What I Learned from the “Perfect” Wife: Sarah, Abraham and 1 Peter 3:1-6

I’ve mentioned this here before, but my marriage went through a radical transformation a number of years ago. For a long time my husband and I tried to work out our relationship according to traditional “biblical marriage” teachings, with him “leading” and me “submitting.”

We were committed to this path since we thought it was the only “biblical” way, even though we ended up far more frustrated than happy. Then about ten years ago we went through a crisis that brought all of our unhealthy relational patterns to the surface. At that point we either had to figure out how to change or face the possibility of losing everything we had worked toward for so long.

After a couple of years of struggle we did end up successfully changing not only our marital dynamics but also our fundamental conception of what a Christian marriage ought to look like. A big part of this process entailed my realizing how I had listened to the wrong voices and embraced the wrong ideas. I found it difficult to change, but in the end it was more than worth it. My life, my marriage, and my heart have been transformed in a beautiful way.

Just not in the way you might assume.

You see, I was not at all the stereotypical contentious, complaining, nagging wife. My husband and I didn’t fight over how we should spend our money or raise the kids, what church we should attend or where we would live. In fact, I can’t recall a time when we disagreed about any major decision.

No, the way I harmed my husband, my marriage and myself was through my unwavering commitment to following an understanding of wifely compliance that I had learned from all angles, one after another confirming the rightness of a wife’s absolute and all-encompassing deference to her husband. Doesn’t the Bible say a wife should submit to her husband in everything? Didn’t Peter say that Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord? And won’t a wife be blessed if she follows Sarah’s example?

My mistake may not be typical, but I don’t think it’s uncommon. Lots of wives are trying to do what’s right and have a good marriage. The question is whether the principles they’ve been taught are truly biblical or whether they are extra-biblical ideas brought to the text by wooden readings and cultural assumptions.

One thing that might have helped us back then would have been to think a little deeper about Peter’s example of Sarah as the ideal wife. Here’s how Peter worked her into his marriage teaching:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. (1 Peter 3:1-6)

Instead of pausing to ponder how Sarah elucidated everything else Peter said I assumed I knew what he meant and ran with it. And everywhere I looked that’s exactly what people were doing, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Here are a few examples of things I was taught over the years, beginning when I was a teenager and continuing for decades. All of them were supported by appealing to 1 Peter 3.

“Your husband will come around if you submit with a good attitude. If he doesn’t change you didn’t do it right.”

“You can express your opinion once, but that’s it. That’s what it means to submit without words.”

“You will be safe as long as you stay under your husband’s authority. See, God kept Sarah safe even when Abraham lied.”

“God will work his perfect will through your husband; God will speak to him and through him. That’s how God does things and why you’re supposed to obey.”

“Focus on your own faults, not your husband’s. That’s God’s job. God will deal with your husband’s faults if you deal with yours.”

“If you influence your husband too much you will probably put him in danger. Quietly trust him even when you disagree because he’s no doubt right.”

“Of course you shouldn’t submit if your husband tells you to sin, like rob a bank or participate in an orgy. But other than blatant sin like that you need to joyfully do what he says.”

So many teachings yet none that arise directly from the passage. All go a step or two beyond what is written, inserting the interpreter’s thoughts and experiences into the text.

Apparently taking Pete for a ride, making him say more than he said, was the thing to do.

How do we keep from over-interpreting what the man who (briefly) walked on water said to wives? The key is to look at the real-life Sarah. When we do, we notice a few things.

First, both Sarah and Abraham took initiative in their marriage. Some of their decisions were flawed, for sure, but their relationship looks more like one of give-and-take and mutual decision making than hierarchy.

The first time it was Abraham, fearing for his life in a godless world, who made a request. He asked his drop-dead gorgeous wife to hide the fact that they were married. Remarkably appealing at 65, Jewish tradition claims that Sarah was so stunning that other people looked like monkeys compared to her.[1] Ambrose Bishop of Milan went so far as to use Abraham and Sarah’s story to warn men not to seek a beautiful wife since “this often leads to the death of the husband.”[2]

No comment.

Faced with two less than optimal options, Sarah made a rational decision to go along with Abraham’s request, choosing to show her love for Abraham by risking her security to protect his.[3]

This might seem like a strange choice to us today. For one thing, we believe lying is wrong. For another, Abraham’s appeal seems self-serving. And maybe it was: Oh sure, you’ll be fine. But what about me? We can’t imagine a world where a husband would be killed because another man wanted his wife. So, perhaps rightly, we question their decision.

Yet that is pretty much what happened to Uriah at the hands of the great King David. I mean a man was killed because another one wanted his wife.

So maybe there was a real threat to Abraham’s life and maybe Sarah would have been worse off if Abraham had died and maybe we should not be so quick to assume we know what we would have done in the same situation.[4] Sometimes godly people face difficult circumstances and come up with different answers. Some situations may offer a good solution but others only bad and worse.

Yet Abraham and Sarah’s ruse seems to fall in the bad and worse category. It resulted in lots of suffering for lots of innocent people. Pharaoh, Abimelek and their households suffered greatly. And, contrary to what I had been taught about the protective function of a wife’s submission, Sarah most likely suffered too.

