Bereisheet/Genesis 16:3-5 Our journey begins in Parsha Lech Lecha where Sarah and Abraham (known at that time as Sarai and Abram), were struggling with the stigma of being a childless couple. Sarah’s solution is to give her Egyptian servant Hagar to Abraham to impregnate. Hagar has no say in the matter. She has no agency over her life, her body or her womb. She is required to become Sarah’s surrogate.
At Sarah’s behest, Abraham impregnates Hagar, yet Sarah is wracked with insecurity. Sarah feels that Hagar has copped an attitude since becoming pregnant with his child and is now looking down at her as “lesser than.” Perhaps Hagar simply felt more secure in her newfound status as the baby momma, while Sarah was consumed by the shame of infertility. Abraham, as usual, washes his hands of the matter and takes the easy way out by telling Sarah to do whatever she wants with Hagar and his unborn child.
Bereisheet/Genesis 12:11-15, 20:12 Sarah and Hagar are products of their environment. If we go back a few chapters, we can see that Sarah herself was unprotected by her husband and used by him as sexual commodity. When Sarah and Abraham were strangers in Egypt, fleeing famine in Canaan, Abraham tells Sarah her beauty is a liability to him. She is too beautiful for HIS own good. Abraham scares the daylights out of Sarah by telling her “Once the Egyptians see that I have a hot wife, they’ll kill me and keep you alive for themselves.” Abraham begs Sarah to say she’s his sister, in order to spare his life. Sarah does as her husband asks her to do. What choice does she have? The lie works, but at what cost to Sarah’s mental health? His life is spared, while the Pharaoh’s men immediately bundle her off to the Pharaoh’s palace and his bed. The part about being Abrahams’s sister was not exactly a lie. In Genesis 20:12 Abraham says they have the same father, but not the same mother and he takes her as his wife. I imagine this was not unusual in ancient times.
Abraham is rewarded by the Pharaoh with abundant livestock and slaves as payment for Sarah. Abraham profited from Sarah’s worth as a sexual commodity.
And because of her, it went well with Abram; he acquired sheep, oxen, asses, male and female slaves, she-asses, and camels
The only thing that stopped the Pharaoh from having his way with Sarah was God’s intervention. God, as God does, sent down a few plagues to keep the Pharaoh’s mitts off of her, causing Abraham to fess up to the Pharaoh that Sarah is his wife. The Pharaoh, fearing God’s wrath, has Abraham and Sarah escorted out of town, 86’d from Egypt but wealthy, since Abraham is allowed to keep all the goods bestowed upon him.
Sarah was unable to conceive during a time when a woman’s value was based on her ability to produce heirs. Sarah, like Hagar, did not have agency over her life or her body. While she and her husband were strangers in a strange land, not even her husband could protect her. He didn’t even try. He was a survival of the fittest, every man for himself, kind of guy.
Gen 20:1-18 Later on, Abraham pulls the same stunt with King Avimelach, the Philistine king of Gerar, allowing Sarah to be conscripted into the King’s harem as his sister and not his wife. As with the Pharaoh, Abraham profits from the deception. The ruse is up when God comes to King Avimelach in a dream and reads him the riot act. Eager to avoid God’s wrath, the King bestows livestock, slaves and 1,000 pieces of silver upon Abraham to restore Sarah’s honor. He even offers Abraham his land to settle on.
In Abraham’s experience, denying that Sarah is his wife and giving her away to powerful men, works in his favor. Each time he gets wealthier and each time he believes he is walking away from the ruse with Sarah unharmed. Abraham doesn’t understand the psychological impact these events have on Sarah.
As Hagar’s pregnancy progresses, Sarah’s mental health deteriorates. With no source of protection, (Abraham is an apathetic character in this story) Hagar flees into the desert on foot, heading back home to Egypt. Hagar risks everything in a desperate bid for freedom. While on her trek homeward, an angel of the Lord appears to her, asking where she is going. When she explains her situation, the angel tells her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her torment.” (Gen 16:9). Even the angel of God does not offer to rescue Hagar. Instead, she is told to submit.
The angel promises Hagar that her son, Ishmael, will grow up to be blessed by GD as the father of twelve princes and forefather of a great nation. In Islam, Ishmael is the patriarch and prophet related to the prophet Muhammad.
The promise made to her son motivates Hagar to return. In that moment, when the angel of God promises to make a great nation unto Ishmael, Hagar begins to call God El-roi, (El-Roee), “the God who sees me.” Hagar feels visible in that moment (even if only through her son), yet she’s also told to return to an abusive household as her part of the bargain.
“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I will bless him, and will make him fruitful and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.Genesis 17:20-21
Later on in the story, God fulfills a promise, allowing Sarah to conceive her own son at the age of 90. After Sarah’s son Isaac is born, she projects her jealousy onto Hagar’s son Ishmael, and insists that Abraham cast them out into the desert. Abraham once again takes the path of least resistance. He gives Hagar and Ishmael a schtikel of bread and a skin of water and sends them out into the desert. There we find Hagar crying, terrified of watching her son die.
When Sarah insists on casting them out into the desert, Abraham turns to God for counsel. God assures Abraham that both his sons will be patriarchs of great nations in their own right, letting him know Ishmael will not die, but then GD says something that always jumps out to me as the ultimate message. God tells Abraham to hear his wife’s voice — shema bekolah — “hear her voice.” (Gen 21:12)
We typically hear this translated as God telling Abraham to listen to his wife, as in, ‘just do whatever she says.’ But that’s not what God said. God told Abraham to shema bekolah — “hear her voice.”
What would have happened if Abraham had heard his wife’s voice with his whole heart? What would have happened if Abraham had sat down with his wife and heard her — heard her fear, heard her pain, heard the suffering in her voice, underlying the anger of her words? What if he had heard her, heard her voice as God instructed him to do, and reassured her of her place in their world and in their marriage? Abraham did not do what God told him to do. He heard her words. He did not “hear her voice.”
Millennia down the line, there is still a powerful message in the term “shema bekolah” — “hear her voice.”
©️ 2020 The Wild Pomegrante
In Midrash, Abraham marries Hagar (identified as Keturah) after Sarah’s death, with Isaac helping to reunite them.
Ishmael returns home after his father’s death to bury Abraham together with Isaac. (Gen 25:9)
Isaac’s son, Esau, marries Ishmael’s daughter, Mahalat. (Gen 28:9)
In the end, the family was reunited, with Hagar given her rightful place at the table.
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