Sarah, Laughing

I’m not new to rustling the patriarchal feathers of Biblical tradition, but that doesn’t make it less uncomfortable. Still, sometimes it feels like you’re about to drop an atom bomb on your own community, like you’re about to say something that will blow the top off some age-old beliefs held dear.

That’s sort of what this feels like, what I’m about to write here. It felt so dangerous that I had to do a Google search to see if I was the first one to ever think it. Turns out, I’m not. But that doesn’t make the realization any less seismic for me. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let me first, and finally, get to the point:

Father Abraham was a pimp, and Sarah was his chattel.

 

Recently I’ve started reading my beloved Bible with a purposefully feminist eye. Feminism has always been my default, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still programmed for patriarchy. For example, it took me years of studying King David — the man after God’s own heart — before realizing (after it was pointed out to me) that he was also quite possibly a rapist. David, after all, has been venerated as a true man of God, with a faith that should we should emulate. (He was, in my opinion, probably also mentally ill, but that’s a whole other essay.) Regarded as a beautiful figure of faith, and an ancestor of Jesus himself, the truth of David’s sins often get swept under the capital-E Evangelical rug. In pulpits and Bible studies and churches everywhere, David is held high as a godly but imperfect man; a man who partook in adultery and then repented, so all was right with God and the world. David’s murder of Bathsheba’s husband is discussed, but rape is never mentioned in those pulpits, and Bathsheba’s side of the story is never told. The abuse of power and the oppression of women is never examined; the depth of this form of brokenness and sin is never fully dug up and examined. And this was always the way I read David, too.

And for the record, although there is nothing in the text to support it, the image I always had of Bathsheba was that somehow she was to blame. I always thought of her as slightly slutty (I’m ashamed to say) and the ultimate temptress — the woman who led a godly man to his undoing. That’s been the cultural narrative of Bathsheba for centuries — the ultimate victim blaming, the very earliest of slut shaming.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that all she did was take a bath.

In her own house.

Now, of course, when I read the Bible, I’ll look more closely at the women’s narratives; I’ll notice if their voices are missing or silenced (usually, they are). I’ll look at the role they play in the narrative, whether they are primary or secondary, and I’ll examine how much agency they have over their own destinies (often, it’s none), and how they operate within the bigger patriarchal structure.

There’s a danger to reading the Bible this way, however: it can piss you off. At least for a little while.  

When it comes to the Genesis stories, there is always one image of Abraham’s wife that I have in my head: Sarah, laughing. That moment when she hears God tells Abraham that they will have a baby in their old age, Sarah laughs.

When I read the account in Genesis 18, I feel the bitterness, like a sharp knife, in her laughter. I sense her cynicism, her disbelief. I admit that I have always had a sense of hardness about Sarah, a feeling of being used up. Like Bathsheba’s presumed sluttiness, these images of Sarah have been embedded in my synapses as truth. If I were casting Sarah’s story, say, for a movie placed in the current day, Sarah might be a character who comes from the stereotypical trailer park; she might look a little like the older prostitutes we see over and over again on Cops.  She might have deep lines in her face, maybe some yellowed or blackened teeth. Her hair might be stringy, and her eyes dilated from whatever substance she has chosen to use to numb her nagging pain.

Now I understand why I always had this image of her.

It was with my new, deliberative feminist eye, and this kind of reading, that I came to understand Sarah in a whole different light: as a woman who was stuck in an abusive marriage in which she was used as a prostitute by her own husband, as chattel he would sell to increase his riches.  

Suddenly, her bitterness makes more sense. Her pain and her defensiveness against any possible hope explains her cynical laugh. After all, if I were in her place, I’d be thinking, “Who is this God to me? Where was God when I was raped by Pharaoh? Where was God when my husband let me be taken by these men, when my husband benefitted by my rape? Why would I think that the one thing I have been praying for all my life — a child —  would now, when it is completely impossible, come true? God is my husband’s savior. Not mine.”

