Was she made miraculously desirable? Or has this chapter been misplaced, as some have suggested? What is the best explanation of why the sister-wife exploit was used when Sarah was so old (Gen 20)?
This is a fascinating question and I am not sure what the answer is, although I do have a theory.
At this point in the text, we have recently been told that Sarah was a post-menopausal 90-year-old woman totally incapable of giving birth, short of a truly stunning miracle. And yet here Abraham is concerned that he will be killed by the local king in order to take Sarah—twenty-five years after he had the same worry when sojourning in Egypt. Now, there are four possible solutions to this problem, that I can see.
- Abraham is not worried that Sarah would be taken as a concubine, but as a useful slave. This, however, is soundly refuted by a reading of Gen 20:6 and 16 (see below).
- Sarah’s life is about 70% over, so she might appear to be a very attractive 50-year-old if the life span were 72 years. This is possible, but it seems implausible, because she laughs at the notion that she would “have pleasure”; both she and Abraham are well agreed that she appears post-menopausal and, as such, not sexually attractive.
- In fact, Sarah does not appear sexually attractive. Instead, she was taken because a marriage with her would be a power play, e.g., asserting authority over Abraham's visiting clan. The problem, however, is that God appears to Abimelech in a dream, in which the king says that he has not touched her, and God threatens him if he does so (see 20:3-6). This suggests that it was a live possibility that the king might indeed consummate a relationship with Sarah. Another later verse, at 20:16, suggests that the thousand pieces of silver Abimelech has given to Abraham has "cleared" the reputation of Sarah of any suggestion of infidelity. Again, this suggests that she was, indeed, sexually attractive.
- The story has been misplaced by the author or editor of the source material. At some point, the story was moved from, say, after Gen 12, to where it is now, at Gen 20. Or perhaps the story came down to Moses, and he carelessly placed the story where it now is. Indeed, on a casual glance there might seem to be nothing to connect the chapter with Gen 17-19 or with Gen 21. This would solve the problem nicely, except for the obvious problem that such a complete misarrangement of the Bible seems inconsistent with the notion that the text’s words and arrangement are divinely inspired. Besides, it seems bizarre that any redactor of a text so very carefully and lovingly constructed in every other respect—the Bible truly is remarkably constructed—would fail to notice this problem.
There then are four possible, but probably wrong solutions to the problem.
A better solution is this:
- The Lord has just given both Abraham and, separately, Sarah a promise that she would conceive and give birth within a year. Obviously, this would require a miracle: that is a fact already on the table. There are, it stands to reason, only two ways to accomplish this miracle. One would be to put a renewed, fertile reproductive system in the body of an old woman, or similarly, to make an old womb serve the same function of a young one; but another solution would be to rejuvenate the entire woman. If it is the latter, then Sarah might have appeared young again, and this story is placed where it is in order to subtly convey how young-appearing she had become.
In other words, amazingly, indeed miraculously, Sarah has become so fertile and attractive that Abraham once again has to worry about his safety around kings who would covet her. This would fit well with the narrative technique that the Bible uses so often, namely, to deliberately leave important points to inference. And here is the kicker: this solution to the problem explains why the story is placed precisely where it is in the narrative: after the annunciation story and before the miraculous conception and birth of Isaac.
Recall that Sarah died at the age of 127 (Gen 23:1). The incident with Abimelech occurred well before Sarah was 89 as it was before she fell pregnant with Isaac.
Compared top a modern woman who lives to (say) 75 years old, Sarah might be the equivalent of (say) 50 years old, but presumably still menopausal. Many women today are still extremely attractive and quite sexually active in their 50's as would Sarah.
Indeed, in Gen 21:2, we are told that Sarah "conceived" and became pregnant, but by a miracle of God (V1). Further, after Sarah's death, Abraham had another wife with whom he had further children (Gen 25:1-5).
All this says that Sarah was still an attractive women. Indeed, an attractive menopausal woman would be a valuable addition to the harem of a pagan ruler because she would not be worried about children and be able to provide more attention to her "master/husband".
I think in order to understand the biblical narrative of Abraham and Sarai we need to take a broader more wholistic look at the prophetic symbology of "The prophets wife" aka the "barren woman". As Sarai was very important prophetically - her being "attractive" and "desirable" isn't just a 'chance' happening or minor detail. It was very VERY important to the overall "prophecy" God was telling through her and Abraham.
I think scripture makes it clear God made her beautiful/attractive/desirable to other men well into her later years as the story tells. I do not consider this passage to be "misplaced". It is where it was meant to be and her attractiveness is very deliberate and important "prophetically". Thus I think rather then asking "How" was she made beautiful (I mean its God - miracles aren't a hard thing for him) - a better questions is "why" did God make her so beautiful even into her later years.
This may sound odd at first but I understand Sarai (the prophets wife) to actually be quite similar symbolically to the prophets "loincloth". Both are deeply intimate items to the prophet and both are used in parable/prophecy to represent "Israel". The symbology of the "loincloth" being clean and worn tightly is very similar to the prophets wife being beautiful,attractive, faithful and remaining with her husband. The "condition/appearance" and "location" of both is important symbolically. What the prophet does with his wife or his Loincloth essentially represents what God does with Israel. When the prophet "gives it away" - or it is "attractive" and allowed to be "taken" by a foreign ruler it represents what God allows to happen to Israel prophetically.
eg: [Jeremiah 13:11]
For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the LORD, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.
When Jeremiah is instructed to take his loincloth and bury it in a foreign land - this is about Israel. When Abraham's wife is said to be "attractive" to foreign rulers and he allows her to be taken ..... its also about Israel.
To make this - Prophet = God and Wife = Israel - connection clearer I suggest starting with Isaiah 54 ("Sing oh barren woman you who did not bare child") When reading this chapter consider 3 things.
- Who is the quote "barren woman" ? What does she represent / symbolize in this chapter ? I think it should be clear "she" represents Israel/Jerusalem.
- Who is the Husband ? This one is even more clear.
For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth.
- Then what does God abandoning his wife represent ?
The Lord will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit— a wife who married young, only to be rejected,” says your God. “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord your Redeemer.
You can also read the first chapters of the book of Hosea which again leans on the "Prophets wife" prophetic symbology only this time using a "permiscuous woman" to represent Israels unfaithfullness. The marrage covenant between husband and wife = the spiritual covenant between God and Israel. Its very similar to how Jeremiah uses the "soiled" "dirty" loin cloth.
So in Abrahams story when he allows his wife to be taken. First by the Pharoah. Then later by the Southern Phillistine King - both are very very very important prophecies. I believe the first (Gen12) is the prophetic story of Exodus. Israel going into slavery in Egypt during famine via Joseph and coming out with great posessions under moses. Gen12 even speaks of the plagues God sends on Pharoahs house like in Exodus. Gen 20 speaks of their being taken by a southern phillistine King. And it happens not once - but twice - repeating with Isaacs wife in Gen 26
The wife being "desirable" and "attractive" to both kings was important prophetically to show "Israels" attractiveness to the foreign rulers who would conquer / rule over them temporarily. This is why Sarai remained beautiful and attractive into her later years. To represent Israels desirability.
The "long prophecised" son of the barren woman - Isaac - who would go with his father Abraham to be sacrificed obviously points to Christ. The spiritual son born of God + Israel represented by Abraham and Sarai.