By the order of narrative this class should be reserved for Lot. However, having just studied Sarah it seems incomplete without studying Hagar – the Other Woman in Abraham’s house hold.
The following video sets up the background for the course:
When the Other is The Mother (Gen 16)
In her attempt to fulfill her role as provider-of-an-heir, Sarah proposes that Abraham take Hagar, her handmaid, as a wife.
Some issues to ponder:
1) What might the relationship between Sarah and Hagar have been before this new status was conferred upon Hagar?
2) How might Sarah have pictured her future relationship with Hagar and with the child that would be born?
3) What kind of woman would Sarah want as mother of the heir of the household/a second wife to Abraham?
Things develop somewhat different than anticipated (by Sarah).
Read 16:1-6 carefully. Pay attention to the descriptive titles by which each person is called. What does it tell us about the point of view of the characters, as well as the source of the conflict, as the story progresses?
For example: It is “Sarai the wife of Abram” that has an Egyptian handmaid (that means she too is a foreigner.) She makes it clear to Abram that her handmaid that he is taking. That title is missing in v.4 when describing the relations of Abram and Hagar. The person that Hagar loses respect for is not Sarai, but rather her Mistress. Was this not-yet-born child upending the hierarchy in the household?
Why is it important that Hagar is Egyptian?
There could be many reasons. Remember that later both Abraham and Isaac will object to marriage ties to the local population. It might be in order to preserve their unique beliefs; it could be to avoid any claim, physical or spiritual, by a local clan on the family.
After escaping, Hagar is found by an angel that speaks to her,
Telling her to return,
Telling her that she will have a great many offspring,
And telling her that she will give birth to a child that she will name Ishmael.
What does this encounter with an angel tell us about Hagar?
After all, not every person meets an angel of the Lord… Why is the angel introduced 3 times (v.9-11), with no apparent interruptions by Hagar?
Hagar might have given a non verbal response. Did she agree with the first instruction (to return and suffer, clearly leaving Sarai the mistress of the house)? Did the second statement satisfy her immediate needs and concerns? Finally, the last statement, telling her that she will have a real child, with a name, seems to calm her down. Try to imagine what her non-verbal response would be each time.
The Next Generation (Gen. 21:9-21)
21:9 seems crucial for understanding the dynamics that dictate the story. Read carefully. This sentence could have been said with significantly fewer words. Why is it written in such a cumbersome manner?
Other than Sarah’s name, no name is used. The rest is all in form of description; those descriptions a very important in understanding the story. Would it have said “Ishmael” we might not have realized that Sarah sees in Ishmael the symbol of the foreign (Egyptian). The addition “that she bore to Abraham” puts him in competition with the child that she bore to Abraham. His behavior might not have pleased her, but what is wrong with him is related to other people.
Continue reading carefully. What term does Sarah use about him when speaking to Abraham?
Note that this is different than the way she thought about him in v.9. Perhaps v. 9 tells us something the way Sarah thinks of Hagar inwardly, and what she tells the world.
Now pay attention to the manner in which Abraham thinks of Ishmael.
For all who wonder why Abraham does not protest when God tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac (next chapter): The same question should be asked here. Ishmael is sent away by Sarah’s wish but also by God’s demand of Abraham. (Although Ishmael is not being killed, and he will be a great nation, none the less Abraham has a difficult time sending away his son.)
Hagar, apparently lost, runs out of water. She chooses to abandon the child under a bush. She is apparently not a state of mind to look for a solution. It takes an angel to point her in the direction of the water, but there is no need to miraculously create a source.
How do we, the readers, know that there was water there all along?
Final note: Hagar’s child, just like Sarah’s child, will become a great nation. However, here a great deal of credit is given to the involvement of his mother, Hagar.
What is the significance of Hagar taking a wife from Egypt for her son?
First, note that Abraham seems to have no involvement in the choice (despite that contact must have been maintained since Isaac and Ishmael bury Abraham together.) Secondly, pay attention to that she links him to Egypt, not to the area of Haran and Abraham’s family there.
Part II – Other Sources:
Rashi Genesis 16:1
רש“י בראשית טז, א
שפחה מצרית: בת פרעה היתה, כשראה נסים שנעשה לשרה אמר מוטב שתהא בתי שפחה בבית זה ולא גבירה בבית אחר:
an Egyptian handmaid: She was Pharaoh’s daughter. When he (Pharaoh) saw the miracles that were wrought for Sarah, he said, “It is better that my daughter be a handmaid in this household, than a mistress in another household.” – [from Gen. Rabbah 45:1]
As with many Midrashim, this one seems a little unrealistic. We know today that the Pharaohs did not marry out their daughters, so it would be safe to assume that they did not send them to be maids in a shepherd’s tent, even a very rich one. Even without the added knowledge that archeology has afforded us, the midrash (and Rashi who chose to bring it) must have been aware of the unrealistic nature of this story. So – what are they trying to tell us?
