The Bible both prizes Sarah and disparages her. Her high valuation is reflected by the following events:
- In Egypt, Abraham does not order Sarah but pleads for her to pretend she is his sister;
- Sarah demands that Abraham impregnate Hagar for the benefit of building up Sarah;
- Abraham complies with Sarah’s demand for the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael;
- God tells Abraham to listen to Sarah;
- Sarah’s name was changed from Sarai, just as Abraham’s was from Abram, with the accompanying promise that “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (17:16) – in other words the covenant blessings and promises apply to her (Evans);
- a whole chapter is devoted to Sarah’s burial.
In addition, the rabbinical tradition was eager to see Sarah as a prophetess whose spirit of prophecy was even greater than Abraham’s!
Sarah is also depicted in ways that advance the patriarchal concerns of the narrators.
“The woman surrenders to male demands, passively moving from one male character to the other, and her consent is irrelevant. She never speaks and her opinion is insignificant to the androcentric neuroses. The woman is the object of the husband, who is oblivious to her need and cares only about controlling her” (Scholz, p.92).
At first glance, it appears that Sarah was simply Abraham’s reproductive “vessel.” It could be argued that God was only interested in Abraham’s fertility. Most of God’s conversations with the patriarch revolve around the multitude of people who would issue from his loins. It doesn’t seem very much like a woman’s story. So what are we to make of this matriarch, the wife of Abraham, the mother of Isaac and the ancestress of all Israel?
Although Sarah’s name was changed from Sarai to Sarah, both names mean “princess.” There has been abundant speculation whether “Sarai” was a title instead of a proper name. As much as many commentators would like to find a royal past for Sarah, there does not appear to be any further evidence for her actually being a princess.
The Endangered Ancestress
“When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you” (Genesis 12:11-13).
Genesis records three tales of a patriarch passing his wife off as a sister for the purposes of protecting himself, two involving Sarah and one with Rebecca. Within biblical scholarship, these tales are known as “The Endangered Ancestress.” “The widespread use of this label raises the question, What kind of danger do scholars think the matriarch is in?…it follows that the patriarch, not the matriarch, is in danger” (Exum, p.149). Based on all the trouble Pharaoh and Abimelech receive as a consequence of taking Sarah into their households, Clines concludes that the patriarch is more of a danger to the monarchs than they are to him!
Abraham assumes “a moral code according to which the foreign men in question will not commit adultery but they will commit murder… Having taken the woman (in Gen. 12 and 20), the foreign ruler, upon learning that she is Abraham’s wife, gives her back to her husband. He does not kill Abraham, as Abraham had feared, even though now he has good reason…What the patriarch seems to fear, and says explicitly that he fears in Gen. 20.11-lack of morality (‘there is surely no fear of God in this place’)–is proved by events to be not the case” (Exum, pp.156-7).
In the end, Pharaoh and Abimelech show more integrity than Abraham. So what is really going on here? And why does Abraham repeat his mistakes? Is Sarah a victim of sex-trafficking, or is she a priestess practicing religious sexual rites or is she a con artist? “If the androcentric tradition keeps repeating this story, we can assume that the story fills some need” (Exum, p.157).
Was Sarah Abraham’s Sister?
In the Bible itself, it is unclear if Abraham and Sarah are siblings. In the genealogical information we are given (Gen. 11:29, 31) Sarah is not mentioned as a relative of Abraham. In Genesis 20:12 Abraham claims that she is his sister and countless commentators have bent over backwards to find a place in the family tree for Sarah to prevent Abraham from lying. Typically she is equated with the otherwise unknown Iscah, Abraham’s sister. This stretches credibility too far. In my estimation, Abraham did not commit incest; he was simply a liar.
Was Sarah a Priestess?
The scholar Savina J. Teubal has made a career out of her thesis that Sarah was a Mesopotamian priestess. She bases her case primarily on the fact that Sarah was barren for over 90 years. In the religious practice of her hometown of Ur, women known as en and naditu remained childless their entire careers. Teubal assumes that Sarah’s barrenness was self-imposed as a condition of her high-ranking office. As a priestess she would have given oracles and participated in the sacred marriage ritual known as hieros gamos. At the conclusion of this highly ritualized sexual act with the king, the priestess then would pronounce the king and the land either prosperous and fertile or impotent. If Sarah was such a priestess, then it is possible that the liaisons she had with Pharaoh and King Abimeleck were ceremonies of her office. When the monarchs discovered that Sarah was Abraham’s wife they exhibited deep anger and anxiety. The vast wealth they bestowed upon Abraham was an attempt to placate him and his offended deity. Ancient Near Eastern custom and laws required the gift to purify the Pharaoh of any trespass against another man’s property.
