God’s promise of familial fecundity was given to Abraham, but it was also given to Sarah. Abraham was promised to become the father of many nations, yet we forget Sarah was also promised to become the mother of many nations. She, too, underwent a name change; and she, too, was given the promise. Genesis 17:15-16, “And God said to Abraham, ‘As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.'”
Realising this, feminist theologians, I think, would go too far to suggest we turn our society upside down from being patriarchal to becoming matriarchal, but that would be a crazed overreaction. Neither one has preëminence over the other, for the promise was given to both of them. Even though the promise of the seed was given to Eve alone (Genesis 3:15), here the promise of many children and many nations is given to both Abraham and Sarah. So, what might this mean for us?
Someone a lot smarter than me can do a lot more theological work on this, but I want to suggest—as before—that this is all fulfilled in Christ and His Bride, the church. Let us consider, for a moment, that Abraham prefigures Christ and Sarah prefigures the church. Certainly, genealogically, Jesus comes from the line of Abraham and Sarah through their promised son, Isaac (Matthew 1:1-2). Yet perhaps we can also think of Abraham as a type of Christ while Sarah prefigures the church, just as Adam was also a type of Christ (see the definition for typology below).
Thus, we can perhaps say that just as Abraham becomes the father of nations through Christ, so Sarah, Abraham’s bride, becomes the mother of nations through the church. The Apostle Paul is the first to refer to the church as Christ’s bride (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-33). The church as Christ’s Bride is especially laid out in John’s vision (Revelation 19:7-9). This is not unique to the New Testament, however. The Prophets also foretold the marital relationship between God and His people (see Hosea 2:14-23; Isaiah 54:5; Jeremiah 3:14).
The Catholic Church celebrates the feast day of Sarah on August 19, but on our Lutheran calendar we celebrate her on January 20. The Treasury of Daily Prayer honours her by recognising her as a recipient of God’s promise, the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac, and for her hospitality to strangers (see Genesis 18:1-8). All of these are wonderful, blessed attributes belonging to womanhood.
Yet I think we would be remiss not to celebrate her as the mother of the church. Certainly, this title and honour belongs to the Holy Virgin Mary, but just as Abraham is the patriarch of the promise, so Sarah is the matriarch of the promise. Perhaps, then, we should give Sarah the honour she’s owed as the mother who was once barren into old age but, through God’s grace and mighty power, became superabundantly fecund through Christ’s Bride, the church.
Theology Terms Used
- Fecundity: fruitfulness or fertility; the capacity for abundant production.
- Type/Typology: “persons, events, and institutions in the Old Testament that point forward to a greater fulfillment in Christ.” — Andrew E. Steinmann, et al. Called to Be God’s People: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006), 653.