What does the Bible reveal about the marriage of Abraham and Sarah? What can we learn about Christian marriage from these pillars of faith?
Abraham and Sarah are known for their examples of faith. As Hebrews 11 notes: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to the place which he would receive as an inheritance” (verse 8). And, “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” (verse 11).
What many might not know about Abraham and Sarah is that their relationship also provides valuable insights for Christian marriages today.
From the outset, we have to acknowledge that the Bible was not written as a marriage manual, and it doesn’t contain many stories about the marriages of the couples that are included in its pages. Of the very few marriages we read about in God’s Word, there is generally no documentation of these people’s innermost thoughts, disagreements and challenges in making their marriages successful.
But in terms of learning about the feelings, problems and stresses that are part of all marriages, the marriage of Abraham and Sarah is perhaps the most revealing one recorded in the Bible. Of course, it should come as no surprise that the man referred to in Scripture as the “father” of those who have faith in God (Romans 4:16) and his faithful wife provide lessons for Christian marriages today.
Marital stresses for Abraham and Sarah
It is tempting for us to think that long ago, during the time of Abraham and Sarah, life was simple and stress-free. But this was most definitely not the case. Though times, customs and circumstances change, all marriages face trials and difficulties.
According to the Bible, the marriage of Abraham and Sarah included several ongoing stressful situations that revolved around two primary issues: Abraham’s fear of being killed because of his wife’s beauty and the long delay in the fulfillment of God’s promise that they would have a child.
The biblical accounts about these issues are not flattering to Abraham and Sarah. But the Bible doesn’t omit the sins and mistakes of righteous people because we can learn from these examples as well.
Abraham and Sarah lie about their marriage
Scripture reveals that on two separate occasions Abraham feared he would be killed so that a ruler could take Sarah as his wife (Genesis 12:10-13; 20:2). To protect himself, Abraham convinced Sarah to say that she was his sister. Technically, Sarah was his half-sister. As Abraham explained, “She is the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and she became my wife” (Genesis 20:12).
But the half-truth that Abraham and Sarah proclaimed when they went to Egypt and later to Gerar was still dishonest. It was deliberately uttered with the intent to deceive.
In both of these situations God was merciful to Abraham and Sarah. In spite of their weakness, He miraculously protected both of them and allowed them to return to Canaan.
We aren’t told how these encounters affected their relationship. On these occasions Abraham clearly wasn’t trusting God for protection, and it would have been easy for Sarah to doubt the character of the man she married and for her to wonder if Abraham really cared for her.
Abraham and Sarah’s stresses over their promised son
After obeying God’s call to move to Canaan, one of the biggest issues facing Abraham and Sarah was the fact that they were childless. They were living a good life in terms of possessions—they now had hundreds of servants, as well as much livestock, silver and gold (Genesis 14:14; 13:2). But Sarah was barren, and they had no offspring to whom they could leave their riches.
While Abraham was lamenting his situation to God, the Lord promised Abraham that he would father a child and have innumerable descendants (Genesis 15:2-5). Abraham believed God, but it became harder and harder to maintain his faith in this promise as year after year rolled by with Sarah still being unable to conceive.
After dwelling 10 years in Canaan—still unable to bear a child—Sarah thought she might have discovered a way God could bless them with a child. At that time, a common custom by which childless couples could obtain an heir was for the man to have a child via a female servant.
So Sarah suggested to Abraham that he have sexual relations with her Egyptian maid, Hagar, to see if they could have a child through her (Genesis 16:1-3).
Abraham agreed to the arrangement. Their human reasoning, in conflict with faith in God, won the day. Before long, Hagar was pregnant with Abraham’s child.
Sarah gets upset with Hagar and Abraham
What Abraham and Sarah hadn’t foreseen was the emotional upheaval that would occur when Hagar became pregnant. Sarah then said to her husband, “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” (verse 5).
