Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael

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Sar and Hagar

There’s so much to say about this story it is hard to know where to start.  We usually begin with an overview.  So, here we see Sarah the barren old woman who has been promised a child by God himself.  Even after the promise, this mythical child is a long time coming.  Worried about Abraham not having an heir from their own family (Sarah was Abraham’s half-sister) , Sarah has sent her handmaiden Hagar to lie with Abraham and bear his child.  That child, according to Jewish tradition, now belongs to Sarah and Abraham.  (Echoes of this practice reverberate down through the centuries in both real life and story.  Consider surrogate mothers and Margret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale).

The starry heavens behind the three characters represent God’s covenant with the two women – he has promised them both that nation’s will arise from the seed of their sons.  In this collage Isaac has not yet been conceived and Ishmael is still a little boy.  Jealousy has already begun to bedevil these women.  The heavens also represent the ubiquitous God, who just can’t seem to keep from meddling in these people’s lives in the most clumsy manner.

In reading the Bible stories about women, keep in mind how seldom women are named and how little description surrounds their names. When a woman is named we can assume her story held great import for her contemporaries and that the story associated with her holds enough meaning to continue to reverberate down the millennia.

Hagar looms the largest for me in this story. She is the least powerful figure here; even her fertility can be co-opted.  Nevertheless, Hagar haunts every action and even God keeps track of her comings and goings.  We can deduce from the story that she is a straightforward woman, lacking in subtlety or cunning until motherhood empowers her and she becomes proud, defiant, stubborn and ambitious for her child. I can’t help but identify with her.  She seems to represent the status and position of so many women today, in this country and around the world.

Perhaps Hagar and Sarah together represent the precarious nature of motherhood.  The women in this tale are both hostages to fortune.  They live and die at the whims of men and their gods.  On the one hand, fertility bestows a certain amount of power; on the other, women are easily interchangeable. Perhaps the meaning lies in what these women fail to do, rather than in their actions.  Perhaps, we are being shown how divisive and enervating jealousy can be; how it saps the strength and diverts the will to the point that the welfare of children becomes compromised rather than enhanced.

We don’t know how Hagar felt about being sent to Abraham’s bed.  Was she repulsed by his age?  Or attracted by his power and prestige?  Whichever it was, once pregnant she began to enjoy her new status.  No doubt, as her time approached she was relieved of many duties and when she gave birth to a son – well the feasting and rejoicing are easy to imagine.  It all went to her head, and she began to put on airs and disrespect Sarah.

Remember that Sarah and Abraham are very old by this time and Sarah has spent decades living down the shame of being barren.  The fact that she has been a beautiful and desirable woman makes it all the worse; makes her feel like a fraud.  Perhaps, all along she has harbored a sneaking suspicion that her childless state may be the fault of Abraham.  Now that the younger woman Hagar has borne a son, even that secret comfort is denied her.  Hagar’s airs, which may be just the normal delight and pride of a new mother, act like salt in Sarah’s wounds. The humiliation and shame of a lifetime overcome her.  Sarah beats Hagar and Hagar runs away, taking the baby with her.  However, God isn’t done with these people.  He sends an angel to talk to Hagar and convince her to return.

There’s a blank in the story here – one of many.  In Jewish tradition the rabbi’s often make up a scenario to fill in the blanks.  These are called midrash and they are teaching anecdotes that carry a moral or make a theological point.

What I imagine happened here is that when Hagar ran away, Abraham was furious and worried.  I imagine he berated Sarah for driving Hagar away.  Perhaps Sarah, too, was horrified at losing her son.  No doubt they sent out search parties and prayed for them to return.

We can extrapolate from other stories in the Bible, that Hagar would have been welcomed back with rejoicing and forgiveness.  In my version, when Hagar and the baby came back, the two women come to an agreement; sharing the child and living harmoniously for a time –  at least, until Isaac arrives on the scene…

To Be Continued…

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