Illustrious Women of Bible and Catholic Church History – Sara the Princess

Sara the PrincessArticle

Very ancient tradition, mentioned by Josephus, is to the effect that Adam, filled with a prophetic knowledge of the future history of mankind, foretold that they should be swept from the earth by fire and flood. This was when wickedness spread over the earth with the descendants of Cain; but the posterity of Seth deserved to be called “the sons of God,” on account of their public and solemn worship of the Creator. They added to the solid virtues of practical piety the culture of the arts and sciences, and were the first to note the revolutions of the heavenly bodies.

Lest these first fair fruits of true civilization should utterly perish in the coming catastrophe, they erected two monumental pillars, one of brick, and the other of stone, on which they inscribed a summary of their own knowledge and discoveries. Josephus affirms that in his day one of these monuments was still extant in “the land of Syriad.” (Assyria?) Will it be given to the indefatigable scientists of the nineteenth century to discover these monumental stones or bricks, and decipher their inscriptions, just as they are, from day to day, digging up from the plains of Assyria, as from the graves of the earliest empires known to man, tablets giving a history of the deluge, and written (not improbably) long before Moses was born? It is impossible to foresee what new voices may hourly be heard from the buried past, confirming our belief in the divine book.

Be that as it may, there is one providential miracle witnessed daily by every man, woman, and child in every Christian land, and to which mothers would do well to point the attention of their dear ones. It is the survival of the Hebrew race in our midst, as distinct and well defined to the mind’s eye among sur rounding nations and races, as the towering crests of the western mountains stand out at sunset clearly cut, and illumined with golden splendors, against the darkening sky of evening. Only think of it! Since the day when men contemporary with “the mighty hunter” Nimrod stamped on tablets of Assyrian brick the story of the flood so unexpectedly brought to light, and just interpreted to us by the ripest science of Christendom – only think how revolution after revolution, more destructive than flood or flame, has swept over these Mesopotamian plains, and over every spot of earth where the wandering children of Abraham and Sara have planted their tents, blotting out utterly from the face of the earth the conquering races of Assyria, Babylon, Egypt, and Rome, and leaving one ever-living, ever- present monument behind, on which the whole earth must gaze with an awe mixed with veneration and pity, the Hebrew race.

It is with such memories that we approach the history of Sara, the mother of God’s chosen people, chosen herself, together with her husband, for sacrifices and sufferings well calculated to try the temper of the most heroic souls.

She was called at first Sarai (the Contentious), and was the sixth in descent from Heber, the great-grandson of Noe. Abram, however, and his wife, when they had passed, at God’s call, from their native Chaldaea to the west of the Euphrates, were designated Ibrim, or immigrants from “beyond” (eber) “the great river.”

According to some chronologists, Noe lived for sixty-two years after the birth of Abraham, and fifty-two after that of his niece, or half-sister, Sarai. If Noe’s wife (Noria, as she is called in some traditions, or Noema in others) lived as long as her husband, it might, in this case, have been the privilege of both these ancestors of Israel to have dwelt for half a century with the venerable pair from whose loins sprung the renewed human family. Thus we may, without violating historical probability, contemplate Noria (or Noema) as holding on her knees the child Sarai, and pouring into her ear in girlhood and early womanhood the story of her own long existence, of gigantic crimes against Heaven which she had seen visited with such overwhelming retribution, and of the solitary example of godlike piety in her own companion, rewarded by the divine friendship, and the experience of so merciful a Providence. The Almighty hand, so terrible in destroying the guilty and unrepentant, had been all fatherly tenderness and protection to them and theirs. And with this tale of a world destroyed to punish sin would be told that other no less truthful one of the first creation, coming directly from our first parents through Mathusala, who had lived hundreds of years with these on the one hand, and then with Noe and his wife on the other. With the still nearer example of the unteachable pride exhibited at Babel, and of the chastisement that overtook the builders, Sara must have been made familiar from the cradle, by every person and object around her. Babel, or Bab-Ilu, “the gate of the god Ilu,” was very near to, if not identical with, Borsippa, “the tower of tongues,” or “the tower of the dispersion of tribes,” as one cuneiform inscription terms it; while another inscription designates Babylon as “the town of the root of languages.”

Both Abram and Sarai dwelt in Chaldaea, in the very district bearing the name of their ancestor Arphaxad, in that city of Ur, whose name in the cuneiform languages is “the dwelling of Ouannes,” or of the fish-god, and is identified with the modern Um-Mugheir.

