Chapter 15 – Sarai and Abram

This chapter is devoted to chronicling the rocky marriage between Abram and Sarai, about whom there is more written in scripture than any other married couple. For twenty-five years, their marriage experienced a difficult trial that was, in part, orchestrated by God. However, while neither partner was perfect, Abram in particular committed major failures that made the trial much more difficult than it needed to be.


Abram’s Motivation

Abram was extremely spiritual-minded. He valued the calling of God so much that he completely gave his life away in pursuit of it. This is apparent for two reasons.


First, his calling was to father a nation that would not exist until long after he died. Hebrews 11:13 says that Abram died without receiving the promises God had given him. He only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. 


Second, Abram spent decades wandering in the wilderness and dwelling in tents in order to pursue this calling (Hebrews 11:9). He did not live in a physical city where he might have enjoyed his vast wealth because he was pursuing a heavenly city (Hebrews 11:10). He left his home country in pursuit of a heavenly country (Hebrews 11:15-16). He considered himself a stranger and an exile on the earth, only passing through on route to his true home (Hebrews 11:13). He waited and persevered until he was 100 years old before he saw just the initial, partial fulfillment of his calling in a single child.


Abram’s Failures as a Spiritual Leader

Abram’s esteem for spiritual things above temporal things was noble, but it was also heavily tainted by self-preservation, and perhaps selfish ambition. This wreaked havoc on his marriage and caused Sarai inestimable pain.


In Genesis 12, when Abram journeyed to Egypt, he was afraid the men would kill him and take Sarai because she was so beautiful, so he told her to lie and say she was only his sister. He let this go so far that the Pharaoh actually took Sarai into his home as his wife. Only a miraculous intervention by God prevented the Pharaoh having relations with her.


Can you imagine how hurt and betrayed Sarai must have felt? How alone and unprotected? Clearly, Abram did not value his wife as much as his own life. Also, since this occurred shortly after Abram received God’s promise to make his descendants into a great nation, Abram apparently did not think Sarai was a vital part of this promise – a mistake he would repeat multiple times.


Later in Genesis 16, Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” Abram instinctively knew this would be trying to fulfill God’s promise through his own striving rather than trusting Him to fulfill it in His time. Even so, he listened to Sarai’s suggestion. He slept with Hagar and she gave birth.


Afterward, even though the act was Sarai’s idea, she still sensed that Abram had wronged her. He was the leader. He could have reminded her that God’s promises are trustworthy instead of succumbing to the fear and impatience she felt in a moment of weakness. Now, not only had he again attempted to circumvent Sarai’s role in God’s promise, but he also created the conditions for jealousy and rivalry between her and her servant.


Sarai was at a breaking point. She said to Abram, “May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me.” (Genesis 16:5) Sarai had had enough. Abram’s sins were painful enough by themselves. But to make matters worse, her entire life was probably very different from what she had envisioned. Let’s consider what she had been through.


A 25 Year Marriage Trial

Abram had no doubt he was in the center of God’s will for his life. The Lord appeared to him physically or in a vision at least 4 times over a 25 year period (Genesis 12:7, 14:18, 15:1, 15:17) and clearly spoke to him on several other occasions (Genesis 12:1, 13:14, 15:4). He received powerful revelations of God’s long term plan for his family line, the nation of Israel, and the salvation of mankind. These encounters with the Lord sustained Abram and enabled him to sacrifice so much – his homeland, his friends and family, everything familiar, any hope of a normal and stable life as he wandered about in the wilderness.


What did Sarai have to sustain her? Only Abram’s claims. That’s it. As far as we know, she received no visitations from the Lord. She had no revelation about her calling. She heard nothing from God about leaving her home and family to start a new nation. All she had to go on was a conviction from God to submit to her husband’s leadership (1 Peter 3:4-6). If Abram’s faith could be compared to walking on water, then Sarai was walking on water while blindfolded.


I wonder if Sarai ever challenged and questioned Abram during those 25 years. Why shouldn’t she? In following Abram, she had to make all the same difficult sacrifices as him, but with none of the encouragement. If this was really God, why didn’t He show the same things to her so they could be in unity? As the years turned into decades, Sarai became convinced that Abram’s “promise from God” had failed. All hope of starting a family disappeared due to her barren womb and aging body, which she expressed in both Genesis 16: 2 and again in Genesis 18:12.


I imagine Sarai saying to herself:


“Look at all I’ve given up because of my husband’s foolishness. My home, my family, my country, my whole life – all because Abram claims to have this great calling and these spectacular visions from God. Well, where is this promise? Where is this new land? Where is this new nation we’re supposed to start? It’s been 25 years. Now I’m too old to have children and Abram still holds on to his dream. Nothing will convince him otherwise.”


“God, why is this happening to me?  Why won’t You show Abram his deception?  He only wants to serve You! Why don’t You save him from this obsession?”


Likewise, I imagine Abram saying to himself:


“For 25 years I’ve sought God with all my heart and given up everything to obey His call. Why does my own wife challenge me every step of the way? It would be so nice to have her trust and support. I always thought if I was obedient to God, unity in my marriage would come naturally, but instead it’s been the opposite. She thinks I’ve never heard from God at all, that this is all my own initiative, that I’m deceived!” 


“God, if You wanted to give me this calling, why doesn’t my wife support me? Why don’t You show her I’ve been obedient to Your voice?”


Sarai’s Great Faith-Test

What neither Abram nor Sarai realized was that Sarai was being tested and prepared for her calling just as much as Abram. Only the test God designed for her was very different than his. Her test was this:


Would she trust God enough to submit to her husband even though she couldn’t be sure whether he was hearing from the Lord?


Would she trust God to protect her if Abram had drifted into presumption or self-delusion?


