Are We to Believe That a King Was Attracted to Sarah When She was 90?
By the time that Abraham and Sarah traveled toward the southern border of Canaan, to the city of Gerar (Genesis 20:1; cf. 10:19), it appears that Sarah was 89 years old (cf. Genesis 17:1,17; 21:1-5). Yet, despite her old age, Genesis 20 makes clear that Abimelech, king of Gerar, was quite interested in Sarah—so much so that he “took” her from Abraham, whom he thought was merely Sarah’s brother.
Recently a gentleman inquired about these recorded events, saying, “She [Sarah] is 90 years old and the hard part to believe is that a king would be that impressed with a 90 year old woman. Is there any knowable reason for this? It seems to be a fairytale and I just don’t see how it’s possible and it could lean towards Genesis being a fable.”
Admittedly, when interpreting this account from strictly a 21st-century American’s perspective, Sarah’s age might seem quite strange. After all, the average life expectancy at birth for females in the United States is 81 years1—nearly 10 years less than when the Bible indicates that Sarah was pursued by a king. What’s more, we rarely, if ever, hear of local or national leaders around the world seeking to marry 90-year-olds in the 21st century. So would it be fair to write off Genesis 20 as merely a fairytale? Not at all.
First, we are not informed of the age of Abimelech. It could be that he was around the age of 90 himself. If some 400 years later, an 80-year-old shepherd (Moses) could lead hundreds of thousands of Israelites out of Egyptian bondage and serve as their leader until he was 120, perhaps in 2,000 B.C. Gerar had a 100-year-old king who was attracted to an 89-year-old woman. What’s more, one of the United States’ greatest presidents (Ronald Reagan) led the most powerful nation on Earth until he was nearly 80 years old. Again, who is to say that thousands of years earlier Gerar did not have a more aged leader who was attracted to a woman who may have been closer to his age. If 90-year-olds can still be attracted to, and marry, each other today, they certainly could have 4,000 years ago.
Second, and more important, ages of men and women in the Bible must be interpreted in light of the life spans that people were still living at a particular time in history. Though Abraham, Sarah, and Abimelech did not live as old as people in Noah’s generation (Noah lived to be 950, Genesis 9:29), Abraham was only separated from Noah by 10 generations (Genesis 11:10-26). Abraham’s dad died at 205 (Genesis 11:32). Abraham lived to be 175 (Genesis 25:7). The point is: Sarah, at age 89, may have looked similar to a 45-55-year-old woman today. And, there are still plenty of 45-55+ year-old women today that kings and other world leaders find very attractive.
Finally, the Bible describes Sarah as “a woman of beautiful countenance” (Genesis 12:11). In fact, when Abraham and Sarah traveled to Egypt when she was in her late 60s, the Egyptians saw her as being so “very beautiful” that they commended her to Pharaoh (12:14-15). Clearly, the Bible implies that the next 25 years were good to Sarah, because, by the grace of God, her beauty did not fade [or at least not so much that she (even as a modest woman—1 Peter 3:1-6) at the age of 90, could not attract the attention of another king].
It should not surprise us that many people in the 21st century will read accounts of biblical events and have serious questions. As Christians, we welcome such sincere questions, as we seek to give consistent, biblical answers (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) in light of the overall historical and biblical context—which we must recognize was often very different than life on Earth today.
1 Larry Copeland (2014), “Life Expectancy in the USA Hits a Record High,” USA Today, October 9, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/10/08/us-life-expectancy-hits-record-high/16874039/.