Sarai, Abraham’s wife, epitomizes women’s sacrifice for their husbands, just as Abraham epitomizes sacrifice for everyone. Of course we know the story of Abraham going to sacrifice Isaac on Mt. Moriah, which must have been excruciating and trying for Abraham and for Sarai—left at home and out of the loop. But there is another story of amazing self-sacrifice that is rarely mentioned.
There was a severe famine in the land of Canaan, where Abraham was living, and he decided to take his wife and entourage down to Egypt to wait out the famine in their homeland. As they were entering Egypt, the Pearl of Great Price states that the Lord spoke to Abraham in a dream and forewarned him that “Sarai, thy wife, is a very fair women to look upon; Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see her, they will say—She is his wife; and they will kill you, but they will save her alive; therefore see that ye do on this wise: Let her say unto the Egyptians, she is they sister, and they soul shall live.” (Abr. 2:22-23). Abraham told Sarai what the Lord said and she agreed to pretend that Abraham was her brother. Although lying about their relationship saved Abraham’s life, Sarai’s assent to it meant that her life and virtue were seriously jeopardized. For the Egyptians, adultery was considered to be the most heinous of sins, as well as causing someone else to commit adultery. Murder was farther down the list; so killing Abraham off was the only way for an Egyptian to “legitimately” have his way with Sarai.
The Bible doesn’t give any more information, but apocryphal writings fill in the rest of this story: Sarai and Abraham lived in Egypt for five years, and Sarai stayed in the tent for the most part, to avoid being seen, and when she left for water or other household duties, she veiled herself entirely so that no one saw how beautiful she was. After five years went by, some of the Pharaoh’s soldiers or servants saw Sarai from a distance—she was standing out near her tent, and they were immediately dazzled by her beauty. The Apocrypha talks about the perfection of every single part of her body as well as her wisdom, which was an unusual combination even then—and so they went to tell the Pharaoh about her. If the Pharaoh liked the woman that they recommended to him, it may bring them more favor in his eyes. Their flowing and elaborate descriptions of Sarai’s beauty were convincing enough for him, and he demanded that Sarai be brought to him so he could see her for himself.
Sarai was brought to Pharaoh and he immediately knew that the descriptions were accurate. As she and Abraham had agreed, she told the Pharaoh that she was living with her brother, Abraham. That meant Pharaoh had a green light to take her into his palace and make her a part of his harem (or whatever the Pharaohs called their concubines). Sarai was terrified and so was Abraham; he spent the night back in his tent weeping and pleading with the Lord to spare her.
The situation that Sarai was placed in is unimaginable—it was her own Abrahamic trial that would test her to the very core, but the Lord was with her. When the Pharaoh came in to her for the night, every time he tried to get close to her, he was whipped by an angel standing nearby. Sarai could see the angel, but the Pharaoh could not. He just knew that if he went close to her, he was afflicted with severe pain. So he left her for the night. For two years this same scenario was played out; not only was the Pharaoh whipped, but he and his entire court caught leprosy. The leprosy afflicted everyone in the palace, and even the palace itself—leprosy on the walls and the tapestries and the floors.
One day, some of Pharaoh’s servants were walking out in the city and they met Lot, Abraham’s nephew, who told them that he knew why their master was having so many problems—he had a married woman in his palace. The servants were horrified because the Pharaoh would not commit adultery—it was the worst thing that he could do—and they asked which woman was married. Lot replied, Sarai, she is my uncle’s wife. Word quickly reached the Pharaoh about this indiscretion and he summoned Sarai and Abraham to his court. He demanded to know why they had told him that they were brother and sister instead of husband and wife, and Abraham and Sarai explained their reasoning—fearing even more for their lives. Pharaoh was anxious to get them out of his palace, so they loaded them up with livestock and wealth and sent them away.
The Apocrypha explains that this is where Abraham got much of his wealth, and power. The Apocrypha has tremendous stories, slightly mythological in nature, but this elaboration on the story recounted in the Bible and the Pearl of Great Price has merit, in my opinion. Sarai’s sacrifice for her husband is equaled in intensity and trust as Abraham’s was when he placed Isaac on the alter. Women have been sacrificing to protect and care for their loved ones for ages.
This self-sacrifice is what we promise to do when we consecrate ourselves to building up the kingdom of God on the earth. We are building it up through raising righteous children who know who they are and why they are here, who will preach the gospel and work in the temples to redeem the dead. When we give of ourselves to our family, we are consecrating everything we have to the Lord. Raising a righteous family is His work and we are responsible for a HUGE part of it. In return for this sacrifice, we are blessed for keeping our temple covenants.
It is important for women to nurture the talent of self sacrifice and then act according to the responsibility inherent in it. We have the gift of self-sacrifice and it is not as difficult for us to express it as it is for men, so we need to take advantage of it to take care of our children and spouses, nieces and nephews, aging parents, over-loaded neighbors, new mothers on the block, etc.
I think it is interesting to recall the topics that the Brethren have chosen when they have spoken in General Relief Society meeting lately–the overarching theme is: “You have this gift of self-sacrifice and so you feel guilty if you are helping yourself instead of helping someone else. Relax and stop criticizing yourselves.” What a wonderful flaw! We are too self-sacrificing! It does bring its “pack mule” days with it, but in reality, it is vital to humanity that we do not loose this ability.