Yes, My Lord—
The Story of Abraham and Sarah
God said to Eve, “Yet your desire
shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). That
was part of the burden which sin brought to the woman, and it is
interesting that the next major husband and wife relationship in Scripture
illustrates a wife’s submission to her husband’s rule. Sarah is
commended twice by New Testament writers, once for her faith (Heb. 11:11)
and once for her submission to her husband (1 Pet. 3:5, 6). The Apostle
Peter went so far as to say she “obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.”
We would not think of asking a wife to
call her husband “lord” in our culture, but in that day it was
Sarah’s way of expressing her submissiveness. Strangely enough, these
two principles, faith and submission, actually go together. Submission for
a wife is basically faith that God is working through her husband to
accomplish what is best for her. And that is the story of Sarah’s life
Look first at the early seeds of faith.
The story began in the city of Ur, a thriving metropolis near the ancient
coastline of the Persian Gulf. At least one man was repulsed by the
idolatry and sin of Ur, for he had come to know the one true and living
God. In fact, God had spoken to him: “Go forth from your country, and
from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I
will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you,
and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless
those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you
all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). Armed
with that potent promise, Abraham pulled up stakes, and with his father
Terah, his nephew Lot, and his wife Sarah, began the long trek northward
around the fertile crescent to the city of Haran.
Moving is no fun, particularly when
your moving van is a camel or a donkey, and especially when you don’t
even know where you are going! “By faith Abraham, when he was called,
obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance;
and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). That is
probably harder on a woman than it is on a man. Sarah is not mentioned in
that verse, but her faith is there, every bit as steadfast as Abraham’s.
She believed that God would sustain her through the arduous journey and
show her husband the place he had chosen for them.
Sarah was not a weak, spineless, overly
dependent, empty-headed woman. Her parents called her Sarai, and names had
meaning in the ancient biblical world. Hers meant “princess.” It may
have described her great beauty, which is referred to twice in the
inspired record (Gen. 12:11, 14). It probably described, as well, her
cultured upbringing, her fine education, her stately charm, and her
gracious manner. When God changed her name to Sarah, he did not remove the
princely connotation, but rather added the further dignity of motherhood.
She is called in that context “a mother of nations” (Gen. 17:15-16).
Sarah was an intelligent and capable
woman. But when she married Abraham she made a decision. She established
as her mission in life the task of helping her husband fulfill God’s
purposes for him. That was not weakness. It was God’s will for her life:
true biblical submission. Some wives have been systematically sabotaging
God’s plan for their husbands because they have not been willing to
believe God and entrust themselves to His wisdom. They simply will not
trust God to work through their husbands to accomplish what is best. They
feel they must help God along by trying to dominate their husbands.
It appears as though Abraham’s father
refused to go on when they reached Haran. He was an idol worshiper (Josh.
24:2), and the city of Haran suited him fine for the remainder of his
days. He delayed God’s purposes for Abraham, but he could not destroy
them. At Terah’s death, Abraham, then seventy-five years of age,
departed from Haran for the land which God had promised him (Gen. 12:4).
It was another move to another unknown place, but by his side was Sarah,
woman of submission and faith (Gen. 12:5). The days ahead would see her
faith severely tested and her submissiveness sorely tried.
Let’s explore, secondly, the
continuing struggles of faith. Faith grows best under attack. The person
who prays for God to take away his problems may be asking for a sickly
spiritual life. Sometimes our faith falters under the stress, but if we
admit the failure and accept God’s forgiveness, even those failures can
contribute to our spiritual growth. Abraham and Sarah are both commended
for their great faith in Scripture, but their failures are recorded for
our instruction and encouragement.
The first attack came shortly after
they entered Canaan. There was a famine in the land and Abraham decided to
leave the place which God had promised him and flee into Egypt (Gen.
12:10). Had he consulted Sarah, she might have pointed out the foolishness
of his decision, but like many men he moved ahead with his plans without
considering the hardships he could cause her. Too many men refuse to ask
advice from their wives. They think headship gives them the prerogative of
doing whatever they please without talking it over with their wives and
coming to a mutually acceptable agreement. They are afraid their wives
might find cracks in their logic or expose their narrow-minded
selfishness. So they barge ahead with their plans and the whole family
suffers for it.
As they neared Egypt, Abraham said to
his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and it will
come about when the Egyptians see you, that they will say, ‘This is his
wife’; and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please say
that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and
that I may live on account of you” (Gen. 12:11-13). It was a tribute to
Sarah’s beauty that at sixty-five years of age she was still so
irresistible that Abraham thought the Egyptians might try to kill him for
her. And the beauty was not just in Abraham’s eye. “And it came about
when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very
beautiful. And Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh;
and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house” (Gen. 12:14, 15). While
Abraham thought the Egyptians might murder him to get his wife, he was
sure they would treat him as an honored guest if they thought he were her
brother. And he turned out to be right. They gave him many animals and
servants for her sake (Gen. 12:16). Now technically, Sarah was Abraham’s
sister, his half-sister (Gen. 20:12). Such marriages were not unusual in
that day. But what they told the Pharaoh was only a half-truth, and
half-truths are lies in God’s economy. He cannot honor sin.
