Issues in Genesis: The Handmaid & Her Son, Part 2

Muller Nasleh III
This is another painting of the young Egyptian woman named Nasleh by Leopold Carl Müller, Austrian, 1873-74.  Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, MD, USA.


I’ve been trying to think of a clear way to tackle the many questions Hagar’s story raises in Genesis (and beyond).  My goal is always to communicate how I found comfort or resolution to my questions so that you might find it helpful in resolving them for yourself.  In Hagar’s case, I am having trouble finding the right way to organize it all.  Every outline I tried to make over the past week sort of fell apart, so I sat down yesterday and asked, “What is the first and worst struggle in this story?” I decided that was a good question, so we’re going to start with the first and worst.

The piece of Hagar’s story that upset me first, most, and longest was the slavery. 

Everything in Hagar’s story is tragic because she was a slave.  Had she been a free woman, participating in all of this by her own free will, everything would be different.  But she was not a free woman. She wasn’t treated as a woman, made in the image of God and beloved by her Father in Heaven. When Hagar was no longer useful, she was discarded without any regard for her feelings or even her life.  She was a woman whom no one loved.  Until Ishmael was born, no human being on earth loved her.  Ever.  How tragic is that?  What does that do to a person?

But God loved her.

That is the redeeming point (and the theologically significant one) in this part of our examination of Hagar.  In the next several posts, I’ll examine Hagar and Ishmael’s relationships with Sarah, Abraham, and each other, but before we get to all of that, we have to talk about Hagar’s bondage and what it looked like because it shaped all of the human relationships in this story.

Exodus 13:14 slavery
Image by Logos Bible Software and Faithlife

Slavery in the Ancient Near East
“Ancient Near East (ANE)” refers to civilizations like Sumeria, Babylon, Assyria, Canaan, Egypt, Philistia, and Ancient Israel.  These are some of the oldest human civilizations we know about, and there are two benefits we can gain by looking a bit deeper into how these groups practiced slavery:

First, it will help us set aside what we know about 18th and 19th-century slavery in Europe and the Americas.  ANE and Euro-American slave practices were equally sinful because they both devalued human beings who were made in the image of God.  Slavery, which has been practiced by nearly every human group in the history of humanity, deprives the enslaved of their ability to exercise spiritual gifts or fill the role of dominion (building order from chaos) on earth that all imagers of God are called to.  Because slavery has been so universal a sin in the human experience, the evil of its practice has manifested in different ways.

The practices of slavery in the ANE and the West were very different from each other in a few ways, and I think it will help us to understand Hagar’s story better if we understand more about what her bondage looked like in her time and place.

Margin Note, March 2017.

Second, understanding how slavery operated in the nations of Hagar’s time can help us to see more clearly what God was doing about slavery in that world.  The Bible is often charged with condoning slavery because God never outright says: “Thou shalt not take unto thyself an human being as thine own property.”  Because it does not say this–and it doesn’t say this about a lot of things we wish it did–the accusations are many, and they are bitterly hostile.  I know the accusations are bitterly hostile because I used to be one of the people bitterly accusing.  The margin notes were plentiful, I assure you.

By looking at how slavery worked for ANE people groups, some images emerged about women and class that I find useful for giving us a deeper understanding of Hagar’s life and relationships.  We’ll see how it flows as we go, I suppose.

(I totally didn’t mean to make that rhyme.  /grin )

Slavery was Not About Race (So What was it About?)
According to the papers I read (thank you, JSTOR, for 6 free articles per month), slavery in the Ancient Near East began at the dawn of human civilization.  As soon as people gathered in large enough groups to fight with each other, slavery became a common practice.  It started with prisoners of war.  When a group of people defeated another group of people, they took all of the losing side’s stuff.  They took their houses, their livestock, their home goods, and their valuable metals, gems, and currency.  They also took the losing side’s people.  They took the males and the females, and they used them for labor, for sex, and for soldiers.

Stela of Iddi-Sin, Kiing of Simmurrum
The Stela of Iddi-Sin, King of Simurrum. By Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin, FRCP(Glasg)

One thing we can observe throughout human history is that it’s really difficult to kill enough people to completely eradicate your enemy.  Many have tried.  There have been pointed and aggressive campaigns for true genocide throughout history, and the ancients were no exception to this.  They frequently bragged about total annihilation on victory stones

Standing stones called stelae have been found by archaeologists all over the region of the Ancient Near East.  The Rosetta Stone, which most modern people are familiar with, is a stela.  Stelae announced all sorts of important things, but they often detail the war victories of ancient kings.  These pronouncements on the stelae typically claim total annihilation to give exaggerated accounts of decisive battles.  Even when they clearly didn’t kill “every last man, woman, and child” as claimed, this concept of erasing an enemy’s nation from the earth was expressed to flex a king’s power on a regular basis.  The culture seemed to respect that kind of power rather than disdaining it. On the same stelae that declare total annihilation, the carrying off of slaves is often declared, as well, which brings us to an ugly historical truth.

The truth–whatever ancient kings liked to say about themselves–is that the job of murdering enough people to completely erase a nation has rarely been accomplished.  Disease has done that job far more frequently than violence.  No, the conquerors through the ages learned that subjugation was easier than extermination, and it had more fringe benefits.

