Thursday, October 21, 2010

Hagar vs. Sarah : Fear and Loathing in Lech Lecha

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the biblical figure Abraham. Today, I want to share my thoughts on a connecting relationship in the Bible/Torah - that of Sarah and Hagar. Let's start by looking at the text in Chapter 16 of the Torah, Parshah Lech Lecha (16 is also the corresponding biblical chapter).

Abram's wife Sarai had not borne him any children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl by the name of Hagar.


Sarai said to Abram, 'God has kept me from having children. Come to my slave, and hopefully I will have sons through her.' Abram heeded Sarai.

After Abram had lived in Canaan for ten years, his wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian her slave, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

[Abram] came to her, and she conceived. When she realized that she was pregnant, she looked at her mistress with contempt.

16:5 Sarai said to Abram, 'It's all your fault! I myself placed my slave in your arms! Now that she sees herself pregnant, she looks at me with disrespect. Let God judge between me and you!'

Abram replied to Sarai, 'Your slave is in your hands. Do with her as you see fit.' Sarai abused her, and [Hagar] ran away from her.

When I first heard about Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, I was a child. I wasn't able to process the story critically - that came later as an adult. I took a fresh look at it several years ago, and I found myself enraged. You basically have a scenario in which Abraham rapes Hagar. Yes, rapes. How do we know this is rape? Because we add two and two together and come to the only logical conclusion. Someone who is being enslaved is being held hostage; unable to leave or find new ways to live in freedom. And someone who is being held hostage is in no position to "consent" to a sexual act.

Seeing Abraham in this light was unsettling enough, but I found myself even more upset with Sarah's participation. Why? Because Abraham is a rapist, and so is Sarah. You might ask, 'how can Sarah be a rapist if she never sexually touches Hagar'? Let me explain.

In my opinion, Sarah functions as a pimp in this story. Sarah tries to get someone to have sex with Hagar so that she (Sarah) might benefit from it. The only difference is that instead of money, Sarah is after children. Like many pimps, Sarah uses the implied threat of violence at best and murder at worst to keep her "girl" in line.

I had a particularly strong reaction to this story. The story of Hagar and Sarah isn't just one of rape, as horrific as rape is. It's one of rape in the context of racist violence. Hagar is Egyptian, Sarah is from another culture and another colour. I don't think the texts specify what the color difference is between Hagar and Sarah, and I'm not sure if it would have been significant or negligible in the ancient world when this story was first told. What I do know is that the curse of enslavement concerning Cham (Ham), Noah's son and Hagar's ancestor, was used as a justification for the trans-Atlantic enslavement. I think it is safe to assume that the idea of Sarah as lighter and Hagar as darker is part of the setting in which many people have interpreted the story in more recent times.

Thank God/dess, Buddah, Faerie Guardians or whatever that I have not known the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade personally. But I carry the memory in my genes. No matter how many times someone tries to convince me this story doesn't involve rape, I don't think I can believe it. I could believe that the characters involved didn't see their actions as particularly terrible. I can believe Abraham and Sarah are complex and multi-faceted, and not one-dimensional 'bad guys'. I can believe that Hagar was afraid, or that her options seemed so limited in life that she believed "agreeing" to intercourse meant she had actually consented. But to believe Hagar was a truly consenting, or even enthusiastic, participant in that union, would be to close my eyes to a story that runs through my genes. I can't honour myself as a being created by God, and not see Hagar's rape. Let's make this even simpler. I have a brain. I can't pretend I don't, at least not for very long.

By the time of rabbinic Judaism, we might assume the sages also felt that this text cast the ancestors Abraham and Sarah in a racist, abusive and generally immoral light. The proof is in the midrashim. One Midrash states that an Egyptian Pharaoh had such high esteem for Abraham that he offered his daughter Hagar, saying, "It is better that she live as a servant in your house than a mistress in another". Over time, I've learned about some of the other midrashim concerning Abraham, Hagar and Sarah. It it important to remember that those who were involved in it's study and santification worked to correct these moral horrors, but it doesn't change the text.

Stories like this are a large stumbling block for myself and others who want to explore traditional religion. Whether the religion is Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, etc..., the younger generations slam up against texts that are sexist, racist, immoral. The problem isn't, as traditionalists like to claim, that the younger generations have no morals. The problem is that we do have morals. We don't object to traditions because we want to run from moral responsibility. The problem is that our moral responsibility is so deeply ingrained in us that we cannot sacrifice it to the idol of appearance - in this case, the appearance of fitting in with our families, cultures, congregations.

