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.
Archaeologists have found no vidence attesting to the existence of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. Yet the story of Sarah and Hagar does reflect real historical concerns, including the paramount importance of inheritance in Middle Eastern societies of the second millennium B.C.
These ancient societies were "patrilineal" and "patrilocal," says Steinberg: Inheritance passed through the male line, and the bride was expected to live with the groom's family. These societies also practiced "endogamy," or marrying within certain kinship limits. "That explains why ultimately Isaac, the son of Sarah, was chosen as Abraham's heir rather than Ishmael, the son of Hagar," Steinberg says. In the biblical account, Abraham at one point identifies Sarah as his half sister, although Steinberg believes a better translation would be "kinswoman."
Alice Bach, Archbishop Hallinan Chair of Catholic Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and author of Women, Seduction, and Betrayal in Biblical Narrative (Cambridge University Press, 1997), says that the taking of secondary wives was a common practice in ancient Israel. "What Abraham did to [Hagar] was completely legal," she says. "If your wife cannot have children, you can have children by your wife's slaves, and the child becomes yours." And polygamy is certainly one way to ensure that a patriarch can reproduce. Abraham converts his "power and resources into women and children," notes Laura Betzig, an anthropologist and historian who has studied sex in the Bible.
The story can also be seen as a reaffirmation of both divine and male supremacy. "One thing women can do that men cannot do is conceive and bear a child," Bach says. But Sarah's conception of Isaac makes clear that "God—who in those days was [considered] male—was more powerful and could open or close a womb."
Miriam Peskowitz, professor of rabbinic civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, is among those who dispute the traditional picture of Sarah and Hagar as rivals. "I think the story's at odds with the way people would have lived," she says, with cooperation among women being essential to survival in the desert. In fact, she says, "the story is less about Sarah and Hagar and more about the Bible's repeated insistence that only one son can be the favored son."
Muslims, however, see both Isaac and Ishmael as legitimate heirs, says Khaled Keshk, assistant professor of religious studies at DePaul University. In the Islamic tradition, if a man sleeps with a slave, he says, "the slave is free, and the son is never born a slave." Muslims also believe that it was Ishmael, not Isaac, whom Abraham was told to sacrifice, Keshk says. They credit Ishmael and Abraham with together rebuilding the holy city of Mecca; many of the rituals of the sacred pilgrimage, or hajj—including a sacrificial feast—are symbolically tied to the story of Hagar and Ishmael.
Like the Muslims, African-American "womanists" have redeemed Hagar. Delores Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Orbis Books, 1993), says Hagar is "an analogue for African-American women's experience," from slavery to the problems of single mothers today." But she is seen not just as a victim but as a survivor. Referring to Hagar's miraculous rescue in the desert, Williams says: "We say, 'God has made a way out of no way.' "
Christians also stake a claim to the saga. In Galatians 4, the apostle Paul attempts to convert it into an allegory about the triumph of Christianity. He says that Hagar's son was born "according to the flesh" while Sarah's was "through the promise." In a passage that remains controversial, he says it is Christians, not Jews, who are the sons of the free woman. By claiming that "followers of Christ are the true inheritors of Abraham's covenant with God," says Elizabeth Castelli, associate professor of religion at Barnard College, Paul is performing "an extraordinary contortionist move" that "inverts the Jewish interpretation of his time."
The complexities of the Sarah and Hagar story continue to make it fertile ground for theological debate. That may be because, at their core, these biblical passages address the question "What does it mean to be a member of society-who's in, and who's out?" says Steinberg. "They're answering identity questions—from long ago and into the present."