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Sarah: Life with Abraham 3

The journeys begin

Sarai’s life story became one punctuated with journeys. First there were the physical relocations. While she grew up in one place—Ur—once she married Abram she found herself periodically going from way stop to way stop, especially since the LORD became an active part of their marriage equation. Then there was the challenge of navigating the endless cycle of hope and despair due to her barrenness. This, she was to learn, would last for almost a lifetime.

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia.

Overview map of ancient Mesopotamia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Travel orders

Abram received direct communications from God from time to time, some of which involved picking up stakes and moving. Directives were specific: “…Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’ Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran. And from there, when his father was dead, He moved him to this land in which you now dwell” (Acts 7:2-3). Each time, Abram, with Sarai by his side, obeyed without question.

The road to Haran

One is left to wonder how Abram broke the news to Sarai of an impending move with a rather open-ended destination. Did he confide his encounters with the LORD early on, and in the process plant the seed that would eventually blossom into a faith which guided her life as well? Or was she, too, one of the ones who chose to shun the odious moon goddess, worshiping God only? Whichever the case, husband and wife prepared to leave.

Moving a household long distance must have been quite an undertaking. According to a distance chart in the Archaeological Study Bible, Haran (also known as Paddan Aram) was 612 miles to the north of Ur,[1] situated on an international trade route. The pace of a normal caravan was about twenty miles per day[2] so Terah’s family could anticipate spending around one month in travel.

Sarai and the other women of the household would likely have been responsible for assembling many of the provisions, especially clothing and foodstuffs. There would be containers of salted meat with a “shelf life” of about a month. No doubt grain for grinding, dried fruit, wine or beer, cheese, and oil were among the staples. Water, of course, would be a vital issue, as would provender for any livestock. According to the Collins Atlas of the Bible[3] the normal route between Ur and Haran was never a day’s march from habitations or water (the route followed the Euphrates River, and there were settlements every seventeen miles or so along the way).

So it was that one day Terah, Abram and Sarai, along with Lot, the deceased Haran’s son, set out on a journey which would be Terah’s last, and the first of several for the rest. One can picture their caravan, servants leading supply-laden donkeys and manning ox-drawn carts piled with furniture and other household accoutrements, carpets for bedding, a grinding stone, and various pots and baskets filled with food and other essentials, livestock and herders, all beginning the trek in the cool of the morning.

While there might have been caravansaries along the way, it seems likely that travelers often used tents, the movable habitations of the day. Relatively easy to erect and dismantle, these shelters provided a measure of safety and protection from weather and wild animals. If not on this trip, Abram and Sarai would find themselves living in tents permanently in the years to come.

Why Haran?

Haran was an important commercial center. Presumably the men had portable trades or extended business interests which could sustain the family at least in the near-term, so locating in or near a city was important. If Terah was an idol manufacturer as tradition purports, he would find a lively market in the new locale—another major center of worship for Nanna, the moon goddess. However, some speculate that the family stopped in Haran for an unspecified length of time due to Terah’s health since the Bible records that he died there at age 205 (Genesis 11:32).

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustratio...

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whatever the reason, after Terah’s death the LORD gave Abram details concerning his next move, this time with promises attached:

“Now the LORD had said to Abram: ‘Get out of your country, from your family, and from your father’s house, to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’

“So Abram departed as the LORD had spoken to him, and Lot went with him. And Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Then Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people whom they had acquired in Haran, and they departed to go to the land of Canaan” (Genesis 12:1-5).—KM

 

Next time: Travels, famine, and Pharaoh’s harem.

 

[1] Archaeological Study Bible (2005), Article, “Distances in Miles Between Old Testament Cities,” p. 341, and article, “Archaeological Sites: Paddan Aram,” p. 48.

[2] Ibid. See note on Genesis 12:5, p. 21.

[3] Collins Atlas of the Bible (2003), p. 31.

Sarah: Life with Abraham 2

Before continuing: gathering some strands

As is often the case when pursuing a Bible topic or figure, information is found in several sources, and it requires careful investigation to locate and compile the relevant scriptures. The same is true concerning the person of Abram.

