“Wait!” Sarah cried as she ran from her tent, shouldering a flask of wine and a satchel filled with flatbread and dates. Breathless, she hurried back to the shade tree where the travelers had rested. They were nowhere to be seen. Neither was her husband Abraham, who had had apparently gone down the road with them although she had specifically told him she was packing provisions for their journey.
“He’s become so absentminded in his old age,” Sarah grumbled aloud. When she left, Abraham was arguing with their guests, trying to persuade them to bypass the lascivious cities on the plains.
Now Sarah climbed a small knoll overlooking the meadow where her husband had pitched their tents. Scanning the horizon, she traced the thread of road that wove along a rocky ridge. At last she saw them: four distant figures enveloped in a cloud of dust. They had already gone too far for her to overtake them.
It’s just as well . Her first inclination was to turn away. She had already embarrassed herself by laughing at the strangers’ good-natured attempt to bless her for her hospitality, outlandishly promising that she would bear a child in her old age. Sarah had been deeply chagrined when they overheard her laughing.
Now her conscience chided her. The people on the plains won’t offer food to strangers. Whatever her personal discomfort about facing the travelers again, she felt obliged to find them and deliver her provisions.
There’s a goat trail at the top of the ridge. She had found that trail searching for lost sheep and knewit led down to the main road. Although it was a difficult path and her burden already cut heavily into her shoulders, it would not do to allow guests to face hunger when it was in her power to prevent it. Adjusting her satchel and flask, Sarah struggled up the ridge, hoping to overtake the travelers and her errant husband.
As she reached the crest of the hill she saw them again-still mere specks on the dusty road. Now she hurried along the precipitous trail as it descended, dodging jutting rocks as she scrambled toward the road.
The trail grew treacherously narrow and strewn with gravel. Sarah slipped on a patch of pebbles and fell headlong, tumbling down the steep slope. For a moment she lay dazed and bruised on the rocks, then a light wind lilted the echo of voices in her direction. She recognized the travelers and stood up gingerly. Her hands were flayed and bloody where she had scraped them in her fall, but she hadn’t broken any bones. At least the flask didn’t shatter. Now she checked her satchel and found the flatbread also unbroken.
Limping, she hobbled forward and met two of the travelers as they came around the bend in the road, well ahead of her husband and their third companion. Sarah bowed low in greeting as she gasped for breath.
“What must you think of us?” she asked as she held out her gifts. “We let you leave without food for your journey.”
The first traveler’s face began to glow with a golden, scintillating light. “Why Sarah, you offer us something far more precious than food and wine,” he said gently. “You have brought this to us at the cost of your own breath and blood.”
“We will return your kindness by granting you two favors,” the second traveler said while his face darkened like a gathering storm.
“Who are you?” Sarah gasped and took a step backwards.
“We are angels of death,” the first traveler explained. “In recognition of your kindness, you will allow you to come to this crossroads and offer a ram as a substitute should death befall any of your loved ones. You may do this twice, in compensation for both the blood and the breath you have expended on our behalf.”
As Sarah stared dumbfounded, they bowed then disappeared. Now she saw her husband standing alone at the bend in the road. As she hobbled toward him, he ran to help her.
“You’re hurt!” Abraham exclaimed as he wrapped his arm around her.
“I had to take the goat trail,” she chided. “I told you to wait while I prepared food.”
“I’m sorry. I got caught up in a debate.”
“You seldom listen to anything I say,” she smiled ruefully as she leaned against his shoulder.
“It’s not intentional. You know I would do anything in my power to make you happy,” he assured her as they returned to their camp.
Abraham seemed reluctant to discuss his argument with the angel and Sarah also hesitated to relate her encounter. The blessing of a child seemed improbable enough. Cheating death was beyond comprehension.
She easily dismissed the traveler’s promise. I’m long past child bearing age. Besides, I already have a son. Ishmael was her child by adoption. As was the custom, she had held her servant Hagar in her arms while the younger woman birthed the boy on Sarah’s knees. Now any child born to Sarah would only be cause for consternation. As the firstborn, Ishmael would be acknowledged as her husband’s rightful heir.
Late that night, Sarah felt a strange movement in her empty womb. It was a slight, almost imperceptible sensation, like the stirring of wind across the first grass in spring.
