By Hayyim Angel
From a peshat perspective, the biblical text stands at the center of our inquiry as we attempt to determine values from within the Bible. With thousands of years separating our cultural context from that of the Bible, however, it is often hard to distinguish textual messages from our own sensitivities and moral preferences.
Consider the behavior of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis chapter 16. Although Hagar was insensitive toward Sarah, Sarah's harsh treatment of Hagar and Abraham's passive acquiescence create a painful tension. Does the narrative give any clues to its moral judgment of Abraham and Sarah?
In this essay we consider the opinions of the classical commentators, who relied on the biblical text and early rabbinic traditions. We then turn to ancient Near Eastern parallels to gain insight into the historical-social setting of the Torah. At all times, the biblical text must remain the anchor for interpretation.
TEXT AND MEDIEVAL COMMENTARY
Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, ' Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her. And Abram heeded Sarai's request (Gen. 16:1-2).
So Sarai, Abram's wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian – after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan– and gave her to her husband Abram as his concubine. He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. And Sarai said to Abram, The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my maid in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me! (16:3-5).
She tormented her and worked her harder than necessary. Perhaps she also struck and cursed her until she could no longer tolerate it and fled. In this, Sarah did not act ethically or piously . . . God did not approve of Sarah's action, as evidenced from the angel's telling Hagar, for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering (16:11), and blessed her for her endurance. Abraham did not prevent Sarah from oppressing Hagar, even though he disapproved, for the sake of domestic harmony. This story was written to teach people to acquire good character traits and avoid negative ones (Radak on 16:6).
SARAH'S TREATMENT OF HAGAR
An angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, and said, Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going? And she replied, I am running away from my mistress Sarai. And the angel of the Lord said to her, Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment. And the angel of the Lord said to her, I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count. The angel of the Lord said to her further, Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has paid heed to your suffering. He shall be a wild ass of a man: his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him; he shall dwell alongside all of his kinsmen (Gen. 16:7-12).
ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN SETTING
In his analysis of Genesis 16, Rabbi Elhanan Samet quotes several Near Eastern documents to vindicate the behavior of Abraham and Sarah. They were acting within the moral and legal conventions of their day1:
Laqipum has married Hatala, daughter of Enishru . . . If within two years she does not provide him with offspring, she herself will purchase a slave woman, and later on, after she has produced a child by him, he may then dispose of her by sale wheresoever he pleases . . . (Mesopotamian Marriage Contract, c. 19th century BCE).2
Hagar functioned legally as a surrogate who could be disposed of once she had borne a child. After she became pregnant, however, Hagar asserted her freedom.3
Responding to Hagar's efforts to break free, Sarah reasserted her mastery over Hagar – something perfectly acceptable according to the Code of Hammurabi:
When a seignior married a hierodule and she gave a female slave to her husband and she has then borne children, if later that female slave has claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, her mistress may not sell her; she may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among the slaves (Code of Hammurabi, 18th century BCE, #146).4
CONCLUSION: RESOLVING THE TENSION
- E. Samet, Iyyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavu a, vol. 1 (first series), ed. Ayal Fishler (Ma'aleh Adummim: Ma'aliyot Press, 2002) pp. 31-40.
- Translation from J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969) p. 543.
- Radak similarly suggests that Hagar began to consider herself as a full wife rather than a slave/concubine.
- Translation from Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 172. It is worth noting that some ancient legal codes also allowed physical punishment for a slave who behaved insolently: "If a man's slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with one quart of salt" (Laws of Ur-Nammu #22, Sumer, c. 22nd century BCE), translation from Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, p. 525.
- See, for example, Exodus 1:11: So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor (le-ma'an annoto be-sivlotam).
- Rabbenu Hananel had suggested this interpretation in the eleventh century.
- N. Leibowitz, Studies in Bereshit (Genesis), trans. A. Newman (Jerusalem: WZO Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, fourth revised ed., 1981) pp. 153-157.
- See M. Ahrend, "From My Work with Nehama a"h," in Pirkei Nehama: Nehama Leibowitz Memorial Volume, ed. M. Ahrend, R. Ben-Meir, & G. H. Cohen (Jerusalem: Eliner Library, The Joint Authority for Jewish Zionist Education, Department for Torah and Culture in the Diaspora, 2001), p. 47; Y. Rozenson, "The Exegete, the Interpretation, and History: An Observation on Nehama Leibowitz's Exegetical Approach" (Hebrew), in Al Derekh ha-Avot: Thirty Years of Herzog College, ed. A. Bazak, S. Wygoda, & M. Monitz (Alon Shevut: Tevunot Press, 2001) pp. 448-449. For further discussion, see H. Angel, "The Paradox of Parshanut: Are Our Eyes on the Text, or on the Commentators?", review essay on Pirkei Nehama: Nehama Leibowitz Memorial Volume, Tradition 38:4 (Winter 2004) pp. 112-128; reprinted in Angel, Through an Opaque Lens (New York: Sephardic Publication Foundation, 2006) pp. 56-76.
- See further discussion in M. Shamah, Recalling the Covenant: A Contemporary Commentary on the Five Books of the Torah (Hoboken, NJ: KTAV, 2011) pp. 385-398.
- On this point, see E Samet, Iyyunim be-Parashot ha-Shavu a, vol. 1 (second series), ed. A. Fishler (Ma'aleh Adummim: Ma'aliyot Press, 2004) pp. 327-347.
- For related studies of how the Torah improved on the morality of earlier Near Eastern legal codes, see, for example, M. Greenberg, "Some Postulates of Biblical Criminal Law," and "The Biblical Concept of Asylum," in Studies in the Bible and Jewish Thought (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1995) pp. 25-50; C. Navon, Genesis and Jewish Thought, trans. D. Strauss(Jersey City, NJ: KTAV, 2008) pp. 59-77; N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus (New York: Schocken Books, 1986-1996) pp. 158-189; M. Shamah, Recalling the Covenant, pp. 953-962.