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At the risk of sounding crass, Sarah was advanced in years in Genesis 18, but in Genesis 20 King Abimelech took Sarah because he was apparently attracted to her. Then in Genesis 21 Abraham becomes a father at age 100.

Again, at the risk of sounding crass, why would Abimelech take an old woman who was advanced in years like this? What happened here?

Genesis 18:11-12

11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?”

Genesis 20:1-2

1 From there Abraham journeyed toward the territory of the Negeb and lived between Kadesh and Shur; and he sojourned in Gerar. 2 And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah."

Genesis 21:5

Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

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    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 11:35
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    In today's world, have you seen Harold and Maud which deals solely with charisma, or was it a slice of American Pie that dealt with expert blow jobbing? From any modern view of the Biblical word, why would you give credence to anyone's improbable age, including Abraham being 100? Commented Sep 26, 2023 at 21:12
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    I always thought hermeneutics was about letting the document speak, not saying that its contents were unimportant. Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 12:03
  • Wait ... Older women aren't attractive?
    – user121330
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 6:46
  • Speculation: "The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah" aka she was infertile. Which - in a time of unreliable contraception - could be a benefit. Definitely not the whole reason but maybe a plus
    – Hobbamok
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 14:04

6 Answers 6

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The very nature of this site prevents me from providing a link to pictures of very beautiful women in their 80s, that, even today when women live much shorter lives than the ancients, are still very attractive.

Here are the facts:

  1. Sarah lived to be 127 years old (Gen 23:1). This means that at the age of 80 she was still not yet two-thirds of her final age.
  2. Modern women have a life expectancy of perhaps 80 years - the equivalent age to Sarah's 80 years old for modern women would be in their early 50's.

Despite this, any quick internet search will reveal that many modern women are still very beautiful even in their 80s. However, if we take the equivalent age of Sarah in modern terms, there are many working photographic models in their 50s.

Add to this the likely intelligence, grace and eloquence of Sarah, her fascinating background, extensive travels and experience, would make her highly attractive to a local leader like Abimelech.

Lastly, (and this is entirely speculative), we know very little about the man Abimelech himself and his "taste" in women. However, here are two plausible possibilities:

  • some women were taken into harems for reasons entirely unrelated to physical pleasure and sexual gratification - some (often older women) were often there to help and train the younger ones and to perform management tasks in the harem.
  • Abimelech may have had a particular "fetish" or preference for older women, but we do not know.
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    At the risk of increasing the crassness, most women who look very beautiful in their 80's have benefited from modern healthcare and cosmetic technology. Very few women maintain natural beauty into their later years.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 14:41
  • And you seem to be saying that because she lived to such an extreme age, she was aging slower. I don't think that's how it works. People who live to old ages still get old at the normal rate, they're just lucky that they don't succumb to age-related conditions (cancer, heart disease, etc.) when most people do. Of course, since God was favoring Abraham and his family, there could be miracles involved.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 14:45
  • @Barmer the assumption of longer lifespan slower aging might hold quite well when you consider that people were living without modern healthcare for hundreds of years. This is hardly imaginable with current aging process. Could be that the closer you were to Adam and Eve the younger you were at older ages, that is the aging process has advanced (gotten worse) over the millenia.
    – Austin
    Commented Feb 24 at 3:36
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Note: the following explanation is not necessarily what I believe personally. However I think it is important to include it as a possible answer since it is based on an important school of biblical criticism:

The documentary hypothesis provides a hermeneutical approach that yields a simple answer: Sarah was not actually as old as she appears, because the narrative should not be taken as strictly chronological. In fact, according to this hypothesis, the narrative of Sarah and Abimelech is a reiteration of the story of Sarah and the Pharaoh in Gen. 12:11, where she is described as "a beautiful woman." But meanwhile the earlier story has unfortunately already established her as old and "worn out." (18:20) A footnote in the NABRE translation explains:

Abraham again passes off his wife Sarah as his sister to escape trouble in a foreign land (cf. 12:10–13:1, the J source)The story appears to be from a different source (according to some, E) and deals with the ethical questions of the incident.

The hypothesis is based in part on the fact that Gen. 12 uses the name yhwh (the Lord) for God while Gen. 18 uses the word elohim (God/gods). These are general markers for the J source (j standing for jehovah/yahweh) and the E source (elohim). In addition, Abimelech is described as a Philistine (Genesis 26:1), but they did not arrive in the area until about 800 years later, lending support to the idea that the story evolved over time.

The theory serves to explain various doublings, differences in names (Abram/Abraham etc.) and other apparent contradictions in the text. Sarah may still be old by modern standards, but not so old as to prevent her from being very attractive to men.

Conclusion: according the documentary hypothesis, Sarah was not really as old as she appears. What we have in the text is two versions of the same story, in which Sarah is extremely attractive. The biblical editor, rather than omitting one sacred legend in favor of the other, included both - with one occurring much later on. What attracted Abimelech to her was her great beauty.

