It takes two to speak the truth—one to speak and another to hear. – Henry David Thoreau

The next part of Genesis—Chapter 16—opens with the news that “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” Because Sarah has been barren since the beginning of her marriage, and because—as scripture suggests—Abraham needs children to continue the line of inheritance, she approaches him with a suggestion:

Behold, Behold now, the lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her.

Abraham, Sarah and Hagar

Abraham, Sarah and Hagar

Sarah makes this generous offer because it was the custom—perhaps even the law—that a wife who couldn’t produce children was obligated to find a second wife with whom the husband could try to beget children. When the baby was born, it would become the adopted child of the first wife and, if male, would become her husband’s heir. And that is how Hagar, the Egyptian, who was perhaps the daughter of a pharaoh, found herself in the position of assuming wifely duties in regard to Abraham.

No one has recorded Hagar’s reaction to being pushed into the position of becoming a mother, but Abraham agrees to the arrangement. Conception takes place on—tradition says—the very first night, and over the next several months, Genesis outlines a drama worthy of the most imaginative soap opera. As soon as Hagar is sure she’s pregnant, she becomes contemptuous of Sarah and behaves badly toward her.

What did Hagar do? Scripture is mute, but Jewish sources give this account: Hagar is having a difficult time with her pregnancy, and Sarah is concerned. So, when friends stop by to visit Sarah, she asks them to visit Hagar, too. Hagar, rather than being grateful to Sarah for the extra attention, begins denigrating her. She is even bold enough to suggest that Sarah’s barren condition is due to her lack of spirituality:

My lady Sarah is not inwardly what she appears to be outwardly. She makes the impression of a righteous, pious woman, but she is not, for if she were, how could her childlessness be explained after so many years of marriage, while I became pregnant at once? – Ginzburg, The Legends of the Jews, p. 238.

Whether due to backbiting or something else, the unpleasantness between Sarah and Hagar becomes so annoying that Sarah complains to Abraham. He refuses to take sides, replying that because Sarah is the mistress of the household, she has the right to do what she pleases with her servant.

The upshot, Genesis reports, is that Sarah deals harshly with Hagar. What does this mean? What did she do? Historical evidence indicates that if a wife gave a servant to her husband as a concubine, and if this servant subsequently claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, the mistress could exact retribution by demoting the woman to her former station as servant. Plus, if the concubine spoke insolently to her mistress, her mouth could be scrubbed out with a quart of salt.

Tradition paints an even more vivid picture: Sarah removes a slipper, slaps Hagar with it, and then forbids Hagar to sleep with Abraham any longer.

In considering the animosity between the wives, should we presume that none of this happened literally? Is the antagonism sketched out in Genesis between wife and concubine not really about the women of four thousand years ago, but primarily a sad prophecy of the attitudes that many of the descendants of Abraham will have toward one another?

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

4 Comments

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  • Jan 03, 2016
    The stories come to life for me in ways that light up my understanding of some of the events described in the Old Testament like this one. I so appreciate your detailed depiction of this particular story and helps me feel the struggles with human nature that God's chosen ones go thru like many of us who believe in Baha'u'llah now go thru within our own families.
  • Jul 09, 2015
    Dear Frances, Thank you for your posting on Hagar and Sarah. The legends of the Jews collected in Ginzburg's book are very colorful, but they are not historical sources for the story. From an historical point of view, it is clear that Hagar was Sarah's slave and that she was not Abraham's wife. The tension betweeh Sarah and Hagar was irrelevant to Abraham's choice of Isaac as his "chosen" son, as the inheritor of his covenant with God. The Book of Genesis indicates that God chose Isaac to be the "chosen" son, and that He gave ...a separate and different blessing to Ishmael, one that involved having lots of descendants, including 12 princes. 'Abdu'l-Baha talks about those princes in "Some Answered Questions". The Ishmaelites virtually disappear from the Bible after the passing of Abraham, whereas the descendants of Isaac are featured prominently. There does not seem to have been any reported conflict though between the sons of Isaac and the sons of Ishmael...not until Muhammad sought to conquer the city called Yathrib and Taiba, which was named al-Madīnat'an-Nabawiyyah (the City of Prophethood), or Madīnatu'n-Nabī (the City of the Prophet) by the Muslims. It was there that the Muslims emigrants and the three Jewish tribes already settled there -- the Banu Nadir, the Banu Qurayza and the Banu Qaynuqa -- came into conflict. And it is the way in which that conflict was resolved according to the sirah (biography) of Muhammad and the hadith, as well as the references to it in the Qur'an which have been the theological background for Muslim antipathy towards Jews, rather than any memory of a bad feeling on both sides between Hagar and Sarah. There is no record of this at all in the Qur'an, and few Muslims read the Torah. However, in the hadith there are reports of Abraham bringing Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, and the establishment of a shrine to God in that Arabian city shortly thereafter. As the Arab Muslims have considered themselves the descendants of Ishmael, this legend must have been very appealing, as it depicted them as associated with the establishment of Abrahamic monotheism, which is called the religion of Islam in the Qur'an and hadith. In their eyes, they were the "chosen" ones of God, because He sent their ancestor to Mecca and then built there the central shrine of Islam, the Kaaba. Of course this is just part of a long story...but rival claims to be the "chosen" sons of Abraham are certainly an important starting place for understanding current tensions.
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  • Jul 09, 2015
    Dear Frances, Hagar was the maidservant, that is, the slave of Sarah. She was not the second wife nor was she the hired domestic. She was the property of Sarah. Hence Abraham's backing up of his wife. The covenant of God with Abraham was renewed not with Ishmael, his son by Hagar, but with Isaac, his son by Sarah. This is prominently reported in the Book of Genesis, but not in the Qur'an. It is the Islamic interpretation of these events that challenges the rights of the freeborn son of Abraham and Sarah and ...sets Muslims on a collision course with Jews.
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  • Jul 07, 2015
    Amazing story that tells of two tales in one; a jealous Sarah and a spiteful Hagar. Sharing a husband is not easy. Maybe Sarah should have waited on God to bless her with a baby as he did in the end. Lesson learnt- Be patient in all circumstances and God will reward you according to your needs.