Like King David, Abraham is a revered Biblical figure, and is the father of not just one, but three faiths; the “Abrahamic faiths” include Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Here is a man who is considered remarkable for his incredible, unquestioning faith when asked to sacrifice his own son; he is a man who is lifted up as an example of faith in the New Testament for obeying God’s call. But it’s clear from scripture that time and again he sold his wife into sexual slavery for financial benefit. Which is the exact definition of a pimp and a sex trafficker. Even in her death, he used his need to a grave to gain land in Canaan for himself.

Again, not a description I’ve ever heard from a pulpit.

In Genesis 12:11, Abraham (called Abram at this point) has left his homeland, which was struck by famine, to go to Egypt. “As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife, Sarah, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.” (NIV)

Indeed, when they arrived in Egypt, Pharaoh’s officials saw her and took her to the palace, where Pharaoh took her as a wife. Scripture says that because of Sarah, Pharaoh treated Abraham very well, giving him livestock and servants, and increasing his wealth immensely.

Sarah’s point of view is not present in the story. We hear nothing of her experience, her voice, her pain or her hope.

We do know that somehow Pharaoh found out that she was already married, and he expelled Abraham from Egypt, sending him on to Bethel as a very rich man. Later, Abraham pimps her out again. Travelling to the Negev, he again claimed she was his sister, and the king of Gerar took her. God intervened, however, stopping the king from raping Sarah this time. Instead, he gives Abraham one thousand pieces of silver and all the land he wanted, telling Sarah that through his payment to her husband, she is vindicated.

Well, gee. Thanks.

Like Sarah, I find myself laughing a bitter laugh at times -- especially in moments when I discover the horrors that our Biblical sisters endured. These things are shocking, and I never heard about them from Bible teachers. I have discovered them myself as I’ve read and re-read the scriptures, peeling away my own programmed patriarchy — those tiny little subconscious cultural messages that told me that Bathsheba was a slut and Sarah a happy, godly, obedient wife.

I’m not new to rustling the patriarchal feathers of Biblical tradition, but that doesn’t make it less uncomfortable. Still, sometimes it feels like you’re about to drop an atom bomb on your own community, like you’re about to say something that will blow the top off some age-old beliefs held dear.

 

That’s sort of what this feels like, what I’m about to write here. It felt so dangerous that I had to do a Google search to see if I was the first one to ever think it. Turns out, I’m not. But that doesn’t make the realization any less seismic for me. But we’ll get to that in a moment. Let me first, and finally, get to the point:

 

Father Abraham was a pimp, and Sarah was his chattel.

Perhaps the horror of the truth of rape is so complete that even pastors simply can’t deal with it, preferring instead to keep to the uplifting stuff. The “be strong and courageous” stuff. Maybe it’s possible that they have no explanation for why God thinks it’s okay for women to be raped (for the record, God doesn’t think that), so they just don’t talk about it. Certainly I’ve read my fair share of pieces that do, indeed, blame Bathsheba for taking a bath.

Maybe it’s they’re just not ready to break down the patriarchy yet.

I’ve heard time and again from some in the Evangelical space that scripture is perfect and exactly the way God wanted it, and we should just be happy with it. But if that’s the case, when I read the Bible this way, I can’t help but think that maybe what God wanted scripture to do was to demonstrate just how big of an ass most men can be. Because men don’t come off looking that great in the Bible when you really think about it. They are rapists and oppressors, drunkards and murderers. True, there are a few women who do gross things, like get their father drunk so they can sleep with him to get pregnant, but often they are working within the confines of survival in a system that makes their experience ridiculously dangerous. Like poverty breeds crime, patriarchy breeds sin.

I laugh a bitter laugh when I read about Sarah’s rape, and I commiserate with her when all she feels is cynicism when God finally shows up and promises her something. I wonder where God is too, sometimes. Sometimes, I wonder who God is supposed to be to me, with all my sharp edges. Can I really be loved by God when it feels as if I’m all wrong? When people tell me I’m going to hell for who I voted for? Or because I believe God makes room for everyone — really and truly everyone —  at the table?