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    One doesn't have to subscribe to the documentary hypothesis, or hold that two different narratives are a repetition of two different versions of the same story, to consider the possibility that the events in successive chapters of Genesis are not intended to be in chronological order. In regard to the documentary hypothesis being an important school of biblical criticism, historically it was, but in modern times it seems to have lost its scholarly consensus (Wikipedia).
    – LarsH
    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 10:39
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    The documentary hypothesis is a perfect example of cherry-picking the parts of the story that you want to support their pre-conceived ideas. These stories illustrate this well. The DH appears to brush under the carpet a number of glaring differences such as the name for the leader, viz, Pharoah (an Egyptian word) vs Abimelek (a Philistine word meaning "Father is King"). There are many others. [I understand you do not necessarily subscribe to this theory.]
    – Dottard
    Commented Sep 28, 2023 at 10:11
  • I don't presume to know whether its early proponents had pre-conceived ideas or not. I find the hypothesis useful. But if one approaches the text of Genesis as written by Moses, the hypothesis must be rejected - since it sees multiple source. I tend to think that part of the d.h. is right. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 3:54
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It could well have been the case that king Abimelech was no spring chicken himself. He could have been an old, wrinkled prune of a man, given to trophy-wife-collecting. And Sarah would have been some trophy for any man, at any age (given what little the Bible says about her).

We don't have any copies of the Gerar Times with a black and white photo of Sarah, but what should be obvious is that the on-going trouble Abraham kept having when he took his wife into foreign territories indicates that she must have been strikingly beautiful. And, wasn't it some artist who excused his painting of an elderly but youthful-looking Mary to some Pope with the point, "A virtuous woman long retains her youthful looks"? Remember, Sarah had never given birth to any children in her long life. Her form could have remained flawless.

Anyway, we are in the realms of speculation here, but it never does for people in the 21st century to suppose that things 4,000 years ago would be just as we see them today. The account we have been given tells us enough to know that there was something special about Sarah's appearance, even at what we (today) would consider to be old age. Back then, many people lived far longer than we do, with far less pollution. Check out the Genesis genealogical age-lists re. longevity!

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    Well quite: one can hardly infer that that Methuselah lived for 782 years after the birth of Lamech in the same physical condition that in modern times we would associate with someone over the age of 187. That physical condition is, not to put too fine a point on it, dead. I don't personally believe the history; but I do believe that the history describes aging at various times working very differently from how it works here and now. Commented Sep 29, 2023 at 11:53
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As the other answerers said, she would have been very beautiful still, and things were different then. Abimelech had other wives; another one would have added to his prestige, if nothing else.

Also, she and Abraham were incredibly rich and powerful. Abraham had enough flocks to need to separate with his nephew Lot, Genesis 13; Abraham won the battle of the kings in Genesis 14. Tale as old as time; if you want peace with your rich and powerful neighbor, you marry a member of his family and he won't attack the house his sister lives in, and you will have access to their wealth.

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    Commented Sep 27, 2023 at 1:02
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“Sarai” means “Princess”. At 89 years old, God only changed her name to “Sarah”, which also means “Princess”. God must have thought she appeared beautiful, glamorous, &/or royal. The king's interest in her also confirms that.

One reason both Abraham at 99 and Sarah at 89 may have laughed at the possibility of her giving birth was their frustration from her inability to bear to date. She’d wanted a child or children for so long but she couldn’t bear any. She even got to the point where she ordered Abram to sleep with the servant, Hagar, who became pregnant but ran away, Ishmael in her womb.

While Sarah and Abraham laughed at her giving birth at 90, God and the three visitors had no questions. All four planned to return to see the family of three the next year.

Sarah would have heard from her husband what he heard from God (i.e. that Isaac would be a father). Gen 17: 19 “God replied: ‘Nevertheless, your wife Sarah is to bear you a son, and you shall call him Isaac. I will maintain my covenant with him as an everlasting pact, to be His God and the God of his descendants after him.’" That could be one reason later why she’s not shown concerned when it’s time for Isaac to be sacrificed.

The king was attracted to Sarah after this. Sarah then had to be very relieved and happy when he saw her.

It’s not shown she had any problems giving birth to Isaac; she was probably strong too. The only one she's shown to be scared of is the Lord.

Sarah raised Isaac for numerous years and had a life of 127 years.

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According to the Jewish tradition, the way the miracle of Sarah giving birth at 90 was accomplished was that Sarah de-aged (after the visit of the angels at Mamre) and regained her youth. (See Rashi to Genesis 18:8)

Thus, Sarah likely appeared much younger than her true age. This also helps explain how Abimelech was fooled into believing that she was not Abraham's wife (after all Abraham and Sarah were already quite famous by this time)--she no longer fit the description of Sarah.

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