However, that’s a lot of conjecture. And if Sarah was a priestess whose ritual services were requested by foreign potentates, then why did Abraham scheme to pass his wife off as his sister? And “if the Egyptian custom and understanding of the word ‘sister’ is meant, it is strange indeed that the Egyptian Pharaoh missed the point” (Hoffmeier, p.86). In a society where the king routinely married his sister, it is odd that Pharaoh had a problem with Abraham’s sister/wife. “What difference could it have made to the divine king [Pharaoh] whether the woman he had taken into his harem was the wife or sister of a mere mortal?” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.96). Given the preoccupation the Bible has with glorifying God, it serves the narrator’s purpose that Sarah was barren. The miracle of her pregnancy late in life magnifies God’s power. There is no need to infer that Sarah was a priestess simply because she was childless for 90 years.
Abraham begged Sarah to join him in fooling the monarchs, “Behold, I pray thee…” Later Sarah will use the same words to ask Abraham to impregnate her maidservant as a favor to Sarah. In other words, I did that for you, now you owe me. Several commentators suggest that
“Abraham’s real motive is a hope to receive gifts from the Egyptians, and his words ‘that it may go well with me because of you’ are a euphemistic way of saying that by abandoning his wife to the lust of a foreign potentate, he might derive material advantage” (Rashkow, pp.65-5).
There is no indication that Sarah protested or had to be threatened to cooperate with Abraham’s plan, therefore it appears that Sarah shared her husband’s motivations. Interpreters assume Sarah was silently docile and submissive to her husband’s wishes. However, this may not be the case. Genesis 12:17 is typically translated “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because (‘ldbr) of Sarai, Abram’s wife.” Literally the phrase is “on account of the word (‘ldbr) of Sarai.”
“The phrase ‘l dbr Sarai can be interpreted in several ways. The first option… ‘on account of/because of Sarai’. In that case dbr has a juridical connotation. Injustice has been done to Sarai, and YHWH takes action as judge on her behalf. A second option is, ‘because of the word/deed concerning Sarai’. In that case dbr points to Abram’s word-deed (speech act) by which he, naming Sarai as his sister, has in fact terminated his marital relationship with her…A third option is, ‘because of the word of Sarai'” (van Dijk-Hemmes, p.231).
In this last instance, Sarah became a subject with speech, not just an object (Trible, Ominous, p. 33). Later, in her encounter with Abimelech, the king told God that Sarah told him that Abraham was her brother (Gen. 20.5), evidence that Sarah did speak up. Perhaps she was not as submissive as we have been lead to believe.
Perhaps the wife-sister pericopes of incest and adultery were originally meant to be titillating to an ancient audience:
“that she is a woman of a certain age serves the redactor’s intention to make these stories amusing…I am convinced, this shady deal was funny. Pharaoh, more fool he, is paying all that livestock and those servants for a woman who is not even a virgin–and no spring chicken into the bargain…Ancient readers reveled in stories of victim turned victor, and had an earthy appreciation of the comedic element in Abraham’s shrewd gambles” (Reis, Take, p.307-8).
The tales are less about morality than a demonstration of how great the Lord was who could save Abraham and Sarah no matter what scrape they got into. God could even make foreign kings fear him. “Considering the lack of expressed disapproval by any of the narratives over deception and sexual exploitation by the matriarch, there is a suggestion of the trickster type of narrative” (Streete, p.25). For the ancient audience, exploits of their underdog ancestor and the beauty of his wife was a matter of national pride told from one generation to the next.
I highly recommend Susan Niditch’s Underdogs and Tricksters: A Prelude to Biblical Folklore for a fuller discussion of Biblical tricksters.
However, after we stop laughing, we have to come to terms with how offensive the story is. Sarah was not just being borrowed, she was being taken as a wife by another man. “In Genesis 12:15 and 20:3 the texts report that the Hebrew Sarah was ‘taken’ (from the root lqh) which is generally used in a marital relationship and is distinguished from merely a sexual union” (Hoffmeier, p.93). To Abraham, Sarah was expendable. What use was a barren wife to a man who had just been promised by God that nations would issue from his loins? He might have thought this was a good way to get rid of her so he could start fresh with a new family. Later of course we will discover that Abraham is the kind of guy who has no problem sacrificing members of his family (Gunn/Fewell, Narrative, p.98).
