King Solomon once wrote “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord.” He must have known, because he had hundreds of wives. It was obviously a different age! But have men’s and women’s physical and emotional needs and issues changed all that much over the centuries? Modern culture would have us believe they have, as it tries to confuse and scramble those needs and issues to the point that many throw their hands up in frustration and surrender to the recommendations of the world.
Recently a friend of mine asked me to pray for his marriage, because he and his wife were dealing with serious relational issues, and, in fact, had been for a number of years. They were even questioning whether they should remain in covenant together. As I sought the Lord for guidance on their behalf, oddly enough, at least I thought so at the time, He took me to the chapters in Genesis that deal with Abraham and Sarah. My focus (as I suppose is the case for most Christians) has always been on their faith in God’s promises concerning their future descendants – what doctrinally is called the Abrahamic Covenant. Throughout the New Testament, and particularly in Hebrews 11, the faith of Abraham is spoken about lavishly. And Sarah’s faith is likewise expounded on in verse 11: “By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and she bore a child when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.”
What God seemed to tell me that day is: that is not the complete story of their relationship
The Bible is not a soap opera. Though it tells stories, it generally doesn’t delve into the personal relationships and feelings of its characters, because its focus is on the nature and plans of our Creator and Savior. Yet, there is enough information provided that we can often read between the lines and get a pretty accurate picture of what must have been going through the minds and behind the tent walls of some of its leading players, such as Abram and his family.
Abram’s and Sarai’s marriage was probably arranged, since that was the custom of the day. Arranged marriages are foreign to most Americans – so I turned to a modern musical, Fiddler on the Roof, to get a better appreciation for such. After more than twenty years of marriage, the Jewish dairyman Tevia asks his wife, “Do you love me?” She responds by reminding him that she’s bore him three daughters, cooked his meals, cleaned his house and darned his socks. Going back and forth to pinpoint their true feelings, they both conclude that they love each other.
Modern romance stories and psychoblabble infer that the only good marriage is one in which the partners are “soul mates.” While it would be nice for marriage partners to be “soul-mates,” I haven’t met too many of them – at least not honest ones. People get married for a lot of different reasons, some even for love. Some people get married because it’s the thing to do, and their friends and family encourage them to do so ASAP. Some get married because they feel sorry for a person and think they can help them get better, or at least get through life. I know of a number of friends and relatives who entered into marriage for that reason. In some cases the marriage evolved into an excellent relationship of unconditional love; in other cases it ended after a few children and lots of tragedy. Most non-arranged marriages are the logical step for a man and a woman who are physically attracted to each other. Unfortunately, as attraction and sexual desire become too familiar and the everyday challenges of life arise, too many of those have the same outcome as the previous.
I heard a three minute discussion recently addressing the question: Is marriage about love? I’ve attached the site here: http://www.str.org/videos/is-marriage-about-love#.VD09zPldWSo Although the question was initiated in relation to the same-sex marriage issue, it raises some interesting points about marriage in general that are worthy of consideration.
But back to Abraham and Sarah. It was the husband, Abram who heard directly from God – not his wife Sarai. God spoke to him and told him he was going to be a great nation; in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. His descendants were going to be as the stars in the sky.
I’m sure Sarai received that same information – but she received it second-hand from her husband. She may have believed him at first. But as the years passed, and she saw one after another of her female servants and the wives of her relatives all have children while she remained childless, it would have only been natural to question the veracity of her husband’s story that he’d actually spoken to God. I picture Abram coming home every evening after a hard day in the fields, to a sullen look and sarcastic words from his wife. As the complaints got louder and louder, perhaps he stayed out with his work crew longer and longer each day – hoping Sarai would be in bed by the time he got home.
I’m sure it didn’t help that Abram didn’t seem to be the bravest man around the campfire. As they entered Egypt, he covered up the fact that Sarai and he were married. And Sarai and all his family had to participate in his deception. He was afraid Pharaoh would kill him for his beautiful wife. He didn’t even speak up when the man took her into his own household – putting her at risk of being ravished. How degrading that must have been for Sarai! And she probably reminded him of that whenever they were alone.
