One of the figures that draws the least attention in commentaries about our ancestors is Hagar. Who is this woman, and what do we make of how she is treated?
Hagar, the maidservant of Sarah, is an Egyptian. The rabbis say she was picked up during the sojourn in Egypt, at the beginning of our parsha. But actually, some say, she was not a maidservant but a princess, a daughter of Pharaoh, who was given to Avraham as part of the compensation he received for the king’s mistake in taking Sarah from Avraham.
This explanation is problematic. Hagar could well have been part of the compensation package, but would a king hand over his daughter as a slave? That seems unlikely.
We know from the Book of Kings that Solomon took many princesses as wives, as part of diplomatic pacts. That makes more sense. If Hagar had been a princess, she should have or would have been given as a bride or at least a concubine to the other party.
Let’s take another look at what happened in Egypt. Avraham fears that Sarah’s beauty will endanger his life. The king can take whatever woman he wants, as long as she is not married. If Avraham happened to wake up dead one morning, the king would have no problem taking her. So they concoct the semi-cockamamie story of their being brother and sister.
In other words, Avraham does not want to put his own life on the line but he is willing to let Sarah be taken as a sex object for Pharaoh. Did he think she was safe there? Maybe. Did he feel it was better for her to be Pharaoh’s concubine than for him to die? Definitely. Perhaps he thought God would cook up some way to save her. Or not.
Summing up the Egyptian experience, we see that Sarah was treated as an expendable commodity, in return for which Avraham received a lot of wealth – animals, servants, the works. Hagar, whether a princess or a slave girl or something in between, was also treated with high-handed disregard and was given over to Sarah and Avraham.
We skip to the last parts of the parsha, where Avraham and Sarah are childless. We don’t know if Avraham has told Sarah about God’s promise to give them progeny who will expand to great numbers. In any case, Sarah comes up with the idea of giving the young Hagar to Avraham. Sarah will raise the baby.
Avraham listens to his wife and sleeps with the young woman, and indeed she gets pregnant. But then something not-really-unexpected happens.
We have a servant woman who is at the bottom of the totem pole. She has been handed over to strangers and taken from her homeland. She has been given to a man to serve as a surrogate womb. No one in the story is lower than Hagar.
Sarah is the mistress of the tent but without direct power. She served as tradable goods for whom Pharaoh paid a lot. And as long as she does not give birth, she is also low on the family totem pole. We will see the same with Rachel, and much later with Hanna.
So this is a battle of the lowest: a childless wife vs. a maidservant who is impregnated by the master of the tent. Suddenly, perhaps for the first time in her life, Hagar, the maidservant, can lord it over someone else. And that someone is her mistress, the childless wife.
Sarah feels threatened because she fears that Hagar can usurp her place. The only way out is to get rid of the competition and of the insult – of vitality and pregnancy – that Hagar has flung in her face.
Avraham stays neutral in this. “She’s your servant, do with her as you will,” he says. What about his child, which she is carrying? Too abstract. How do we know? Because the second time Sarah says to get rid of Hagar and her son, next week, Avraham doesn’t want to. He cares about his living, playful child, not about her.
The part of the story that makes those concerned about abused women grit their teeth hard is that God’s angel tells Hagar to go back and “suffer” under her mistress.
Actually, it’s not as heartless as it sounds, if we keep modern day sensibilities from burdening the story. Where could Hagar, alone, pregnant and without water, have gone in the desert? Her family was in Egypt. Her future was non-existent. Go back, God says, and your child will be the progenitor of a great nation.
Not a great solution, but better than death.
Would our realpolitik be different today if Hagar had decided not to return and had died? We don’t know. Most likely, if it hadn’t been Ismael, it would have been someone else to cause us problems.