You would think that he wouldn’t expect Sarah to be returned to him after he marries her off to the king but later he lets slip that “he told Sarah to claim he was her brother ‘at every place to which we come’, indicating compulsive behavior and not a single aberration” (Exum, p.162). Though Abraham would have no reason to believe he would get his wife back, he must have been quite pleased each time she was returned to him with great wealth. The text explicitly states that the patriarch feared for his life because of his wife’s beauty. He claimed that the Egyptians would kill him if they thought Sarah was his wife. “It seems strange, however, that Abraham would entertain these fears since, according to what we are told later, Sarah was only ten years younger than Abraham, that is, sixty-five years old” (Rashkow, p.64). You have to wonder why Abraham thinks other men would be so interested in her.
“Can we accept Abram’s speech at face value…? Does he truly think Sarai’s exceptional beauty will put him at risk? If indeed all Egyptian men desire her, would not all this unwanted attention put her at risk as well?… In the course of his appeal to Sarai, he subtly mixes flattery…and guilt, shifting blame and responsibility onto his wife. First the flattery: ‘Look here, you are a beautiful woman.’ Then he constructs a hypothetical scenario of danger. The danger, it soon becomes clear, is the woman’s fault. Her beauty will drive men to murder him, but she, he claims, would be spared. How could she live with that sort of guilt, knowing that she thrived while he lay dead on her account? She must take responsibility for his safety: ‘Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me and my life may be spared on your account'” (Fewell/Gunn, Gender, p.42).
From a psychological perspective, Exum argues that Abraham needed other men to desire his wife to validate and increase his own desire for Sarah. The “fascination with the notion of the woman being taken by another man may mask a fear and hatred of woman that desires her humiliation” (Exum, pp.158-9).
Streete agrees that these stories are about power “played out in the guise of sexual authority over women. Their underlying assumption is that males who have power will subdue other males through taking ‘their’ women… Surrendering their sexual possessions will, in their view, preserve their own lives” (Streete, p.24).
The “Endangered Ancestress” stories exhibit every sign of being told from a male point of view so it’s very hard to determine what Sarah might have been thinking. Abraham, Pharaoh, and Abimelech never refer to Sarah by name, only by personal pronoun or as Abraham’s property. “Even God views Sarah from this perspective when speaking to Abimelech: in his dream, Abimelech is told that he is a dead man for having taken a beulat ba’al, usually translated as ‘a man’s wife’ but meaning literally the ‘possession of a possessor” (Rashkow, p.63). Some commentators point out that God did save Sarah in the midst of her ordeal. Though it is possible that from God’s point of view, Sarah was not expendable (Gunn/Fewell, Narrative, p.92), I find God’s role rather ambiguous in these narratives.
Sarah’s Barrenness/Sarah Builds up Her House
After all of these shenanigans, God deemed it time for Sarah and Abraham to settle down. God promised the patriarch offspring (Genesis 15) and in response, Sarah told Abraham to take her handmaid Hagar that “I might be built up through her.” In the ancient Code of Hammurabi, the phrase “building a house” is used for passing on an inheritance. The custom of an infertile wife providing her husband with a handmaiden in order to bear children is well documented in the ancient Near East.
None “of the ancient texts sees any ethical problem with this arrangement. Ancient societies accepted slavery as a regular part of social life. Using another person’s body as a surrogate for one’s own is part of the fabric of slavery. Just as a slave’s muscles can be utilized for the good of the master, so can a slave woman’s womb” (Frymer-Kensky, p.227).
However, Sarah’s action was very odd since she made it clear that she intended to build up her lineage and successor, not Abraham’s. Sarah “is indicating that her intention is to regard the maid’s child as her offspring, not her husband’s” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.33). According to the Code of Hammurabi, the laws that Abraham and Sarah would have been familiar with, the dowry of the wife remained separate from the property of her husband even at her death. When Sarai left the house of her father to join Abram, she probably brought with her a dowry. This dowry became the inheritance which she would pass on to her offspring (Drey, p.188). It appears that we are dealing with matrilineal descent wherein a woman bears children to perpetuate her own heritage and estate. “Look, Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children” (16:2) Sarah said. Since she claimed it was God who made her barren, how did that make her feel about Yahweh? When Sarah presented her handmaiden to Abraham, did this show her faith in God’s power and her cooperative spirit? On the contrary. Based on her intent to build up “the House of Sarah” it appears that she was challenging God’s pronouncement that He will build a great nation through Abraham. She “attributes her barren plight to Yahweh and thus seeks to counter divine action with human initiative” (Trible, Texts, p.11) If anything, it appears that she was angry with God.