The Lower Euphrates was the seat of an empire in which idolatry prevailed to an extent that to us seems unaccountable, particularly when we recollect that all who were then living in ripe manhood and womanhood were the descendants of one man, deceased but a few years before, and the devoted worshiper of the one true God. Indeed, we are now putting together from the mounds of Babylon and Nineveh the historical records of that same empire and that idol worship. Thare (Terah), Sarai’s father, was himself an idolater (Josue 24:2). From out the whole mass of erring humanity, she and her husband would alone appear to have remained true to God, and to be therefore chosen by him to preserve in their blessed seed the knowledge and love of the Holy Name, and the cherished faith in the promised Redeemer and Restorer.

One mighty trial is hinted in Scripture as put upon her womanly heart before the divine voice summoned Abram forth from the land and the people. In 2 Esdras (Nehemiah) 9:7, it is said that God brought Abram “forth out of the fire of the Chaldees.” Josephus affirms that Abram was superior to his fellow-countrymen in learning, eloquence, and virtue, and that he determined to spread among them and all mankind a knowledge of the true God and his worship. The worship of light and fire formed the central part of the Chaldaean idolatry; and Abram “ventured to publish his opinion” in opposition to the popular belief. “If,” said he, “the sun and moon, and all the heavenly bodies, had power of their own, they would certainly take care of their own regular motion. Since they do not take care of their own regularity, they make it plain, that, in so far as they co-operate to our advantage, they do it not of their own abilities, but as they are subservient to Him who commands them, and to whom alone we ought justly to offer our homage and thanksgiving.” With the irregularity here complained of, modern astronomers may not agree, nor may they value much the consequence drawn from such premises; but we are not putting forth an argument. On the nature of the Chaldsean worship a singular light is thrown by the recent discoveries. They reveal the fact that the Mesopotamian populations did not confine them selves to a bloodless sun and star worship, but that they united with the idolatry akin to the monstrous systems of India and China the mythology and demon-worship afterward prevalent throughout Western Asia, Egypt, and Europe. The homage paid to the supreme god Ilu was comparatively pure; not so, how ever, the worship of the double triads of gods and goddesses whom they adored as emanating from his substance. We know from 4 Kings 17:31, that in Sippar, near Babylon, both to Ouannes or Anu Malik, the ocean god, and to Adar Malik, the Chaldaean Saturn, were immolated human victims. Thus in the days of Abram, as well as in those of the exiled Israelites, the Babylonian cities “burnt their children in fire” to propitiate their demon-gods. And it was the altars of this same Anu Malik of the Assyrian discoverers that Abram may have sought to over throw in the city of Ur, of which Anu was the tutelar deity. At any rate, Josephus goes on to say that “the Chaldseans and other people of Mesopotamia raised a tumult against him” (Abram); and “he thought it prudent to leave the country.”

Other Jewish traditions say that the noble-hearted teacher of an unpopular creed was cast publicly into the fire, God deliver ing him therefrom miraculously; that this deliverance wrought the conversion of his father Thare, and his other kinsfolk; and that thus purified, like gold in the fire, God chose Abram as a most precious vessel in which to preserve for all future time the deposit of revealed truth.

But even if Sarai was not doomed to witness this crucial test of her husband’s fidelity to God, and of God’s truth toward his servant, there was, in the daily and hourly persecutions which popular fanaticism can silently inflict on the object of its hatred, an ordeal for both their souls, more to be feared than the tortures of the furnace or the blazing pile. That ordeal they both had certainly to undergo until the day dawned when their Master found them fit for his purposes.

“And the Lord said to Abram, Go forth out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and out of thy father’s house, and come into the land which I shall show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation; and I will bless thee, and magnify thy name, and thou shalt be blessed. I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee; and in thee shall all the kindred of the earth be blessed” (Gen. xii.). Then it was, in obedience to this call, that “There took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Aran, his son’s son, and Sarai, his daughter-in-law, and brought them out of Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Chanaan; and they came as far as Haran (Charran), and dwelt there.”

