I have a problem with Sarai and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac. Walk through it with me.
1. Sarai has an Egyptian servant named Hagar. One article I read yesterday suggested they would not have had Hagar had Sarai not lived with Pharaoh, earning Abram favor, when Abram lied about being her brother instead of husband. I…think that’s a bit much. I mean, pretty sure God would have blessed his household while in Egypt had he not been actively lying at least as much as while he was, so to say that Hagar would not have been “acquired” had he told the truth is…extreme speculation. But it’s out there.
2. Sarai gets impatient for the promised child and offers Hagar to Abram to bring it about. I was always taught this was the problem right here, this impatience. This taking God’s work upon herself, and Abram’s agreement. In that time and place, though, they thought the child was entirely the mans genetic descendant, the woman just…grew it. For this reason, the practice of surrogacy in this manor was not strange to them. The Faithlife Study Bible (and other sources) pointed out that God’s promises to Abram had not yet included Sarai. Could this be a case of, “Well, are we really being responsible just waiting? What if, by passively waiting, we fail to receive the blessing because we didn’t act in a reasonably expected manner?”
Maybe, but as my husband pointed out to me, taking matters into his own hands is a pattern with Abram. He lies because he doesn’t trust God to protect him twice. He doesn’t wait for the promised, miraculous child. And that’s the point of the child. Isaac isn’t born of a virgin like Christ, but he is born of a woman well past biological childbearing age, whether she was infertile to begin with or not. Redemption begins with an impossible, miraculous child and is fulfilled with an impossible, miraculous child.
3. When Hagar conceives, she looks at Sarai with contempt. Yes, she is a slave, but lets try to remember that this is not American or modern slavery. This is slavery God never condemned. This is slavery that God eventually set out rules for, in order to protect the slave, but again, did not condemn. Does this make it enjoyable? Probably not. Even with a favorable master, you still have that stigma of being a slave. So, at best, she’s a second or third class human, at worst she’s property. She deserves compassion for her situation, obviously. She probably didn’t really have a choice in the whole kid having scheme. It would have raised her status in her the household, but that’s a pretty big, well, not ask so much as tell there.
So, the question here is this: did she look at Sarai with contempt because she resented her situation? Or did she look at Sarai with contempt, as many have suggested, because she succeeded where Sarai had failed? Because she was blessed where Sarai was obviously cursed? In light of what we know of historical context and language, it would seem the second is more likely. However, we can’t completely rule out the first, even if it is a more modern interpretation influenced by modern understandings of slavery as an inhumane practice.
4. Sarai then gets jealous and angry and somehow blames Abram for Hagar’s attitude. He refuses to get involved, and Sarai abuses Hagar until she takes the child and runs away. Yeah, pretty sure this one doesn’t raise any questions. This is just straight up awful. Sarai is so very wrong. Abram, if he wasn’t wrong in passively accepting her suggestion earlier is so very wrong to remain uninvolved here. He should have intervened if Hagar were acting inappropriately. He certainly shouldn’t have passively endorsed Sarai’s abuse. So…where ever else they went wrong, they went wrong here.
5. God stops Hagar and talks her into returning to Abram with…what reads like both a blessing and a curse. He’ll have as many offspring as Abram, but he’ll constantly be at odds with everyone. Now, one take on this suggests that second part isn’t a curse at all but rather a promise. To a subjugated woman, the idea that her son will never be subjugated is a promise of strength and freedom.
I like a lot of what Mr. Elkins, the author of this article, reflects on. He points out that God is the first person in the story to talk to Hagar instead of about her. (Obviously this is because it’s a short story and we don’t get to see those other interactions, but it would definitely seem to reflect the attitudes at play.) Sarai uses and then abuses Hagar, and Abram passively allows it to happen. They are both obviously more concerned with themselves than her, and God has a compassionate and personal conversation with her, addressing her concerns. Mr. Elkins points out that Hagar refers to God as the one who sees her; he is the God who listens to her, and so the take-away from this story is a lesson in compassion, in using power to give voices to the voiceless. All of this I like and appreciate. I’m grateful for this perspective, because I believe this lesson is a good one to take from this passage.
The idea that her son being at odds with everyone for his whole life is a comfort, though? That doesn’t feel right, not anymore than the idea that this is just a punishment for Sarai’s impatience. Canaan was cursed because Ham, in our best understanding of his offense, tried to usurp his brother’s inheritance. There seems to be significant parallel, here. After all, this is an attempt to insinuate Ishmael above Isaac whether they realize it or not.
So what do you think? Was it a curse? Was it a punishment for an impatience that attempts to usurp God’s chosen heir? Or…was it just a prophecy, a warning about what will inevitably happen when a second son receives such a powerful inheritance and blessing? After all, God doesn’t explicitly call it a judgment; it isn’t phrased as a because…then…pronouncement. It is decreed in a blessing, so…?