So why did Sarah suddenly want children now that she was well past childbearing age? Most commentators find her “desperate” to have children but at her advanced age it was more likely that she was reconciled to the fact that she wouldn’t have children. This is jumping ahead a bit but later on she will laugh at the thought that she will have a child. Her phrasing is enlightening: “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen. 18:12). She was incredulous that she would have sexual fulfillment, not that she wouldhave a child. Her barrenness did not seem to concern her, only her sexual satisfaction. In a patriarchal culture in which a woman’s fertility was her greatest asset, Sarah’s emphasis on her own pleasure was novel.
Throughout the Bible barrenness is depicted as the result of God’s decision to withhold children. Feminist commentators emphasize that women had no control over their reproductive potential (Fuchs, p.129). However, the use of handmaidens “may be a superstitious folk belief or an attempt to gain God’s favor by furthering his command to propagate” (Reis, Hagar, p.78 based on Kardimon’s work). Through the use of another woman’s body, the matriarchs gained a sense of control over their own fertility. Ironically, it was Sarah who controlled Abraham’s sexuality through the use of Hagar.
Conflict Between the Women
Once Hagar realized she had conceived, Sarah was “lowered in her esteem.” After watching how Abraham traded Sarah for wealth during their sojourn in Egypt, one commentator concludes, “Why should not Hagar esteem Sarah lightly? Hagar saw Abraham hold her lightly” (Reis, Take, p.311). However, instead of chiding Hagar or blaming her, Sarah turned to Abraham: ‘My fury is against you! (hamasi aleha)'” “The Hebrew root of the first word, hamas, is a strictly legal term denoting lawlessness and injustice” (Teubal, p.78). Sarah was speaking of her legal rights being violated. Another way to translate this would be “That I am deprived of my rights is on you!” The Code of Hammurapi “explicitly states that women of whatever rank who are to bear children may not claim equality with the childless woman they will represent” (Teubal, Hagar, p.78). Sarah was not responding out of jealousy or bitterness but out of a need to protect her rights. If she did not speak out, she risked losing her legal right to an heir. Sarah could have lost her status as head wife if she remained barren and her fertile handmaiden challenged her position (Jackson, p.19).
According to Waters, she could also have been reduced to the status of a slave if she did not produce a son for her husband (p.193). Sarah sensed her vulnerability and took this threat seriously. If Sarah had expected to “persuade” God to make her fertile by giving Hagar to Abraham, Sarah may have been outraged to discover that God did not cooperate with the bargain she thought she had made. Sarah’s outrage, hamas, “is an offense so grave that God destroys a world because of it; it is the sin of Noah’s generation that precipitates the flood” (Reis, Hagar, p.83). Reis speculates that Sarah’s intense anger was a result of catching Abraham and Hagar being sexually intimate after Hagar had become pregnant thereby depriving Sarah of an opportunity to conceive.
Sarah ended her invocation with a legal formula, “May the Lord judge between me and you (u-beineh)!” Usually this is taken to mean that she was asking God to judge between herself and Abraham, perhaps to determine which wrong was greater: what Sarah was about to do and what Abraham has done to her in the past (Reis, Take, p.311). However, Rashi, the medieval Jewish sage, pointed out that beineh is second person feminine (Chumash, p.64). In other words, Sarah was addressing Hagar at this point. She was asking God to determine who will be considered the legal mother of the unborn child, Sarah or Hagar. Abraham confirmed Sarah’s status as head wife and acknowledged Sarah’s legal authority over Hagar by telling her to “deal with her as you think right.”
Abuse of Hagar
And so Sarah afflicted Hagar, perhaps as a demonstration that she was back in control of her handmaiden. “The verb ‘afflict’ (‘nh) connotes harsh treatment. It characterizes, for example, the suffering of the entire Hebrew population in Egypt, the land of their bondage to Pharaoh…Ironically, the verb depicts here the suffering of a lone Egyptian woman in Canaan, the land of her bondage to the Hebrews” (Trible, Ominous, p.40). The verb afflict “generally carries the connotation of physical harm: it can mean to rape, or to oppress as slaves (it is used about Israel in Egypt this way), as well as simply to humble or humiliate” (Hackett, p.14). Though Sarah may have had the legal right to afflict her servant, that in no way justified her behavior. “The narrator rarely censures or approves explicitly; rather, the author guides the reader toward correct moral judgment by inference. The verb the author uses to describe Sarai’s treatment of Hagar is an indictment” (Reis, Hagar, p.88). By using the term ‘nh the reader has been alerted that Sarah was wrong in her treatment of Hagar.