For instance, his father is mentioned as an idol-worshipper (Joshua 24:1-5), but it is unclear whether either Abram or his brother Nahor (or Sarai, for that matter) was, though they were brought up in a pagan household. In fact, later in Genesis 26:5, the LORD reminds Isaac that his father “obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” At some point, the LORD and Abram began a relationship in Ur that lasted an entire lifetime.[1] One can only wonder as to when and how. It’s worth considering that Shem[2] himself may have influenced Abram in some manner since he lived until Abram was about thirty.[3] All that is known for sure is it happened, and that relationship became the dominant thread in the fabric of his life.

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustratio...

Abram and Lot Depart Out of Haran (illustration from the 1728 Figures de la Bible) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is the New Testament deacon Stephen who adds a detail not found in Genesis: “And he said, ‘Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, and said to him, ‘Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you’” (Acts 7:2-4). While Genesis 11:31 records that Terah, as patriarch, took his clan from Ur intending to go to Canaan, this scripture presents the likelihood that it was done at Abram’s urging as prompted by God’s direction.

Introducing Sarai

According to his genealogy, Terah’s clan consisted of himself, his sons Abram, Nahor, and Haran, two daughters-in-law, Sarai and Milcah, and a grandson, Lot. Nahor’s wife, Milcah, is identified as Haran’s daughter (and Nahor’s cousin). Sarai is later identified as Abram’s half-sister (Genesis 19:12)—they shared the same father but different mothers (neither of whom is named). Was Sarai born to a concubine? Did Abram’s mother die, and Terah remarried? The record is silent.

As a daughter, Sarai’s early years were spent learning household tasks at her mother’s side, or perhaps from a slave or servant. Grinding grain, baking bread, gardening, spinning, weaving, going to market, cooking and preserving foodstuffs, drawing water, perhaps even shepherding if the family had livestock—all these activities would have filled her days.

Fashion and grooming

It’s not surprising to find that type of clothing in Mesopotamia was dictated by social standing. If Terah was wealthy, his daughter wore one-piece woolen or linen garments, stylishly woven with many different patterns and designs. Embroidered and tasseled wraps and shawls protected her in bad weather. Men and women either went barefoot or wore sandals; women’s footwear was often ornamented.

Both sexes were known to wear cosmetics, outlining their eyes with a form of mascara; and both applied perfumes (“made by steeping aromatic plants in water and blending their essence with oil”[4]) after the none-too-frequent bath. Grooming and appearance were important.[5]

Courtship

The relationship between Abram and Sarai began from the day she was born. If the genealogy presented is complete, the family was small by ancient standards—only three boys and a girl—and the sibling bonds were likely quite strong. He had always been a part of her life. He might have been one of the first to see his baby sister wrapped in swaddling clothes or the like, nursing at her mother’s breast, and, as the firstborn, felt especially protective of her from that day forward.

As Abram grew into a mature man (he was ten years older than Sarai), he watched his sister develop into a strikingly beautiful young woman, one whose beauty would last for decades, and probably in his eyes, until the day she died. While marriages arranged by parents were practical matters involving bride-prices, dowries, property and lineage, one can suspect that a strong romantic attraction evident early on between these two influenced Terah to choose this pairing, and not one outside the immediate family. That, and, more certainly, the direction of an unseen Hand guiding events according to a yet-to-be-revealed master plan. [6]

Marriage

According to Mesopotamian custom, weddings occasioned rejoicing and celebration lasting for days or even weeks. Also by custom, the newly married couple was expected to live with either the bride’s or the groom’s family[7] (in case of Abram and Sarai, nothing would have changed).

Dreaded words

What had been a happy beginning eventually changed into a life of growing frustration. Months of hopeful expectation turned to years of disappointment. There was seemingly no escaping their dreadful predicament—one fraught with intense longing, and for her especially, a loss of face: “But Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:10).

A woman in Sumer had certain legal rights—owning property, engaging in business, or appearing as a witness. But when it came to a binding marriage, a husband could divorce his wife easily for little cause, and if she had no children, he was free to marry a second wife. Perhaps a not-so-obvious testimony to Abram’s devotion is that there is no record of his considering any such options. (The episode with Hagar was at an impatient Sarai’s request. See Genesis 16:2). What an emotional hurdle for a young couple to face in a society where fecundity was everything! — KM

Next time: Abram, God, and life on the move

When Abram took Sarai as his wife, neither of them knew what lay ahead, nor how a series of promises would affect their long and eventful years together.  