Why did Sarah go along with his sinful
scheme? Is not this a case where obedience to God would supersede
obedience to one’s husband? I think it is. A wife has no obligation to
obey her husband when obedience compromises the clearly revealed will of
God (cf. Acts 5:29). Sarah could have justly refused. But it does show how
deep her faith and submission really were. Sarah believed God’s promise
that Abraham would become the father of a great nation. Since there were
no children as yet, she was expendable, but Abraham had to live and have
children even if it should be by another woman.
She may also have believed that God
would intervene and deliver her before immorality became necessary. That
would be quite probable in view of Pharaoh’s large harem. She may
likewise have believed that God would reunite her with her husband and
rescue both of them from Pharaoh’s power. And because she believed, she
submitted. God could have protected them apart from Abraham’s selfish
scheme, but Sarah’s faith in God and submission to her husband are still
beautifully illustrated in this Old Testament narrative. The true test of
a wife’s submission may come when she knows her husband is making a
It is hard to imagine a man sinking
much lower than Abraham did on this occasion. Even the pagan king rebuked
him for what he did (Gen. 12:18-20). He failed Sarah sadly, but God was
faithful to her. He honored her faith and delivered her. He never forsakes
those who trust him. You would think the lesson of God’s sovereign care
would have been so indelibly inscribed on Abraham’s soul after this
experience that he would never compromise his wife again to protect
himself. But he did. About twenty years later he did exactly the same
thing with Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen. 20:1-8). This shows how weak and
faithless the faithful can be. There are probably some sins we think we
will never commit again, but we must ever be watchful, for that is exactly
where Satan will attack us. The amazing thing is that Sarah submitted
again on that later occasion, and that God delivered her again, another
evidence of her faith and God’s faithfulness.
The next great strain on their faith is
revealed in this statement: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no
children” (Gen. 16:1). God was soon to change Abram’s name to Abraham,
from “exalted father” to “father of a multitude.” How could
Abraham be the father of a multitude when he had no son? Now it was
Sarah’s turn to devise a clever human scheme. She offered her Egyptian
slave girl, Hagar, so that Abraham might have a son by her. We must admit
that her suggestion revealed her belief that God would keep His word and
give Abraham a son. It was obviously motivated by her love for Abraham and
her desire for him to have that son. And sharing her husband with another
woman would have been one of the most sacrificial things she could do. But
it was not God’s way. It was another fleshly solution. And God’s ways
are always best even when He is withholding what we think we need at the
Too often we time-conscious earthlings
resent His long delays and take matters into our own hands, usually to our
great distress. If we could learn to keep trusting Him when our situation
looks the bleakest, we would save ourselves much grief.
This impulsive sin had its effect on
the relationship between Abraham and Sarah. Hagar got pregnant and
eventually became proud and unmanageable. Sarah blamed Abraham for the
whole problem when it was actually her own idea. Then she dealt harshly
with Hagar, and her unkindness exposed the bitterness and resentment in
her soul. Meanwhile, Abraham shirked his duty. He should have said
“No” to Sarah’s sinful scheme in the first place. But now he told
her to handle the problem herself, to do whatever she wanted to do, but to
stop badgering him about it (Gen. 16:6).
It’s hard for a wife to be in
subjection to a jellyfish, a man who avoids issues, puts off decisions,
and shirks his responsibilities. There is nothing to submit to, no
leadership to follow. A wife cannot help her husband fulfill God’s goals
for his life when she doesn’t even know what his goals are.
Even great men and women of faith have
their moments of faithlessness. And no such moment was worse for Abraham
and Sarah than when they laughed at God. They both did it. God told
Abraham he would bless Sarah and make her a mother of nations. Kings of
peoples would come from her. Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and
said, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will
Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17). Abraham
tried to get God to accept Ishmael as his heir, but God said, “No, but
Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac;
and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for
his descendants after him” (Gen. 17:19).
Sarah’s turn was next. The Lord
appeared to Abraham in the person of a visitor to his tent, and Sarah
overheard him say, “I will surely return to you at this time next year;
and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen. 18:10). She was
listening at the tent door and laughed to herself, saying, “After I have
become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (Gen.
18:12). Incidentally, this was how Peter knew she called him “lord.”
The submission was there, but her faith was wavering. The struggles of
faith are real and we all experience them. Satan’s darts of doubt seem
to be flying in our direction much of the time, and we too may be tempted
to snicker skeptically at the very thought of God solving our thorny
But thank God for the final triumph of
faith. I believe the turning point in their struggling faith occurred
during that last encounter with the Lord. “Why did Sarah laugh?” God
asked quickly. “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:13,
14). That poignant challenge pierced their faltering hearts, and faith was
rekindled, strong and steadfast. There was that brief setback in Gerar
(Gen. 20:1-8). But basically things were different from that moment on.