Sarai was now in her sixty-fifth year; and her surpassing beauty does not seem to have suffered blight or decrease. But in tearing herself away for ever from country, kinsfolk, friends, and all the dear associations that bind us so closely to our native soil, she was not even consoled by having child of her own on whom to bestow the affection that is ever welling up and overflowing in the exile’s heart. God had promised Abram to make them the parents of an entire nation; but as they turned their backs on Chaldsea, and their faces westward to those lands where wave after wave of emigrants had preceded them, the realization of the divine promise receded farther into the dark future; and Sarai’s long-cherished hopes resembled the mirage on the parched plains over which they traveled, daily mocking the thirsty and footsore pilgrims with bright visions that vanished as they drew near.

At Charran, in the lovely region around the modern Chabour, the wayfarers tarried some space, and there closed the eyes of their parent Thare, taught by his children, ere earth disappeared for ever from his sight, to look up for mercy to Jehovah. And then began the long march toward the setting sun, leaving part of their relatives behind them in Charran, amid fertility and affluence, taking with them their nephew Lot whom they had adopted, and directing their course “they knew not whither,” and cared not, so long as they followed the will of Him who was to be thenceforward their sole light and stay and hope.

The whole Mediterranean seaboard, from Tarsus in the north to the mouth of the Nile, and westward along the African shore, was in the possession of the same Chamitic race who had planted the empire of violence and idolatry along the Euphrates and the Tigris. The sensual Chanaanites occupied the beautiful and teeming valleys that radiate around the mountain-chains of Libanus and Carmel, and were building up at Tarsus, Tyre, Aradus, and Sidon centers of commercial activity and of political and religious power, whose influence should be soon felt far and wide. This same land of Chanaan, then truly flowing with milk and honey, was the goal of Abram’s journey, and the destined inheritance of his posterity. Did any prophetic vision float before Sarai’s mind, or any secret presentiment fill her heart with the sweet assurance, as she and her husband crossed t> 3 Jordan near the Sea of Galilee, that One sprung from her, and in whom all nations should be blessed, would one day press these same shores with his feet, and waken with his words of power the echoes of yonder dark blue waters?

Through rich pastures, and hills planted with the vine and the olive, to “the noble vale” of Sichein (Shechem) between its flowering Alps, opening up a vista as of the garden of God, and worthy of being the abode of paradisiacal man, the peaceful caravan wended its way. There, while the wanderers rested in their first blissful sleep beneath the sky of Palestine, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “To thy seed will I give this land.” We can imagine the patriarch awakening his courageous wife to communicate to her the purport of this new promise; or it may be that he who honored in her the ancestress of the future God-man made her now the sharer, with her husband, of these glad tidings, and shed on her eyes the glory of his presence.

At any rate, they built an altar there, on the hillside, near the site of the future city of Bethel, and poured out their hearts in grateful sacrifice to their Guide and Benefactor. Farther on to the south, whither the divine instinct now led them, another altar was built, apparently with greater solemnity; and, as a protestation against the idolatry that defiled the land as well as to take formal possession thereof in the name of the living God, Abram “called upon his name.”

Southward still the pilgrims sped, planting their tents, now in one place, and now in another, as though surveying in advance the scenes of Christ’s labors, and planting their footprints on every spot to be one day consecrated by his blessed feet. To Bethlehem, it may be, and to Jerusalem, they journeyed, every where “calling on His name” in whom they believed and trusted with a loving faith that no delays could weaken, and no disappointments shake.

They were bound to go to Egypt too, marking out a pathway for the Babe afterwards divinely preserved from Herod’s pitiless sword. And here occurs for Sarai a danger more to be feared than the flames of the Chaldaean furnace. Famine visited this land of Chanaan, naturally so fertile; and the strangers, whose herds and followers could not find subsistence there, sought a temporary relief in Egypt, ever blessed with plenty. Josephus gives an additional motive to Abram’s journey thither: he was desirous of thoroughly learning their philosophic and religious systems, and of spreading among them the knowledge of Jehovah. But, being aware of the licentious and despotic temper of the Egyptian rulers, he gave way to a fear lest the beauty of Sarai should cost him his life. Being childless, they agreed to pass for brother and sister, and to Conceal their relation of husband and wife. It would appear to be an unworthy subterfuge; and the Scriptures, in relating it, with their wonted candor relate, also, the terrible consequences to which the deception well-nigh led.

The princely rank of the strangers, and, still more, the marvelous beauty of the Chaldaean lady, were noised abroad through the land; and the Pharaoh who ruled in Lower Egypt hastened to secure the possession of the latter.