 

 

[1] It is likely there were pockets of people who maintained a worship of God through Shem’s subsequent generations, and that practice could have been passed on Abram. A more generally accepted scenario is simply that God called Abram out of the paganism of which he had been an adherent.

[2] In Genesis 9:26, Noah refers to God as “the God of Shem,” indicating Shem’s allegiance to Him.

[3] There are several websites with charts of genealogies and time spans from Noah to Moses. Here are just a few: http://biblefocus.net/message/Adam-Shem-Abraham-bible-genealogy/index.html

http://www.agapebiblestudy.com/charts/Generations%20Adam-Moses.htm

http://books.google.com/books?id=lV3VfSVNHNEC&pg=PA98&lpg=PA98&dq=was+shem+alive+when+abraham+was+born&source=bl&ots=SQF4wO3dJi&sig=2qPrrfYu3DXDrZVSMsaUTqrscBA&hl=en&sa=X&ei=wUnuU_3kH-e8gHy1YHoCw&ved=0CCkQ6AEwAjgU#v=onepage&q=was%20shem%20alive%20when%20abraham%20was%20born&f=false

[4] S. Bertman, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia (2003), p.291, as cited in online article, “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/, accessed September 2, 2014.

[5] It can’t be known whether Abram and Sarai conformed to such fashion statements of the day. However, if one considers Peter’s exhortation in 1 Peter 3:3, it’s obvious that Sarai’s core beauty did not depend on style and outward appearance but rather, it emanated from her attitude of heart. Also it’s hard to imagine Abram’s being unduly concerned with such transient matters when the LORD was in the process of lifting his vision to a much loftier plane.

[6] One might be inclined to raise an eyebrow given the fact that Abram married a close relative. Wouldn’t that be an incestuous union, and therefore, forbidden? The general consensus is that the law prohibiting such unions was not yet in place; it was enacted during the time of Moses (see Deuteronomy 27:22 and Leviticus 18:6-30; 20:11-12). Another point for consideration is that God accepted this union (and likely arranged it) and performed a miracle to provide an heir from it.

[7] Karen Nemet-Nijat, https://www.academia.edu/873588/Womens_Roles_in_Ancient_Mesopotamia/ , accessed September 2, 2014.

Sarah: Life with Abraham 1

A familiar example

The name Sarah resonates with Bible readers, women of faith, feminists, and historians. More space is devoted to her than any other woman in the Bible. One of the most quoted passages concerning Sarah, and one which ultimately defines her, is 1 Peter 3:1-6:

Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.

Since Sarah is generally regarded in her role as Abraham’s wife (and eventually Isaac’s mother), in order to understand her more fully, it is necessary explore the world and the person of the man who enjoyed her honor, respect, and submission. The purpose of this series is to pull back the curtains of history and travel alongside them on their lifelong journey of faith.

Starting with the basics

Genealogy was of prime importance anciently, and it holds significance for us as well to note that their lineage stems from Shem, Noah’s oldest son (Genesis 10:10-26). Their father Terah and his clan lived in Ur of the Chaldees,[1] the dominant Mesopotamian city-state during his time, established by the Sumerians and located near the banks of the Euphrates River.

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in t...

Terah was the father of Abraham mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is no hard fact concerning the family’s occupation at Ur. There are, however, opinions—one being they were semi-nomads who largely tended their herds and flocks on the outskirts of the city,[2] and another, citing a Jewish tradition[3] which casts Terah as an idolatrous priest who manufactured and sold idols.[4] The latter found inspiration from Joshua 24:1-5 where God through Joshua states that “your fathers, including Terah, the father of Abraham and the father of Nahor, dwelt on the other side of the River in old times; and they served other gods.”

Manufacturing and selling idols would have been a lucrative trade since Ur was a major center for worshiping the moon goddess, Nanna, divine patron of the city-state. The huge ziggurat built in her honor still exists at the site of the ancient city. “The structure would have been the highest point in the city by far and, like the spire of a medieval cathedral, would have been visible for miles around, a focal point for travelers and the pious alike. As the Ziggurat [sic] supported the temple of the patron god of the city of Ur, it is likely that it was the place where the citizens of Ur would bring agricultural surplus and where they would go to receive their regular food allotments. In antiquity, to visit the ziggurat at Ur was to seek both spiritual and physical nourishment.”[5]

Dwellings

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español...

