Issues in Genesis: The Handmaid & Her Son, Part 1

Nasleh from Müller
“Profile Head of a Young Woman” by Leopold Carl Müller, Austrian, 1873-1874.  Painting is housed in the Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, Maryland, USA.  The model who posed for this painting (and the other shown below) was a young Egyptian woman.  Her name is Nasleh.


Welcome back to Issues in Genesis.  We’re starting a new series within the series, today, but it’s really just a logical next page in the story.  The Handmaid & Her Son is about Hagar, of course, but it’s also the next chapter of Sarah’s* story, too.  We’re going to spend this first post talking about Hagar and the issues her story can raise for people.  In the posts that follow, we will dive straight into the deep waters and wrestle with ancient patriarchy, the oppression of women, the evil of chattel slavery, the suffering of sons, and the wreckage left behind in a family that was headed by a patriarch who refused to lead.

* For my own sanity and for ease of reading, I will use the name Sarah for Abraham’s wife and the name Abraham for the patriarch, even as we jump back and forth in the story.  The names Sarai and Abram are important, and I was more studious about the difference in The Trafficking of Sarah series, but for Hagar’s story, I have dispensed with the back-and-forth.

Men refusing to lead in godly ways has already been examined several times in the Bible by this point.  In this ancient patriarchy, men are meant to hold up their families and bring order out of the chaos in life.  In our own modern generations, these lessons are more universal examples of what it means to fail in being responsible, righteous people.  We all have work to do.  We all have people and tasks that are our duty.  We are all our brother’s keeper.  When we submit to sin or shirk our duties, there will be real consequences that spill suffering on innocent people all around us.

That is what this story is about, and it is useful to instruct every one of us.

Adam, Noah, and Abraham are three men who portray a single image.  All three are roundly demonstrated as very poor leaders who abandon their responsibilities out of apathy, weakness, or fear.  All three stories culminate in savagery, suffering, and separation from God.

In the story of the Handmaid & Her Son, we’re going to see the catastrophic consequences of Abraham’s sins coming home to roost.

Hagar and Ishmael’s Suffering are Universal
We’re going to look at a cycle of abuse here, and we’re going to sift through some really ugly human behavior.  By this point in my bible reading, I had begun to assume that my modern reactions to the Bible were always wrong–always separated from the feelings and priorities of the original audience.  That isn’t true, of course, and it’s a mistake that nerdy folks like me can make.  We overanalyze, which can be useful in finding errors, but it can also hinder our connection to a fundamental truth about God’s Word:  it is His Word for every generation.

Margin Note, 2017.

I think the events of Hagar and Ishmael’s story are so visceral and basic that anyone of any generation will have similar responses and feel similar emotions.  Sympathy for Hagar and Ishmael, contempt for Abraham and Sarah, and confusion about why God doesn’t stop it are central to the story.  The author pulls no punches about any of it, and he invites us to feel all of these things deeply.  I think all of those emotions were there for the ancient audience just as they are for us.

The “main thing” for us might not have been the main thing for original readers, and we’ll pay attention to that, but the story is a simple telling of timeless troubles.  Abuse begets abuse, sin begets sin, and our lives can swiftly crumble into chaos when we abandon ourselves to the basest of our impulses.  That is truth, and it stands in every era.

Who Was Hagar the Handmaid?
Most people who have read Genesis will recognize the name Hagar and know that she was “the handmaid.” 
Handmaid is an old-fashioned term used to soften its real meaning, which is a female slave.  Hagar was an Egyptian slave, and she was owned by Abraham’s wife, Sarah.  The text sort of implies that Hagar was given to Sarah as a gift during the incident we discussed at length in The Trafficking of Sarah series (Genesis 12:10-20).

If that’s the case, then Hagar was Sarah’s consolation prize.

Abraham told the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister, and he sold Sarah into concubinage to the pharaoh.  Pharaoh showered Abraham with tremendous wealth to express his gratitude, unaware that he was sleeping with another man’s wife.  The Bible does not say how long Sarah stayed in the pharaoh’s household, but at some point, disaster struck. Sarah was returned to Abraham after “a plague” struck pharaoh’s house “because of her.”  She is outed as Abraham’s wife, and the pharaoh gives her husband even more wealth as an incentive to peacefully and swiftly leave the country.  Dishonored by her husband and then humiliated by God’s chosen method of providence (she caused a plague, you guys), Sarah and Abraham fled from Egypt with:

“flocks and herds, male and female donkeys, male and female slaves, and camels (Genesis 12:16).”

I have always imagined that Abraham, in his anxiety to restore peace in the now-damaged relationship with his wife, gave Sarah gifts from among the spoils…and that one of those gifts was Hagar.  If that’s what really happened, then we can see Scripture’s first mention of Hagar right up there between the donkeys and camels of chapter 12, verse 16.

