As we become more familiar with the Bible, we see connections and allusions all around. Far-flung passages are related in surprising and exciting ways, and the major themes of Scripture flash everywhere we look.
This has implications for the ways we interpret and apply the Bible, but today I’ll focus on observation. We will look at a well-known story in the New Testament in light of relevant Old Testament background. At this time of year, what better place to turn than to the birth of Jesus?
Mary is Unique
Children and descendants are essential to the Bible’s portrayal of God, covenant, and promises. Mary plays a prominent role herself, but how does she fit into the larger story?
Mary is different. Many of the details of her story are unique, and they don’t match up with much else in the Bible.
However, Mary invites discussion alongside Sarah—by way of contrast, not comparison. And further, Mary herself brings up Sarah when she praises God for his mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever (Luke 1:54–55). Those descendants came through Sarah, after all.
So what’s the link between Mary and Sarah?
Sarah the Barren
From the very beginning, Sarah is defined by her barrenness. After her name, the first detail we read of Sarah is that “she had no child” (Gen 11:30).
This barrenness is surprising when, just a few verses later (Gen 12:2) God promises Sarah’s husband (Abraham), “I will make of you a great nation.” Over the next verses and chapters, God’s design is to give Abraham a biological son (and thus millions of descendants) through Sarah.
Though God makes his covenant with Abraham, Sarah is not an afterthought. When God changes Sarah’s name, he speaks to Abraham and says, “I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Gen 17:15–16). God says that just as “kings shall come from” Abraham (Gen 17:6), kings of peoples shall come from Sarah.
All of this is hard for Sarah to swallow. After all, she and Abraham were quite old. How exactly was God going to keep his promise to multiply Abraham greatly (Gen 17:2)? When Sarah overheard a prophecy that she would have a son in less than a year, she laughed. She referred to Abraham as “old” and herself as “worn out” (Gen 18:12).
But this doubt and questioning did not deter God. “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised” (Gen 21:1). Sarah acknowledged that God turned her doubtful laughter around—“everyone who hears will laugh over me” (Gen 21:6).
In many ways, Mary is Sarah’s opposite. Instead of being old and barren, Mary is young and unmarried. Instead of facing ridicule for not having a child (which Sarah may have experienced), Mary risked shame for a pregnancy outside of marriage (Matt 1:19).
And Mary doesn’t just stand as an opposite to Sarah. The barren female character occurs again and again in the Bible. We are also told that Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife (Samson’s mother), Hannah, and Michal (David’s wife) were painfully childless at times in their lives. These women struggled for years without a child they wanted; Mary had one before she expected. Luke highlights this contrast by writing about Mary and her barren relative Elizabeth together. The angel uses Elizabeth’s recent pregnancy as evidence that “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:36–37).
Mary responds to the angel’s announcement in her famous, faithful way: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This stands in stark contrast to Sarah’s laugh.
The contrast we see between these women makes it clear that God is doing a new thing in the birth of Jesus. God is turning the world upside down.
A New and Old Thing
But not everything is new. Not everything is different. There are a number of similarities between Mary and Sarah.
Both Sarah and Mary were visited by angels for the birth announcements. Both were promised royalty. Both questioned how God could bring about his promise (see Luke 1:34 and Gen 18:12). God worked miraculously for both women’s pregnancies.
And both women saw God’s mercy and his promise-keeping in their pregnancy (see Heb 11:11 and Luke 1:54–55). Sarah saw directly how God would keep his promise to multiply Abraham greatly. But Mary saw herself in this same line. She saw her own pregnancy as evidence of help given to Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, in line with the covenant kept with Abraham (Luke 1:54–55).
So the new thing God was doing was really an old thing done in a new way.