Is Sarah Old or Young When Kidnapped by Abimelech?
Sarah Old and Withered at 90
In reaction to God’s announcement about Sarah giving birth to a son, Abraham thinks to himself (Gen. 17:17),
הַלְּבֶ֤ן מֵאָֽה שָׁנָה֙ יִוָּלֵ֔ד וְאִ֨ם שָׂרָ֔ה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה תֵּלֵֽד:
Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?
In the following story, God and two angels come to tell Sarah and Abraham that she is about to become pregnant. The Torah describes Sarah and her reaction (vv. 11-12):
וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן.
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered (בלותי), am I to have enjoyment (עדנה)—and with my husband so old?”
Sarah is described by the narrator as old and postmenopausal, and by Sarah herself as withered.
She further claims that she can’t imagine having “עדנה.” This word’s meaning here is unclear. NJPS renders it as “enjoyment,” perhaps sexual enjoyment or the delight of youth, or maybe just the joy of having a child. Alternatively, it could be related to the other meaning of the root ע-ד-נ, “time,” and be understood as a euphemism for menstruation. Whatever its exact meaning, context suggests that it expresses that עדנה is something young people can have, but not people her age. This description conjures up in the reader’s mind the image of an elderly woman.
The passage describes Abraham and Sarah as an elderly couple. Isaac’s birth is so miraculous and absurd, in Sarah’s mind, as to bring people to laughter (Gen. 21:6).
The Problem: Young Sarah
And yet, in chapter 20, this very same post-menopausal withered Sarah is kidnapped by Abimelech, king of Gerar for the purposes of marriage. Reading this story as a parallel with the Pharaoh kidnapping story of chapter 12 (as Claus Westermann does), the reason for the taking of Sarah would be because she was beautiful! As difficult as it is to understand Sarah as young and beautiful in the first kidnapping story (Pharaoh in Egypt), where she would be 65, it is impossible to understand her as young and beautiful in the second kidnapping story (Abimelech in Gerar), where she would be 90 years old and has already described herself as withered and elderly!
Nahum Sarna, in his JPS commentary (ad loc.) suggests that Abimelech may have had a different motivation in taking Sarah.
In light of the subsequent relations between Abraham and Abimelech (21:22–32), it is quite possible that the king’s goal was an alliance with the patriarch for purposes of prestige and economic advantage.
This interpretation is counter-intuitive, running against the implicit theme of “kidnapping the woman” stories. It only makes any sense based on a later story; reading this story in its own context, there is no reason to imagine that the powerful king Abimelech needs to go out of his way to make an alliance with the petrified sojourner, Abraham. Finally, whatever the reason he took Sarah, it is clear that he is interested in lying with her, since God explicitly stops him from doing so (20:6).
Thus, whatever her age, she must have appeared as relatively young and attractive to Abimelech, something that does not jibe well with the description of a withered, 90-year-old woman. How are we to understand Sarah’s appearance here in the Torah? Is she young and beautiful or old and withered?
Rabbinic Answer: God Performs a Double Miracle
Noticing the problem that Sarah is withered and old in chapter 18 but young and beautiful in chapter 20, Rav Chisda (b. Baba Metzia 87a), suggests that God performed a miracle:
אמר רב חסדא: אחר שנתבלה הבשר ורבו הקמטין, נתעדן הבשר ונתפשטו הקמטין, וחזר היופי למקומו.
Rav Chisda said: “After the flesh became weak (נתבלה) and filled with wrinkles it became young again (נתעדן) and the wrinkles were erased, and her beauty returned to what it was.”
In order to understand the timeline, Rav Chisda returns to Sarah’s comment and offers a novel interpretation of it. According to Rav Chisda, the root ע-ד-נ is not about pleasure or delight, but about the smoothness or delicacy of her skin. Sarah, in this reading, is not referring to the absurdity of an elderly woman beginning to function sexually (including, presumably, a return of menstruation) like a young woman, but also to her body looking young again.
According to this interpretation, immediately upon the declaration by the visiting angels that Sarah would have a child, her skin became smooth and she miraculously returned to her youthful figure. This is why she laughed and this is what she expressed by saying, “how can it be that a wrinkly old woman now has smooth and delicate skin?”
The great medieval commentator, Ramban, adopted this approach as well (Gen. 20:2).
הנה זה פלא שהיתה שרה אחרי בלותה יפה עד מאד, יקחוה המלכים, כי בהלקחה אל פרעה אם היתה בת ששים וחמש אפשר שהיה עליה תארה, אבל אחרי בלותה וחדל ממנה האורח, פלא הוא, ואולי חזרה לנערותיה כאשר בישרה המלאך כדברי רבותינו.