To Christian eyes illuminated by faith, the signal deliverance wrought by the divine intervention, when all human aid seemed powerless to avert dishonor, will not appear extraordinary. Sarai represented both the church of the old law and that of the new, who is called “Christ’s spouse undefiled.” God owed it to him self, to Abram, who bore the figure of Christ, and to Sarai, who typified his church, to save her from every stain.

Man’s extremity is also God’s opportunity. When the agony of the two hearts was at its height, the Almighty hand was stretched forth: its touch warned Pharaoh of the wrong he was about to commit. Besides, he believed Sarai to be still unwedded, and deemed he was honoring her brother by the contemplated con nection. Abram was rebuked for his subterfuge; and his wife was restored with every demonstration of honor, and every mark of liberality, that could repair an evil partly unintentional. It is said that Abram then carried out his design of visiting the most famous seats of Egyptian learning, and of imparting, in return for the instruction derived therefrom, a knowledge of astronomy and arithmetic. But of this there is no mention in the Bible.

Thus was verified of Abram and Sarai the saying of the Psalmist: “They passed from nation to nation, and from one kingdom to another people. He suffered no man to hurt them; and he reproved kings for their sakes. Touch ye not My anointed; and do no evil to My prophets” (Psalm 104:14, etc.).

With increased gratitude and trustfulness toward God, and clinging more tenderly to each other, they now returned to the oaken groves and rich pastures of Bethel. The valley at that period, and before the dreadful fate that soon overwhelmed Sodom and its kindred cities, opened into the magnificent sweep of low lands extending from the Sea of Galilee downwards, and embracing the whole territory of the Dead Sea.

Here Lot departed from his adopted father and chief: we know from the tragic story of Sodom’s guilt and punishment, how dearly the selfish nephew paid for his imprudence and love of false independence. New blessings came to Abram with each succeeding year, new power, fresh honor in the eyes of the Chanaanites, and even the halo of success in war. Melchisedech, the priest-king of Jerusalem, blessed him in the name of the Most High. The covenant between himself and his Master, and its accompanying promise of a countless posterity, were reiterated with increased solemnity. Still no child gladdened his hearth stone; and Sarai’s brow, as age and its infirmities came on apace, was not encircled with the crown of maternity. In her unselfish love for her husband, and her anxious desire to see the divine promises fulfilled even in children that were not her own, she persuaded him to follow the custom, too common in their native land, and universal among the heathen of Palestine and Egypt, and take from her own hand a concubine in the person of her Egyptian servant Agar.

Whatever may be the excuses alleged in favor of this mitigated form of polygamy at this early stage of the history of mankind, there is no need to offer any here.

In every instance where the Scriptures set before us God s privileged servants electing to do what is a moral imperfection, or even choosing what is least perfect, instead of what is most, we are made to witness in the event disappointment, bitterness of soul, and, not unfrequently, calamities. We have just seen how Abram’s subterfuge in Egypt was followed by perils from the thought of which a chaste soul recoils with dread. Further on (Genesis 20), the very same pusillanimous course brings on precisely similar dangers that are averted by another act of divine interposition.

Making every allowance for the age, the country, and other extenuating circumstances, we are bound to judge Sarai’s offer and Abram’s acceptance in the light of Christ’s teaching, and in that of the eternal fitness of things consecrated by the primitive institution of matrimony. God, the Author alike of the natural and the supernatural order, would have perfect and eternal unity in the love from which the family springs. Two mothers, in the home that Nature approves and God would bless, must never divide the affections of the father’s heart, nor divide either the filial veneration of his children, or the obedience of his servants. One undivided love, ever deepening and widening with successive years, growing purer and holier with time, such is the love intended by the Creator, and commanded by the law of the gospel.

No sooner is Agar a mother than she despises her childless mistress. No sooner does Isaac, the child of the promise, appear in the great patriarch’s home by the side of Ishmael than there is strife between the mothers, cruel affliction in the father’s soul; and peace can come only at the price of unnatural separation.

But we are anticipating. The end of the trial put upon Sarai’s lively faith and yearning trust in her God was about to be rewarded, but not till time had, in its seemingly interminable course, brought her to her ninetieth year, and Abram had begun his hundredth. Well may such heroic reliance on the word of Him who is very truth remain for all future ages as a solitary and shining lesson. Then a new covenant is made: Abram (the Exalted Father) is changed to Abraham (Father of a Multitude); and Sarai (the Contentious) becomes Sara or Sarah (Princess or Lady). Three angels are also deputed to Sara to reward her long-waiting by a direct and solemn promise that her hope is soon to be fulfilled.

