An Ideal Marriage: Abraham and Sarah in Old English Literature

Adriaen_van_der_Werff_Sarah_presenting_Hagar_to_AbrahamAn Ideal Marriage: Abraham and Sarah in Old English Literature

Daniel Anlezark

Medium Ævum: Vol. 69 Issue 2 (2000)

The complex relationship between Abraham and Sarah, and the individuality of their characters, make them one of the most interesting couples of the Old Testament. Sarah is always Abraham’s devoted wife, and at times the humble recipient of God’s favours, but she also doubts the words of the divine promise that she will bear a son, and laughs at God’s messenger (Genesis xviii.9-15). Despite being one of the great women of the Old Testament, Sarah has been largely neglected in the discussion of Old English literature. The reason for this neglect may be that Sarah tends to be dwarfed by the theological stature of her husband Abraham, both in the Bible and in subsequent tradition.(1) The selective treatments of later medieval authors such as the poet of Cleanness focus on her scorn at the promise of a son, while the author of the Northampton Play of Abraham and Isaac adds to this doubt the characteristics of a doting mother.(2) Such treatment stands in contrast to the way in which these authors and others develop the character of Abraham. The patriarch’s obedient endurance of a wandering life of exile as a part of a covenant made between himself and God (Genesis xii, 1-3) led to the belief that he was a perfect model for all Christians, Abraham’s children by faith.

The tradition of revering Abraham in particular as a saintly model of virtue, already established by Jewish writers before the Christian period and developed in detail by the church Fathers, is witnessed by a number of Anglo-Saxon texts.(3) In his commentary on Genesis, Bede suggests that Abraham’s response to the working of the Holy Spirit makes him a perfect model for all his children of the promise, among whom Bede numbers his readers: `Nam et hoc quod ille iussus exiit de terra et cognatione et domo patris sui, uniuersis promissionis ipsius filiis, in quibus et nos sumus, constat imitandum.'(4) Abraham is lauded as a saint by AElfric in his Sermo de memoria sanctorum,(5) and the theme of the strength of Abraham’s virtue in the face of suffering finds expression in Vercelli homily 7. No Latin source has been found for this fragmentary text, but the theme is clearly one which emphasizes the spiritual value of suffering, an asceticism which the life of Abraham exemplifies.(6) Sarah’s endurance of the same life of wandering, and the threats it posed for her, however, do not seem to have sparked the interest of either early commentators or their Anglo-Saxon heirs in the same way.

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