The story of Abram – as it is often told – begins with a great call from God to leave everyone and everything that he knew to go to a land he did not know as he was led by a God he did not understand. This, too, is often where Sarai’s story begins, mentioned alongside Abram’s nephew, Lot, and all of Abram’s people and possessions as the journey from Haran into the unknown begins.
But Haran was not their home, and obedience to the call of God was not the beginning of Abram and Sarai’s story.
Their story begins in Ur of the Chaldeans. Scholars debate over the site of the ancient city, but generally agree it is in the Middle East in or around what is modern-day Iraq. There we meet Terah, a descendent of Noah’s son Shem, and his sons Abram, Nahor and Haran. For reasons not expressed in the text, Terah decided to move. That he packed up his family to go on a journey is less interesting than their intended destination. Genesis 11:31 tells us:
Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot (Haran’s son), and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go to the land of Canaan. But when they came to Haran, they settled there.
We barely know Sarai’s name before a stark truth is revealed — Sarai was barren and had no child. This declaration provides a vital context to the promise that would be made to Abram when God called him. The command to go included the seemingly impossible promise that Abram would the father of a great nation.
But, look ahead a few centuries and see the impossibility brought to life. Imagine yourself sitting around a campfire in ancient Egypt. You are part of a family and a people that have been slaves for generations. These moments – surrounded by your people and listening to the stories of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – fuel you through the drudgery of the work given each day by your Egyptian task masters. Tonight, the old woman is talking about Sarai. Her gray hair is pulled back under a worn headscarf. Her skin, tanned and wrinkled from the desert sun, adds to her air of wisdom. Her, gnarled by decades of slave labor, move expressively as she tells the story.
“And Sarai was barren,” she said dramatically. “She had no children.”
Everyone around the campfire laughs instinctively. You look to your mother and lock eyes. She smiles. You smile back. You both understand you are two daughters of Sarah sitting among dozens of daughters of Sarah in a nation of thousands of daughters of Sarah.
Barrenness appeared to pronounce a death sentence on the divine plan. But, in the course of time, it offered a background for God’s power to be displayed as obstacles and hurdles were overcome. What God had done for Sarah is still being done in the lives of women today. Obstacles, hurts, illnesses, disappointments, and loss create walls we feel unable or inadequate to climb on the path to what we know God has called us to do. We question the call. We question the process. We may even question God. We can never question his capacity to do abundantly more than we could ever imagine, and all we have to do is look back to the life of Sarah for confirmation.
Many years stood between the promise and its fulfillment, and there were multiple incidents brought on by Abram and Sarai themselves that threatened to derail the promise. We’ll explore one of those in next week’s post.