Each episode in the patriarchal narratives of Genesis is a beautifully crafted interweaving of personal and national concerns. From God’s demand that Abraham leave home and family and proceed to Canaan, to Joseph, vizier of Egypt’s, revelation to his brothers and burial of his father in Canaan. The personal dramas presented in the Torah reflect the themes and dilemmas of the nation’s history.
For me, it is the literary masterpiece that is the story of Sarah and Hagar that resonates most profoundly.
At first glance, we seem to be reading an almost soap-operatic, fiery story of two women trapped in a fertility competition. There is no happy ending and no one emerges looking good.
A more nuanced reading reveals a narrative grappling with some of the most significant ideas in the Bible.
A closer reading may also bring to light unanticipated and overwhelming allusions to our lives today, as Israelis and as Jews.
The plot is both simple and complex.
Sarah, not wanting her barren state to exclude her from her place as Abraham’s partner in the Abrahamic blessing, magnanimously offers her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham. This practice, well grounded in 18th century BCE Near Eastern law codes of both Hammurabi and Nuzi, required that the handmaid be elevated to wife status. The child born of that union is formally “adopted” by the mistress (Sarah), and is qualified to inherit the both the material and spiritual legacy of the family. By doing this, Sarah ensures her position as the matriarch of the Israelite nation. “Perhaps I will be built up/ have a son through her.” (v.2)
But the plan derails as soon as Hagar, young and fertile, conceives.
Hagar, empowered by her new status, belittles Sarah, arrogantly “making light” of her. The Midrash, ever attuned to the weaknesses of human nature, has Hagar taunting Sarah as being inauthentic and impious, else why was she not able to conceive herself?
Hagar’s insolence and taunting causes Sarah to lose her bearings. She lashes out at Abraham, who, finding himself in a no-win, no-win situation, opts for silence – though he does suggest that Sarah do with Hagar as she pleases.
Sarah retaliates and “oppresses” the pregnant Hagar by overworking her. The Hebrew word here is significant – ותעניה – va’ta’aneha.
Hagar flees to the desert, with no intention of ever returning. However, an “Angel of God” reveals himself to her and insists that she return, even at the price of continued oppression. Clueless as to why she should return to continued mistreatment, she refuses, twice.
It is only when the angel promises her that she will bear a son, contentious yet powerful, who will be an integral part of the tribe of Abraham, that she agrees to return. The son is to be named Ishmael.
In the very next chapter, however, the cards are reshuffled.
God appears to Abraham with two distinct messages: one, Sarah is to be considered the covenantal wife. Second, Sarah will give birth, despite her advanced age, to a son, to be named Isaac. It is with Sarah’s progeny and Isaac’s descendants that God established His eternal covenant.
Thus, we have two sons to one father, two distinct and discrete destinies, yet mandated to be live among each other, intertwined forever.
More than just a captivating family drama, we sense that we have before us is a story fraught with import and significance.
What are we meant to take from this unnerving narrative? What are its intentions?
Two questions need to be addressed before we can understand these events.
- How are we, the descendants of Sarah, meant to understand our matriarch’s behavior? Are we to admire her magnanimity, or censure her oppressive retaliation? (De Mama Surah, my mother would call her. What she does matters to us, even hundreds of years later.)
- Why does the angel send Hagar back? Why insist she return to Abraham’s house, relegating the descendants of Isaac to eternal strife with descendants of Ishmael?
The key to unlocking the intentions of this narrative lies in the Torah’s use of the word ותעניה va’ta’aneha to describe Sarah’s treatment of Hagar.
The Hebrew root ע.נ.ה. is used in the Bible to refer to oppression, almost always by overwork.
This word resonates to our biblically attuned ears, because we read it over and over again in the Exodus story. Exodus 1 uses the keyword ע נ ה to describe the Egyptian treatment of the Israelites, referring to the callous oppression of the Israelites through excessive hard work.
In Exodus, we are the victims; the Egyptians are the masters.
In our story, the Israelite is the master; the Egyptian handmaiden is the victim. In both stories fertility triggers the reactions.
By using the same keyword in both narratives, the Torah is telling us that power overused is power abused. In all of the only seven verses allotted to the vast topic of Israelite kingship (Deut. 17:20), the king of Israel is exhorted to “not act haughty towards his fellows.”
The Torah is wary of power. It is meant to be exercised with restraint and compassion.
This idea is brought home in the moving words of the 12th century rabbinic commentator Radak, who takes Sarah to task for her treatment of Hagar.
“Sarah did not behave ethically or kindly… It is unworthy for a person to do as they please with those in their power. Sarah’s behavior was displeasing in the eyes of God … as the angel said to Hagar, God has noted oppression.” (Note: root ע.נ.ה). To the mind of the Radak, “Sarah did not behave in a manner befitting her character.”
And yet, despite the subtle censuring of Sarah in the Torah itself, it is Sarah who becomes the matriarch of Israel, not Hagar.
It is Sarah whose son who will be the true heir to the Abrahamic blessing.
Why? Because Sarah coveted a place in the Israelite vision and destiny. She wanted “in.”
Never dreaming she herself would someday bear a child, she selflessly jeopardized her status and her self-respect.
Hagar wanted progeny and coveted the status that came with that. She fled when faced with the first obstacle. She wanted no part of the suffering, and she had no patience. For Hagar, there was no vision, no big picture.
But, unbeknownst to Hagar, or to Sarah for that matter, it is precisely these qualities – staying the long course and being prepared for the hardships — that are mandated by the prophecy relayed to Abraham in the Covenant between the Pieces, the chapter immediately preceding our own.
Genesis 15:13-16: “Know well that your offspring will be strangers in a land not theirs; they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” … “and they shall return here in the fourth generation.”
Multiples of four in the Bible indicate greatness of quantity or extent. This ominous prophecy is unequivocal: If one opts in to the Abrahamic/Israelite destiny, one needs to understand and accept that the path to the Promised Land will be long, painful, and oppressive. In the end, we will get there, promises God, but it requires great patience.
Hagar had none.
Just as the Torah does not explain the harsh components of the Covenantal prophecy – note that it is never presented as a punishment – so it does it not explain why the angel sends Hagar back to Sarah. The simplest answer, of course, is so that Abraham would be provided with a son. But there is no explanation given for Ishmael’s “wild” nature.
What the Torah does tell us is that the destiny of Hagar and Sarah, of Isaac and Ishmael are one; they are inextricably intertwined.
For me, the story of Sarah and Hagar, like much of the Torah, is a critique of power regardless of the identity of the master or the victim.
Significantly, by using the same keyword across the Covenant between the Pieces, the flight of Hagar, and the Exodus story, the Torah is including us in a drama that spans generations.
In the biblical presentation, many of the events that unfold are not determined by us, and in some cases, are beyond our understanding. The predetermined suffering described in the Covenant and the endless struggle with Ishmael (“His hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him” (Gen 16:12)) are just two examples.
But how we respond to these dilemmas is in our control. There is a moral topography to our inheriting this land, in addition to a geographic one.
The biblical text is the cornerstone of our existence here, and it is our national passion. So, we continue to learn, teach, read and reread in order to understand, even in very difficult times.