As we have been working our way through 1 Peter in Bible study, I have been taking a closer look at familiar passages in hopes of finding what God wants me to learn this time around. I have been both encouraged and challenged—sometimes comforted and sometimes made very uncomfortable.
The instructions to wives in 1 Peter 3 can be a stumbling block to women of the twenty-first century, particularly verse 6, which says, “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” I have often heard this verse explained with reference to Genesis 12 and the similar story in Genesis 20, where Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister, not his wife. Abraham’s plan is generally seen in a negative light. The explanation of Genesis 12:11-13 in the ESV Study Bible notes is typical:
Fearful that his life will be endangered because of Sarai’s beauty, Abram devises a ruse, based on a half-truth (see 20:12). Abram’s selfish actions imply that he thinks God is unable to protect him. Yet when the plan backfires, it is the Lord who rescues him (12:17).
Peter commends Sarah for her obedience, so if he has these situations in mind as he writes these words, the implication is that a wife should submit to her husband even when he is doing something that is ethically questionable. I have heard just such teaching from a number of sources, and perhaps you have too.
However, other scholars believe that Abraham was implementing a wise plan to protect Sarah, not a devious scheme to save his own skin. Dr. Gordon Hugenberger, a seminary professor and the senior pastor of Park Street Church in Boston, has studied extensively both the Scriptures and the culture in which these events took place, and he concludes that Abraham and Sarah were acting righteously. He explains that, according to Ancient Near Eastern marriage law, a man’s wealth would not go to his sister upon his death, so there would be no financial incentive for Pharaoh or for Abimelech to knock off Abraham and take Sarah as his wife. Dr. Hugenberger also gives many other reasons from the biblical text and from the cultural context to assert that both Abraham and Sarah were conducting themselves uprightly. You can listen to a complete explanation in his own words here.
If this understanding is correct, then 1 Peter 3:6 becomes much less problematic. Sarah was not compromising any moral values, like honesty and integrity, to be supportive of Abraham; she was cooperating with him to carry out a wise and sensible plan to protect their lives and their inheritance so that God could fulfill His purposes in them. She was, in fact, being a godly wife—doing good and acting with pure conduct. As Abraham’s partner and helper, she was showing her love and respect for him. As he explained to Abimelech,
And when God had me wander from my father’s household, I said to her, “This is how you can show your love to me: Everywhere we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother’” (Gen. 20:13).
However, there is another consideration. As I examined the 1 Peter passage more closely, I realized that there is nothing in the passage to indicate that Peter was thinking of the sister-wife incidents when he wrote that Sarah obeyed Abraham. So I started wondering, “What did Peter have in mind when he wrote these words?” Perhaps he was thinking of her general manner of life; as my husband pointed out, she was a remarkable woman in that she left home and family and everything familiar to follow her husband to an unknown country for an unknown duration (which turned out to be the rest of her life). The Lord spoke to Abram and told him to “go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you,” but we have no record that He spoke directly to Sarah with these instructions. So she was following Abraham, wherever he went and whatever he did, as he pursued God on what may at times have seemed to her like a wild goose chase. Her faith and obedience were certainly commendable.
Or maybe he did have a specific incident in mind. I wondered, Does Scripture tell of a time when Sarah called Abraham lord? The cross-references in my Bible to the phrase “calling him lord” took me to Genesis 18. This is the account of the three visitors coming to Abraham. He immediately went into the tent and told Sarah to fix them some food right away:
And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes” (v. 6).
Sarah was an elderly woman and she may have been resting, since the visitors arrived right “in the heat of the day” (v. 1), but there is no indication that she put up a fuss when her husband asked her to get up right then and make the cakes. Wives, has your husband ever brought home unexpected visitors who needed to be fed? It might be annoying to drop what we’re doing and prepare food for them, but doing it promptly and cheerfully is one way to honor our husbands.
Then the Lord Himself revealed to Abraham that he would have a son. Abraham believed the promise, but Sarah overheard it and laughed, thinking it was craziness. It is here that she refers to him as her lord:
So Sarah laughed to herself saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (v. 12)
Sarah had very logical reasons to doubt such a far-fetched promise:
Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years (v. 11).
The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah (v. 11)
“After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (v. 12)
“Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” (v. 13)
Abraham and Sarah were advanced in years, old and worn out, and Sarah had long since stopped having her periods. Of course they couldn’t have a baby!
But the Lord Himself said,
“Is anything too hard for the Lord? (v. 14)
And of course the answer is a resounding NO!
So what happened? Abraham believed the promise, but Sarah was dubious. She could not wrap her head around the idea that at this stage of her life she could “have pleasure.” She knew she would never experience the joy of having her own baby, and she probably doubted she could even have pleasure with her husband. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hadn’t had sex in years—her periods had stopped, she was well beyond the age of childbearing, they were both old and worn out, so why bother?
But Abraham laid hold of the promise by faith. I picture him coming to Sarah and saying, “Honey, the Lord Himself promised us a baby. Let’s get it on tonight!” She may have been skeptical, but the fact is she did it—and the rest is history. She honored her husband and expressed her faith in God, however shaky, by doing what it took to conceive the promised child. The idea that Peter may have had Genesis 18 in mind is also supported by the fact that Hebrews commends Sarah’s faith to receive power to conceive:
By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11).
If it is true that Peter has in mind the events of Genesis 18, then Sarah is being commended not for going along with her husband in some shady scheme, as a common interpretation of the Peter passage would have us believe, but for submitting to Abraham and doing her part in God’s plan for their lives out of respect for her husband and faith in God. This is a model that we can whole-heartedly emulate.
If you would like to make a comment, please stick to the topic of this post. I don’t want to get into a big discussion about the theology of husband-wife relationships, and I’m not trying to make a statement about how couples ought to work out their own marriage relationships. I’m just making some observations about a passage in the New Testament and some stories in the Old Testament. My hope is that other wives—in fact, men and women alike—will be encouraged to walk in bold faith.