Of Abraham, the Apostle Paul wrote,
“And without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as
good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of
Sarah’s womb; yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver
in unbelief, but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, and being
fully assured that what He had promised, He was able also to perform”
Of Sarah, the writer to the Hebrews
declared, “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive,
even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who
had promised” (Heb. 11:11). Their faith was rewarded; Sarah had a son
and they called his name Isaac, which means “laughter.” And Sarah told
us why they gave him that name: “God has made laughter for me; everyone
who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6). Her laugh of doubt had turned
to a laugh of triumphant joy, and we can share her joy with her.
There would still be problems for
Abraham and Sarah. The life of faith is never free from obstacles. Hagar
and Ishmael were still around to poke fun at Isaac. And Sarah got upset
about that. When she saw Ishmael mocking her little Isaac she seemed to
lose control of herself. She rushed in to Abraham and angrily demanded,
“Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be
an heir with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). Could this be the same woman
who is extolled in the New Testament for her submissiveness and obedience?
Yes, it is. Healthy submission does not prohibit the expression of
opinions. That is a sick submissiveness, usually motivated by a low
self-esteem (“my opinions aren’t worth anything”), by a fear of
unpleasant circumstances (“I want peace at any price”), or by the
avoidance of responsibility (“let somebody else make the decision; I
don’t want to get blamed”).
Sarah at least said what was on her
mind. And furthermore, she was right! Getting upset was not right. But
Ishmael was not to be heir with Isaac, and God wanted him to leave the
household. God told Abraham to listen to Sarah and to do what she said
(Gen. 21:12). Imagine that—even though Sarah got emotional, God wanted
Abraham to heed her advice. He often wants to use wives to correct their
husbands, to advise them, to mature them, to help them solve their
problems and give them insight. That’s what helpers are for.
Some husbands make their wives feel
like ignoramuses, whose ideas are ridiculous and whose opinions are
worthless. The husband who does that is the real ignoramus. He has missed
out on God’s best for him. If a wife tells her husband there is a
problem in their marriage, God wants him to listen to her—listen to her
evaluation of the situation, listen to the changes she thinks should be
made, listen when she tries to share her feelings and her needs—then do
something constructive about it. One of the prevalent problems in
Christian marriages today is that husbands are too proud to admit that
there is anything wrong and too stubborn to do anything about it. God may
want to enlighten them through their wives.
The bondwoman and her son were finally
sent away. Ishmael was now old enough to provide for his mother, and God
gave him expertise with the bow (Gen. 21:20). And with that irritant
removed, this happy little family threesome enjoyed a time of unhindered
faith and fellowship. But the most severe trial to their faith was yet to
come. “Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham”
(Gen. 22:1). It was to be a very unusual test. God said, “Take now your
son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah;
and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I
will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). Sarah’s name does not appear in this
chapter and we seldom mention her when we discuss it. But she certainly
knew what was going on. She probably helped them prepare for the trip. She
saw the wood, the fire, and the knife; she saw her son Isaac, and she saw
Abraham, a look of agony etched on his weathered brow. But she saw no
animal for the sacrifice. Scripture says that Abraham believed that God
could even raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19). Sarah must have
believed that too.
She watched them disappear over the
horizon, and though her motherly heart was breaking, she uttered not one
word of protest. It was probably her greatest display of faith in God and
submission to her husband’s will and purpose. “For in this way in
former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn
themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed
Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what
is right without being frightened by any fear” (1 Pet. 3:5, 6). A
Christian wife need not have any fear of submissiveness when her hope is
in God. He will be faithful to His Word and use her obedience to
accomplish what is best for her.
Sarah was one of those women whom King
Lemuel spoke about, who did her husband good and not evil all the days of
her life (Prov. 31:12). A woman can only be that kind of wife when she
believes that nothing is too difficult for God, and when she believes that
God can use even her husband’s mistakes to bring glory to Himself and
blessing to their lives. And a man can only be worthy of such a submissive
wife when he has learned to follow God’s directions rather than pursue
his own selfish goals, He knows he has no superiority to warrant his
position of leadership. It is given to him by God. So he accepts it as a
sacred trust and discharges it in full submission to his Lord and
unselfish consideration for his wife and what is best for her.
Let’s talk it over
1. For husbands: What are your goals in life? Have
you communicated these goals to your wife? For wives: In what ways can
you help your husband fulfill God’s purposes for his life?
2. Why should a husband seek his wife’s advice in
decisions that affect her?
3. In what kinds of situations does a wife usually
find it most difficult to be submissive?
4. How does God expect a wife to react when she
feels that her husband is out of the will of God?
5. For wives: Are there any areas of your
submissiveness that are motivated by a low self-esteem, a fear of
unpleasant circumstances, or the avoidance of responsibility? What
should be the basis of a healthy submissiveness?
6. How do husbands sometimes use their headship role
as a club to get their own way? What can they do to avoid it?
7. Since God places the husband in the headship
role, what then are some obligations he has to his wife?
8. For wives: How does God want you to express your
opinions and desires to your husband? For husbands: How does God expect
you to react when your wife is trying to communicate?