There’s nothing to pique the interest quite like sex and slavery together, and we have both served up in a potent brew in the story of the first patriarch Abram, his wife Sarai, and her Egyptian slave Hagar (Ft. 1).
As we join our “first family,” Sarai is agonizing over the fact of her barrenness and her advanced age. In Biblical times, barrenness was always assumed to be the woman’s fault, and to be without children – particularly without a male heir – was a source of community shame. Sarai, in desperation to remedy her situation, proposes to Abram that she give her female slave – Hagar – to him as a concubine so that she might conceive and bear children for Sarai: “… go in to my slave girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). Under the Hammurabi Code at the time, the child would be considered Sarai’s and a legal heir to Abram.
As womanist theologian Renita Weems points out: “Notice: the slave Hagar was never asked her opinion” (Ft. 2).
The thought of one woman “giving” another as a sexual gift to her husband offends modern sensibilities on many levels. In the first place, the mere fact of Hagar’s slavery goes against modern human rights standards. Latina theologian Elsa Tamez conjectures that, because relations between Egypt and the Holy Land were peaceful during the time of Abram, Hagar “could have been an ‘apiru’ (Ft. 3) who had sold herself into slavery because of her extreme poverty … Hagar was the type of slave who looked after her mistress, did domestic work, and served as wet nurse for the children of her mistress.” Slavery was – during that time – a perfectly legal and socially acceptable institution.
Secondly, for a woman to force another woman into sexual slavery in order to serve as her personal “human incubator” seems cruel beyond belief. However, in her concubinage, Hagar’s status actually would have improved from that of a mere slave – particularly if she bore a male heir for her mistress’ husband. Also, we may want to keep in mind the existence of today’s lucrative business of surrogate childbirth, before we pass judgment. The Society for Assistive Reproductive Technology (SART) has tracked a 30% increase in surrogate births over the past three years, with total fees estimated at $100,000 per child (Ft. 4). In fact, just as I was about to post this article, I noticed that actress Sarah Jessica Parker is going public with her use of a surrogate to carry her and her husband’s twin girls.
But back to Hagar: her status did improve after the birth of Abram’s first-born, Ishmael – much to the chagrin of her mistress. The text (NASB) states “when [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight” (16:4). Some Hebrew scholars have maintained that a more accurate translation would be that Sarai was “made little in her sight” (Ft. 5). Even though the child was legally hers, the burden of Sarai’s infertility would still have been painfully present for her. For a woman under this kind of social pressure, any minute increase in the happiness of her slave – now her husband’s concubine – would have been seen as brazen contempt.
After Sarai confronts Abram with her former slave’s attitude, Abram simply says “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please” (Gen 16:6) – one could imagine Abram sighing and muttering this from behind a newspaper. According to the Hammurabi Code (146), “If [a] concubine tries to create a sense of equality between herself and the legal wife, the wife has the right to send her back to slavery, but not to sell her to others” (Ft. 6). In the case of Hagar, not only was she demoted back to being Sarai’s slave, but Sarai “dealt harshly with her” or “oppressed her,” and Hagar ran away into the wilderness (16:6). Whatever Sarai’s oppression consisted of, it was horrendous enough for Hagar to brave starvation, thirst and attack outside the pale of civilization.
In the wilderness, Hagar becomes the first woman, foreigner and slave to receive a theophany – an appearance of God.
An angel of the Lord gives Hagar two promises:
• “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” (16:10); and
• “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael [“God hears”], for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin” (16:11-12).
Well, perhaps it was more of a promise and a prediction – most mothers-to-be do not want to hear their future offspring described as a “wild ass”. Elsa Tamez, though, suggests that this unflattering description may indicate the place that the children of the poor have occupied in history: “The marginalized demand as first-born sons to be included in the history of salvation. They break the order of things. They complicate history” (Ft. 8).
After the angel’s prediction of her son’s future, Hagar does what no prophet before her has dared to do – she gives God a name: “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi [“God who sees”]’ for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” Given that the Orthodox Jews to this day will not even say God’s name aloud, it is truly remarkable that a woman, a slave and a foreigner gave God a name. Not only does this indicate that “God hears” the poor, but God is also named by the poor as well – and perhaps we would do well to listen to the names by which they call God.
So – in addition to the God’s priority for the poor – what does this story have to offer? It touches on an issue that hits too close to home for many women today: infertility. Sarai eventually had her own child – Isaac – also promised to her by an angel of the Lord. But the disastrous events that resulted from her initial attempt to have a child by surrogacy should give us pause: What price are we willing to pay – or to make others pay – in order to have a child of our own? And is that price truly worth the suffering – both our own and of the people around us? The words of Renita Weems are well worth quoting here:
“As Abram’s wife, Sarai proved to be unfaithful and too impatient to trust God’s promise to her husband … Sarai forgot that in a patriarchal society she and her female slave Hagar had more in common as women than that which divided them as Hebrew mistress and Egyptian slavewoman” (Ft. 9).
1. Note that I am using the “pre-Covenant” names for Abraham and Sarah, as this particular passage occurs prior to Covenant that God makes with Abram in Genesis, Chapter 17.
2. Weems, Renita J. “A Mistress, A Maid and No Mercy.” Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women of Today and Women in the Bible. New York: Warner Books, 2005. pp. 4.
3. Tamez, Elsa. “The Woman Who Complicated the History of Salvation.” New Eyes for Reading: Biblical and Theological Reflections by Women from the Third World. Eds. John S. Pobee and Barbel Von Wartenberg-Potter. Oak Park, IL: Meyer Stone Books, 1986. pp. 7-8. Ft. 9 describes “apiru” as “a difficult term to define, it appears in Ugaratic, Acadic, Egyptian and other ancient languages, and it was applied to a group of people who were marginal, mercenary, bandits, thieves, poor, landless, subversive, without ethnic identity, etc.”
4. Miller, Cheryl. “Outsourcing Childbirth.” Wall Street Journal. 25 April 2008. pp. W11.
5. Dombkowski Hopkins, Denise. Hebrew Bible I. Class Lecture. Wesley Theological Seminary. Washington, DC: Fall 2008.
6. Cited in Tamez, op.cit., pp. 10.
7. Weems, op.cit., pp. 13.
8. Tamez, op.cit., pp. 9.
9. Weems, op.cit., pp.12.