The purposes of marriage in the Bible are companionship and procreation: "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a help meet for him... Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife, and they shall be one flesh";[1] and "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth...."[2]

The Bible itself contains relatively few models of marriage. Following the exegetical trail of the marriages of biblical characters, however, we find that of all the patriarchal marriages, Abraham and Sarah are singled out by later commentators as demonstrating admirable spousal qualities.

The Bible does not tell us much about the marriage of Abraham and Sarah. We are told that Sarah was responsible for preparing the food for some guests;[3] that she was vexed (probably with jealousy) by her slave Hagar, whom she gave to Abraham to serve as a surrogate mother;[4] and that she could have a sharp tongue, mocking the promise that she would bear children in her old age.[5] Her beauty is also noted.[6] About Abraham's role as a husband we are told even less. He tells Sarah to lie, implying that if necessary she should sleep with an Egyptian Pharaoh in order to save his own skin;[7] he is ready to sacrifice their only child without consulting her,[8]and he bends easily to Sarah's demand that he banish Hagar and their son Ishmael.[9]

First-century Alexandrian philosopher Philo is the first, and foremost, biblical exegete to turn these biblical shreds into an example of a marriage worthy of emulation.[10] He enumerates and dwells upon Sarah's wifely virtues in his eulogy of her: "After this, in the course of time, [Abraham] lost the wife who was the darling of his heart (thumerestate)." Philo praised Sarah for her "love of husband" (philandria), which earned her Abraham's admiration. Sarah demonstrated her love by leaving kinsfolk and homeland when they departed to the Land of Israel; by wandering with him through inhospitable places; and by remaining always at his side, a "true partner in life and life's events" who unlike some women who "run away from mishaps and lie ready to pounce on pieces of good luck, accepted her portion of both with all alacrity as the fit and proper test of a wedded wife." Philo illustrates her praise with the story of Hagar. Sarah selflessly "gives" Hagar (whom Philo makes a point of telling us is fit to sleep with the patriarch Abraham because of her noble interior) to Abraham when she realizes that she is infertile, in order not to deny him fatherhood.

In Philo's eyes Sarah is thus the ideal wife primarily because she continuously subordinated whatever desires or needs that she may have had (desires and needs of which we never hear) to those of her husband. She is contrasted with those wives who are not as reliable, staying with their husbands only when all is going well. Earlier, Philo related the biblical notice of Sarah's physical beauty, adding that she had goodness of soul as well…. [In other accounts] Sarah's physical beauty is highlighted to the complete neglect of any of her moral characteristics

When R. Ban'ah came to mark the cave of Abraham, a rabbinic legend reports, he found Eliezer, Abraham's slave, standing at the entrance. He said to him, "What is Abraham doing?" He said to him, "He is lying on Sarah's lap, and she is looking at his head." He said to him, "Go tell him that Ban'ah is at the entrance." [Abraham] said to [Eliezer,] "Let him enter. Know that there is no evil inclination in this world."[11]

The passage then continues by stating that Sarah's beauty was third only to Adam's and Eve's. Abraham's posture clearly suggests his erotic desire toward his wife. Sarah's gazing at Abraham's "head" might carry a double meaning, indicating both her affection for him and her status as his inferior. Under normal circumstances, Sarah's beauty and their intimate position would require modesty. Because, however, they are dead, living in a world where there is no "evil inclination," Ban'ah is allowed to enter and observe them. The story portrays sexual desire, conjugal sentimentality (perhaps), wifely subordination, and modesty as marital values. Unfortunately it is difficult to know if this story is Palestinian (following the provenance of its protagonist, R. Ban'ah) or Babylonian, as its placement and language suggests.

Despite her extraordinary beauty, Sarah is presented as being modest. Here there is a difference between the way she is portrayed in Palestinian and Babylonian sources. [12] A Palestinian midrash explicates Gen. 21:7 ("Sarah nursed children"): Why is the plural used? The foundation story that both this midrash and its version in the Babylonian Talmud share is that Sarah lactated so heavily that she nursed many children other than her own. The Palestinian version describes Sarah as "modest," and she publicizes this great miracle only at Abraham's insistence. As a result, she nurses the neighborhood children, presumably in private. But the parallel in the Babylonian Talmud omits the notice of Sarah's modesty and sets the "miracle" at a public party that Abraham and Sarah threw for all of the leaders of the world….

Sarah is also pious and domestically oriented. Sources in [the midrash] Genesis Rabba term Sarah "that righteous woman" and praise her for her faith in following Abraham to the Land of Israel.[13] She is attributed with running a hospitable household, keeping the dough "blessed," and making sure that "a candle burned from one sabbath eve until the next."[14]

All of our sources comment very little on Abraham in his role as a husband. Philo is the only author to discuss this directly. Whatever Sarah's good qualities, according to Philo, Abraham has more, including "one of which concerns the death of his wife, in which his conduct should not be passed over in silence." Although "he had lost his lifelong partner . . . when sorrow was making itself ready to wrestle with his soul," Abraham resisted over-mourning Sarah's death, using reason to "quietly and gently lighten the blow." The result was that when the natives observed Abraham "and saw nothing of the sort of mourning which was customary with themselves, no wailing, no chanting of dirges, no beating of breasts .... but a quiet sober air of sorrow pervading the whole house, they were profoundly amazed." Philo here goes well beyond the biblical account, constructing Abraham as a Stoic sage who bears life's misfortune with equanimity. Philo assumes that grief is a natural reaction to the death of one's spouse, but holds up Abraham as an example of the proper, restrained reaction to this grief. Rabbinic sources on the other hand, do not comment on Abraham's grief at Sarah's death.


[1] Gen. 1 [back]
Gen. 2:18, 24 [back]
Gen. 18:6 [back]
Gen. 16:2 [back]
Gen. 18:12-15 [back]
Gen. 12:14, implied in 20:1-3 [back]
Gen. 20:11-13 [back]
Gen. 20:22 [back]
Gen. 21:9-13 [back]
Philo, Abraham 245-260 [back]
BT Baba Batra 58a [back]
Gen. Rabbah 53:9; BT Baba Metzia 87a [back]
Gen Rab. 53:9, Gen Rabba 40(41):2 [back]
Gen. Rabbah 60:16 [back]


From: Michael L. Satlow, Jewish Marriage in Antiquity. Copyright by 2001 (Princeton University Press), pp. 243-245.

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