The wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. Before Genesis 17.15 she is called Sarai; the two forms of the name are linguistic variants, both meaning “princess.” The book of Genesis describes her as a beautiful woman (12.11, 14), a theme elaborated by later tradition, especially the Genesis Apocryphon from Qumran. According to the biblical narrators, Abraham was so conscious of her beauty that before they entered Egypt at the time of a severe famine in their own land, he begged her not to reveal to the Egyptians that she was his wife but rather his sister, lest he be killed. Indeed, as it turned out, the Egyptians thought her so beautiful that she was taken into Pharaoh's house to be his wife (Gen. 12.15), and for her sake Abraham prospered. In time, however, after great plagues had afflicted Pharaoh and his household (Gen. 12.17; cf. Exod. 7–12), the true identity of Sarah was revealed to Pharaoh, who ordered Abraham to be gone with his wife and all his possessions. A variant of this story is found in Genesis 20.1–14 (cf. also Gen. 26.6–11).
During their years of wandering, Sarah was childless, and so God's promise that she would be the ancestor of nations (Gen. 17.16) was unfulfilled. Accordingly she persuaded Abraham to take her Egyptian slave, Hagar, as his wife. He did so, and she bore him Ishmael. At the age of ninety, however, Sarah bore Isaac, thus fulfilling the divine promise. Sarah lived to be 127 years old, died in the land of Canaan, and was buried at Machpelah (Gen. 23.1–20).
In Isaiah 51.2 Sarah is referred to as the great mother of the nation; in the New Testament she is held up as an example of a wife's proper respect for her husband (1 Pet. 3.6). Paul uses the account of the birth of a son to Sarah by divine promise to develop an allegory of the new covenant in Christ and the heavenly Jerusalem (Gal. 4.22–31).
Isobel Mackay Metzger