It is shocking that Sarah could be so beautiful after being shriveled up, such that kings would take her away. For when she was taken to Pharaoh, even though she was 65 years old, it is possible that she still maintained her figure. However, after she became shriveled and menopausal – this is a wonder! Perhaps she returned to her youthful looks as the angel announced to her, following the interpretation of the Rabbis (i.e. Rav Chisda).
Following this suggestion, during this small window of time, when Sarah looks young again but is not yet pregnant (or at least not showing), she is taken by Abimelech.
This interpretation, however, does not fit what Sarah said upon the birth of Isaac (21:7):, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!” Sarah does not appear to be referring to her miraculously restored youth, but speaks to the wonder or even impossibility of an old woman like her functioning like a young woman.
To begin with, the academic approach notes that Chapter 20 is a doublet. In chapter 12, Abraham goes to Egypt and tells anyone who asks that Sarah is his sister. Pharaoh takes her and only returns her to Abraham after God’s intervention. In chapter 20, almost the same thing happens with Abimelech in Gerar, yet the story makes no reference or comment to why Abraham uses this failed cover a second time. Moreover, in contrast to Egypt when there was a famine forcing Abraham to travel, here, no reason is given for why Abraham is traveling, and needlessly putting his wife in danger.
Thus, source critics argue that the two stories come from different sources or documents. These sources were either drawing from some common legend/motif about the patriarchs, or one source copied the other and adjusted the story to meet its own needs. Since chapter 20 uses the name E-lohim and chapter 12 the name YHWH, the former is usually assigned to the E source and the latter to the J source.
Other textual clues marking Chapter 20 as part of the E source are:
- The use of E-lohim for God’s name.
- God speaking in a dream (dreams are a standard feature of E).
- God speaking to Abimelech, a “gentile” (E also contains the Balaam story).
- The use of the concept “fear of God”, which generally appears in E or D texts.
Accordingly, the academic perspective suggests that the reason Sarah’s age and appearance in chapter 20 doesn’t work with that of chapters 17 and 18 is that it comes from a different source. Once the division is made, the overall storylines for each source become clear, and the timeline problem of Sarah’s age is solved.
- P source (ch. 17) – Sarah and Abraham begin their journey at the ages of 65 and 75 respectively. By the time God promises Sarah a child, she is 90 years old and Abraham 100. Thus, the birth of Isaac in this source is miraculous. This source contains no story with Sarah as a young wife.
- J source (ch. 18) – Sarah begins as a young woman, and is even kidnapped by Pharaoh for her beauty (ch. 12). She remains childless throughout her younger years. By the time God promises her a child, she is already post-menopausal and too old to conceive. Thus, in J, like in P, the conception of Isaac is miraculous.
- E source (ch. 20) – This source does not intimate that Sarah was old. Abimelech takes Sarah because she is a young attractive woman. Thus, in E, the birth of Abraham’s son is not miraculous.
Solving the Problem of Abraham’s Lack of Faith
This division also solves another major problem in chapter 20. Following the timeline as presented in the Torah as we have it, Abraham lies about Sarah being his sister and not his wife, thus risking Sarah being taken as she was in Egypt, after God promises him twice that Sarah will have his child. And all this for a trip that seems to have no purpose (as noted above, there was no famine forcing Abraham to move.) Abraham’s lack of faith in God’s promise seems extraordinary.
Once we separate the sources, however, this problem goes away. God’s promise that Sarah would have a son appears in P and in J but not in E. Thus, Abraham’s act may be morally problematic in its own right, but it doesn’t reflect a lack of faith in God’s promise that Sarah would bear Abraham a son.
In short, whereas in P and J, Sarah is elderly when she gives birth to Isaac, there is no reason to believe this to be the case in E. It is only when the redactor combined these sources, that Sarah’s age becomes a narrative problem. This contradiction forced the later interpreters to add the (new) miracle of Sarah’s beauty to the (original) miracle of Isaac’s birth.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
November 4, 2014
January 13, 2021
Dr. Rabbi Zev Farber is a fellow at Project TABS and editor of TheTorah.com. He holds a Ph.D. from Emory University in Jewish Religious Cultures (Hebrew Bible focus) and an M.A. from Hebrew University in Jewish History (biblical period focus). In addition to academic training, Zev holds ordination (yoreh yoreh) and advanced ordination (yadin yadin) from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinical School. He is the author of Images of Joshua in the Bible and their Reception (De Gruyter 2016) and editor (with Jacob L. Wright) of Archaeology and History of Eighth Century Judah (SBL 2018).
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series