Midrashic stories are frequently a simple looking façade for much deeper concepts. It is our job to peel off the top layer and get to the depth. Let us go back to the questions we contemplated on top. Why is Hagar’s background important? What qualifications might Sarah have looked for in the woman that will be the biological mother of Abraham’s heir? Perhaps Hagar’s behavior seems to reflect that of a person that is used to giving orders, not receiving them. Of course, the midrash is also trying to give the reader the sense of Abraham’s importance in the region as a religious person.
Nachmanides Genesis 16:3
רמב“ן בראשית פרק טז, ג
ותקח שרי – להודיע שלא מהר אברם לדבר עד שלקחה שרי ונתנה בחיקו. והזכיר הכתוב שרי אשת אברם, לאברם אישה – לרמוז כי שרה לא נתיאשה מאברם ולא הרחיקה עצמה מאצלו, כי היא אשתו והוא אישה, אבל רצתה שתהיה גם הגר אשתו. ולכך אמר לו לאשה – שלא תהיה כפלגש רק כאשה נשואה לו. וכל זה מוסר שרה והכבוד שהיא נוהגת בבעלה:
And Sarai took – to tell that Avram did not rush to [take Hagar] until Sarai took her and placed her in his bosom. And the text mentions: ”Sarai the wife of Avram”, “to Avram her husband” – to suggest that Sarah did not give up Avram nor did she distance herself from him for she is his wife and he is her husband, but she wished Hagar to be his wife as well. Therefore it says “to him as a wife” – so she will not be a concubine but rather as a wife married to him. And all this [demonstrates] Sarah’s moral standards and the respect she shows her husband.
How does Nachmanides comment fit with your own conclusions regarding the carefully chosen words of the text?
As you read Nachmanides on Genesis, pay attention to his attitude towards the events of this book. They are foresights and educational tools for future generations. He sensitively demonstrates the respectful and loving relationship of Abraham and Sarah in the midst of this difficult crisis over the lack of a child. His words may resonate with couples of all times that have dealt with the heartache of childlessness.
Nachmanides Genesis 16:6
רמב“ן בראשית פרק טז, ו
(ו) ותענה שרי ותברח מפניה – חטאה אמנו בענוי הזה, וגם אברהם בהניחו לעשות כן, ושמע ה’ אל עניה ונתן לה בן שיהא פרא אדם לענות זרע אברהם ושרה בכל מיני הענוי:
And Sarah afflicted her so she ran away from her – Our matriarch transgressed in this affliction, and also Abraham for allow this to be done. So The LORD heard her affliction and gave her a son that will be a wild person to afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah with all kinds of affliction.
What is Nachmanides’ assessment of the morality of the act?
The answer to this seems quite clear. The amazing thing is how clear he is about it. It is not a lightweight issue to criticize a matriarch (and note that he makes sure to call her ‘our matriarch’, lest we view the situation with aloofness.) I suspect that this comment was written with a great deal of emotion. It is important to notice also the ending: The people of Ishmael (the Arabs) have afflicted the Jews in history. For Nachmanedies this is one of the principles of the book of Genesis: What happened to the Patriarchs is a sign foretelling what will happen to the future generations.
6 Radak Genesis 16
רד“ק בראשית טז,:
ותענה שרי – …ולא נהגה שרי בזה לא מדת מוסר ולא מדת חסידות…כי אין ראוי לאדם לעשות כל יכלתו במה שתחת ידו,…וכל זה הסיפור נכתב בתורה לקנות אדם ממנו המדות הטובות, ולהרחיק הרעות.
And Sarai afflicted her – … Sarai did not act here not according to morality nor according to kindness…for it is not appropriate for a person to do all that he is able to do to those that are under his hand,…and this story was written in the Torah to let a person acquire from it the good qualities and distance the negative ones.
Radak (1160-1235, southern France) attempts to deal with a very difficult issue for people who read the Torah as guiding text: Why is a story that portrays one of the role model in such a negative light, included in the Torah?
First, it is important to recognize the courage that Radak shows in criticizing Sarah. How many of us can really criticize our heroes and loved ones? It is also important to notice that he takes the episode away from the individual people in it to a more universal concept (“it is not appropriate for a person to do all that they are able to do to those that are under his hand”.) As he states clearly, this is a learning moment. One may learn from failures as well.
Both Radak and Nachmanides are surprisingly open in their comments here. Their frankness should not be taken lightly. These leaders of their communities probably found it difficult to present Sarai in her failure. We can assume that their comments come from a place of deep attachment to the matriarchs and patriarchs, not from distant scholarship.