Section 1. Sarah in Social Context: Ancient Israel and the Ancient Near East

Sarah in Genesis

(a) Introduction: Marriage in Ancient Israel  and ANE

Endogamy: A Sure Foundation Stone

The endogamous marriage arrangement and the social order stemming from it was first instituted in Genesis 2 as a foundation stone for Israel upon which to build their society. This unique social order which the Scriptures show prevailed throughout ancient Israel. It ensured security and protection for the women of Israel. 

Though not written in plain words in one sentence, its social order can be traced in the formation of Israel through the individual marriages recorded, showing the vital role the women played in these, particularly in early Genesis, the Book of Judges, and its monarchy. These relationships show the intricacies of the endogamous marriage arrangement. 

Endogamy and Exogamy

Endogamy, which is the ‘insider’ type of marriage relationship and social order (Rebekah and Isaac), required no bartering about a bride-price exchanging hands, but rather, gifts. These were given by the bridegroom (and his family) to the bride (and the maternal uterine members of her family). Interestingly, the father is not involved, only those uterine siblings of their mother’s house. (Gen 24: 28).

Exogamy, on the other hand, is the ‘outsider,’ type of marriage to a male or female ‘foreigner.’ Israel was forbidden to enter into exogamous marriages, but did not obey (hence we will see the result of this fear in the slurring of the ‘foreign woman.’) The exogamous marriage arrangement meant women leaving their home, land, and kin (Deut 7:3.) Solomon and David both practiced this to excess for political reasons. 

This led to the sharing of land between two elite males and their ‘people’ so as to increase goods, trade, women and their offspring, and as a way of preventing war. It meant paying a bride price to the family to sell their daughter to secure the partnership, as with Dinah and Shechem (Gen 34). 

It meant rape, in some instances, in order to desecrate a young eligible woman, thus rendering her unmarriageable. This was often in an effort to make a land grab, such as Rachel may have been in danger of, when Jacob helped her at the well (Gen 29.) It meant daughters stolen from her uterine kin, her natural protectors, her mother’s house, taken away violently from amongst her people as did Sisera and his soldiers, and Israel, although there were laws against it. (Judges 5: 30; Jdg. 21: 23). 

Clan Endogamy, Particularly Lineage Endogamy in Israel.

Lineal exogamy was, therefore, discouraged and clan endogamy, particularly lineage endogamy was the preferred social order in Israel. 1

 Reading Abraham’s story in the beginning (Gen 12) it may appear as if his patrilineal linage stemming from Tarah is the only one mentioned, especially as it narrows down to Abraham and his two brothers Nahor, and their deceased brother, Haran. It gives the appearance as if Sarai appears at Abraham’s side from nowhere. Who is she? Who were her parents? Where does she come from? 

Scholars differ, but Josephus recognises: ‘Iscah’ (or, sometimes ‘Iskah’), Milcah’s sister, is another name for Sarai (Gen 11: 29.) 2 This then makes Milcah, Sarai, and Lot uterine kin, ‘out of one mother’s womb” and their mother, the unnamed wife of Haran, their deceased father’ 3 These three are referred to elsewhere in scripture in the indigenous language of such a society 4, as “bone of bones” (Gen 29: 14 etc). I accept this I use this throughout my work.

It is only the maternal kin, that is identified in the OT as ‘ bone of bones and flesh of flesh’: the closest kind, namely ‘out of one womb’ that is, uterine kin. These are of one blood, through the mother, not the father. This is why cross cousins, (Jacob and Leah and Rachel,) uncles and nieces (Abraham and Sarah. Nahor and Milcah,) aunts and nephews (Aaron and Jochebed (Num 26: 59,) 5 half-brothers and half-sisters (Tamar and Amnon (2 Kngs 13: 13) could marry in those times and Leviticus 18 is about these relationships specifically. The indigenous terminology to identify these types of relationships in Israel are recorded in the OT and will be identified in my work. (Endogamous kinship terms are also used worldwide, depending upon the nationality, up to today).

