A Feminist Lens on the Story of Sarah and Hagar

Many people around the world consider Genesis Chapter 16 of this week’s parasha—describing Hagar’s marriage to Avram, her pregnancy and her ill-treatment by Sarai—to be a glimpse of things to come in relations between Jews and Muslims, even between Israelis and Palestinians.  While this perception distorts the long history of Jewish-Muslim relations through history, the narrative does serve as a first portrait of the relationship between the foremothers Sarah and Hagar. Indeed, it serves as a cautionary tale about encounters between people whose relationships are defined by power imbalance.

The Torah tells us that Sarah, as yet unable to bear children of her own, asks Avram to take her handmaid, Hagar (whose name may be understood to mean “the stranger”), as a second wife.  Sarah’s assumptions are explicit: since Hagar belongs to her, a child born to Hagar from Avram’s seed will “build up” Sarah.  Hagar, now Avram’s second wife but still a mere servant, is of lesser status than Sarah, and so Sarah assumes she will get the credit when Hagar bears Avram’s child.

Hagar rightly chafes at being seen merely as her mistress’ possession.  When Hagar becomes pregnant, she responds with understandable, if unfortunate, human emotion, gloating over her own ability to conceive.  Hagar’s resentful reaction, in turn, angers Sarah, leading to the banishment of the pregnant Hagar to the wilderness.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Reading the text through a feminist lens, we are pained by the way in which the two women, both of degraded status in their society because of their gender, turn on one another.  One can hardly blame the oppressed person for her anger, and of course, Sarah acted out of her own despair at her inability to validate her own worth, in traditional society, by bearing a child.

What if the women, instead, had helped one another to transcend the unjust rules of the patriarchal society that governed their lives?  Sarah, of superior status, needed Hagar’s help.  Hagar, the handmaid, had an ability that Sarah desperate needed. What if they had joined hands, pooled their gifts, and collaborated (or at least commiserated) to defeat the oppressive patriarchal system?

While I do not believe that the political dynamics of current-day Israel and Palestine are at their core a religious conflict, the resonances of this text for our times are irresistible.  Sarah and Hagar, each privileged in a way in which the other is not, descend into mortal conflict, acting out of envy and blame rather than out of justice and compassion.

Israel today is beset by a host of social inequities, with mean-spiritedness, prejudice and racism plaguing many underprivileged minorities in Israeli society – be they Palestinians, Bedouin, African immigrants, or poor Jews.  Of course, Israeli Jews are hardly secure in their own privilege and security.  Like our foremother Sarah, they are keenly aware of the security they lack, and so are sometimes quick to attack the vulnerable in their midst.  Nonetheless, we must imagine, work and pray our way to a different reality, when the privileged and the underprivileged will join hands for the sake of the land they love and the society of peace and justice they seek to build together.