We started a series on the women in the Bible a few weeks ago in my Sunday school class. We just finished up with Eve last week (what can I say - we talked way too much the first week and never really got around to the actual lesson) and now, this week, we have moved on to Sarah or Sarai as she was known for the majority of her story in Genesis.
We meet Sarai, whose name means princess, in Genesis 11:29, 30, "Abram and Nahor too wives for themselves. The name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife was Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah and Iscah. Sarai was barren; she had no child."
So, the first time we meet Sarai we learn three things about her - she lived in Ur of the Chaldeans which was a thriving metropolis; she was married to Abram; and she was barren. Just in case you don't get what barren means, the verse reiterates - she had no child.
While infertility is something modern women face, and nobody can say it isn't very painful and difficult, there was an added component in ancient culture. Because ancient culture was very cause and effect, if anything happened to you physically, it was sort of a given assumption by those around you, that you had done something bad to deserve it.
I have never personally struggled with infertility, but I have several friends who have, and one thing that seems to be a repeating theme is they feel somehow broken or defective - like their bodies have betrayed them by not working the way they should to conceive and/or carry a child. I'm sure that is very hard to work through.
Now what if you are infertile and you feel that way AND everybody is saying the fact that you can't get pregnant is all your own fault - you must have done something to become barren? That's how it would have been in ancient times. It wasn't just a heartache - it was a shame. That woman walked around with a stigma hanging over her head like a neon sign - barren.
A woman's husband could get rid of her because she couldn't have children. Nobody would have looked askance at him either, if he took on another wife or two. In fact, the people who knew him would think he was very generous to keep his barren wife, even if he added more wives.
It kind of tells you the type of man Abram was because not only did he NOT divorce his wife because she couldn't have children, but until Sarai basically threw her maid at him, Abram didn't take any additional wives either. It appears that Abram saw Sarai as more than as a means to perpetuation his gene pool.
Added to the shame was the practical implications of being barren. There were no old age homes. There was no social security (such as it is) or medicare. Your children were the ones that took care of you. If you had no children, well, it was a pretty scary prospect.
The word barren is the Hebrew word aqar which means sterile. The root of the word means to, "pluck up; rooted up or hamstring." In other words, being barren meant the roots of your family tree were rooted up. It's interesting that this word is also translated "lamed" elsewhere in the Bible. To not have children, certainly did cripple you in practical ways as you got older.
While not being able to have children is still a heartache for many couples, things are different these days. Not only are there medical options that weren't available in Sarai's day, but there aren't the stigmas attached either.
That's mainly because these days, as a general rule, we don't believe that if you get cancer or a tragedy befalls your family then you must have done something bad to deserve it. There are those who still have this view, but they are in the minority.
At least, we SAY we don't believe that. On the flip side though, there are a lot of people who question why bad things happen to good people. There are books, sermons, study series - all on this topic. If we believe that bad things aren't a result of bad behavior, why do we believe good things are a result of good behavior? Or inversely, righteous living shouldn't equal bad things happening.
There is a great quote - I think it is by Ernest Hemingway - that I had hanging in my classroom for years. It said, "Expecting bad things not to happen to you because you are a good person is like expecting a bull not to charge because you are a vegetarian."
Even though I love that quote; even though I can chant the line that bad things happen independent of behavior; even though I can spout the promise that God works all things for good - I still fall into this thinking. I still tend to feel like it is unfair if unpleasant or difficult things befall me even when I think I am doing the right things.
To be completely honest, this mindset has caused me a lot of angst over the years. If I could just wrap my mind around the fact that bad things aren't unfair or God's way of somehow getting back at me for something, somewhere that I did.
I guess the first thing we can learn from Sarai's life is that no matter what our actions are like, they don't necessarily correlate to the things that happen in our lives. I think if we can truly understand that God is sovereign and He really DOES work everything out for good, we can let go of our expectations or at least not be completely blindsided when (not if ) bad things happen. I think there is a lot of peace to be found in truly accepting that life is not necessarily cause and effect.
"The Lord has established His throne in the heavens; and His sovereignty rules over all." Psalm 103:22