The irony of course is that Sarah was given to Pharaoh as a concubine and therefore Hagar and her mistress had similar histories. However, like many abused people, Sarah lashed out and became an abuser herself. She asserted her dominance in an attempt to not lose it again.
“As Abram schemed to save himself by manipulating Sarai and Pharaoh, so Sarai schemes to promote herself by manipulating Abram and Hagar. As Abram tricked Pharaoh into manhandling Sarai, so Sarai would persuade Abram to manhandle Hagar. Like husband, like wife. Altogether, Sarai would treat Hagar in Canaan much as she herself was treated in Egypt: the object of use for the desires of others. Like oppressor, liked oppressed” (Trible, Ominous, p.38).
This story is also about economic stratification. “Translated into today’s language, Hagar was a domestic; Sarai was her employer” (Weems, p.10). Sarah exploited the body of Hagar because she could; she had social and economic power over her. In My Sister Sarah, Tanner makes a very poignant point about our connection to Sarah. As First World people we also look the other way when we cover our beds with sheets made in foreign sweatshops, because we can. We enjoy our immigrant laborers without thinking too deeply about their less than minimum wages, because we can.
“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 slave woman. In fact, the only thing that separated the two women were a couple of cattle and some sheep (which in today’s language translates to a paycheck and a diploma)” (Weems, p.13).
We too can treat others as less than human if we choose to not see the far-reaching consequences of our actions. Reading about the women of the Bible is not meant to be a passive, intellectual activity. It’s a wake up call to action.
Hagar then claimed her own exodus and fled (brh) from her oppression just as Israel will later flee (brh) from Pharaoh. We will leave Hagar’s story for the time being and pick up the narrative after her son was born.
Sarah’s Name Change and Ishmael’s Circumcision
In Genesis 17 God introduced a covenant to be sealed in the flesh through circumcision. The rite was not practiced in most of Mesopotamia where Sarah was born and lived a great deal of her life. On the other hand, circumcision was practiced in Egypt. Teubal argues that Hagar introduced the custom and this was a source of conflict between the women. However, this ignores the clear statement that God introduced the practice. Furthermore, Sarah didn’t seem to have a problem later when Isaac was circumcised.However, the new rite of circumcision did mark a change in religious and social practices.
“Simultaneous with Ishmael’s rite of passage was the circumcision of his father, Abram, in honor of a covenant recently made with his God. The covenant involved a promise on the part of the deity: ‘I give this land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; I will be their God.’ In other words, the practice of circumcision would allow the transfer of title patrilineally through the generations indefinitely” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.66).
Both Sarah and Hagar belonged to matrilineal descent systems, Mesopotamian in the first case, and Egyptian in the latter case. Circumcision marked the change in social order from matrilineal to patrilineal. This is confirmed later as Ishmael and Isaac are designated as Abraham’s sons, not their mothers’. At the same time God changed the matriarch’s name from Sarai to Sarah thereby including her in the covenant along with Abraham. Was the matriarch aware that God had declared that henceforth she would not be built up by children through herself or her maidservant but through Abraham instead?
Three visitors approached Abraham and Sarah’s encampment at Mamre, a grove of trees considered sacred and used as a cultic center by the local population for the veneration of female goddesses. Abraham hurried to provide meat for the men and Sarah baked cakes, possibly the kind of cakes made by women worshiping the Queen of Heaven mentioned in Jer. 7:18. The three men exhibited no interest in Abraham and immediately asked where Sarah was. Suddenly the text reveals that it is God who was speaking and addresses Sarah over Abraham’s shoulder, so to speak.
“The conversation that was conceived from the beginning as taking place between men ends in a conversation between YHWH and Sarah. YHWH emerges from the group of visitors at the moment when she enters the conversation. This structuring makes it clear that Sarah’s listening at the entrance to the tent (v.10b) was not impertinent eavesdropping on men’s important conversation, but that the story places Sarah there precisely so that she may hear the message, which is intended for her” (Fischer, p.24).
Then God announced that Sarah would give birth to a son. She laughed and then argued with the deity. Sarah seemed to have been of sufficient stature to command respect from whomever she wished. Commentators have traditionally interpreted Sarah’s laugh as a lack of faith in God. However, her laughter should be treated the same way as Abraham’s laughter (Genesis 17:17). If his was a joyful expression then it would be wrong to see incredulity in hers. It would be a very sexist interpretation to see Abraham’s mirth in a positive light while interpreting Sarah’s as malevolent.
