God said to Eve, “Yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen. 3:16). That was part of the burden which sin brought to the woman, and it is interesting that the next major husband and wife relationship in Scripture illustrates a wife’s submission to her husband’s rule. Sarah is commended twice by New Testament writers, once for her faith (Heb. 11:11) and once for her submission to her husband (1 Pet. 3:5, 6). The Apostle Peter went so far as to say she “obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.”
We would not think of asking a wife to call her husband “lord” in our culture, but in that day it was Sarah’s way of expressing her submissiveness. Strangely enough, these two principles, faith and submission, actually go together. Submission for a wife is basically faith that God is working through her husband to accomplish what is best for her. And that is the story of Sarah’s life with Abraham.
Look first at the early seeds of faith. The story began in the city of Ur, a thriving metropolis near the ancient coastline of the Persian Gulf. At least one man was repulsed by the idolatry and sin of Ur, for he had come to know the one true and living God. In fact, God had spoken to him: “Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:1-3). Armed with that potent promise, Abraham pulled up stakes, and with his father Terah, his nephew Lot, and his wife Sarah, began the long trek northward around the fertile crescent to the city of Haran.
Moving is no fun, particularly when your moving van is a camel or a donkey, and especially when you don’t even know where you are going! “By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). That is probably harder on a woman than it is on a man. Sarah is not mentioned in that verse, but her faith is there, every bit as steadfast as Abraham’s. She believed that God would sustain her through the arduous journey and show her husband the place he had chosen for them.
Sarah was not a weak, spineless, overly dependent, empty-headed woman. Her parents called her Sarai, and names had meaning in the ancient biblical world. Hers meant “princess.” It may have described her great beauty, which is referred to twice in the inspired record (Gen. 12:11, 14). It probably described, as well, her cultured upbringing, her fine education, her stately charm, and her gracious manner. When God changed her name to Sarah, he did not remove the princely connotation, but rather added the further dignity of motherhood. She is called in that context “a mother of nations” (Gen. 17:15-16).
Sarah was an intelligent and capable woman. But when she married Abraham she made a decision. She established as her mission in life the task of helping her husband fulfill God’s purposes for him. That was not weakness. It was God’s will for her life: true biblical submission. Some wives have been systematically sabotaging God’s plan for their husbands because they have not been willing to believe God and entrust themselves to His wisdom. They simply will not trust God to work through their husbands to accomplish what is best. They feel they must help God along by trying to dominate their husbands.
It appears as though Abraham’s father refused to go on when they reached Haran. He was an idol worshiper (Josh. 24:2), and the city of Haran suited him fine for the remainder of his days. He delayed God’s purposes for Abraham, but he could not destroy them. At Terah’s death, Abraham, then seventy-five years of age, departed from Haran for the land which God had promised him (Gen. 12:4). It was another move to another unknown place, but by his side was Sarah, woman of submission and faith (Gen. 12:5). The days ahead would see her faith severely tested and her submissiveness sorely tried.
Let’s explore, secondly, the continuing struggles of faith. Faith grows best under attack. The person who prays for God to take away his problems may be asking for a sickly spiritual life. Sometimes our faith falters under the stress, but if we admit the failure and accept God’s forgiveness, even those failures can contribute to our spiritual growth. Abraham and Sarah are both commended for their great faith in Scripture, but their failures are recorded for our instruction and encouragement.
The first attack came shortly after they entered Canaan. There was a famine in the land and Abraham decided to leave the place which God had promised him and flee into Egypt (Gen. 12:10). Had he consulted Sarah, she might have pointed out the foolishness of his decision, but like many men he moved ahead with his plans without considering the hardships he could cause her. Too many men refuse to ask advice from their wives. They think headship gives them the prerogative of doing whatever they please without talking it over with their wives and coming to a mutually acceptable agreement. They are afraid their wives might find cracks in their logic or expose their narrow-minded selfishness. So they barge ahead with their plans and the whole family suffers for it.
As they neared Egypt, Abraham said to his wife, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman; and it will come about 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 that you are my sister so that it may go well with me because of you, and that I may live on account of you” (Gen. 12:11-13). It was a tribute to Sarah’s beauty that at sixty-five years of age she was still so irresistible that Abraham thought the Egyptians might try to kill him for her. And the beauty was not just in Abraham’s eye. “And it came about when Abram came into Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful. And Pharaoh’s officials saw her and praised her to Pharaoh; and the woman was taken into Pharaoh’s house” (Gen. 12:14, 15). While Abraham thought the Egyptians might murder him to get his wife, he was sure they would treat him as an honored guest if they thought he were her brother. And he turned out to be right. They gave him many animals and servants for her sake (Gen. 12:16). Now technically, Sarah was Abraham’s sister, his half-sister (Gen. 20:12). Such marriages were not unusual in that day. But what they told the Pharaoh was only a half-truth, and half-truths are lies in God’s economy. He cannot honor sin.
