Sarah and Matriarchalism

Abraham and Sara are still the central characters of Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10 So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. 13 As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” 14 So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Be’er Sheba.

 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes.  16 Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.

 17 And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. 21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

The Word of God


Patriarchy has usually been associated with the ancient stories of humanity, particularly the ones in the Old Testament, in which male dominance in society is underlined. Last Sunday and today, we are presented with some scenes in the lives of Abraham and Sarah, narrations that seem to point out the fact that women had decisive roles in shaping the destiny of their communities. In fact, for several scholars, it makes more sense to think that ancient cultures can not be understood outside the coexistence of patriarchy and matriarchy. Dr. Margaret English de Alminana, former Associate Professor of Theology at Southeastern University, Florida published an enlightening article which will probably broaden our views on ancient societies in general and the stories in the bible, in particular.

The article provides several examples of distinctive elements of matriarchalism, in which alongside with men, women took numerous roles, including those of leadership. Unlike other views that usually take side over men or women, this research appears to seek some balance by placing matriarchalism and patriarchalism on the same level of influence.

Below we quote some central ideas from Dr. English de Alminana’s article “A Biblical Investigation of Matriarchal Structures in Ancient Semitic Life” (2016) published in the Journal Of Pentecostal Theology 25, no. 1: 58-73.

“Hand-in-hand with patriarchal structure was patrilineality, that is the ordering of families according to the father’s kinship, tribe, and name…”

But, at the same time, a contradicting custom coexists:

“Jews must trace their ‘Jewishness’ through the women, which is to say, one’s Jewish descent is based upon the mother’s family and not the father’s. An individual is considered Jewish only if his or her mother is Jewish, irrespective of the father’s national descent.”  

Regarding Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, she claims that:

“It is impossible to understand the story of Abraham and Sarah if one does not approach the story with the realization that two very different systems of marriage were coexisting and competing in early Canaan, and both systems were completely unlike our own present-day nuptial arrangements. “

“Under one system, a slave born to a free man would be a free person. So, the baby, Ismael, born to Abraham and Hagar, would be free. The kinship rights would be determined by the father’s freedom, with Sarah being set aside.”

“However, under the system where in Sarah was a free tribal mother, a slave born by her slave woman would remain a slave, the kinship status being determined by the slave mother, who was the property of Sarah.” 

So, is Ishmael free or a slave? He was conceived to be Abraham’s heir, but once Isaac is born, who should be the chosen one? Who is entitled to settle this dispute?

“Under the slave wife system, Abraham could raise Hagar, ‘his slave,’ up to the status of wife […] Under one system, Ishmael would have been Abraham’s own child, not Sarah’s slave child. Ishmael would not be a slave, but free, based upon the kinship of the father. […] The child was not given to the free wife Sarah as her slave child; rather, the slave woman was being lifted up above Sarah as Abraham’s slave wife.” 

The reading in today’s service tells us how Sarah resolved this dilemma. And it was not just a mere wish of hers; ancient, deep-rooted traditions were influencing the behavior of a tribal matriarch.

“Sarah with Issac” by April Craig