Chayei Sarah – The Life (and Death) of Sarah

In the Jewish cycle, Genesis 23 begins the fifth Torah portion: Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah. Like all portions, it is named for its first phrase:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriatharba—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.
Genesis 23:1-2

Ironically, while the name of this portion celebrates life, its content is just the opposite: it begins with Sarah’s death and ends with Abraham’s. In the middle is Isaac’s marriage, a fitting reminder that the cycle of life continues even as the ones we love pass away.

The circumstances of Sarah’s final days is one of the smaller mysteries of the Bible, and one that Jewish and Christian sources tend to disagree on. We know how old Sarah was when she died, but why did she die alone? What caused her death? Was she the Bible’s first divorcee? Read on for more.

 

The bible has hundreds of passages where Jewish and Christian commentators disagree. Heck, it has hundreds of passages were Jews and Christians disagree with other Jews and Christians; it inspires debate. What everyone agrees on is that Sarah is special: not only is she the matriarch of the Jewish people, but she’s the only woman to have her age at death given. Reading the text, we (and I) might not like the way she behaved as a wife or the way that she laughed at God’s promise, but Sarah’s central role in the formation of the Jewish people is undeniable.

Commentators disagree on WHY she died and WHEN. He’s a table of events at the end of Sarah’s life:

[ Note: This table appears to have been eaten by WordPress. I will try to fix it later. ] 

We know how old Sarah was when Isaac was born and we know how old she was when she died, but the key event in the middle– Isaac’s near-sacrifice– has no associated date. When Isaac’s near-sacrifice happened in relation to Sarah’s death is a key difference in how Christians and Jews tend to read this section of the Bible.

The Burial of Sarah (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the Jewish tradition (from Rashi, but he was drawing on other sources), no date is given for Isaac’s near-sacrifice because none is needed: it happened immediatelybefore Sarah’s death. While Abraham and Isaac were still on the mountain, Sarah was visited by Satan or one of his minions who informed her of what God had asked of Abraham. Perhaps that devil even lied and said that Isaac was dead. Either way, Sarah collapses from her grief and dies immediately. Abraham discovers his dead wife on his return and buries her. While this version neatly solves the question of why Abraham wasn’t with his wife when she died, it also requires Isaac to have been 36 when he went up the mountain with his father– hardly the small boy.

In the tradition more familiar to me, Isaac went up the mountain with his father while he was a teen. Old enough to carry wood and to choose not to return home with his father afterwards, but still a juvenile. In this version, there is no connection between Sarah’s death and Isaac’s near death experience and presumably they both lived a happy life during the intervening years. Which to believe? Take your pick.

The detail that draws me into Sarah’s stort isn’t so much that she died, but why she died alone. Abraham clearly came to mourn for Sarah. If he and Isaac just returned from the mountain, that’s one thing. But if not, where was he? Tending his flocks? Traveling on business? Visiting Lot or Ishmael? Or were the pair separated?

I think that may be an extreme view, but it is could be supported by the text. In Genesis 21, Abraham and Sarah are living near Beersheba. In Genesis 22, Abraham traveled several days with his son and some servants to Mount Moriah, and he (but not Isaac) returned there at the conclusion of the trip:

So Abraham returned unto his young men, and they rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beersheba.

Genesis 22:19

But strangely, Sarah didn’t die in Beersheba, she died in Hebron:

And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. And Sarah died in Kiriatharba—the same is Hebron—in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah, and to weep for her.

Genesis 23:1-2

If modern maps can be trusted, these places are 70km apart– more than a day’s walk, and perhaps a lot more. The simplest explanation is that Abraham and Sarah moved to Hebron together later, in an unwritten episode of the Bible. If you like the Documentary Hypothesis, it could be that the book was edited (badly) later so as to provide significance to Hebron that wasn’t in the original text. It could also just be a hiccup in the text that doesn’t warrant this level of interrogation!

There is one final clue that you could read into this theory, in Genesis 24:67:

And Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. And Isaac was comforted for his mother.

After her death, Isaac (and not Abraham) inherited his mother’s tent. This is an important note, but I don’t think we know enough about Canaanite inheritance customs to say whether this is significant.

My conclusion? While I don’t like the Satan-visiting-Sarah aspect of the story (which stems from a much later Judaism– Satan just isn’t a character in the modern Jewish reading of Genesis), I see why Rashi and other commentators but Sarah’s death while Abraham and Isaac were on the mountain. Although the Bible doesn’t say it, Abraham may have told his wife to meet him in Hebron– it’s about halfway between Beersheba and Moriah. It’s sad, but she could have died of natural causes while he was on the mountain (she was 127!) and he found her dead on his way back. Isaac wasn’t present for her burial (though he was given her tent) and was still grieving four years later until Abraham found him a wife.

Lots of questions! That’s why I love this book.

Up next: What’s the going rate for a grave?

5 thoughts on “Chayei Sarah – The Life (and Death) of Sarah”

    1. Abraham died before sarah while she was pregnant with Jacob. Thats why Isaac(Jacob’s elder brother) called Jacob’s father because Isaac had played the role of the father of Jacob.

      1. I believe you may have your matriarchs and patriarchs mixed up. 🙂

        Abraham was married to Sarah and Isaac to Rebekkah. Jacob’s elder brother was Esau. Since there are stories with Isaac still alive with both Jacob and Esau (most famously, the one where Jacob steals the blessing), it cannot be that Esau looked up at Jacob as a father. And Abraham outlived Sarah because there is a famous story about how he buried her then went and remarried (Keturah).

        Abraham also probably lived long enough to see his grandchildren, Jacob and Esau, but the bible does not give us any stories about their meeting.

        All these patriarchs in Genesis are confusing! But I hope this helps.

  1. Satan played many tricks and games with Abraham and Isaac. They did not budge from their faith. When a weary old man could not turn them, nor a young boy, nor the brook that was never there, Satan appeared as this same weary old man to Sarah and told her that Abraham and sacrificed her only son. She wept and traveled looking for them. She was heart broken and distraught. As Abraham returned, he could not find Sarah and went looking for her….. Finally, Satan appeared before Sarah again and told her that he had deceived her and that her son was not dead. Sarah jump with joy and excitement that her son Isaac was still alive. All of the stress of losing her son, the lack of food, the dispare and the weakened State had killed her…. Makes more sense that Abraham had to go looking for her…

    The Bible makes reference to the Book of Jasper, on a few occasions, which is still probably watered down today. However, the book of Genesis leaves a lot out. Remember, it was put together by men! Don’t be deceived and seek the truth.

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