“Whether she laughed because she finds the idea of conceiving a child in old age ludicrous, or whether she laughed with delighted surprise, or whether she laughed with bitterness–having longed all her life for a child, and having God’s promise come so very late–the text does not say. Why Sarah laughed is mysterious to God as well because He asks Abraham why Sarah laughed” (Lefkovitz, p.160).
This isn’t the first time God promised Abraham offspring. However, this time God made it clear that the child of promise must be through Sarah. “Thus even the covenant with Abraham would appear to be a covenant with Sarah, or at least on behalf of Sarah,” (Bakan, p.74). The birth narrative of 16:7-15 may be regarded as the female counterpart to the covenant relationship between Abraham and God (Jarrell). When we study Hagar’s story we will learn that this covenant with Sarah corresponds to the promise that God made with the maidservant in the desert. Notice however, that no mention is made that the son will be considered solely Sarah’s for purposes of building her up. Nor is the child designated as belonging only to Abraham. At this point the future child is in neutral territory.
And the Abandonment of the Promise
Immediately after God promised Abraham and Sarah the birth of a son within a year, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister once again. After the success of their ruse in Egypt, the two try it again with King Abimeleck of Gerar. This time they don’t claim that famine made them do it and Abraham does not pretend Sarah is his sister because he is afraid of being killed. In this episode, Abraham (and Sarah?) seem rather caviler about the whole thing. And because God does not condemn Abraham, the “most scandalous thing about Abraham’s ignominious actions is that we are forced to participate” (Rashkow, p.68). As readers we witness Abraham abandoning his wife again just “at a point when the fulfillment of the promise of a son was imminent” (Fischer, p.31). The narrator makes it clear that Abimeleck did not commit adultery with Sarah, a fact not made clear in the earlier story with Pharaoh.
Naming of Isaac
“Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age…Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him” (Gen. 21:2-3).
Suddenly Isaac was clearly Abraham’s son and Sarah has been divested of a successor. Although God originally named the child, now Abraham was given credit for the naming. It appears that patriarchy was asserting itself once again.
Isaac being Isaaced
“But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing [metzahek] with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son’ for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:9-10).
Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned (Gen. 21:8). During the party Sarah saw Ishmael do something to Isaac. The “Hebrew reports simply that Sarah saw Hagar’s son playing. The Hebrew does not even say ‘playing with her own son Isaac’; it simply says ‘playing’ (Hackett, p.15). The Septuagint adds the idea that Ishmael was metzahek with his younger sibling. Whatever the meaning of the word, Sarah was incensed and demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be thrown out of the encampment. What could be the link between Ishmael’s playing and Sarah’s request for Hagar and Ishmael’s dismissal?
“Why was Sarah so incensed at Hagar’s son that he should lose the inheritance because of his metzahek behavior? The biblical verb (m)s-h-k used by Sarah as the motive for her demand is unclear and difficult to translate. It is variously rendered ‘playing,’ ‘mocking,’ or ‘amusing.’ None of these terms can justify Sarah’s banishing Hagar and her son” (Teubal, Ancient Sisterhood, p.136).
All other uses of the root of this word have strong sexual connotations. “The enigmatic term (m)shq, ‘mocking’ used to describe Ishmael’s behavior, can also be rendered as something like ‘sexual fondling'” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.39). For instance, the same word is used when Isaac caressed Rebecca in Gen. 26:8. The Hebrew word for what Ishmael was doing is from the same root from which Isaac’s name is taken. Over and over again the text emphasizes that the concept of laughter was the basis for Isaac’s name.”So when Ishmael is metzahek, he is not just laughing or playing–he is also ‘isaac-ing.’ And this is perhaps what Sarah is complaining about in the next verse, that she noticed Ishmael doing something to indicate he was just like Isaac, that they were equals” (Hackett, pp.20-1).
The Mesopotamian laws of Lipit-Ishtar state that the only way the children of a slave woman born to her master could lose their inheritance was if the father granted them their freedom. Some scholars observe that Sarah was asking Abraham to exercise that legal right so that Ishmael had to forfeit his share in his father’s property. Though Sarah declared that Ishmael would not inherit with Isaac, it was not for financial reasons that she required Hagar to leave. Ishmael was at least 13 years old and Isaac was probably 3 years old. Sarah had plenty of time earlier to push for Ishmael’s disinheritance if this was her goal. “If Sarah’s motivation were economic, however, why did it take her years to repudiate Ishmael and Isaac’s division of Abraham’s legacy?” (Reis, Hagar, p.95). The catalysis was the metzahek incident, whatever that entailed. Suddenly Sarah did not want the two boys to grow up together. Troost finds the separation of the two matriarchs to be benign. Like Abraham and Lot separating to make room for their vast flocks, the matriarchs had to find their own separate regions to flourish.