Why did Sarah go along with his sinful scheme? Is not this a case where obedience to God would supersede obedience to one’s husband? I think it is. A wife has no obligation to obey her husband when obedience compromises the clearly revealed will of God (cf. Acts 5:29). Sarah could have justly refused. But it does show how deep her faith and submission really were. Sarah believed God’s promise that Abraham would become the father of a great nation. Since there were no children as yet, she was expendable, but Abraham had to live and have children even if it should be by another woman.
She may also have believed that God would intervene and deliver her before immorality became necessary. That would be quite probable in view of Pharaoh’s large harem. She may likewise have believed that God would reunite her with her husband and rescue both of them from Pharaoh’s power. And because she believed, she submitted. God could have protected them apart from Abraham’s selfish scheme, but Sarah’s faith in God and submission to her husband are still beautifully illustrated in this Old Testament narrative. The true test of a wife’s submission may come when she knows her husband is making a mistake.
It is hard to imagine a man sinking much lower than Abraham did on this occasion. Even the pagan king rebuked him for what he did (Gen. 12:18-20). He failed Sarah sadly, but God was faithful to her. He honored her faith and delivered her. He never forsakes those who trust him. You would think the lesson of God’s sovereign care would have been so indelibly inscribed on Abraham’s soul after this experience that he would never compromise his wife again to protect himself. But he did. About twenty years later he did exactly the same thing with Abimelech, king of Gerar (Gen. 20:1-8). This shows how weak and faithless the faithful can be. There are probably some sins we think we will never commit again, but we must ever be watchful, for that is exactly where Satan will attack us. The amazing thing is that Sarah submitted again on that later occasion, and that God delivered her again, another evidence of her faith and God’s faithfulness.
The next great strain on their faith is revealed in this statement: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children” (Gen. 16:1). God was soon to change Abram’s name to Abraham, from “exalted father” to “father of a multitude.” How could Abraham be the father of a multitude when he had no son? Now it was Sarah’s turn to devise a clever human scheme. She offered her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, so that Abraham might have a son by her. We must admit that her suggestion revealed her belief that God would keep His word and give Abraham a son. It was obviously motivated by her love for Abraham and her desire for him to have that son. And sharing her husband with another woman would have been one of the most sacrificial things she could do. But it was not God’s way. It was another fleshly solution. And God’s ways are always best even when He is withholding what we think we need at the moment.
Too often we time-conscious earthlings resent His long delays and take matters into our own hands, usually to our great distress. If we could learn to keep trusting Him when our situation looks the bleakest, we would save ourselves much grief.
This impulsive sin had its effect on the relationship between Abraham and Sarah. Hagar got pregnant and eventually became proud and unmanageable. Sarah blamed Abraham for the whole problem when it was actually her own idea. Then she dealt harshly with Hagar, and her unkindness exposed the bitterness and resentment in her soul. Meanwhile, Abraham shirked his duty. He should have said “No” to Sarah’s sinful scheme in the first place. But now he told her to handle the problem herself, to do whatever she wanted to do, but to stop badgering him about it (Gen. 16:6).
It’s hard for a wife to be in subjection to a jellyfish, a man who avoids issues, puts off decisions, and shirks his responsibilities. There is nothing to submit to, no leadership to follow. A wife cannot help her husband fulfill God’s goals for his life when she doesn’t even know what his goals are.
Even great men and women of faith have their moments of faithlessness. And no such moment was worse for Abraham and Sarah than when they laughed at God. They both did it. God told Abraham he would bless Sarah and make her a mother of nations. Kings of peoples would come from her. Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17). Abraham tried to get God to accept Ishmael as his heir, but God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him” (Gen. 17:19).
Sarah’s turn was next. The Lord appeared to Abraham in the person of a visitor to his tent, and Sarah overheard him say, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife shall have a son” (Gen. 18:10). She was listening at the tent door and laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” (Gen. 18:12). Incidentally, this was how Peter knew she called him “lord.” The submission was there, but her faith was wavering. The struggles of faith are real and we all experience them. Satan’s darts of doubt seem to be flying in our direction much of the time, and we too may be tempted to snicker skeptically at the very thought of God solving our thorny problems.
But thank God for the final triumph of faith. I believe the turning point in their struggling faith occurred during that last encounter with the Lord. “Why did Sarah laugh?” God asked quickly. “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:13, 14). That poignant challenge pierced their faltering hearts, and faith was rekindled, strong and steadfast. There was that brief setback in Gerar (Gen. 20:1-8). But basically things were different from that moment on.
