In Peter’s instruction to wives with disobedient husbands, Sarah, one of the godly woman of old who hoped in God, is singled out as modeling virtue. Her “adornment,” as was true of that of the other holy women, manifested itself in submission to her husband. And according to Peter, in her submission Sarah goes so far as to call Abraham “lord.”
But strangely, the only time the Old Testament describes Sarah calling Abraham “lord” is in the context of an off-hand comment she makes in response to the revelation that she will become pregnant by him when they are quite old (Gen. 18:12). She scoffs and asks if she will have pleasure, and then seems further amused at the double impossibility, saying, “my lord being old also.”
To contemporary male and female Western ears, the thought of a woman calling her husband “lord” seems absurd. But another text in Genesis helps readers see how people in Sarah’s day used the word. When the visitors appeared to Abraham, he himself used the term as form of polite address. Genesis 18:1–3 says this:
“The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by.”
Abraham is speaking to a stranger of whom he is asking a request. His use of “lord” is not an indication of a power differential, but of respect.
Some scholars consider it strange that Peter would point to a moment when Sarah scoffed at God’s word as an example of submission. And they look to another option that may shed light on Peter’s meaning. In an extracanonical Jewish document, The Testament of Abraham, roughly contemporary with Peter’s letter, Sarah frequently addresses Abraham as “lord.” In this narrative, she is depicted as the ideal Hellenistic wife, and her speech reveals an honoring heart.
The Testament of Abrahamis a pseudepigraphic text of the Old Testament. Likely composed in the first or second century AD, the work is of Jewish origin and usually considered part of the apocryphal literature. Its text deals with Abraham’s reluctance to die and the events that led to his departure from earth.
There are two versions of the same story in circulation, and in both Sarah refers to Abraham as “lord.” In the first, she does so five times; in the second, she does so only once. But in both cases, the scene takes place after a visitor has arrived and everyone, including Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac, has gone to sleep. Isaac has a dream that Abraham will die and he runs in to embrace his father. The sound of Abraham and Isaac weeping in each other’s arms awakens Sarah. So she runs to them. The text of version one says this:
And Sarah said with weeping, my lord Abraham, what is this that you weep? Tell me, my lord, has this brother that has been entertained by us this day brought you tidings of Lot, your brother's son, that he is dead?
The visitor explains to her what is happening. And the text continues…
Then Sarah, hearing the excellence of the conversation of the chief-captain, straightway knew that it was an angel of the Lord that spoke. Sarah therefore signified to Abraham to come out toward the door, and said to him, my lord Abraham, do you know who this man is?
Abraham said, I know not.
Sarah said, “You know, my lord, the three men from heaven that were entertained by us in our tent beside the oak of Mamre, when you killed the kid without blemish, and set a table before them. . . Do you not know, my lord Abraham, that by promise they gave to us Isaac as the fruit of the womb? Of these three holy men, this is one.
Version two tells the same story with somewhat different wording. Nevertheless, the meaning is the same. Sarah’s one reference to Abraham as “lord” occurs when she runs into the bed chamber and asks her husband, “My lord Abraham, why is this weeping? Has the stranger told you of your brother's son Lot that he is dead?’”
Both in Abraham’s use of the phrase in Genesis, and in Sarah’s use of it in a document roughly contemporary with Peter, the meaning is the same. That is, “my lord” is a term of respect and even endearment. In neither case does it carry the same sense that a wife calling her husband “my lord” today would have—which would suggest that she is his servant and he is her master.
There is great debate about Peter’s universalizing of submission by the reference to a wife calling her husband “lord.” How, one wonders, are today’s readers to apply these words? All interpreters are, to some degree, playing the “culture” card in order to live out the spirit of the text. No matter what scholars believe regarding how much culture should play a role in contemporary application of 1 Peter, all who hold to inerrancy seem to agree that today’s wife is not only not obligated to call her husband “lord,” but also that doing so would violate Peter’s goal of enhancing one’s gospel witness. Indeed, doing so today would repel most people from the faith. Peter is not saying women should shut up and be slaves to their husbands, saying “yes, master” to them. Rather, he’s using Sarah’s wise behavior to illustrate his point: respect for unbelievers, especially husbands, is winsome (3:1).
Peter encourages his readers by saying, “You have become her [Sarah’s] children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear (v. 6, NASB). One possible reason Peter’s suffering readers should look to Sarah is that at least twice in her life she suffered injustice at the hands of a disobedient husband. He told her to lie. And then he himself told both Pharaoh (Gen. 12:19) and later the king of Gerar (20:2) the lies he wanted her to tell. In both cases, Abraham attempted to pass her off as his sister rather than his wife so that no harm would come to him. Sarah was taken into pharaoh’s palace (12:15) and presumably had relations with him. The king of Gerar similarly took her (20:1). In both cases God intervened supernaturally on Sarah’s behalf and gave her the grace afterward to speak of her husband with respect and endearment, saying, “my lord.”
Writing in a context in which women could not call a hotline or flee to a local shelter if her husband threatened or abused her, Peter wants wives to do their best both to keep from endangering themselves and to gain the husband’s respect while remaining loyal to Christ. Doing so would require great wisdom and courage. Perhaps this is why Peter urges such wives not to be “frightened by any fear.” Peter wants wives to be courageous as they win their husbands through their silent witness.
All this is not to say a woman today should endure abuse. Peter is not describing the ideal, but an extremely un-ideal situation in which wives had few options. Sarah similarly had few options; Western women today have many more—and we should counsel abused women to use them.
Both the men and women in Peter’s readership are suffering and have logical reason to be truly afraid. They have zero social power; the danger is real. And in crafting his instruction to wives, Peter assumes that, like men, women are made to be courageous. He believes they are capable of fearing God more than humans, even in the face of intense persecution and extreme injustice. He points to a long history of godly women to make his case. And he is certainly well aware that believing wives’ loyalty to Christ over their husbands may lead to more suffering. These women are not to be frightened, however, but place their hope in God, trusting that he will vindicate them, if not in the present world, then in the next.
Next time, why he calls wives “weaker vessels” . . . .
Testament of Abraham, version one. Translated by W.A. Craigie. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 9. Edited by Allan Menzies. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1896.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1007.htm>.
Ibid, version 2.