After spending the last several chapters lifting up Sarai and Abraham, the bible then takes a very surprising turn. Sarai is a woman that was clearly one of the most beautiful of her age. Abram is a fantastic warrior-king and strategist who goes to war against impossible odds to save his kinsmen. But we discover something new: Sarai is jealous and abusive and Abram is a whipped man.
More after the break…
The birth of Ishmael is a weird chapter that I have been trying to get my head around for a few days. It starts off with Sarai showing contempt, or at least a lack of faith, toward God. Unlike Abram who was reassured that God would grant him a son, Sarai appears convinced that God is PREVENTING her from bearing a child. (12:2). Unlike Abram, who two chapters earlier framed the lack of a child in their lives as a loss of inheritance to his steward from Damascus, Sarai’s wish is simply to conceive and if she is being prevented from doing it herself, at least she can have a child through her maid, Hagar.
It’s interesting that Hagar is an Egyptian. Is this one of the slaves that Abram left with when his wife was playing harem-girl with Pharaoh? If so, that’s a odd juxtaposition of sins. Abram allows Sarai to sleep with Pharaoh in exchange for wealth, and Sarai allows Abram to sleep with Haggar in exchange for children.
Hagar’s crime is mental rather than physical: Sarai is lowered in her esteem after she sleeps with her husband. And, in a way, that seems natural. Their relationship is less unambiguously master and servant, now that Haggar has shared a bed with her husband. Sex is a strange equalizer. What’s weird here is that there is no proof offered in the text that Sarai really was lowered in her esteem, or any impact that had on their relationship. The bible states plainly that she was, but separately shows that this is Sarai’s opinion. We’ll take that she was, that perhaps this sexual conquest has made Hagar proud. After all, she just bedded the man whose own prowess and stature has enabled him to sleep with Sarai, so it’s at least understandable.
Sarai’s response to this though appears to be one of jealousy. She tells Abram that the “Lord (will) decide between you and me!” What’s the implication here? It’s not asking God to choose between Sarai and Hagar, but rather asking God to choose between Sarai and ABRAM. Was she fearful that Abram would choose the fertile, and much younger, Hagar over herself? It certainly looks that way. Jealousy certainly must be a tricky business in polyamorous relations and even though it was Sarai’s idea in the first place, she must feel that this was a terrible mistake. That she allowed her relationship to open up and now she was going to lose everything. (Clearly, what was lacking here was trust. She needed to know that Abram wouldn’t have left her; his relationship with Hagar was most likely purely sexual – and condoned according to the standards of the day. Given all of the requirements of brother-marrying and other polyamorous customs in Canaanite society, this sort of thing must have happened all the time. It’s a surprise to me they wouldn’t have learned to handle it better.)
The next line is also weirdly ambiguous. Sarai tells tells Abram to “deal with Hagar as you think right”, but it’s never clear what Abram felt was right. The text implied, or at least I’ve always read it as if Abram then took to abusing Sarai, but that’s not actually what it says. Having given Abram the choice of how to treat Hagar, it is SARAI that actually takes the initiative and begins to treat her harshly. So hardly, in fact, that Hagar and the unborn child flee into the wilderness. (12:6) Having just re-read this, I feel even better about Abram. Maybe he’s not as whipped as I thought? Since the text doesn’t say that he treated Hagar badly – would a man treat a woman badly that was carrying his only child – but rather that Sarai took it on herself. You can imagine the three-way strain here as Abram just must have wanted to keep his family together while Sarai was acting very childish. (Which says something since she’s was around 77.)
Hagar runs away, presumably to Shur, when she is stopped by an angel. The angel recognizes her immediately and refers to her as “Hagar, slave of Sarai”. (Not, “Hagar, concubine of Abram”) The implication at least is that God didn’t condone this little indiscretion with Abram, but remember that it was Sarai’s lack of faith in God that led her to this path in the first place. What does God do? He REWARDS Hagar. Yes, she needs to submit to Sarai’s harsh treatment (because it’s essential that the young Ishmael know his father and have a family), but in the end Hagar gets the last laugh because her offspring will be too numerous to count and he shall dwell alongside his kinsmen – i.e. the children of Sarai (and Abram’s third concubine, not yet introduced into the story). Yes, there’s some language here about Ishmael being a “wild ass of a man”, with “his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him”, but the implication is that in the end Ishmael will still have his prominent place amongst Abram’s descendants.
To add a bit more weight to this prophecy, it shows the first part coming true immediately. Although God tells Hagar what to name her child, it is Abram “that gave the son that bore him the name Ishmael”. Yes, she could have just told him what God had said and he chose that name, but it’s poetic to think that she did not. That she just held it fast to see if that part would come true, which it did. That’s a nice thought.
I didn’t even think of it, but one of my study bibles points out the reversal of the Exodus narrative in this chapter. Hagar, an Egyptian, is held as a slave in Israel. She endures harsh treatment and flees. But instead of God helping her flee, as he did in the Exodus, he orders her back into her captivity. (It also points out that Proverbs 30 states that two of the things that the Earth cannot bear is “a slave-girl who supplants her mistress” or “a slave who becomes king”. Since so much of the Torah narrative is about slaves taking their fates into their own hands and seeking freedom, that is very bizarre. In about a hundred years when I get to Proverbs, I’ll need to find more examples in the text where this proverb is turned on its ear.)
So, all is well again in the Abram/Sarai household. I was pretty sure that I was done with Lech-Lecha with this post, but there’s one more fate in store for Abram in this parsha.
Up next: Abram gets a longer name and a shorter penis.