Tuesday, December 3, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 70, Hagar The Egyptian Slave, Part One

If you've been studying with us the past two days, you know that Sarai has offered her Egyptian slave, Hagar, to be Abram's second wife. Sarai has been unable to conceive a child during all the years of her marriage and now she is past the age of being fertile. She knows God promised Abram a son of his own flesh and blood, but she doesn't see how Abram can father a child with her, so she intends to use an ancient legal custom in order to obtain an adopted son and heir.

As we've learned this week, a barren wife in those days could take one of her slave women, give the woman to her husband as a legal but secondary wife (a concubine), and allow her husband to father a child with the slave woman. Because the slave belonged to the couple, any children born to the slave automatically belonged to the couple. This is how Sarai intends to gain the child she's always wanted and the child she feels she has kept her husband from having.

Hagar was probably what we would think of in more modern times as a "lady's maid" or an "upstairs maid". I don't think she was a mere houseworker or cook. I think she was more intimately involved in Sarai's life than that. A lady's maid would have access to the most personal details of the life of her mistress. She'd often become a confidante of her mistress. And even if the mistress wasn't the type to take her maid into her confidence, the maid could hardly help knowing very personal things about her mistress, about her marriage, and about her health. Hagar would have known Sarai's struggles through observation if through nothing else, but it's possible Sarai told her very private things during the years Hagar was her maid. This may be the reason Sarai chose Hagar, out of all the female servants, as a surrogate mother for the child she wants.

Any friendship that may have existed between Sarai and Hagar comes to an abrupt halt. Sarai thought she could make herself forget how her adopted son was begotten. She thought she'd still be able to deal with Hagar's presence in her life even though Hagar had sexual relations with Abram. Nothing in the Bible makes us think Abram had relations with her more times than it took to conceive a child. But still, what woman could forget that her husband had to sleep with another woman in order to produce a son? Who would ever want to look that woman in the eye again? Sarai was so blinded by her desire for a child, and the guilt she felt for not being able to have a child, that she failed to consider all the ways this would change the life of everyone involved. She thought she could adopt the child, raise him as her own, and forget how he came into the world. But the human mind doesn't work that way. And it's not just Sarai who will feel disgust for Hagar; Hagar is going to feel the same way toward Sarai.

We don't know whether Abram fathered a child with Hagar on his first try or not. This next verse makes it sound as if it happened that way, but the Bible isn't in the habit of providing private details about the physical relations between a husband and wife. I'm glad it doesn't; it's none of our business. "He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress." (Genesis 16:4)

Hagar realizes she's expecting a child and now she hates Sarai. I can think of several reasons why she would hate her mistress.

First of all, it's doubtful Hagar was presented with a choice about whether to accept this arrangement or not. She was a slave and, terrible as it is to think about, this made her the property of Sarai and Abram. Her status as the second wife of Abram didn't change that. She would never be Abram's primary wife and would never hold the social or legal standing of a primary wife. She may have been legally married to him for the purpose of bearing a child, but she was still a slave. She was still at the mercy of her owners. We don't know how she felt when she was told she was about to become Abram's legal wife in order to bear a son for him. She may have felt thoroughly repulsed. She may have wanted nothing to do with this scheme. But she would have had to participate whether she wanted to or not. I can't blame a woman for despising the mistress who forced her into this situation.

Second, Hagar has never been her own person. She's never been free to come and go as she pleases or to do with her life what she wants. But now she has accomplished something the free woman in the household has never been able to accomplish: she is pregnant with Abram's child. Immediately this gives her a sense of elevated standing in the house. She's second to no one but the mistress now, and in her heart she doesn't even feel second to her. She's pregnant with the master's child; the mistress of the home has never been pregnant with the master's child. Hagar begins to look down on Sarai. She begins to feel like more of a woman than the barren Sarai. In order to deal with her circumstances in life, I think Hagar needs something to make her feel better about herself. It just so happens that pride is what she uses to soothe herself. Pride, of course, is a sin. But we can't help understanding why Hagar revels in the feeling of superiority over the woman who owns her. Now she goes around with a smug smile on her face all the time. Sarai has dealt with the pitying looks of fertile women all her life. Sarai has endured the whispers behind her back and the suspicion that she must be a sinful woman for the Lord not to bless her with children. Now her own maid has joined in with the pity and the contempt. In addition to this, Hagar may no longer feel she needs to obey the instructions of her mistress. It could be that she begins ignoring Sarai's orders entirely.

Sarai cannot bear it. In her distress, she irrationally blames Abram for the current problem. "Then Sarai said to Abram, 'You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.'" (Genesis 16:5) This whole deal was Sarai's idea in the first place. Now she's angry with Abram for going along with it. Granted, Abram should have said no when Sarai first presented him with her idea. But in yesterday's passage we discussed various things that may have led him to give in. He did fail to properly perform his role as the spiritual leader of the home when he gave in to Sarai's request, and now she realizes it. Now Sarai is saying, "If only you'd put your foot down and said no, this would never have happened! Look what you've done! May the Lord take you to task for not telling me my idea was a terrible idea!"

All Abram wants is for things to go back to normal. He wants peace in his home. He wants his wife to be happy. He isn't in love with the slave woman with whom he has fathered a child. According to the custom of his day, the physical interaction between him and the surrogate mother of his child was a legal transaction and nothing else. If the child he has fathered is a son, he will need to have no more physical relations with his second wife if he doesn't want to. He doesn't even have to speak to her again if he doesn't feel like it. He tells Sarai to handle this matter however she pleases. "'Your slave is in your hands,' Abram said. 'Do with her whatever you think best.' Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her." (Genesis 16:6) By not handling the matter himself, is Abram still failing to properly fulfill his role as spiritual head of the household? Maybe, maybe not. Sarai, as his wife, has full authority over the household servants. Sarai runs the home and she is in charge of the servants who perform all the work done inside the home. She is the one who tells household servants what to do and she is the one who administers discipline when servants disobey her orders. She's not in the habit of consulting Abram in these matters and he doesn't expect her to. So when she complains to him about Hagar's attitude, he tells her to handle it in whatever way seems best to her. Sarai has managed the home well in all her years as a married woman. She is experienced in dealing with servants who are insubordinate or lazy. Abram trusts she'll know what to do to restore order.

Did he intend for her to be cruel to Hagar? I don't think so. I doubt she's in the habit of being mean to the servants and he doesn't realize she'll be cruel to Hagar. I don't know how Sarai normally handled insubordination, but she didn't handle it the way she handles the attitude of Hagar. With Hagar she goes out of her way to be difficult to deal with. She may have taunted her, insulted her, and made up extra work for her. She may have demoted her from her position of household maid and given her the worst and most disgusting tasks of the household. The Bible doesn't give us the specifics, but whatever Sarai did, it was wrong in the eyes of the Lord, for the Bible tells us she "mistreated Hagar". Sarai did way more than she needed to do to correct Hagar's prideful and disdainful attitude. For all we know, a heart-to-heart talk between the two women may have solved the problem of their resentment toward each other. Hagar, after all, didn't seduce Abram. She didn't "steal" Sarai's husband. None of this mess was Hagar's idea. Sarai's plan to obtain a son through a surrogate was a bad idea, but I think she was in so much emotional pain and was so caught up in her own struggles that she failed to consider the impact this plan would have on Hagar. Maybe the two of them could have found a way to live peacefully with each other even if they could never like each other again. But instead Sarah is cruel and Hagar becomes a runaway slave.

Join us tomorrow as the Lord steps in and provides comfort for the woman who has been so horribly used in this whole matter. He has kind words for her, even if no one else does.

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