From the home honored by such a presence, and in reward of such virtues, the angelic visitors speed to pour the divine vengeance on the wicked cities of the valley. When they return the next year, Isaac is laid, like a treasure beyond all price, and a delight beyond the reach of thought, on that motherly heart. Hope, like the century-plant, had survived the winters of ninety years, and blossomed, and borne its solitary fruit, filling the whole valley with fragrance and joy.

How tenderly, how carefully, this child was reared amid scenes hallowed by God’s visible and habitual intercourse with his parents, need not be told. Sara watched him, with all the pent-up love of a long lifetime, growing up to early manhood, when a supreme test was demanded of that father’s oft-tried faith and generosity. He was asked to sacrifice with his own hand the son on whose head rested the destinies of his race; and this sacrifice he was required to make absolutely and unquestioningly, leaving it to God to send him, in his own good time, another child to fill the place of Isaac.

Was this dread requisition communicated to Sara when the aged patriarch and his boy left their home to go to that same mountain-top near which another Father, in after-years, was also to immolate his only-begotten Son? We are not told by Scripture. If Sara’s heart was searched to its inmost depths of generosity by the intimation of the divine Will, then, indeed, no mother that ever lived on earth was tried like her, save that Mother of the Only-Begotten, to whom no pang was spared. But we believe that God, who associated the Mother of Sorrows in suffering with the second Isaac, because she represented Eve, was pleased to spare Sara the unutterable agony of that consent and that parting. Abraham’s sublime generosity was the lively image of the charity of that Father, who, for our sakes, gave up his only Son to death.

Was it on that mountain-top, when Isaac was unbound from the altar, and restored to the paternal embrace, that the veil of ages was torn asunder, and Abraham was permitted to gaze on the divine reality typified by the sacrifice thus left unaccomplished? We know that Christ said of him, “Abraham . . rejoiced that he might see my day: he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56). Did Sara share in the ineffable consolations of that vision of the Redeemer’s triumph in suffering, humiliation, and death? We may rest assured, at least, that Abraham delayed not to make known to her on what glories he had been given to look from afar. And oh, what reward was there in that one hour of blissful contemplation of the mystery hidden from the beginning of the world, for all the wanderings of half a century, for all the untold bitterness of exile and isolation in strange lands, and amid peoples hostile to the faith and hopes nearest to the wanderers’ hearts!

Restored to his fond parents as from the gates of death, Isaac grew up to ripe manhood before the treasure of that mother’s love was taken from him. That she labored through these years of unalloyed happiness to store the mind and heart of her worshiped boy with the faith in Jehovah that had been the guiding-star of her own existence, and with all the wisdom and manly virtues needful to the appointed ancestor of God’s people, there is every reason to believe. How her own soul must have glowed with love for the Divine Majesty as the end drew nigh, and the sweet communion with himself and his angels, so often vouchsafed to cheer her exile, and raise her drooping hopes, became more intimate, and more uninterrupted, as the dawn of eternal day grew brighter in the east!

Abraham had long come to be looked upon as “a mighty prince” among the great ones of the land; and his princess was as much revered for her goodness as she had been admired for her incomparable graces of person. She died with the hands of Abraham and Isaac clasped in her own, looking serenely up to Him who had promised to be their “exceeding great reward;” for God alone, in the full communication of his life, glory, and happiness, can be the fitting reward of “the children of God” The princes of Palestine hastened to offer to the bereaved patriarch a choice among their most splendid sepulchers, in which to deposit all that was mortal of a woman tried and blessed as never woman had been. But Abraham would have for the resting-place of that heart so singularly all his own a tomb which no heathen rites might defile. He purchased the Cave of Machpelah, and laid her there. No spot of earth, save one, the sepulcher of her descendant, the Holy One of Israel, is looked upon with such veneration, and guarded with such jealous care.

MLA Citation

  • Monsignor Bernard O’Reilly, D.D., L.D.. “Sara the Princess”. Illustrious Women of Bible and Catholic Church History, 1877. CatholicSaints.Info. 23 March 2018. Web. 14 November 2018. <>