Though God kept Sarah from a fate worse than death years later when Abimelek acquired her, it’s probable that Pharaoh took Sarah to be his wife in every sense of the word. In spite of the Jewish tradition that claims Sarah retained her virtue because God sent an angel to whip Pharaoh at Sarah’s command,[5] the way this interlude is worded leads many scholars to conclude that Pharaoh did in fact have sex with Sarah. Yes, God afflicted the Egyptian monarch, but apparently not before he consummated the union with his Hebrew bride.[6]

So much for wifely obedience as a personal deflector shield. I guess this is not Star Wars and I’m not cruising through life on the Millennium Falcon.

The difference between what happened with Pharaoh and what went down with Abimelek seems to be a matter of timing. Abimelek took Sarah during the year of promise, the year that would bring about the birth of Isaac. Clarity about the identity of the father was essential; it needed to be obvious that the child of promise was Abraham’s son. Perhaps this is why God protected Sarah from Abimelek but not from Pharaoh.[7]

Let’s move on.

The next time one of these two made a suggestion it was Sarah. Plagued by barrenness, this ancient Miss Canaan made a culturally acceptable proposal, offering her slave girl to her husband as a surrogate.

Having a baby through Hagar sounds clearly wrong to us but, at least culturally, it wouldn’t have to Abraham and Sarah. In their world it was a wife’s duty to provide her husband with an heir; that was her main job for her main man. Some marriage contracts of the time explicitly stipulated that a childless wife was to give her slave woman to her husband as a surrogate. Although Sarah and Abraham probably did not have such a contractual agreement, this type of surrogacy was an accepted practice that no doubt influenced their decision.[8]

The interesting point related to Peter’s assessment of Sarah as an obedient wife, however, is that in this case Sarah took the lead. If Sarah is our model, being the “perfect” wife does not preclude taking initiative by suggesting a course of action.

Of course we know that Sarah’s proposal didn’t turn out to be such a hot idea. But neither did Abraham’s big, fat, gray lie. The problem wasn’t that a woman suggested a course of action; the problem was that it wasn’t God’s solution.

And once again, people suffered.

This time Hagar was the primary victim, though it was Hagar’s mocking of Sarah that led to Sarah’s harsh response. So in a way Sarah suffered too. The verbal abuse Sarah endured led to the physical abuse of her maidservant. Not a good scenario. And not one that we should excuse; no matter how we are treated, abusing another is just plain wrong.

That’s not all that happened, however. Abraham and Sarah’s marriage suffered too. Sarah confronted Abraham for his passivity in the face of Hagar’s reviling. As father of the child in her womb, Abraham was in a position to straighten Hagar out.

But he didn’t.

This made Sarah angry. And mean.

What we learn from this is that just because a wife makes a wrong move she isn’t forever disqualified from confronting her husband. I can’t tell you how surprising this was to me. I had been taught that, with rare exceptions, a wife should never challenge her husband. Other men should do that. And worse than admonishing your hubby when you are godly and righteous is the possibility that you would do so when you are less than perfect. A woman ought to focus on her own sin, I was taught, though a husband is free to correct his wife as he sees fit.

This is not at all what we see with Abraham and Sarah. Honest give-and-take, including uncomfortable and difficult conversations, seem to be the order of the day for this pair.

How very modern of them.

There’s one final example of marital initiative in this story. It happens to be Sarah again, but this time it’s not so much a suggestion. It’s more like a demand.

God had made it clear that the chosen nation would come through Isaac. Abraham was aware of this but unfortunately his love for Ishmael blinded him to the realities of the situation.[9] Sarah, recognizing that it simply would not work to hold their blended family together, told Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Understandably, this was very upsetting to Abraham. He loved both his sons as any good father should. In this case Sarah was right, however. So God intervened, telling Abraham to do what Sarah said, and Abraham packed the teenage boy and his mother off to the desert.

In contrast to commentators of his day and beyond, Peter did not feel the need to reinterpret this episode. Embarrassed that Sarah, not Abraham, knew God’s will, and that Abraham obeyed Sarah, numerous Jewish and Christian writers amend the record. In their view Sarah was “hardly the paradigm of the servile housewife,”[10] so a little creativity was in order.

For example, in the Testament of Abraham “Sarah repeatedly addresses Abraham as ‘lord’ and obeys him. Abraham tells her to go into her house and do her own work, and she obeys. She is portrayed as a true helpmeet for Abraham. She remains in her own house or in her own bedroom and only goes out to help Abraham, care for him, or do her work.”[11]

Philo couldn’t deal with Sarah as a real person at all when it came to her advising Abraham. Since it was unthinkable that a woman would instruct a man, especially the one who was the father of their faith, Philo claimed that “Sarah” represented “paramount virtue.” As far as Philo was concerned, it wasn’t really Sarah who informed Abraham of God’s will regarding Ishmael; it was virtue.[12]

Which also, if you hadn’t heard, explains why Abraham didn’t mind sharing Sarah with other men. A good man doesn’t keep virtue to himself, you know. He shares it. So it wasn’t self-serving or wrong for Abraham to give Sarah to Pharaoh and Abimelek after all, since in reality it was virtue that he was sharing.[13]

With that sort of wildly creative interpretation anything goes. Why did these ancient interpreters of Scripture use revisionist methods? Because they were faced with an inconvenient truth: God told Abraham to listen to Sarah.