“Ishmael will receive his inheritance when he is with his mother, therefore he has to be sent away with his mother. Isaac will receive his inheritance when he stays with Sarah…Only by sending Hagar and Ishmael away can Elohim’s promises to Hagar and Sarah (and Abraham) be fulfilled… Gen. 21.1-21 can be regarded as representing a tradition in which children do belong to their mothers, and in which mothers do decide about their and their children’s conditions of living” (Troost, pp.263-4).
Interestingly, rabbinic tradition counts Sarah as a prophetess for predicting that the boys would not inherit together.
Expulsion of Hagar & Ishmael
Abraham was distressed, not for Hagar’s sake, only for his son’s. To persuade him to expel his offspring God assured Abraham that his son would prosper. With this promise, Abraham “sent her away” with a measly day’s ration.
“The narrator makes the harshness of Abraham’s action clear by contrasting what is done for the two mothers and their sons: a sumptuous banquet of food and wine for Sarah and Isaac, and for Hagar and Ishmael only as much bread and waters as a woman with a child in arms can carry” (Fischer, p.37).
The narrator is making a point to portray Abraham and Sarah as inhuman. God is even dragged through the mud when he tells Abraham to listen to his wife and do what she says. Why was the ancestral couple and God presented in such a negative way? Fischer postulates that this account reached its final form during and just after the Babylonian exile.
The message of Hagar’s expulsion was “directed at the people during the exile. In order to deal with the catastrophe of the destruction of the city and Temple and their own exile, they had to admit that the sin was to be sought in their own ranks. Inhuman exploitation of the socially marginal, which contradicted YHWH’s concept of a blessed life in the land, had to have consequences” (Fischer, p.38).
This theme is developed in more detail in my study of Hagar.
A whole chapter is devoted to Abraham’s purchase of land for the purposes of burying Sarah, an indication of her significance.
The “grave becomes the first piece of land that belongs to the ancestral couple as heritable property. The first burial there is that of the ancestral woman. Read in the context of Genesis 12-23, this means that Sarah, by her death, becomes the first heir of the promise of the land” (Fischer, p.46).
After the death of Sarah, the Bible’s only concern is with her descendants the Israelites, not Hagar’s and Keturah’s, Abraham’s other families. “Sarah is more definitively the ancestor of the Israelites than Abraham” (Bakan, p.73). Abraham lived another 48 years but nothing of his life is recorded.
“In other words, it is Sarah’s role that furthers the story…If the narration of events following the death and burial of Sarah were truly patriarchal, it would deal with the life and exploits of the male heir, Isaac. Instead, once again the accent is on the role of a woman: Rebekah” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.xv).
The burial place at Mamre continued to be associated with the matriarchs. “Offspring were privileged to be buried there not because they were sons of wives rather than concubines; it is because they were chosen by the matriarchs as successors. Esau was as much a son of Rebekah and Isaac as his brother, but only Jacob, the elect of Rebekah, was buried at Mamre. Only Jacob married, at Rebekah’s insistence, within his mother’s kinship group…The ancestors of the Hebrew are only those whom the matriarchs accepted as members of their descent group” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.66).
After Sarah’s death, Isaac consummated his marriage in his mother’s tent, another indication of the enduring authority of Sarah. If Sarah had continued to practice matrilineal descent but had no girls to pass on her legacy, her next best option would have been to carefully choose the bride for her son. Perhaps Abraham was fulfilling Sarah’s orders when he insisted that Isaac obtain a wife from the house of his sister Milkah and Rebecca’s mother (Gen 24:25). “On closer examination of the texts, it appears that the women of the stories were struggling to maintain traditions and customs not always in accord with those of their husbands” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.3).
Even after her death, Sarah was back in control of events. It seems Sarah got the last laugh!
For Further Reading
Bakan, David – And They Took Themselves Wives: The Emergence of Patriarchy in Western Civilization (Harper & Row, 1979)
Clines, David J.A. – What Does Eve Do to Help? and Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament. JSOT Supplement 94. (T&T Clark, 1990)
Drey, Philip R. – “The Role of Hagar in Genesis 16,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 40 (2002) 179-95.
Evans, Mary J. – “The Invisibility of Women: An Investigation of a Possible Blind Spot for Biblical Commentators,” Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Journal 122 (1990) 37-38.
