down to verse 11.
By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.
So, who is the hero of faith in verse 11? It is Sarah.
Now listen to my translation of this verse. It’s from the New Revised Standard Version. Same verse, verse 11. Follow along as I read,
By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised.
In this newer, updated translation of the Bible in verse 11, Sarah is not the hero, Abraham is the hero.
After noticing this difference, with Sarah a hero here in the old version, but not in the new version, some Christian feminists wrote the American Bible Society, the group responsible for the translation of our pew Bible and asked them, “Why the change? Why the elimination of Sarah as a hero of faith?” In response they cited all sorts of complicated Greek linguistic reasons for the change. I won’t go into them because I do not understand them, however, I do want to confess that I have always wondered why Sarah made the hero roster in my old Bible because the author of Genesis does not treat her kindly, and let’s take a closer look at this recently defrocked heroine of faith.
Four times we hear Sarah speak in the Book of Genesis. Four times, and only once does she have something good to say. That was when her son Isaac was born after a 25 year wait, and she gave thanks to God for her bouncing baby boy. When she speaks the other three times, we would like to hide this spiritual ancestor in the closet, and our text for today is a case in point.
Our story begins with Sarah offering her maidservant, Hagar to Abraham. The purpose of the gift? Procreation! Ten years have passed since God’s promise and Sarah has not had a child. Maybe this is how God intended to fulfill the promise of descendants to Abraham, and even though Sarah’s suggestion seems a bit strange to us today, back then it was quite common. When a wife could not conceive, she often provided her husband with a servant or concubine for the purpose of providing a natural heir for him. This offspring, then, would be first in line for the father’s inheritance, in this case superceding Eliezer of Damascus, whom we discussed last week, unless, of course, a child would later be born to the wife and husband. If that happened then all bets were off and the child of the husband and wife would be first in line.
Well, our boy Abraham thought Sarah had a swell idea and gladly volunteered for the duty, however a problem arose after Hagar conceived. Reading between the lines of the story, we get the impression that when Hagar knew she was pregnant she no longer acted like a servant or a concubine, but she walked around the house like she owned it, and it seemed whenever Hagar had a craving for pickles and ice cream Abraham was just a little too eager to go out and get some for her.
All this began to grate on Sarah and in no time at all she was livid with jealousy and so she says to Abraham in verse 5,
May the wrong done to me be on you!
In other words, you didn’t have to enjoy this so much you insensitive twit, and reading on,
I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!
Apparently, Sarah knew she had God in her corner on this one, and we understand her anger. It was a great disgrace to be barren in that culture, and if that were not bad enough, Hagar was rubbing it in, and to top it off, Abraham was talking about how much the baby was moving and buying him the latest in athletic gear. In the midst of all this, we understand Sarah’s hurt and anger, but it from this point on we begin to lose sympathy for her. You see, she did something reprehensible with her anger. She became vicious and mean and returned evil for evil.
John Claypool once warned about the danger of becoming a beast in order to overcome a beast. He says when that happens all that reigns is beastliness, and that is what happens here. Sarah became a beast. Listen to the end of verse 6. After Abraham gave his wife carte blanche to do as she pleased with Hagar, listen to what she chose to do. End of verse 6. We read,
Then Sarai dealt harshly with her; and she ran away from her.
Later the Apostle Paul would write, “Do not repay evil for evil, but do what is right in the eyes of everyone.” Unfortunately, Sarah did not do right, and Hagar wound up pregnant and alone in the desert.
Reading here about how these two women despised and mistreated one another, I am reminded of the jealous relationship between two modern day women – no one here, of course. Anyway, pangs of jealousy stabbed in one woman’s heart when she heard that her former admirer, a man named Jack, had proposed to another woman – a woman named Miss Hawkins. One day the jilted woman ran into Miss Hawkins at the grocery store and she couldn’t resist giving a dig, so she gushed, “I hear, Miss Hawkins, that you’ve accepted Jack’s proposal. I suppose he never told you he once proposed to me?”
Miss Hawkins thought for moment and then responded, “No, but he did once tell me there were a few things in his life of which he was ashamed, but he didn’t tell me what they were.”
I can imagine conversations like this taking place between Sarah and Hagar, and eventually it proved too much for Hagar and she left. Thankfully, however, an angel found her alone in the desert, and after making her a promise or two about her son, the angel persuaded Hagar to go back and patch things up with her mistress. Hagar did, she cleaned up her act, but after Ishmael was born it just got worse. We did not read about this in our text for today, but fifteeen years later, to the stupification of gynecologists in Canaan, Sarah herself, at age ninety, gave birth to a son and as soon as she could, Sarah used the excuse of a teasing Ishmael, and an unfounded fear of Isaac’s losing his father’s inheritance, to send Hagar packing once and for all. You can read about it in the 21st chapter, we won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say that Sarah never forgave Hagar, even after Hagar cleaned up her act, and against Abraham’s wishes Sarah prevailed, and had Hagar sent away. And if it weren’t for an angel coming to the rescue once again, Hagar and Ishmael would have died in the desert.
So now one cannot read about Sarah without thinking about this vindictive woman of faith, and unlike Abraham, we never see her change. In two weeks, we will look at “Hardly a Hero, PT II” and focus our attention on some of the questionable things Abraham did, but the difference is he made mistakes, and at times he did stupid things, but he never was cruel. So, Sarah, is no longer a hero of faith, linguistically or otherwise. She was just a woman who happened to be married to a great man. She remains a person of faith, but not a hero or heroine of faith. Behind Abraham did not stand a great woman, just a vindictive one. Our translation appropriately strikes her from the “Who’s Who of Faith.”
And I don’t know about you, but I cry for all the Sarah’s of the world. I cry for all the vindictive people who hurt themselves in the process of hurting others. After all, as someone said, “Bitterness is the poison we swallow, while hoping the other person dies.” And I think of that portion of the Lord’s Prayer about “forgiving us as we forgive others,” and I wonder how it was for Sarah when she met her maker and how it will be for modern day Sarah’s when they meet our Lord face to face?
I also weep for Sarah’s victims. I think of all the unrest in the Middle East between Arab and Jew and I wonder what it would have been like if Sarah would have treated Ishmael and Hagar differently. You see, Ishmael went on to become the father of the Arab world and one wonders if an act of kindness, or a spirit of forgiveness on Sarah’s part would have made things any different in the Middle East today.
And I weep for all of you who live and work next to Sarah’s every day of your life, and let me tell you, I pray for you having to be exposed to someone like that on a daily basis.
And I pray for all of us that we know better than to return evil for evil, that we learn the importance of putting away malice and bitterness, and that we never wind up being a Sarah.
After the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky woman who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal Artillery Fire. She looked to General Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.”
He was right. It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow bitterness take root, and strangle our soul.
So cut it down. Let it go. Let go of cruelty, bitterness, vindictiveness and come to this table of grace, mercy and forgiveness.
Let us stand and sing and prepare to come to the Lord’s Table.