Israel’s Patriline and Matriline

Therefore Abram and Sarah were joined in kinship through their mothers matriline and their fathers’ patriline. This means Israel were related through their father Jacob as twelve tribes but related through the mother in their individual tribe: through their mother’s house and as ‘Mother kin’. 6

Hence, Sarai, her sister, Milcah, and their brother, Lot as the heir to the land, and the sisters holding the land rights and its distribution. They are connected to Terah (father’s house) and his paternal forebears through their deceased father, and his patriline. They also belong to their unnamed mothers’ matriline (mother’s house ) and her maternal forebears and her matriline. As we shall see this distinction made between the mother’s houses and the father’s is also the case with Jacob’s tribes with the children relating to one of his four wives, maternal cousins. (Again scholars don’t agree but some claim the handmaids were sisters also of Leah and Rachel and I agree.) 

Sarah and her sister Milcah are brought to the fore in the scriptures as the named fountain heads of Israel’s matriline. Thus the two uncles and their two nieces joining in matrimony, illustrate a perfect cameo of the endogamous union, in this instance, between two brothers, uncles, marrying two sisters, their paternal nieces, the siters having Lot, their uterine brother, as their protector.

Next week: 

Learn more about Sarai and her sister, Milcah, and the families of early Israel in the Genesis account. 

What were the women’s rights concerning land and inheritance in Israel? Read my thesis (posted soon).

Learn more about the Ancient Near East social and political context Sarah lived in and its influences. 

At the close of this study on Sarah, we will consider the NT allegories of Sarah and Hagar and what these mean to the church. To catch them all in a new light we will then move on to shine the spotlight onto Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah and the named women in their matrilines as well as other women’s matrilines, where related to Israel’s patriarchs.  


Spiritual interpretation – for our own understanding …

As we read Sarah’s story, we can relate to some of the challenges and decisions she faced, and recognise her steadfast faith, along with the joys and sorrows she would have experienced. Genesis 2: The woman was “built” out of the human man’s substance: of bones and flesh. The woman ‘built’ out of the human man’s substance, of his bones and flesh, also has a spiritual interpretation. It acts as a signpost pointing forward to a spiritual woman and a future glorious time of fulfillment of a new creation (2 Cor 5: 17). See also Gen 2:24; Mt 19: 5; Mk 10: 7; Eph 5: 31. In regards to ancient Israel, this applied, generally, where the wife and the husband belonged to the same tribe and had a two-pronged linage: patriline and matriline, as is being shown here.

Alarmingly, the woman’s image is smudged by patriarchal interpretation of the scriptures. The ‘natural’ interpretation, that of human marriage, mainly quoted at weddings is generally skewed. It is because the ‘spiritual’ interpretation, the secret mystery, that is, the image portrayed through her, that of Christ’s bride, is very often misunderstood or simply ignored. 

Jesus, however, did not ignore it. He returned to this foundation stone as His basis for refuting the Jews who asked Him about their two kinds of systems for divorce. (Mt 19: 3-6; Mark 10: 5-7.) The Apostle Paul also stood on the same rock of authenticity as a solid foundation stone for his teaching of the secret mystery it enfolds, now revealed to the church. “Therefore”, or, for this reason (the endogamous kind of marriage union), where “a man shall leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh” is a profound mystery: Paul said, “but I am illustrating the way Christ and the church are one”(Eph 5: 30-33).

In my opinion, the Genesis scripture quoted here (Gen 2:24) is the most significant prophetic signpost in the OT. The woman – built out of bones and flesh, taken out of the sleeping man’s side, directs the reader to what is to come: Christ and His bride, the church, made up of Jew and Gentile, male and female, all free, and one in Christ (Gal 3: 26.) The Apostle Paul eventually received the full revelation of the woman in Genesis and taught the church. It could not be interpreted in as plain a language as Paul gave us until Christ came in the flesh, died, and was resurrected. 


“The City Sarah left behind to journey to Canaan… 

“The Royal Tombs: Ur of the Chaldees”