The Sarah Paradox

This week’s parasha, Chayei Sarah, begins with the passing of Sarah: “And the life of Sarah was one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years; the years of the life of Sarah.” (Genesis 23:1) The Sages wonder why the Torah phrased her lifespan in this strange way: a hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years. To paraphrase their answer (as cited by Rashi): at one hundred years old, Sarah was as beautiful and sinless as at twenty years old; and at twenty years old, she was as beautiful and sinless as at seven years old. This would explain one of the big puzzles of Sarah’s story: how was she always so desirable despite her advanced age?

In last week’s parasha we read how Sarah was abducted for a second time by King Avimelech and his Philistine men. It is easy to forget that she was 89 years old at that point! How could the Philistines find her so attractive at that age? It could only mean, as our Sages state, that she was literally still beautiful like a youth. How is this possible? Modern science may have an answer.

Syndrome X

In recent decades, scientists and doctors have identified an incredible, rare condition sometimes referred to as Syndrome X. It appears to be a genetic disorder that causes a very slow rate of aging. Several years ago, a documentary called My 40-Year Old Child explored such cases, including a girl who was 9 years old and had the body and organs of a newborn baby, and a 29-year old man who looked like he was 10. In such modern medical cases, the children usually have serious disabilities or birth defects. However, this need not be the case. In fact, there are researchers who are studying these people to figure out how to slow down or even reverse human aging!

Could it be that Sarah had this genetic condition, and aged extremely slowly? That would explain the statement that at 100 years old she was likened to a 20-year old. If we take this point more scientifically, we might conclude that in her 80s she was still in puberty! That would explain why Avimelech so desired an octogenarian (no offense to any octogenarians out there). And it would also explain another puzzling statement made by Sarah:

When the angels revealed that she and Abraham would have a child, her response was to laugh and say “my husband is old” (Genesis 18:12). Was Sarah herself not old? If she had a condition that made her age very slowly, and she still looked young, her words would make perfect sense. What if she was unable to get pregnant before this because she had yet to reach menarche? This isn’t so far-fetched if her 80s were within her puberty.

It would also explain Sarah’s original name: Iscah (Genesis 11:29). Rashi says one of the reasons she was called this is because everyone constantly stared at her on account of her incomparable beauty. The root sokhe (סוכה) implies some kind of vision. It is the deeper meaning of the sukkah—spelled the exact same way—a structure wherein a person has the potential to see the Divine. The Midrash says one of the names of Moses was Avi Sokho, “father of (spiritual) vision”. Perhaps she was called Iscah because everyone stared at her due to her miraculous inability to age.

Old and Young Again

Having said all that, Genesis 18:11 makes the hypothesis impossible: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and full of days; Sarah had ceased to have the way of women.” The implication is that Sarah was already in menopause. So, she must have really been old. In that case, why did Avimelech want her?

The classic answer is that she was old and miraculously became young again. Sarah said it herself with the difficult words: acharei v’loti, haita li edna, commonly translated as either “After I have become worn out, will I [again] have smooth flesh?” (based on Bava Metzia 87a) or “After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure?” In short, Sarah aged normally, became old, then became young again—and this is why Avimelech abducted her shortly after. This solves one problem, but does not explain Sarah’s earlier abduction.

Sarah was first taken captive by Pharaoh in Egypt. It isn’t clear when exactly this happened, but it must have been sometime between God’s command of Lech Lecha—which the Torah tells us happened when Abraham was 75 years old (and Sarah, 65)—and the birth of Ishmael—which happened when Abraham was 86 years old (and Sarah, 76). Sarah’s abduction in Egypt would have happened when she was already well into her senior years. If she aged normally, what made her so desirable to Pharaoh?

Can we state simply that she was blessed with inexplicable beauty, even in old age? But then why would she describe herself as having “worn out” and that her skin was no longer smooth? Was she beautiful and youthful, or not?

Was Aging a Thing?

The Talmud makes a surprising statement: no one aged at all until the time of Isaac! This comes to explain two verses: first is in this week’s parasha, where Abraham is described as zaken, ba b’yamim, literally “old and full of days” (Genesis 24:1). The second is later on when we read the seemingly redundant words: “And these are the generations of Isaac the son of Abraham; Abraham begot Isaac.” (Genesis 25:19) Rashi comments on this latter verse that the Torah repeats Isaac was the son of Abraham because the two resembled each other identically. Because no one believed that Abraham could father a child at such an old age, and because Isaac was conceived shortly after Sarah was abducted by Avimelech, there were those who questioned Isaac’s paternity. Thus, God made Isaac look exactly like Abraham so that no one would doubt that Abraham was his father!

However, this resulted in a huge problem: people constantly confused Isaac for Abraham, and vice versa. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) recounts that

Until Abraham there was no old age. Whoever wished to speak to Abraham would speak to Isaac, and whoever wished to speak to Isaac spoke to Abraham. Thereupon Abraham prayed, and old age came into existence, as it is written, “And Abraham was old and full of days.”

The Talmud points out that Abraham is the first person in the Torah to be described as “old”. The Sages infer that he must have literally been the first person ever to grow old! Now, this would have obviously happened after Isaac was born, when the confusion problem would have arisen. If so, how could Sarah have stated before Isaac was born that she had grown old? Moreover, Abraham had already previously been described as “old and full of days”—together with Sarah—before Isaac was born: “Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and full of days; Sarah had ceased to have the way of women.” (Genesis 18:11) It seems we are falling deeper and deeper into a paradoxical pit.

It is also important to mention that the Torah describes the lifespans in this period as being much longer than what we are used to today. Abraham lived 175 years, and Isaac lived 180 years. Jacob lived 147 years, and didn’t have his first child until he was 84. At this point, he is not described as being “old”. In fact, he seemed to be quite youthful and energetic, working diligently for his father-in-law, Lavan. He was equally fit years later when he brawled with the angel.

Conversely, Isaac had Jacob and Esau when he was 60 years old (Genesis 25:26), and by the time he sought to bless them he was no older than 123, yet the Torah describes him as bed-ridden and blind! (Genesis 27:1-2) He went on to live the longest of the Patriarchs, yet he was frail all those years. His father, meanwhile, at age 140 was only starting to build a new family with Keturah! Of course, we mustn’t forget Moses, who died at 120, yet “his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.” (Deuteronomy 34:7)

So, what can we make of all this? It appears aging in the Torah must remain a paradox. Perhaps Mark Twain had the answer all along: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

For another take on aging in the Torah, see How Did Adam Live 930 Years?