This passage is one of the most emotional passages in the Bible regarding a marriage. Sarah was angry about the situation and felt it was her husband’s responsibility to fix. Even though Hagar was a servant, carrying Abraham’s child had undoubtedly given her a new status that legalities were powerless to contain. Sarah expected her husband to put Hagar in her place and put an end to the disrespect she was receiving from Hagar. It appears that Sarah minimized her own responsibility for what was occurring—the fact that she was the one who had first suggested this course of action to her husband.
Putting the responsibility back on Sarah, Abraham told his wife to deal with Hagar as she saw fit. Sarah then dealt so harshly with Hagar that she ran away (verse 6).
Hagar heeded the instruction from the Lord to return and submit to her mistress. But years later, the presence of Hagar and the child she bore, Ishmael, would again erupt as an emotional stress between Abraham and Sarah.
Abraham and Sarah have a son named Isaac
At age 99 (13 years after the birth of Ishmael when Abraham was 86, Genesis 16:16) God appeared to Abraham and told him that approximately a year later he and Sarah would have a son (Genesis 17:19, 21). A short time later, the Lord appeared to both Abraham and Sarah and again confirmed that Sarah would soon become pregnant and bear a son (Genesis 18:10).
There is no doubt that Abraham and Sarah had stresses in their marriage. But they worked their way through their problems and serve as examples of faith for Christians today.In Genesis 21:1-7 we read of the birth of Isaac, a name predetermined by God that means laughter. As Sarah remarked upon the birth of their promised son, “God has made me laugh, and all who hear will laugh with me . . . Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? For I have borne him a son in his old age” (verses 6-7).
It was perhaps the happiest time in the marriage of Abraham and Sarah. After approximately 24 years of living in Canaan, God’s promise had finally come true. They now had their own child through whom God’s many promises to them and their descendants could be passed.
Abraham and Sarah both get upset
Tensions with Hagar and her son, Ishmael, erupted once again at the feast Abraham threw on the day Isaac was weaned. What began as a joyous occasion for Sarah soon turned into a painful experience when she saw Ishmael scoffing at the proceedings.
Sarah’s response was to demand that Abraham “cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac” (verse 10).
Now Abraham became upset as well. As verse 11 says, “And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son.”
Although Isaac was Abraham’s son of promise, Ishmael was also his son, and sending him away would be painful. Abraham was deeply troubled by Sarah’s demand.
After God told Abraham to listen to Sarah and assured Abraham that He would also make a nation of Ishmael, Abraham agreed to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
The Bible doesn’t say what Abraham and Sarah’s marriage was like after Hagar and Ishmael departed. We assume that things settled down for them and that they lived their final years together joyfully raising Isaac.
Lessons for Christian marriages today
When we reflect on Abraham and Sarah’s marriage, there are several important lessons applicable for Christian marriages today. These include:
- Having problems in marriage is normal. We are all unique individuals with different perspectives. Even godly people, such as Abraham and Sarah, had stresses in their marriage.
- Blaming others is an easy mistake to make. Sarah wrongly blamed Abraham for her discomfort with Hagar, and Abraham likely felt Sarah was overreacting when she demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.
- Maintaining our faith in God can be difficult when God doesn’t answer our prayers as soon as we expect. Abraham and Sarah were sorely tested on this point.
- Husbands need to learn when to say, “Yes, dear” and when to say, “No, dear.” Abraham’s agreement to Sarah’s suggestion to have a child by Hagar was similar to Adam’s agreement with Eve to eat of the forbidden tree. Instead of saying, “No, Sarah. God will provide in His own due time,” Abraham went along with a bad idea.
- Wives need to realize that husbands, like Abraham, will likely make mistakes as they strive to provide leadership in the family similar to the way Christ provides leadership in the Church. Wives, if your husband is striving to grow in his relationship with God, be patient with him. Husbands, you’ll also need to be patient with your wife.
- Having similar spiritual goals is important for having a good marriage. In spite of their stresses, Abraham and Sarah were united in their effort to come out of a pagan culture and grow in their faith in God.
There is no doubt that Abraham and Sarah had stresses in their marriage. But they worked their way through their problems and serve as examples of faith for Christians today.
For further study, see the other articles related to “How to Have a Happy Marriage” in the “Relationships” section of Lifehopeandtruth.com.