I will never stop being shocked and distressed when I see human beings listed on manifests of chattel between line items of animal stock or grain in God’s Word.  It is deeply upsetting, and it’s supposed to be.

I could be wrong about where Sarah got Hagar, of course.  Abraham and Sarah grew up wealthy and rather spoiled.  Sarah’s original name, Sarai, literally translates as, “princess.”  They grew up owning slaves, and they’d purchased more while living in Haran (Genesis 12:5), so maybe Hagar was given to Sarah by Terah, her father.  Still, Hagar was an Egyptian slave.  She was considered young and fertile enough to produce children, and she belonged specifically to Sarah.  I think it makes the most sense to assume Hagar was brought into the household during Genesis 12:16.

Was she born into slavery?  Was she sold into slavery by her parents?  Was it to pay a debt? Because her father didn’t want to provide her with a dowery?  Did she voluntarily sell herself into slavery to survive poverty?  To leave an abusive home even worse than bondage?  We just aren’t told, and that can be frustrating.  Like so many people in the Bible, we aren’t given the entire life’s story.  We don’t know anything about Hagar’s life before she was acquired by Abraham and Sarah except that she was an Egyptian who spent a huge portion of her life as someone else’s property.

The Trafficking of Sarah Continues
Remember back in Part 1 of The Trafficking of Sarah when I told you that Sarah was both a victim and a perpetrator in her lifetime?  Well, this is the perpetrator part.  Sarah passed Hagar to her husband (and we’ll get into that in more detail in part 2) as a concubine.  Hagar was forced to have sex with Abraham in the hopes of producing a child.  Just as we’re told nothing of Sarah’s feelings in chapter 12, we are given nothing of Hagar’s feelings about Abraham or whether she consented to this arrangement.

Margin Note, 2017.

Was this a rape situation?  It certainly could have been, and by our modern standards, the power differential here defines the relationship as problematic in the extreme.  This is where the cultural divide of 4,000 years becomes difficult for us.  It could have been forcible rape, but it’s also possible that Hagar was happy about being elevated to concubine status.  It is a distinct probability, and there are verses that actually support this idea.  Was Hagar pleased when she became pregnant, or did she view her impending motherhood as an unwanted state, another layer of her bondage?  Verses support this idea, too.  Again, in her own time and place, Hagar’s elevation to motherhood–and ahead of her owner–was a badge of honor and worth.  But we’re not told, so we can’t know.  Hagar’s feelings about her situation are not laid out for us.  They aren’t part of the main thing for our author, so we are left to ponder and speculate.

Hagar and Sarah do get a little more screen time (page time?) than most of the women in our Bible, so we get a few insights into how their relationship deteriorated and how they both felt as the whole thing devolved into a dumpster fire of envy and power struggle.  Both women are diminished by the whole affair, and both women are cruel in their own capacities.  We’ll look at that pretty hard in this series because it’s an important dynamic.  It speaks to larger biblical questions about why Adam is blamed for the Fall instead of Eve, how God feels about polygamy, and how God feels about slavery.  The relationship between Hagar and Sarah has a lot of important things to say.

The Issues in Hagar’s Story
Abraham and Sarah, who were servants of the Living God, showed Hagar no mercy and gave her no dignity.  Hagar’s story raises several questions of its own and adds to several others.

  • Why are women of the Bible so beset with maltreatment, even among God’s people?
  • Why doesn’t slavery get roundly condemned by God in the Bible?
  • Why does God allow Abraham and Sarah to treat Hagar as they do?
  • Why are Hagar and Ishmael seemingly cursed by God to be enemies of Israel?
  • Why doesn’t God seem to say anything about all of this?

These are not silly questions.  They are vital questions, and we must seek proper answers for them in order to see what the Bible is telling us about God and his work in the Bible’s story.  Without getting a few answers, we can never hope to adequately explain our faith and our hope to non-believers who accuse God, the Bible, or faith in general of supporting and encouraging these evils.

That’s what The Handmaid & Her Son series will be about.  I’m here to address as many of these questions as I can, and my hope is that it will provide some comfort, some security, or some passion for deeper study in someone else.

Between now and part 2, which will probably be a full week or more in coming as I outline how to organize such a huge intersection of “issues,” I’d like you to read the book of Genesis.  Just read it.  You don’t need to study anything or look up anything or analyze anything.  Just read the whole book.  It’s 50 chapters, but you can easily read it from start to finish at least once within a week’s time.  Set aside 20-30 minutes and read Genesis a little each day until you’re done.  Get the whole picture of Genesis in your head, and refresh your memory about the different names and places that Genesis covers.  It will help you in the posts that come later.

Happy New Year!  I’ll see you next time.

Nasleh for Müller 2
“Profile Head of a Young Woman” by Leopold Carl Müller, Austrian, 1873-1874.  Painting is housed in the Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, Maryland, USA.  The model who posed for this painting (and the other shown above) was a young Egyptian woman.  Her name is Nasleh.

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