It’s nothing , she assured herself, only the chill of autumn and the melancholy of the moon settling over my old bones. But the feeling came again-a quickening like almonds blossoms unfurling on winter withered branches. On the wings of this strange sensation came a repetitive dream that she began to experience night after night without variation.
In this dream, she entered a great room guarded by enormous angels cloaked with six wings then crossed a polished marble floor that shone like sunlight dancing upon ripples of water. She was drawn to the center of the room and a scroll set on a dais. This scroll unrolled itself the moment she touched the parchment. Words leapt at her like black flames burning on a bed of white embers.
The letters were unknown to her yet she understood their meaning: “You shall dedicate your firstborn to me-every child that opens a womb.”
Apprehension seized her. Law and custom recognized Ishmael as her firstborn. Was she being asked to sacrifice him-or would she be forced to relinquish the new life awakening in her barren womb?
Sarah cried in anguish as she awoke in her familiar tent.
“What is it?” her husband asked as he tried to comfort her.
“Nothing, only a nightmare,” she murmured and inadvertently touched her swelling belly, not daring to ask Abraham what he thought the dream portended.
“Strange dreams often accompany childbirth,” Abraham comforted her. “Didn’t Hagar have dreams too?”
“Yes, and cravings for food … also morning sickness,” Sarah recalled. But she had experienced none of these symptoms.
Nine moons launched, swelled to full sail then passed into darkness as the child grew steadily within her. When he was born, Sarah suffered no pain and laughed as she cradled her beautiful son.
“His name shall be Isaac–laughter,” she told her husband. Effulgent with joy, she forgot her dream as she nursed her infant. When the boy was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him and sacrificed a ram as a Thanksgiving offering.
“Surely the Holy One of Blessing will extend my covenant to Isaac,” Abraham told Sarah. “Now that we have two sons, our offspring will be as plentiful as the sands that border the sea.”
“Isaac is your second son according to the laws of the land, although he is the first to open my womb,” Sarah reminded her husband. “In the eyes of God, does that make him the firstborn or second?”
Abraham deferred to her. “You are mother to both my sons. By law and custom, it is the mother’s decision.”
Sarah felt prompted to ask, “Did the angels who prophesized Isaac’s birth ever return?”
Abraham looked at her in bewilderment. “No, why would they?”
“No reason.” She turned away and held Isaac close to her breast.
Sarah’s recurrent dream ended with Isaac’s birth but it now came to Abraham. When he described it, she was alarmed.
“You sacrificed a ram at Isaac’s circumcision!” she exclaimed. “Isn’t that enough?”
“I don’t know,” Abraham said miserably. “The offering of a child is the greatest gift one can return to heaven.”
“How can heaven promise to bless you with offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky when you are childless?” Sarah asked in indignation.
“I am not childless.” Abraham reminded her. “I have two sons.”
Eleven more moons melted into one another, marking the passage of time. All the while Sarah watched Ishmael and Isaac playing at her feet. Beyond all hope, beyond all dreams, she had been given two children. Now I know why Heaven bestows blessings in dual portions, she anguished. One child would insure that they would bequeath an inheritance to future generations. The other must be returned as a testament of faith.
Sarah caressed both Isaac and Ishmael. It wasn’t fair that she should be forced to choose, although this was her prerogative. How can I decide which child to keep, and which to abandon? Her heart ached for both her beloved children as she closed her eyes and prayed for wisdom.
When she opened her eyes, she found Hagar kneeling beside Ishmael, offering him one of the honey cakes she had baked for the evening meal.
“You spoil that child,” Sarah scolded. Hagar ignored her rebuke as she always did whenever Ishmael was concerned. Her insolence was a constant source of vexation for Sarah, who felt obliged to remind Hagar that Ishmael had never been recognized as her son.
Shortly afterwards, as Isaac was learning to walk, he stumbled and fell into a tiny fire that Ishmael had built, mimicking the larger one where Hagar cooked the family’s meals.
“The boy should not be allowed to play with fire,” Sarah reproached Hagar after she rubbed salve on Isaac’s burns. The toddler wailed with pain, echoed by Ishmael who cried because his tiny fire had been put out.
That night the dream returned to Sarah with intense clarity. In the morning she searched her heart.
“This autumn we will not follow the custom of sacrificing two goats,” she told her husband.
He looked astonished. “But one goat is a peace offering to the Most High. The other we drive into the wilderness to appease the demons that trouble this earth.”