Ruins in the Town of Ur, Southern Iraq Español: Ruinas de la ciuad de Ur con el Zigurat de Ur-Nammu al fondo a las afueras de Nasiriyah. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If indeed Terah’s sons were semi-nomadic herdsmen, they lived in tents near the great city, using it as their home base. If city dwellers, then they lived in houses. Excavations of ancient Ur have unearthed many such structures, the average being small, of one-story, made of mud brick. Its rooms were grouped around a courtyard. The wealthy lived in two-story, fired-brick homes, plastered and whitewashed inside and out, containing about a dozen rooms. There is one such building alleged by some to be Abraham’s house. It is huge—containing some twenty-seven rooms and five courtyards!

Cultural underpinnings

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Anti...

English: Ancient cities of Sumer Español: Antiguas ciudades de Sumeria Magyar: Ókori sumer városok (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since environment plays a pivotal part in life, shaping intellect and world view, Terah’s family was influenced by living in Mesopotamia, and Ur specifically. The Sumerians were an accomplished people, credited with impressive innovations and accomplishments over their approximate 1000-year span of influence.

Writing and order

They devised a system of writing on clay (cuneiform), which was borrowed and used all over the Near East for some two thousand years.[6] They compiled the first known dictionary, and are recognized as being among the first to formulate and record laws and law codes in order to avoid misunderstandings, misrepresentation, and arbitrariness.

Focus on education

Sumerians valued education and had scribal schools throughout their territory. If Abram came from a wealthier family, he and his brothers probably attended one of these. While there is a record of one woman listed as a scribe, Sarai would not have attended classes with her male siblings. Women enjoyed almost equal rights, “but they were still not considered intelligent enough to be able to master literacy.”[7] [8]

Numerous tablets of school texts have been found containing tables (tabulations of reciprocals, multiplications, square roots, etc.) and problems (addressing such practical matters as excavating or enlarging canals, counting bricks, etc.), evidence of an advanced system of mathematics thought to have begun in ancient Sumer.

Science and industry

The oldest collection to date of pharmacopoeia in the form of fifteen prescriptions inscribed on clay tablets is attributed to the Sumerians. Women were the first doctors and dentists in ancient Mesopotamia until, some suppose, these occupations proved lucrative and were taken over by men.

Sumerian beer brewing has been confirmed going back to 3500-3100 BC. They loved beer so much they ascribed its creation to the gods. Knowledge of brewing went to the Babylonians who commercialized it and passed laws regulating it. The first brewers and tavern keepers were women.[9]

Sumerians invented a brick mold for shaping and baking river clay, thus creating more durable building materials and a system for manufacturing them. Archeologists have uncovered numbers of Sumerian bricks still intact.

The arts

Recovered Sumerian sculpture (a skill for which they are particularly noted) depicts ancient Sumerians, their appearance and their dress. No doubt writers, poets, actors, artists, fashion designers, jewelers, perfumers, and musicians found a niche among the artistic community of Ur as well.

Leaving

Abram, city dweller or not, could have interacted with merchants, laborers, shepherds, students, teachers, city administrators and workers, professionals, intellectuals and artisans, all busily going about the affairs of the day. His would have been a vibrant world, much like any modern urban center. With this brief exploration into the dynamics shaping a city-state such as Ur, it becomes clear that when Abram received God’s memorable instruction to “get out of your country,” it contained monumental implications. Leaving the comfort and security of the familiar. Leaving family property. Leaving the center of power, commerce, and influence for parts unknown. And ultimately, it meant trusting and yielding to his God’s direction implicitly.

The Bible simply records that Abram obeyed, and there is no evidence that Sarai objected or resisted. Thus Abram’s life-long journey of faith began, one which would find his beautiful wife always by his side.

