Surrogate motherhood. The Arab-Israeli conflict. The oppression of the underclass. Sounds like a roundup of headlines from the nightly news—if the media were in full swing back in biblical days. All of these timely issues can be found in the twist-and-turn-filled story of Sarah and her Egyptian handmaiden, Hagar. According to the biblical account, both women bear a son for the patriarch Abraham. From that starting point, scholars have gone on to explore varying (and sometimes contradictory) layers of meaning in this classic tale of family rivalry.
"On one level, this is the first example of surrogate motherhood," says Naomi Steinberg, associate professor of religious studies at DePaul University in Chicago and author of Kinship and Marriage in Genesis (Fortress Press, 1993). Hagar, a slave, is never asked to consent to bearing a child, so the narrative, Steinberg says, raises the timeless issue of "upper classes exploiting those with fewer options."
While Jews traditionally see themselves as descendants of Isaac, Sarah's son, Arabs and Muslims trace their lineage to Hagar and Ishmael. African-Americans have appropriated Hagar, impregnated by her master and cast out into the desert, as a symbol of the plight of the slave woman. Feminist scholars say the story reflects the male-dominated societies of the times—or that it misrepresents the cooperative relationships that more likely existed among women.
The story of Sarah and Hagar begins in Genesis 11. Sarah, then called Sarai, and Abraham, called Abram, marry and wander the Near and Middle East. A famine sends them to Egypt. To protect himself from rivals who covet his wife, Abram asks Sarai to say she is his sister. An admiring Pharaoh thereupon takes her home and thanks Abram with a generous gift of livestock and slaves. But God afflicts Pharaoh with "great plagues," foreshadowing the story of Exodus. Pharaoh reconsiders and hands Sarai back.
Abram and Sarai end up in the city of Hebron, where he complains to God, who had promised him offspring, that he is still childless. Sarai offers him her slave woman, Hagar, and says: "It may be that I may obtain children from her." But after Hagar conceives, she looks upon Sarai contemptuously—or so her mistress believes. In return, Sarai treats the pregnant Hagar harshly, and she flees into the desert. An angel orders her back, telling her that her "wild" son is to be named Ishmael, meaning "God hears."
When Abram is 99, God comes to him and affirms his famous covenant, renaming him Abraham and promising that he will be "the ancestor of a multitude of nations." He decrees that Abraham and all his male descendants must be circumcised—and promises a child to the 90-year-old Sarai, now renamed Sarah. Both husband and wife laugh at the news.
In Genesis 21, God's promise to Abraham is finally fulfilled, as Sarah gives birth to Isaac. But she frets over whether Ishmael will also be Abraham's heir. God tells Abraham to do as Sarah wishes, so he sends Hagar and Ishmael into the desert with only meager food and water. As Hagar begins to despair, God speaks to her, promising that Ishmael will become "a great nation" and showing her a well that saves both their lives.