“We will still make an offering,” Sarah said. “But in place of the goat, Ishmael will be sent into the wilderness.” Abraham stared at her in horror. She met his eyes evenly. “We have both suffered the same dream. I believe this is what we are being asked to do.”
Abraham wept, acknowledging her interpretation.
When Hagar learned of their plans, she begged to accompany her biological child. “Do not let him die alone!” the servant pleaded. “If I could not be a mother to him in life, let me be his mother in death!”
Sarah could not deny her request. As she held Ishmael in her arms a final time, Abraham packed a satchel with bread and filled a flask with water. “The Holy One is merciful,” he told Hagar. She accepted the satchel and murmured her thanks in a voice devoid of hope.
” I won’t let you die,”Sarah whispered and kissed Ishmael then placed him in Hagar’s arms.
Early the next morning when dawn was only a blush of red kissing the slumbering earth, she hurried from her tent, leading two rams down the dusty road.
The angels of light and darkness met her at the crossroads.
“I have come to exchange these rams for two lives,” she told them. “I will not have my son and my servant die in the wilderness.”
The angels promised, “They shall not die. The child will grow to be a man and prosper.” They drove the rams into a thicket then disappeared.
Sarah returned home as an ascendant moon contended with the rising sun. It shone briefly like a half exposed breast until the deepening light veiled it completely. She found little Isaac awake in her tent, whimpering in the arms of a maid servant who was unable to comfort him.
His mother took the child and rocked him gently as she swallowed her tears.
As the years passed, the couple’s prophetic dream became a memory. While Isaac grew to manhood, his parents gleaned news about Ishmael from passing caravans. He had grown to adulthood and become a nomad who roamed the desert at will. Hagar was still alive and had sent to Egypt to seek a wife for Ishmael from her kinsmen.
“God is merciful,” Abraham told Sarah. “Our son lives and prospers.”
“Yes,” Sarah said, but disclosed nothing of her bargain with the angels.
“Our Isaac should follow Ishmael’s example and marry too,” Abraham reminded her.
“Yes, but not yet,” Sarah pleaded.
Abraham frowned. “How can our house endure if we have no grandchildren?”
“Isaac is still young,” Sarah argued. “Wait a little longer, that’s all I ask.”
Abraham’s frown deepened. “I am old and wish to see him married before I die.”
Sarah disclosed the secret she kept hidden in her heart. “I can’t bear to give him up.”
Her husband touched her shoulder. “A good wife will not diminish his love for you. And grandchildren will expand our joy.”
“Just let me have him to myself a little longer,” Sarah implored her husband.
Abraham sighed and held her hand. She smiled, knowing he could deny her nothing.
That night, for the first time in many years, the dream returned to Abraham. He was clearly anguished as he relayed it to his wife.
“I don’t understand,” he moaned. “Does this mean I must I offer my surviving son? Wasn’t losing Ishmael enough?”
“Yes, yes it was,” Sarah said quickly. “We made a terrible sacrifice. We can do no more.”
Abraham lowered his voice. “I’ve been told that angels guided Ishmael and Hagar to water. Perhaps our sacrifice was never accepted-“
“Yes it was!” Sarah divulged her secret at last. “I offered two rams in exchange for Hagar and Ishmael’s lives.”
Her husband still seemed troubled. “I did not fulfill my pledge.”
“Don’t speak foolishly, old man,” Sarah scolded.
All that day she busied herself with baking and spinning while Abraham stayed in his tent, brooding and praying.
Finally Sarah called to Isaac. “It’s nearly time to shear the sheep. Have the shepherds gather the flocks from the far pastures.”
By evening she was weary from the day’s exertions and cross with her husband for his reticence.
“Take a lamb to the mountains and sacrifice it-that will put your mind to rest,” she told him.
Abraham did not interrupt his prayers and gave no indication that he had even heard her. But the next morning he made preparations to make a pilgrimage to a nearby mountain, reputed to be a scared place where heaven touched the earth. He ordered two servants to load kindling onto a donkey and pack provisions for several days.
Sarah was furious when he proposed to take Isaac with him.
“He is needed here!” she argued. “Someone has to oversee the shepherds.”
“That is why I hired Eliezer,” Abraham reminded her. “I trust him to manage our flocks.”
His argument was sound, but an illogical terror seized Sarah and she begged her husband to reconsider. “I would die of grief should anything happen to our son!”
