So, I’m obviously getting off to a great start with this blog. With any luck, my third post will come before July, although I’ll have to pick up the pace significantly. Anyway…
I was thinking about Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Specifically, the stories of how Abraham told people she was his sister so they wouldn’t kill him and marry her. The commentaries on these stories (it happened twice in the book of Genesis) that I’ve come across all focus, and rightfully so, on the same thing: Abraham’s lack of trust in God to protect him, despite all the promises of a great nation through Abraham’s descendants. Abraham selfishly leaves his wife up for grabs, so to speak, because she is so beautiful (Gen. 12:11, 14) that he fears for his life.
It’s her beauty that stuck out to me on my latest perusal of the text. Clearly, Sarah was a very beautiful and desirable woman. But it only just now occurred to me just how old she was when these events took place. In Genesis 12, Abraham is said to be seventy-five (verse 4), and I’m not sure how much time passed between then and the famine that sends them to Egypt. So Sarah, being nine years younger (Gen. 17:17), was at least sixty-six years old when Abraham lied the first time. The second time, with Abimelech in chapter 20, she was probably in her nineties. Abimelech was already married (20:17), and I’d be very surprised to find out that Pharaoh was unmarried at the time. These were kings, so sexual partners were not hard to come by. But Sarah was so attractive that they both wanted her.
Sarah lived to be 127 (23:1), so it’s possible that she looked in her sixties like women in their thirties and forties today. To be sure, women that age can still be stunning. But she was certainly much older when she met Abimelech. My first thought, before looking more fully at all the relevant facts, was that Sarah must be very well-preserved for her age. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that such an assumption is the product of the age I live in. American culture has been obsessed with youth for generations before I was born. Our entire conception of physical beauty revolves around the appearance of youth. Old age, as the common view holds, only brings flaws. One way of looking at the issue would be to say that we are so frightened of death that we do anything we can to maintain the appearance that it is not imminent. In any case, the current viewpoint is rarely even questioned, rarely even thought about. We take it for granted that beauty means smooth skin and sexual vigor. What I’d like for us to consider is that, maybe, in times other than our own, people once had a deeper view of beauty than ours.
I simply can’t say what Sarah looked like, or precisely why foreign men found her so attractive. But the Bible certainly does not share our view of the preeminence of youth. It recognizes the benefits of old age, and some of its main characters accomplished tremendous things at ages that stagger our imagination. At no point does the Bible consider it wise to dismiss the aged as “outdated,” “past their prime,” or “out of touch.” Yet that is the default today. But I digress. The real idea here is that appearance may have been judged differently in biblical times. Beauty may have been found in maturity, experience, and the kind of inner peace that can only come with having seen the worst of human nature and the incomparable faithfulness of God. This is pure, uninformed speculation, but I think it’s a nice thought, something to ponder.
This also reminds me of a similar thought I had recently, about the music industry. Like other media, popular music is entirely dominated by youth, and it has been for the last sixty years at least. We are, in the mainstream culture, more concerned that our pop stars be beautiful than in any musical innovation or content. This became clear for me when thinking about the halftime shows at the Super Bowl in the last six or seven years (the most recent excepted). The running joke about them is that the bands and singers are “old,” and “past their prime.” In other words, they have nothing to say to our generation and shouldn’t take up space on our stages. I just find this immensely sad. I love classic rock, certainly, but that’ s beside the point. Why do we give them such a brief amount of time to be relevant? Yes, they are older now, and perhaps not as dexterous. But they know more now about both music and people than they ever have before. They have gained a certain amount of maturity and wisdom; they should no longer be as concerned with “making it big.” All things considered, they really ought to be making the best music of their lives right now. Bob Dylan, arguably, is. So why have we stopped listening?
All that to say what has probably been said many times, although not enough to change perceptions in the mainstream: we need to reorganize our priorities when it comes to physical beauty. Youth is fleeting. That’s how it was designed. It’s just possible that it can give way to something better.