BIBLICAL PORTRAITS: SARAH – LEFT BEHIND

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Why?

Last time, we saw Sarah make her painful decision. Why did she do it at that particular time—after ten years of living in the Land? What happened that triggered this scheme? The Midrash says: “This is the allotted time for a woman who had lived ten years with her husband and has not borne children to him, when he is obligated to marry another.”[1] Besides, Sarah had turned 75, and undoubtedly she had reached menopause, which is why she finally gave in to the thought that must have been haunting her for some time. While she was still capable of childbearing, she still had hope, but once that ceased, her hope died too.

I believe that Sarah had had a wonderful relationship with her maid before all of this happened. I don’t think she would have offered her husband “to go into Hagar” if she held any bitterness, jealousy, or anger toward her, or if they had any unresolved issues or tensions between them. I think their relationship had been great to that point, but still, as I said, it must have been a very painful decision. But no doubt Sarah thought it was the right decision, and the terrible pain that was attached to it was further proof (or so she thought!) that it was the right thing to do. Oh, how often we fall into this trap of thinking that, if it hurts, it must be the right thing to do for God. Somehow we think that what God wants from us is something we would definitely not choose to do ourselves. Thankfully, this isn’t true. Although God does indeed expect challenging things of us at times, thinking that acting contrary to our emotions is proof that something is from God, is as wrong as the ‘prosperity gospel’. When God says that His ways are not our ways, it doesn’t mean that what He wants is contrary to what we want: His ways neither follow nor oppose ours; they are simply high above ours—in a completely different dimension. In His time, God did give Sarah a son, but when and how it happened, she could never have imagined.

 

Hagar’s Pregnancy

There are three people involved in this story, and of the three, it was Sarah who felt “left behind” from the outset. Despite the fact that the whole plan was her own doing in the first place, she felt deeply hurt—and when our deepest pain and insecurities are triggered, this can bring forth our worst behavior; consequently, she misbehaves towards both of them. First, she goes to her husband with a completely unjustified accusation: My wrong be upon you!”[2] I almost hear Abraham asking in disbelief: “What?!! How is it my fault? You were the one who suggested the whole thing! I was just following your advice!” I imagine though, that Abraham knew better. Instead of arguing and fighting, he just said (with great wisdom): “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.”[3] We already know that at this point Abraham strongly believed that the whole plan was from God; this is why he felt safe to say this. We don’t know whether he had any feelings for Hagar—it’s possible that he did, but that wasn’t the point. He trusted the Lord completely to keep and protect Hagar, since he believed that the child she carried was the son he had been waiting for: the son that the Lord had promised him, the son of the covenant—The son.

However, there is an interesting Jewish commentary that explains Abraham’s responsibility by the alleged words of Sarah: “When you prayed to God, ‘What will you give, since I am going childless?’ you prayed only for yourself, whereas you should have prayed for both of us, and I would have been remembered with you.”[4] Here, I would like to mention something that I always tell my students about Isaac, and quote a verse that invariably touches my heart: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer.”[5] Do you know that Isaac is the only one of the three patriarchs who prayed for his wife? We don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of Abraham praying for Sarah. It was even worse with Jacob: when Rachel complained about her barrenness, Jacob became angry and said, “Am I in the place of God”? Maybe they also prayed, but Scripture tells us explicitly only about Isaac “praying to the LORD” on behalf of his barren wife. That’s why, when Sarah says to Abraham, My wrong be upon you, in a sense, she had reason to feel hurt.

And yet, I find it difficult to understand how Jewish sources can claim that Sarah was “completely free from sin,” when chapter 16 so clearly describes Sarah’s misdeeds toward Hagar. I’m not saying that Hagar’s behavior was easy to begin with, but in a sense, it doesn’t matter: Hagar didn’t deceive Abraham into unfaithfulness. The whole scenario was Sarah’s doing, and being a very wise woman, she should have been ready for the consequences—but she wasn’t ready. The truth is that none of us are ever fully ready to face the consequences of our own plans or scenarios. At this point, Sarah clearly feels that the whole scheme was a mistake, but instead of taking responsibility, instead of going to the Lord and repenting for what she did, she goes first to her husband, accusing him of something that she in fact told him to do, and then she deals harshly with Hagar.

In the English text, we read that when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes.[6] It doesn’t say this in Hebrew, however; in Hebrew, Hagar’s mistress became “lighter” in her eyes. This was not only predictable, but the absolutely inevitable result of the redefinition of statuses that accompanied the fulfillment of Sarah’s plan. Think of it: Hagar was the first woman in this family to conceive a child! She was carrying the child of the patriarch! She had become a precious vessel who carried the treasure for which Abraham had been waiting for so many years! It’s no wonder that the positions were redefined at that point; it’s no wonder that Sarah, her mistress, though free and powerful and rich, no longer seemed so elevated, because none of her power, freedom or wealth had helped her to achieve what Hagar did—conceive Abraham’s child! It’s no wonder that her mistress became lighter in her eyes. If Sarah hadn’t anticipated this, if she had hoped to keep the old structures within the new reality, this was once again her own miscalculation and responsibility. And as the distance between the statuses of the two women began to shrink, the relationship between them grew increasingly tense. The Bible doesn’t provide any details as to what Sarah specifically did to Hagar, but no doubt it distressed her greatly, if fleeing into the wilderness seemed like a better option to the pregnant girl. When Sarah dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence.[7]

[1] Gen. Rabbah 45:3

[2] Genesis 16:5

[3] Genesis 16:6

[4] Gen. .Rabbah 45:5

[5] Gen. 25:21

[6] Genesis 16:4

[7] Genesis 16:6

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