One of the hopeful things about this story is that in acknowledging how awful it actually is, we might be able to access the knowledge that can help us on our quests. Telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth is a starting point.

In the story of Abraham, Hagar and Sarah, we can see a contemporary parallel in the world of modern enslavement trafficking. The most popular form of this is trafficking in sex slavery, although I prefer to call it rape enslavement, because rape is what it's about. Although both males and females are hostages, the majority of victims are women and girls. Unfortunately, that's not surprising. What is surprising is that the majority of criminals involved in enslavement and rape traffick are women themselves. Some are also survivors of the crime.

In some way, being able to read a book thousands of years old and see the same horrible story as I can read in the daily paper fills me with hope. It means we aren't a unique generation. Ok, we are, but we aren't somehow more 'evil' than previous ones. As fucked up as we are, we're not alone. We are not the first to suffer, to hurt, to harm, to burn. We have not been singled out for special punishment. As Hagar cried in the desert to God, we cry out too. As the ancestors scrambled through life performing the verb of yisrael, which means one who wrestles with God, we keep wrestling for our blessing. And at least today, we can make different choices than we might have if we were around thousands of years ago.

Interestingly, as I searched for information on Hagar last year, I came across an article at Jewish Heritage Online Magazine which talked about two prominent Christian art figures named Ecclesia and Synagoga. Ecclesia and Synagoga were erected as symbolic statues outside many churches. Ecclesia represented the church, while Synagoga, with a broken scepter and crown, represented the old, backward ways of Judaism. These female figures may also have represented Sarah and Hagar. Sarah represented the "enlightened" Christian figure while Hagar represented the backward, Jewish outsider.

And just like that, my consciousness expanded. I wrote in "The Big Fat Mess" about how I've been starting to encounter my own internalized anti-semitism. A part of that has been anger at a bunch of rituals and legends that seem ignorant, backwards, antagonistic. When I saw my own perspective mirrored back from another source, I had this inkling that I might need to be careful in condemning and dismissing Jewish tradition. It is not perfect, but I can easily judge it more harshly than I would other traditions. In doing that, I miss what it has to offer me. How do I use this information for my betterment? Well, I'm not there yet. I'm just glad to know that maybe there's more to Judaism than a bunch of crap that makes me want to scream.

I think this subject is so rich that a book could be written on the subject, but that book is not going to be written tonight. Instead, please enjoy the links below for further reading.

An amazing blog post about Cham's "curse" by Manishtana, who is just brilliant and hilarious all around.

Wikipedia basics on the scriptural character Hagar.

Link to review of book, "Dreaming Black/Writing White: The Hagar Myth in American Cultural History".

A more in-depth exploration of Hagar and Sarah in Jewish and Christian symbolism.



  1. Mamzer:

    The fact that the Jewish Bible documents stories from ancient cultures is no condemnation of God or Judaism. The Bible is not endorsing the actions of its characters (consider Lot's daughters).

    Consider too that our values (romance is a choice between individuals made without the influence of families or social politics) are not absolutes either. In Bronze Age society, Hagar's situation would have been looked on as fortunate. She was a slave in a wealthy house and her status rose to concubine. Had Sarah not had a child, Hagar's improved status would have endured.

    Note that God blessed Ishmael and spoke to Hagar, a clue to where God is in this matter.

    I don't wish to smooth away all biblical difficulties. There are others far worse than this one.

    Theologians speak of a forward arc in biblical ideas of righteousness. God's first covenants come with people in extreme darkness. Progressively, God raises standards and all along the way there are hints that what God allowed in the early phases was not ideal (many early texts, even in the Abraham narratives, uphold an idea of justice, and by the time of Torah, love of neighbor).

    Those who applied concepts of justice and love of neighbor would find some allowable accommodations to social injustice appalling. Slavery would be challenged by these concepts.

    Derek Leman

  2. Derek,

    First, thank you for your comment.

    I agree that there are many progressive values one can find in the Torah if one knows how to find them, or what they are looking for.

    In Hagar's case, this doesn't change things. As I wrote in my post, Hagar may have "agreed" because of her circumstances. SImilarly, a rape victim today might "agree" not to scream or fight back if her rapist promises to use protection and not damage her body as much as the rapist could. This doesn't change the fact that it's rape.