“Woman, be sensible,” Abraham retorted in a rare show of temper. “First you’re afraid to let him marry and now you won’t even let him accompany me to a mountain? He’s not a child anymore.” As his eyes met hers, she was startled to see him drained of vitality as if the pain of resignation had extinguished all desire for life.
He looked away. “This isn’t a question of what we want. The High Holy One demands it and I have never refused whatever was asked of me.”
“Who are you to presume to know what the High Holy One asks?” Sarah asked. “We’re only human-we do not see the future clearly.”
Abraham sighed. “You chose Isaac over Ishmael. But perhaps the choice was never ours to make.”
“It was my prerogative,” Sarah said fiercely. She would have said more, but the servants came to the tent to tell Abraham that the donkey was packed and all was in readiness. They only had to choose a lamb from the flock for the sacrifice.
Sarah interrupted. “I know the perfect lamb-one that hasn’t a single blemish.” She hurried to the pasture to fetch it, but when she returned, Abraham and the two servants had already departed. Isaac had gone with them.
Sarah sank to her knees, cradling the bleating lamb in her arms.
They took no animal for a sacrifice . She tried to fathom the ramifications as the lamb struggled to be free. She let it go and watched it scamper back to its mother.
“Is something wrong?” one of Sarah’s maid-servants asked as she hurried toward her. The younger woman seemed mortified to find her mistress weeping, seated in the dust.
Sarah forced herself to stand on trembling legs. “Have the herdsmen select the finest ram from the herd and bring it to me. Hurry now! My husband has forgotten the sacrificial animal and I must meet him at the crossroads. Run, girl, run!”
As the maid-servant raced to the pasture, Sarah formed a desperate plan.
Within minutes a shepherd returned guiding a beautiful ram, the finest in their vast herd. Sarah tied a rope around the animal’s neck and hurried down the winding road toward the ruined plain where two malevolent cities now lay buried under rock and ash.
She rounded a familiar bend in the road and came to the crossroads where the almost indiscernible goat trail careened off the high ridge.
“Angels of light and darkness!” Sarah cried aloud. “By merit of the hospitality I extended to you, I beseech you to hear me and come to my assistance!”
Her heart palpitated as the two angels appeared. “I have brought a ram to exchange for my son’s life,” she said as she bowed to them.
The angels remained aloof. “You have already exchanged two rams for two lives. Our pledge to you has been fulfilled.”
As they turned away Sarah fell to her knees. “Please, pay me the courtesy of hearing my proposal.”
The angels turned back. “Very well. You were courteous to us. We shall repay you in kind.”
Sarah drew a deep breath and composed herself. “Will you take my bones in exchange son’s life?”
The angels laughed softly. “What value is there in bones?”
“A people is founded on the bones of their ancestors. All these years I have been afraid-to die, to see Isaac married … now I will gladly offer you my bones if you take this ram in place of my child.”
The angels conferred then nodded gravely. “Peace be with you, Sarah, mother of a great nation.” They drove the ram into a thicket and vanished. Sarah arose and trudged home.
When she reached her tent, she brushed her weariness aside. So much to do and I have so little time. First she unpacked her wedding veil of gold coins and arranged it across her pillows. Alongside the veil she placed her gold rings and bracelets as well as a beautifully embroidered robe for the daughter-in-law she would never meet.
Now Sarah called for her maid servants and made them promise to ask Abraham, in her name, to seek a bride in her father’s land. Then she had the servants prepare a fattened calf and bake bread from the finest flour.
When the feast was ready, Sarah went a short ways down the road and spread it beside the terebinth tree where she and her husband had hosted the angels years before. The tree had recently been struck by lightning and only a stump remained, but it sprouted fresh leaves, promising to flourish into a great tree again that would one day bear fruit.
I will not live to see it. Lifting her eyes, Sarah saw three figures approaching from the West. At first she imagined Abraham and his two servants were returning from their sacrifice without Isaac and her heart began to break. But as the figures drew nearer, she recognized the three angels who had visited her nine months before Isaac was born.
Sarah rose and bowed low. “All is in readiness, honored guests.” She brought a wash basin for their feet then served them the meal she had prepared.
When they rose to leave, she departed with them.
Abraham returned to find her dead. Heeding her request, he sent Eliezer to their ancestral land to find a wife for their son so he would be comforted for the loss of his mother.
Published in Stories