This is part of an ongoing series: reimagining, retelling and redeeming stories of women in Scripture. Stories that have all-too-often been forgotten if not misinterpreted and misunderstood. Their telling matters. Their voice matters. Pour yourself a cup of coffee and listen to their hearts. You’ll undoubtedly hear your own.
The RENEGADE Conversations Series
Sarai: Wife of a Patriarch (not all it’s cracked up to be) ~
Abram (later called Abraham) is understood as the patriarch of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim religions. The man who heard god’s call to a land unknown. The promise to become “a great nation.” He packed up his wife, his nephew (Lot), all they owned (which was a lot), all their slaves and headed out across the desert. Sarai (later called Sarah) was the wife that went along with his plan.
As they journeyed, they traveled through land plagued by famine. As they got closer to Egypt, Abram said to Sarai, “Indeed, I know that you are a woman of beautiful countenance. Therefore it will happen, 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 you are my sister, that it may be well with me for your sake, and that I may live because of you.” (Genesis 12:11-13)
Only two verses later, Sarai has been traded to the Pharaoh by her husband (for sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, camels, and the certainty that he would not starve). Then verse 16: “[The Pharaoh] treated Abram well for her sake.”
The Conversation ~
She was fierce: the woman who sat across from me. Her every word crisp. Her eyes piercing. Thousands of stories pent up within, that given just the slightest nudge, would number more than the stars in the sky. And with each story, vast wells of emotion. I got the sense that she desperately needed me to understand more than what she said; as though she’d been misunderstood or missed somehow. It felt urgent – for her; but also for me. I watched as she took a long, slow sip of her coffee. I heard her draw in a deep breath. And then she began…
I was spellbound.
How had I not known this? Why had I not been told? Had I heard and just not payed attention? I didn’t hide my shock well. She smiled at me knowingly.
You seem surprised. Well, I’m not. Abram tends to take center stage when our story is told. And what most hear of me comes a bit later: that I’m old and unable to bear the man a son; the man who is supposed to have descendants that comprise a “great nation.” No pressure.
I’ve always wondered if it ever occurred to anyone that my “barrenness” might be less about fertility and more about my rage (and deep pain) at this turn of events; this betrayal. After being traded in by my husband for livestock and becoming the “owned” property of the Pharaoh, intimate, passionate nights were not on the top of my priority list. (More about the whole infertility fiasco later…)
Many have made the argument, with a great degree of validity, that cultural norms were far different then. Nothing was up to me. I was property, for the most part. (Others have made the argument that little has changed…) Even so, to assume that I was a willing participant in this dramatic narrative might just be a mistake.
I felt sad, angry, and ashamed; the emotions grabbing at my heart with almost palpable reach. She’d carried too much. Unwittingly, I had been part of that. I wanted to tell her I was sorry; that I didn’t know; that if I had, I would never have sat idly by in a church pew and listened to her story told the same way, over and over again.
And my mind raced; making hundreds of connections as I fast forwarded through more and more stories from the same sacred text. I realized, nearly overwhelmed, that hers was hardly exclusive to interpretation that was/is slanted and biased. These misinterpreted tellings set the trajectory for women’s roles and realities for centuries; they set the trajectory for my roles and my realities. And those of my daughters’…
As the crushing heaviness of this nearly took my breath away, something drew my eyes back to hers. And what I saw reflected there was even more surprising than the story itself. She looked at me with nothing short of pure grace; nothing less than deep compassion.
It’s a lot, isn’t it? My story, sure; but more, the stories of all the women who preceded me and even more who followed. When I see your face and realize all that you are taking in…all the ways you’ve been taken in, I feel as though I’m standing in that hot sand again. But not alone…
We’re not all that different, you and me. Caught up in a story that was out of our control, not what we wanted, but with little-to-no voice to affect even the smallest bit of change.
She paused. We both sipped more coffee, now tepid, and stared out the window.
Maybe this is enough for today?
It was thoughtful of her, this wizened crone, to grant me respite, time to process, and the gift of sitting quietly in her company, lost in thought. I nodded and took one last sip.
Same time next week? There is so much more to tell you. I’ve only gotten started. Believe me, there are stories even harder than this one to disclose. Others that still make me laugh. It matters to me that you hear them – from my perspective and my heart. And I have a hunch that as you do, you will come to better understand your own.
I already did.
As I drove away I was profoundly aware of two things:
- There are too many stories yet untold (or at least, mangled in their telling). They need to be heard. I need to hear them. And I need to tell them; certain others need them as much as I do.
- A woman’s capacity to persevere stuns me.
I found, in the days (and years) to follow that this conversation opened my heart to two questions I now ask nearly continuously:
- What stories am I not telling (my own and others’)?
- Am I living up to this lineage from which I descend? Am I honoring her, her predecessors and her successors, through my commitments, my actions, my beliefs, my loves, my very being? She deserves that from me. As do my daughters.
The two of them roll their eyes when I ask them if they want to hear another story. But somewhere, deep within, I know they are listening. And Sarai (along with the rest of her lineage) smiles.
This post is the fourth in a series of RENEGADE Conversations with women who deeply long to be heard, who have stories that have been at worst, lost; at best, poorly told. It is my deepest belief and strongest passion to enable conversation with them and to let their stories speak into ours. When that occurs, we think new thoughts and step into a more powerful life; we hear our own story and become our truest selves; we have permission and hunger to consider our faith and god through a new lens, a different lens, a woman’s lens.
I hope you’ll continue the conversation and (re)tell these stories. They matter.
Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives —the power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change—truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.
—Salman Rushdie, Novelist