Would she continue following this man with such glaring character flaws and disgusting failures just because she knew in her heart the Lord wanted her to?


This was the great trial that stared Sarai in the face for 25 years. Having no confirmation her husband was really hearing from the Lord, his claims looking more doubtful every year, this mission from God, as Abram called it, was costing her dearly – costing her everything.


Abram Commission

In Genesis 17, around Abram’s 100th birthday, God appeared to him. This was the moment Abram had been waiting for. It was finally time to be commissioned and see the initial fulfillment of God’s promise. To commemorate the occasion, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, which means “exalted father”.


In the Bible, name is often synonymous with nature. When God changes someone’s name, it symbolizes that their nature has changed. (Other examples of this are Saul becoming Paul, Jacob becoming Israel, and Cephas becoming Peter.) Abram’s nature had changed in the wilderness. He was finally ready to father God’s nation.


God would not give Abram a responsibility he was not mature enough to handle. So He prepared him with long season of waiting and character growth. He even allowed the promise to appear to die so its fulfillment was totally impossible. Then, He miraculously resurrected it so Abram could experience the superiority of God’s word over natural circumstances, as we see in Romans 4:


“In hope against hope he believed, so that he might become a father of many nations…  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 God had promised, He was able also to perform.”


Sarai’s Commission

Next, the Lord commissioned Sarai as well, saying:


“As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah [which means princess] shall be her name.  I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her.  Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people will come from her.” (Genesis 17:15-16)


God changed Sarai’s name to Sarah because her nature had changed too. She became “a princess” and “a mother of nations”. God had prepared her for the great authority she was called to steward.


How did Abram respond to this? By saying to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” How incredible! With this reply, for at least the third time, Abram again tried to circumvent Sarah’s role in the promises of God. What great deception he had with regard to his marriage! He was truly blind to his wife’s greatness and to her calling. Now the time had come for God to open his eyes.


Abraham clearly did not understand all the pain and sacrifice Sarah had endured. Perhaps he resented her not putting more trust in him during their long journey together. However, Sarah’s victory was not that she trusted Abram, but that she entrusted herself to God when she didn’t know whether she could trust Abram. In so doing, she became a great champion in God’s eyes. She is the only wife mentioned in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. The apostle Peter called her a spiritual mother and a model to wives in every generation since (1 Peter 3:4-6). The apostle Paul even called her a symbol of the New Covenant (Galatians 4:24). Can you imagine any higher honor?


Unity at Last

After Abraham and Sarah were commissioned, things began to change in their marriage. Abraham’s next visitation from the Lord included Sarah and she finally heard with her own ears the promise of the miraculous birth of their son (Genesis 18). When Sarah heard, she responded with faith, as we see in Hebrews 11:11: “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.” Finally, after such a long and difficult marital season, God granted Abraham and Sarah the marital unity they always longed for. 


Wouldn’t it have been easier for them if God spoke to Sarai the same thing as Abram from the beginning?  Of course it would have – much easier!  Both of them loved God and sincerely wanted to obey him. He could have given them unity at any time, but He didn’t do this for their sakes. This was their test. This was their preparation for their callings. God taught Abraham to be content only with His approval, even if all others, including his wife, doubted him. And He taught Sarai to trust in Him even if she couldn’t trust her husband or even in the face of hopeless circumstances.


A Final Failure

It would be nice if the story of Abraham and Sarah’s marriage ended there. However, it would not be a faithful exploration of their journey to leave out Abraham’s treachery in Genesis 20.


Incredibly, shortly after Abraham and Sarah were commissioned, Abraham repeated his past sin of telling a foreign king Sarah was only his sister. Once again the king took Sarah as his wife and prepared to consummate the relationship. Once again God supernaturally intervened on her behalf because Abraham failed to cover her. Once again Abraham’s old stronghold – the fear of death – prevented him from being willing to lay down his life for Sarah.


How could Abraham do this? Think of all the supernatural encounters he had experienced. Think of all he knew about the callings of his wife, his future son, and himself. The very future of humanity rested in the balance of his choices. How could he possibly allow this king to take Sarah away from him? Why did he not trust God? It seems so unthinkable.


There is no excuse, but there is an explanation. To understand why Abraham did this, we first need to recognize that the promises he received grew the longer he walked with God:


1)      First, God said he would make Abraham a great nation (Genesis 12:2).

2)      Then, God said he would make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (Genesis 17:4).

3)      Finally, God gave Abraham the greatest promise of all, saying his seed will possess the gate of their enemies (Genesis 22:17). This was a prophecy about the Second Coming of Christ, when the biological and spiritual descendants of Abraham, with Jesus, retake dominion of the earth and send Satan and his angels to hell (Matthew 16:18 , Revelation 20:2).


We also need to recognize that Abraham was experientially familiar with the power Satan has over mankind – the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). In Genesis 15:9-18, Abraham had a symbolic encounter with God which, according to most theologians, foreshadowed the cross and its power to save people from spiritual death. The experience terrified Abraham. Verse 12 says, “…terror and great darkness fell upon him”. There is nothing more horrific or frightening in the universe than the fate that awaits those who die without Christ. Abraham tasted this first-hand.


Now let’s tie this all together. Abraham once again lied about Sarah being his wife because he came under a heavy satanic attack of fear. This was a last ditch effort on Satan’s part to prevent the birth of the child through whom all God’s promises – including the eventual defeat of his own kingdom – would begin to be fulfilled. Abraham came under the full brunt of terror that Satan could inflict and he buckled. He gave in to self-preservation instead of standing up for his wife. This episode is a reminder that there are times when being the head of a marriage that is threatening to Satan’s kingdom is not an easy task, but requires real courage.



What exactly is submission? What does it mean and what does it look like? We’ll examine this in the next chapter.