Over the intervening years, Abram had all kinds of material blessings from God to feed his ego and keep him going. He was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. God even promised to give him all of the land of Canaan. He gained the admiration and respect of the other kings of the land after he chased down the men who had kidnapped his nephew Lot, his family and servants. And he was even blessed by Melchizedek king of Salem, the priest of God Most High. Abram had several face-to-face meetings with God; probably the most dramatic being when God made a covenant with him – when a smoking oven and a burning torch miraculously passed between the pieces of the offering on the altar. At that time God even let Abram know that his descendants would one day have to endure 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Abram had a close relationship and an on-going communication with God to lift his spirits and give him the confidence to endure the hardships of life.
But what did Sarai have to keep her spirits up? Not much! She had to keep following in her husband’s footsteps, a man who would pull up stakes and move every time there was a property or waterhole dispute between tribes or even within his own family. This would be a hardship for any woman – and I expect she made her displeasure known to her husband quite often.
Eleven years after the first promise of a son, Sarai continued to feel left out, enduring the shame of her barrenness. You get a good sense of Sarai’s frustration when she made the outlandish suggestion that Abram have relations with her maid, just so Sarai could have a “legal” son to raise. She had to be feeling really despondent to suggest something that extreme. And when her suggestion worked, it only depressed and made her more upset, and she blamed both her husband and God for all her troubles. And when she saw that Hagar had conceived,… Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.”
And it would be another 13 years of bickering in their family before Isaac was conceived. The events leading up to this would be the first time Sarai actually received some formal recognition. It was then that God gave both Abram and Sarai new names: “As for Sarai your wife, … Sarah shall be her name. And I will bless her and also give you a son by her; then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples shall be from her.” Shortly after that the Lord visited Abraham’s household in the form of a man and said within Sarah’s hearing, “I will certainly return to you according to the time of life, and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son.” (Sarah was listening in the tent door which was behind him.) Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have grown old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I surely bear a child, since I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord?”
But over the next nine months the family relational situation didn’t seem to change all that much. Abraham continued to be the one in the limelight. During that time God came down and told him that He intended to destroy Sodom, and allowed him to intercede for the evil city. Then, even with Sarah pregnant, again Abraham pulled the “sister” act, this time with King Abimelech. To save Abimelech and his family from His wrath, God allowed Abraham to pray for their healing.
Even after Isaac was born, Sarah’s bitterness and unforgiveness continued. She demanded that Abraham cast his first son and his mother out into the wilderness. She had to know they both would die if God did not intervene on their behalf. Yet Abraham followed his wife’s demand because God directed him to: “Listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your seed.”
None of us is perfect in our own eyes – but God sees us as eventually perfected
Like every other marriage, Abraham’s and Sarah’s had its share of challenges. God did not choose “already perfected” people to establish the covenant that every Christian still partakes of to this day. There were days, maybe too many to mention, when they got on each other’s nerves. If they had lived in our modern American society, I’m positive that they would have been deluged with many voices (each other, friends, family, news articles, TV shows) advising them why it would be better and less stressful if they went their separate ways. Fortunately they gutted it out for the simple reason that it was the will and plan of God. They had only God’s Word that it would be for the best. Jesus said it this way: “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.”
That’s the case for most of us when we gut out a difficult situation (including a stressful marriage) and don’t give up. We can’t see the end today – we just have to trust the Lord that our obedience will result in something good. Fortunately a Christian doesn’t have to “gut it out” on his or her own. We have the Holy Spirit. We have each other’s words of encouragement and advice.
We need to get the following truth deep into our spirits. Jesus didn’t call on angels to free Him from the high priest’s and Pilate’s strong men when things got really bad. He loved us unconditionally. He didn’t see his verbal and physical abusers as the enemy. He saw them (as He does us) as people who were hurting inside, and needing God’s love and forgiveness – and He literally cried for them (and us) rather than got offended by what they were doing. That’s a lesson we all need to learn. We never have the right to be offended by anyone. I’m not saying that’s easy to put into practice – but it is God’s will.