This take on Sarah and Abe is not what we read in Scripture and not what Peter said either. Peter missed his big chance to follow tradition and play fast and loose with Genesis, leaving the door open for us to learn from the text without a lot of added noise.

And what we learn is that sometimes it’s right for a husband to do what his wife says.

Sometimes the wife will grasp God’s will before the husband and sometimes God will speak to the husband through the wife. Sure, God might miraculously intervene and tell the man to go along with her suggestion, but most likely he won’t. The principle is already there so it’s our job to apply it.

Sarah’s example also demonstrates that there will be times when a wife will follow her husband’s lead. She will need to make a judgment call and then stick by it.

If we pay attention, we learn that we can’t apply formulas or rigid absolutes to the marriage relationship. Yes, we can read 1 Peter 3 woodenly if we insist, claiming that “nothing less than obedience is required.”[14] However, that would be to remove the passage from its biblical and historical context, sliding right past the beauty of what Peter was truly getting at.

If Peter was trying to prove that “a wife is to follow her husband’s direction and leadership,”[15] he should have used a different example. Yes, Sarah responded to Abraham’s initiative at times. But Abraham also responded to Sarah’s direction at times.

This ancient marriage speaks of partnership not subservience, mutuality not unilateral deference. Sarah’s “obedience” did not preclude her speaking her mind, confronting her husband, holding him accountable, making suggestions, or knowing God’s will and promoting it. Neither did it exclude Abraham’s listening to his wife, responding to her, or following her lead.

Sometimes Sarah and Abraham made good decisions and sometimes they didn’t, but through it all they worked things out together, hashing out a real partnership in real time.

These surprising principles of true partnership and real give-and-take are what transformed me. Instead of clamming up and “submitting” as soon as I sensed the slightest pushback from my husband, I learned to press through. If my silence would harm our marriage, my man, or me, I spoke up. I stopped trying to overlook faults that mattered, the ones that were damaging us. And although we hadn’t ever fought much we began to approach our differences differently, dropping our pride in the pursuit of greater cooperation and deeper love.

Unexpectedly, my transformation freed my husband to be more open about his desires and more straightforward when I was being snarky or selfish or inattentive. If we were going to address long accepted bad habits, both of us needed to weigh in. And when we did, we learned that it was way easier to work together as a team of two adults than to try to follow rigid roles that only led to resentment and immaturity.

It was also a whole lot more fun.

[1] R. G. Branch, “Sarah,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch, ed. Desmond Alexander and David W. Baker (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2003), 735.

[2] In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50, ed. Mark Sheridan (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 8.

[3] The point here is that Sarah was not forced to do what Abraham asked, but that she agreed to go along with it. See Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1987), 288, and Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17, 382 and The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50, 69 (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990).

[4] In the footnote on Gen. 12:10-20 the 2013 CEB Study Bible says that Abraham’s decision was the survival strategy of an immigrant in a foreign land “where he had no status or power.” On the other hand it is unnecessary to excuse Abraham and Sarah’s behavior even as we attempt to understand the pressures they faced. John H. Walton notes that “many of the proposed theories [explaining why Abraham and Sarah lied] have the underlying motivation to save Abram’s reputation,” but adds that “for our part, we accomplish nothing by devising solutions designed to either vindicate or vitiate Abram.” In Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), vol. 1, 75.

[5] Walton, 75.

[6] For example Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word, 1987), 289; and Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1-17 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 382.

[7] The footnote on Gen. 20:3-6 in the ESV Study Bible, 85, states that “God intervenes to ensure that Abimelech does not touch Sarah. In contrast to 12:10-20, this episode emphasizes in a variety of ways the important point that Sarah has not had intercourse with the king; otherwise, Abimelech could be the father of the son born to Sarah in 21:1-3).”

[8] Branch, 734, notes that “Nuzi documents stipulate that if a wife is childless, it is her duty to provide her husband with a female slave as a concubine.”

[9] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis: Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

[10] M. Eugene Boring, 1 Peter (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 125-26.

[11] Troy W. Martin, “The TestAbr and the Background of 1Pet 3,6” in Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, 90 no1-2 (1999), 142.

[12] J. Ramsey Michaels, 1 Peter (Waco: Word, 1988), 165.

[13] Didymus the Blind argued that Abraham said Sarah was his sister “because the zealous and perfect man does not say that virtue has become his exclusive privilege” and “the wise man wants to share with all that which is his, because in this way they will not become jealous.” In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50, 7-8.

[14] Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 156.

[15] ESV Study Bible (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 2409.

4 thoughts on “What I Learned from the “Perfect” Wife: Sarah, Abraham and 1 Peter 3:1-6

  1. I really appreciate your writing. I have wanted to write more about the Biblical text and how we must strip the patriarchal narrative from our interpretations of the text, but it feels overwhelming and scary. I love seeing your example. It gives me hope.


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