“Was Hagar Abused?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we are introduced to our great patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and his wife, Sarah. These two revolutionaries arrive in the land of Canaan to start the process of becoming the founding father and mother of the Jewish people.

In this parasha, the Al-mighty appears to Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) in a vision, and tells him not to be afraid, for He [G-d] will be Abram’s shield, and that his reward will be very great. In response to G-d’s promise, Abram cries out: “What can You give me? After all, I am childless and my Damascan servant, Eliezer, is my only heir?” G-d then promises Abram that he will bear a child of his own, and that his descendants will become as numerous as the stars of the sky (Genesis 15:1-6).

Nevertheless, we learn in the very next chapter of Genesis that Sarai, Abram’s wife (her name had not yet been changed to Sarah), is barren. Acknowledging that the Al-mighty has prevented her from having children, Sarai pleads with Abram to take her maidservant, Hagar, so that she, Sarai, will be built up through Hagar. Abram listens to Sarai’s desperate voice, takes Hagar as a wife, and Hagar soon becomes pregnant.

Scripture then tells us (Genesis 16:4): “Va’tay’reh kee ha’rah’tah, vah’tay’kahl g’vir’tah b’ay’neh’hah.” When she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she had only disdain for her mistress [Sarai]. Sarai is angered and expresses her rage to Abram, demanding that G-d judge between herself and Abram. Abram tells Sarai that Hagar is in her hands, and that she should do with Hagar as she sees fit; after all, Hagar is her maidservant.

Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, and Hagar flees to the wilderness. There, by the well of water, she encounters an angel of G-d, who instructs her to return to Sarai and submit herself to Sarai’s domination. The angel promises Hagar that her offspring will increase so greatly, that they will not be able to be counted. He then informs Hagar that she will give birth to a son, whom she shall name Ishmael, because G-d has heard her prayer.

At age 86, Abram becomes a father for the first time, when his son Ishmael is born.

Our rabbis are profoundly challenged by this narrative. How is it possible that the exalted matriarch of the Jewish people could mistreat her servant in such a manner, especially since it was Sarai’s idea that Abram take Hagar as an additional wife? In fact, scripture indicates that Abram was rather reluctant to take Hagar. Genesis 16:3 reads: “Va’tee’kach Sa’rai ay’shet Av’ram et Hagar ha’Mitz’rit …va’tee’tayn oh’tah l’Av’ram eeh’shah lo l’eeh’shah.” And Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian her handmaid…and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife. Abram did not rush into the matter. In fact, he waited until Sarai herself took Hagar and gave her to him.

Because of the commentators’ discomfort with Sarai’s behavior, many explanations are proposed to help explain her actions. Rashi suggests that Hagar deserved the harsh treatment because her behavior had crossed the line. Rashi explains that when the Biblical verse says (Genesis 16:4): “Va’tay’kahl g’vir’tah b’ay’neh’hah,” that Sarai was lowered in Hagar’s esteem, it teaches that Hagar went around brazenly boasting to the local women: “Since so many years have passed without Sarai having children, she cannot be as righteous as she seems. But I conceived immediately!” Hagar not only mocked Sarai; her mockery had a devastating sting to it. If that’s the case, suggests Nehama Leibowitz, then perhaps Sarai’s bitterness is natural and her reactions understandable. “After selflessly offering Hagar to her husband, she sees herself triumphed over by her handmaid. Who would condemn Sarai for this behavior?” (Studies Bereishit, 1974)

The Radak also condones Sarai’s behavior. The Radak explains that when Abram says in Genesis 16:16, “Hee’nay shif’chah’taych b’yah’daych,” behold your maidservant is in your hand, he is in effect telling Sarai that he, Abram, has no right to treat Hagar unkindl, but you, Sarai, she is your servant, and if she mistreated you, then you may do what you feel is right.

Other commentators are still not satisfied. The Abarbanel and the Sforno suggest that Sarai’s intent when dealing harshly with Hagar was not at all malicious, but was intended rather to force Hagar to cease her insulting behavior. This strategy, unfortunately, was not very effective, since instead of acknowledging Sarai’s superior position, Hagar chose to flee.

Rabbi Aryeh Levine is cited in the Stone Artscroll Bible as feeling that it is totally incongruous for a pious woman such as Sarai to persecute another human being because of personal animosity. Consequently, Rabbi Levine suggests that Sarai treated Hagar as she always had, but because of Hagar’s now exalted position as a wife, she had developed an inflated self-image of herself, and therefore regarded Sarai’s actions as persecution.

Not all of the commentators, however, are prepared to forgive Sarai for her behavior. In fact, Ramban says plainly, “Sarai our mother sinned in dealing harshly with her handmaid, and Abram [sinned] too by allowing her to do so. Consequently, G-d heard her [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person who would bring suffering on Abram and Sarai.”

As we see here, nothing in the Bible is simple. Clearly, there are many levels of subliminal interaction that take place in these ancient narratives. Perhaps there are multiple lessons for us to learn. Perhaps Sarai truly wanted to help Hagar become a better person. On the other hand, perhaps Sarai really did persecute Hagar. We don’t really know the truth. In fact, perhaps both explanations are correct. It is this frequent uncertainty and ambivalence that underscores the so-called “mystique” of the Bible. That’s the challenge of learning Torah. That’s the challenge of growing as a human being. We may never be certain of human motivations. Perhaps all we can do is try our very best to respond to people’s actions wisely, hoping that our response will be correct.

May you be blessed.