Next time: Introducing Sarai

 

[1] http://www.ancient.eu.com/ur/  “In the Old Babylonian Period (c. 2000-1600 BCE) Ur remained a city of importance and was considered a centre of learning and culture. . . .The city continued to be inhabited through the early part of the Achaemenid Period (550-330 BCE) but, due to climate change and an overuse of the land, more and more people migrated to the northern regions of Mesopotamia or south toward the land of Canaan (the patriarch Abraham, some claim, among them, as previously noted). Ur slowly dwindled in importance as the Persian Gulf receded further and further south from the city and eventually fell into ruin around 450 BCE.”

[2] Great People of the Bible and How They Lived, Reader’s Digest (1974), pp. 34-35.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terah

[4] Josh 24:2: “It is not stated that Abraham himself was an idolater, though his fathers were. Jewish tradition asserts that Abraham while in Ur of the Chaldees was persecuted for his abhorrence of idolatry, and hence, was called away by God from his native land. (from Barnes’ Notes, Electronic Database Copyright © 1997, 2003 by Biblesoft, Inc. All rights reserved.)

[5] http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/ziggurat-of-ur.html

[6] Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians, Their History, Culture, and Character (1963), p.4

[7] “Daily Life in Ancient Mesopotamia,” http://www.ancient.eu.com/article/680/

[8] Kramer says students attended school daily from sunrise to sunset. They devoted years to their study, remaining students from early youth to the day they became young men. Many clay tablets illustrative of school work and compositions have been unearthed at various archaeological sites (pp. 233-236).

[9] In the article, “Ancient Egyptian Brewery and Bakery,” beer is described as being “brewed by women in the home as a supplement to meals. The beer was a thick, porridge-like drink consumed through a straw and was made from bippar (barley bread) which was baked twice and allowed to ferment in a vat. By the year 2050 BCE beer brewing had become commercialized as evidenced by the famous Alulu beer receipt from the city of Ur dated to that time” (http://www.ancient.eu/Beer/).

Facing famine

Now

In 2011, the world agonized over pictures of starving mothers and their children in the African country of Somalia. The reason? Prolonged drought and eventual famine. The videos and photos from international news agencies put faces, gaunt and grim, with haunting, hungry eyes, to the statistics. While humanitarian efforts poured into the stricken area, thousands continued to die—many of them children.

Recent reports say the drought cycle has broken in Somalia, as predicted by meteorologists and others. “But conditions are still precarious, United Nations officials warned, with many Somalis dying of hunger and more than two million still needing emergency rations to survive.”

A  July 20, 2012 UN report remained guarded: “In spite of the progress made one year after the declaration of famine in parts of southern Somalia, some 3.8 million people there are still in need of assistance, the United Nations said today, appealing to countries to provide funding for humanitarian aid.

‘Last year, we were able to halt the downward spiral into starvation for hundreds of thousands of people. Famine conditions have not been present since January,’ said the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia, Mark Bowden, in a news release.

‘However, the humanitarian situation in Somalia remains critical with 2.51 million people in urgent need of aid and a further 1.29 million at risk of sliding back into crisis,’ he added.”

English: Laure Souley holds her three-year-old...

English: Laure Souley holds her three-year-old daughter and an infant son at a MSF aide centre during the 2005 famine, Maradi Niger (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now the same deadly specter hovers over other African countries like Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso, reportedly the poorest region on the continent.

Recognizing the cycle

It’s not difficult to trace events leading to famine: first, no rain for several growing seasons; crops diminish and eventually fail; stockpiles dwindle; money becomes non-existent; and finally there is no food.[i] The grim result: death by starvation and disease, unless, that is, aid comes from some outside source, or, if one relocates to find sustenance elsewhere.

Then

Drought and famine were all too familiar to people of the Old Testament. Sarai, for instance, faced such conditions during her lifetime. She and Abram had the means to relocate to Egypt until the rains returned (Genesis 12:10). Later Rebekah traveled with Isaac to Gerar for the same reason (Genesis 26:1-7). Probably the best-known survivor is Naomi, who, with her husband and two sons, journeyed to Moab, and plenty (Ruth 1:1-2).

However, there was one mother—a widow, undoubtedly poor—who found herself caught in the deadly cycle, apparently with no option to leave. Resigned to a morbid outcome, she prepared to feed her child one last meager meal and wait for the end of their miseries. With a miraculous turn of events, her life changed forever. We’ll revisit her story in the next post.


[i] For a fascinating Bible account of this cycle playing out during the life of Joseph, please read Genesis 41-47.

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