Exum, J. Cheryl – Fragmented Women: Feminist (Sub)versions of Biblical Narratives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament: Supplement Series 163. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993).
Fewell, Danna Nolan and David M. Gunn – Gender, Power, and Promise: The Subject of the Bible’s First Story (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993)
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva S. – Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schoken Books, 2002)
Fuchs, Esther – “The Literary Characterization of Mothers and Sexual Politics in the Hebrew Bible” in Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, Adele Yarbro Collins, ed. (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1985) 117-36.
Fischer, Irmtraud – Women Who Wrestled with God: Biblical Stories of Israel’s Beginnings. Linda M. Maloney, trans. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2005)
Gilhus, Ingvild – Laughing Gods, Weeping Virgins: Laughter in the History of Religion (Routledge, 2009)
Gunn, David M. and Danna Nolan Fewell – Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).
Hackett, Jo Ann – “Rehabilitating Hagar: Fragments of an Epic Pattern,” in Peggy L. Day, ed., Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 12-27.
Hoffmeier, James K. – “The Wives’ Tales of Genesis 12, 20, and 26 and the Covenants at Beer-Sheba,” Tyndale Bulletin 43 (1992), 81-99.
Jackson, Alvin A. – Examining the Record: An Exegetical and Homiletical Study of Blacks in the Bible. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Studies in Religion, Culture and Social Development, Vol. 4. (Peter Lang Publishing, 1994)
Jarrell, R.H – “The Birth Narrative as Female Counterpart to Covenant,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 97 (2002), 3-18.
Kardimon, S. – “Adoption as a Remedy for Infertility in the Period of the Patriarchs” Journal of Semitic Studies 3 (1958).
Lefkovitz, Lori Hope – “Eavesdropping on Angels and Laughing at God: Theorizing a Subversive Matriarchy” in Gender and Judaism: The Transformation of Tradition, Tamar Rudavsky, ed. (NYU Press, 1995)
Marmesh, Ann – “Anti-Covenant” in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible, Mieke Bal, ed., Journal for the Study of the Old TestamentSup 81. (Sheffield, Eng.: Almond, 1989)
Rashkow, Ilona N. – “Intertextuality, Transference, and the Reader in/of Genesis 12 and 20” in Reading Between Texts: Intertextuality and the Hebrew Bible, Danna Nolan Fewell, ed. Literary Currents in Biblical Interpretation. (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992)
Reis, Pamela Tamarkin – “Take My Wife, Please: On the Utility of the Wife/Sister Motif,” Judaism 41 (1992), 306-15.
Reis, Pamela Tamarkin – “Hagar Requited,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 87 (2000), 75-109.
Scholz, Susanne – Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (London/New York: T&T International, 2007)
Seeman, D – “`Where Is Sarah Your Wife?’ Cultural Poetics of Gender and Nationhood in the Hebrew Bible,” Harvard Theology Review 91 (1998), 103-25
Silberman, L.H. – “Listening to the Text,” Journal of Biblical Literature 102 (1983)
Streete, Gail Corrington – The Strange Woman: Power and Sex in the Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997)
Teubal, Savina J. – Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah (Swallow Press, 1997)
Teubal, Savina J. – Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1984)
Trible, Phyllis – “Ominous Beginnings for a Promise of Blessing” in Trible, Phyllis and Letty M. Russell, eds., Hagar, Sarah, And Their Children: Jewish, Christian, And Muslim Perspectives (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 33-69.
Trible, Phyllis – Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Overtures to Biblical Theology. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984)
Troost, Arie – “Reading for the Author’s Signature: Genesis 21.1-21 and Luke 15.11-32 as Intertexts” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 2. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
van Dijk-Hemmes, Fokkelien – “Sarai’s Exile: A Gender- Motivated Reading of Genesis 12.10-13.2,” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 2. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
Waters, John W. – “Who Was Hagar?” in Stony the Road We Trod: African American Biblical Interpretation, Cain Hope Felder, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991) 187-205.
Weinfeld, Moshe – “Sarah and Abimelech (Genesis 20) Against the Background of an Assyrian Law and the Genesis Apocryphon.” in Melanges bibliques et orientaux en l’honneur de M. Mathias Delor, pp. 431-436. Ed. A. Caquot, S. Legasse and M. Tardieu (Kevelaer, West Germany: Butzon und Bercker, 1985)
Williams, James G. – “The Beautiful and the Barren: Conventions in Biblical Type Scenes” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 17 (1980) 107-19.