And where — dear God, where — is Jesus? Where was Jesus for Sarah?

I go back to the thin pages of my Bible and look for him. We don’t hear Sarah’s experience, and sometimes, that’s where Jesus is — in the silent spaces between all the mouth noises of the powerful. Maybe it was Jesus who whispered in Pharaoh’s ear: Sarah is married. Send her back to her family.

Maybe it was Jesus who visited the king of Gerar and said, Don’t touch her.

Maybe Jesus told her to have faith, all those times she felt put down by Abraham or not enough because of her empty womb. Maybe as she worked in her tent, or prepared the evening meal, or cared for the other children in the family, maybe in her quiet moments of wondering, she sensed God’s promise to her, and felt Spirit’s presence with her.

But waiting can get hard.

When God told Abraham that Sarah, in her old age, would have a baby, she was standing just inside the tent door. She laughed, and God said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh?” I always thought of this as a rebuke of Sarah. But now, I’m reading it differently.

Now, I’m reading it as a rebuke of Abraham.

I picture God looking Abraham in the eye and saying, “Tell me. Why is your wife so cynical? What has happened to her that she has turned so bitter as to not believe me for my blessing?”

When Sarah swears she didn’t laugh, because she was afraid, my heart breaks for her. One more thing, she is probably thinking. I can’t bear one more punishment.  God turns to her and says, “Yes you did. You laughed.” For the first time, I hear this not as a rebuke, but as a gentle, “Yes, child. You laughed. And I see your pain. I understand your anger. And I’m going to bless you anyway.” For the first time, I see Jesus talking to Sarah. I think this was a healing moment for Sarah, and a moment she remembers later, when her son is born.

It may not have been in her timing, and it may not have been the way she’d always imagined it, but God came through on the promise — and redeemed that cynical laughter with a joyful mirth. In Genesis 21:5-7, Sarah says,

God has blessed me with laughter
and all who get the news will laugh with me!
She also said,
Whoever would have suggested to Abraham
that Sarah would one day nurse a baby!
Yet here I am! I’ve given the old man a son!

 

This is how Jesus shows up for Sarah, way back there in the Pentateuch. He uses her own laughter as a source of her redemption. He rescues her not just from her station in life as a barren woman (and all the weight that carried in her society) but also from her cynicism. In typically subversive, crazy-wonderful Jesus style, God disrupts her cynical laughter and turns it upside down.

Now, let’s face it. Of course Sarah is not entirely guiltless in any of this. None of us are. It’s possible that Sarah’s laughter was a sinful disbelief. That’s what patriarchy has always taught me, anyway. Maybe it’s true. But there’s a sin of the oppressor, and the sin born from oppression. One is a sinful action; the other, a sinful reaction. Neither are right; sin breeds more sin.

But I’m starting to understand that God’s response to sin isn’t always anger and instant punishment. Often, God’s response is gentle understanding, a spiritual hug, and reiteration of the promise of redemption. It’s almost as if every time our sin-generated pain causes us to laugh in the face of God, God’s resolve becomes even more steady, and Jesus’ purpose more clear.

As for me, I’m allowing my own anger and cynicism to wash over me when I read these stories of patriarchy, and when I think about the way they’ve been ignored or perpetuated by our systemized sexism in the church. But after my rage subsides, I go back to the book and I look for Jesus. Usually, I can find  him. Not always. But usually. I look in the silences, in the spaces between the words, for Him. I listen for the women’s voices, too. I’m not always satisfied, but maybe just the fact that I’m listening for them might be good enough. Maybe somehow across the aeons, they hear my cry for their justice, and they know I’m watching their stories. Probably, though, they’re hanging out with Jesus. That’s where I’d be if I were them.

And at least in my head, when I picture them all together, I hear a beautiful sound: I hear them all laughing.