Of Abraham, the Apostle Paul wrote, “And 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 He had promised, He was able also to perform” (Rom. 4:19-21).
Of Sarah, the writer to the Hebrews declared, “By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11). Their faith was rewarded; Sarah had a son and they called his name Isaac, which means “laughter.” And Sarah told us why they gave him that name: “God has made laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen. 21:6). Her laugh of doubt had turned to a laugh of triumphant joy, and we can share her joy with her.
There would still be problems for Abraham and Sarah. The life of faith is never free from obstacles. Hagar and Ishmael were still around to poke fun at Isaac. And Sarah got upset about that. When she saw Ishmael mocking her little Isaac she seemed to lose control of herself. She rushed in to Abraham and angrily demanded, “Drive out this maid and her son, for the son of this maid shall not be an heir with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). Could this be the same woman who is extolled in the New Testament for her submissiveness and obedience? Yes, it is. Healthy submission does not prohibit the expression of opinions. That is a sick submissiveness, usually motivated by a low self-esteem (“my opinions aren’t worth anything”), by a fear of unpleasant circumstances (“I want peace at any price”), or by the avoidance of responsibility (“let somebody else make the decision; I don’t want to get blamed”).
Sarah at least said what was on her mind. And furthermore, she was right! Getting upset was not right. But Ishmael was not to be heir with Isaac, and God wanted him to leave the household. God told Abraham to listen to Sarah and to do what she said (Gen. 21:12). Imagine that—even though Sarah got emotional, God wanted Abraham to heed her advice. He often wants to use wives to correct their husbands, to advise them, to mature them, to help them solve their problems and give them insight. That’s what helpers are for.
Some husbands make their wives feel like ignoramuses, whose ideas are ridiculous and whose opinions are worthless. The husband who does that is the real ignoramus. He has missed out on God’s best for him. If a wife tells her husband there is a problem in their marriage, God wants him to listen to her—listen to her evaluation of the situation, listen to the changes she thinks should be made, listen when she tries to share her feelings and her needs—then do something constructive about it. One of the prevalent problems in Christian marriages today is that husbands are too proud to admit that there is anything wrong and too stubborn to do anything about it. God may want to enlighten them through their wives.
The bondwoman and her son were finally sent away. Ishmael was now old enough to provide for his mother, and God gave him expertise with the bow (Gen. 21:20). And with that irritant removed, this happy little family threesome enjoyed a time of unhindered faith and fellowship. But the most severe trial to their faith was yet to come. “Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). It was to be a very unusual test. God said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you” (Gen. 22:2). Sarah’s name does not appear in this chapter and we seldom mention her when we discuss it. But she certainly knew what was going on. She probably helped them prepare for the trip. She saw the wood, the fire, and the knife; she saw her son Isaac, and she saw Abraham, a look of agony etched on his weathered brow. But she saw no animal for the sacrifice. Scripture says that Abraham believed that God could even raise Isaac from the dead (Heb. 11:19). Sarah must have believed that too.
She watched them disappear over the horizon, and though her motherly heart was breaking, she uttered not one word of protest. It was probably her greatest display of faith in God and submission to her husband’s will and purpose. “For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear” (1 Pet. 3:5, 6). A Christian wife need not have any fear of submissiveness when her hope is in God. He will be faithful to His Word and use her obedience to accomplish what is best for her.
Sarah was one of those women whom King Lemuel spoke about, who did her husband good and not evil all the days of her life (Prov. 31:12). A woman can only be that kind of wife when she believes that nothing is too difficult for God, and when she believes that God can use even her husband’s mistakes to bring glory to Himself and blessing to their lives. And a man can only be worthy of such a submissive wife when he has learned to follow God’s directions rather than pursue his own selfish goals, He knows he has no superiority to warrant his position of leadership. It is given to him by God. So he accepts it as a sacred trust and discharges it in full submission to his Lord and unselfish consideration for his wife and what is best for her.
1. For husbands: What are your goals in life? Have you communicated these goals to your wife? For wives: In what ways can you help your husband fulfill God’s purposes for his life?
2. Why should a husband seek his wife’s advice in decisions that affect her?
3. In what kinds of situations does a wife usually find it most difficult to be submissive?
4. How does God expect a wife to react when she feels that her husband is out of the will of God?
5. For wives: Are there any areas of your submissiveness that are motivated by a low self-esteem, a fear of unpleasant circumstances, or the avoidance of responsibility? What should be the basis of a healthy submissiveness?
6. How do husbands sometimes use their headship role as a club to get their own way? What can they do to avoid it?
7. Since God places the husband in the headship role, what then are some obligations he has to his wife?
8. For wives: How does God want you to express your opinions and desires to your husband? For husbands: How does God expect you to react when your wife is trying to communicate?