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Excerpted from Waiting for Wonder: Learning to Live on God’s Timetable © 2016, Abingdon Press
What would it be like, I wonder, to be described by the very thing that brings you the most shame, the most pain, the most guilt?
“This is my friend, Ann. She screams at her kids.”
“This is Tony. He’s an ex-con. He killed someone.”
“Meet Sue, she gossips.”
“Here’s Jose, who can’t keep a job.”
“Amy, failed marriage.”
“Ted, out-of-control rages.”
“Lisa, molested as a child.”
“Bob, drug addict.”
“John, attempted suicide.”
Sarai, infertile. She has no children.
I don’t want to be identified by my failures. I don’t want the first thing people know about me to be the very thing I most wish to hide. But that’s how the Bible chooses to introduce Sarai, Abram’s wife in Genesis 11:29-30. In Hebrew, the verses say, “Sarai was barren.” And as if that weren’t harsh enough, they add, “There is no child to her.” The biblical description is stark, harsh.
Why does the Bible introduce her this way?
In Sarai’s day, the primary role of women was to produce children, particularly an heir. A wife’s value to her husband as well as to society was directly attached to the number of her sons. The main purpose of marriage was to procreate, and children were seen as direct proof of blessing from the gods. In Abram and Sarai’s faith, the idea of children as a sign of God’s blessing came directly from his words to Adam and Eve recorded in Genesis 1:28: “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it.” The blessing of children is confirmed again in Genesis 9:7, when God blessed Noah and his sons after the flood, saying, “As for you, be fertile and multiply. Populate the earth and multiply in it.” In both Genesis 1 and 9, the blessing is coupled with a command to procreate.
The inability to do so was a source of not only disappointment for the ancient woman, but also great shame. She could not perform her duty or call. She was without worth. Sometimes, if a man could afford it, a second wife could be taken to provide children and the infertile wife could be retained. But divorce was considered a viable option for the husband of an infertile wife. In Egypt it appears that the marriage was not even considered complete until childbirth, and the woman could be put aside at any time without a formal divorce.1
In Sarai’s day and throughout the Old Testament, infertile women were despised, rejected, helpless, and considered cursed.
Given the reproach and societal shame of barrenness, it becomes even more poignant that Sarai is introduced in this way. Commentator John Walson emphasizes this view, saying, “We find out that Abram’s wife, Sarai, is barren, leaving the uninformed reader every reason to dismiss that line of the family.”2
But God does not dismiss them. Instead, he specifically calls them to be what they are least likely to be. He calls the childless, the infertile, the barren to birth a nation through whom the whole world will be blessed. The place in her life that causes the most shame, pain, and hopelessness for Sarai is exactly the place where God makes his wildest, most impossible promises. It’s the very place he chooses to work.
The biblical account affirms that God looks barrenness in the face and makes his promises anyway. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say he promises because. From the beginning of Sarai’s “chosenness,” God chose the impossible, he chose to transform, he chose the redemption of her shame, and ours. He did not call a fertile woman to birth a nation. He chose a barren one . . . on purpose.
“Despite her dim prospects, Sarai emerges by God’s gracious intervention to achieve the regal stature that her name ‘princess’ conveys. She becomes the matriarch of all Israel (Isaiah 51:2),” says scholar Kenneth Mathews.3
And that tells us that God’s delight has always been the full, true, complete redemption of the things in our lives that we hate the most, the things that cause the deepest sorrow, the worst guilt, the most agonizing pain. Those are the very things God longs to transform. For Sarah, and for us.
Not because we’ve earned it, or done enough to make up for it.
Not because we’ve hidden it, or done a good job covering it up with other good deeds.
Not because we’re beautiful or deserving or extra-faithful.
But because somehow this is his purpose. His specialty.
It is who he is.
Will you dare to embrace the places of barrenness in your life and allow God transform your shame?
Marlo Schalesky is an award-winning author of both fiction and non-fiction whose articles have been published in many Christian magazines. Her latest release is Waiting for Wonder: Learning to Live on God’s Timetable (Abingdon Press). She is the founder and president of Wonder Wood Ranch, a California charitable organization bringing hope to a hurting community through horses. Schalesky lives with her husband, six children and a crazy number of animals at her log-home ranch on California’s central coast.
S. N. Kramer, “The Woman in Ancient Sumer: Gleanings from Sumerian Literature,” in La Femme dans le Proche-Orient Asiatique (Paris: 1987), 109. As cited at: http://thebiblicalworld.blogspot.com/2011/01/childlessness-and-bible-2-defective.html
2John H. Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001), 389.
3Kenneth A. Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 102.