Ruined Temples of Paestum. Photo by Oliver Bonjoch, from Wikipedia.

The Link Between Monumental Architecture and Slavery
Throughout the world, whenever you see a monumental piece of architecture, whether it’s a temple, a colosseum, a great pyramid, or the home of a national leader, you can assume that slaves built it.  You will almost never be wrong.  Slaves were part of the workforce that built The White House in Washington, D.C.  Twice.  Slaves built the Pyramids in Egypt.  Slaves built all of the monumental structures of the ancient world, and without slaves, none of it would have been possible. If it’s pre-industrial and big enough to make your jaw drop, it wasn’t built solely by willing, wage-earning citizens. Slaves labored and died to make that awesome structure happen.  There are almost no exceptions.

As a history geek, I have friends who are also history geeks, and one such friend of mine said a profound thing by accident one day.  We were talking about my husband’s time in Rome, and my friend said (in reference to the many great ruins there):

Slavery is an abomination, but I can see why they kept doing it.  Slavery gets stuff done. 

He didn’t say “stuff,” but this is a Christian blog, so I’m taking liberties with the quote.

My friend was right.  As slavery continued to be practiced, and as kings and city-states developed into powerful nations, civilization became utterly dependent upon slave labor.  Urban growth outpaced birth rate, and it required massive infrastructure.  Slaves didn’t just build the decorative structures made to declare dominance and power.  They also built the structures that made large cities possible.  Sewers, water systems, streets, machines of war, armies large enough to defend empires, and farms large enough to feed nations–all of these things required conscripted labor.  The native birth rate couldn’t keep up with the demand for growth, so human labor became a staple commodity, just like grain or goats or gold.

The Evolution from Foreign to Native Slaves
The largest group of slaves, by far, was not foreign prisoners of war.  It was native debtors.  Very quickly, the slave base for ancient nations became a group of their own people, and the most common way people fell into slavery was for the payment of debts.  This happened in three ways, and since Hagar was an Egyptian slave acquired in Egypt, it is safe to assume that she fell into one of these categories (Egypt wasn’t conquered by anyone at the time of Hagar’s life, so female Egyptian war captives weren’t really a thing).  Hagar was most likely a bondservant rather than a forced laborer, but this distinction didn’t change much where quality of life is concerned.

1.) Hagar could have been sold into slavery by her parents, either because they needed money to survive or to pay off a debt the family owed to a creditor.

2.) Hagar could have been the child of an enslaved woman who was given to an enslaved man as a wife.  The children of that particular kind of union were born as slaves, owned by the master.

3.) Hagar could have sold herself into slavery as a means of survival.  If she was a widow, or if she was a surviving unmarried daughter with no living male relatives, selling herself into slavery would be a viable option for obtaining food, shelter, and clothing.

This native bondservant form of slavery was no different in daily practice than captive slave labor from a foreign tribe/nation, but bondservants like this swiftly became the backbone of labor in the Ancient Near East.  They were everywhere.  Slavery was utterly ubiquitous in this time and place.  Contracts for bondage have been dug up all over the regions of Palestine and Mesopotamia, and the rules are fairly consistent.  The condition of slavery was generally for the life of the person in question (or the life of his/her master), and manumission (being freed) was rarely accomplished.

Redemption was Rare in Every Place but Ancient Israel
Ancient Israel developed revolutionary laws for slavery.  The Torah contains laws that curtail slavery, but none that expand it.  Laws for the treatment of slaves and the redemption of slaves are unlike anything else I’ve been able to find in ANE history.  In Leviticus, we first see the notion that you should not and cannot enslave your own people.  This was unprecedented.  It was the first time in recorded history that someone said, “Hey! God says we can’t do that.”

In addition, Israel’s laws around the redemption of slaves were also radically new.  In Israel, slaves were to be released in the 7th year, the Sabbath year, which meant that, by law, no one in Israel could be enslaved for more than six years.  In practice, we see over and over again that Israel failed to comply with the laws about how to treat and free slaves, but the laws were there.

Exodus 21 is the first place in Scripture that we see detailed laws about the handling of slaves in Ancient Israel. It’s confusing and distasteful (because slavery is disgusting and evil), but look at what the result of these judgments would be.  This chapter deals entirely with Moses’ judgments in disputes brought to him by the people.

It mandates that families are to be kept together–no owner can separate a slave man from his wife and children.  Women sold into slavery by their fathers cannot be sold again.  Either her master keeps her as his own wife (in his protection), or he has to give her freedom.  He cannot sell her again or pass her around.  If he gives her to a son, she must be treated as a daughter, not as a slave.  If the man who buys a woman later marries another woman, he must continue to provide and care for the slave woman.  These kinds of protections for slaves are unique.  Do you see the hints here of personhood–of God saying, “these are my children, and you must protect them,” shining through?  These verses make us recoil, but they are unprecedented in their recognition of rights for slaves.

Leviticus 19:20-22 deals with Israelite men having sex with slave women owned by other men.  It addresses the innocence of the woman, who has no agency–pointing out that it’s not adultery for the woman because she was not free. She is not to be punished.  Again, this is revolutionary thinking.  It’s unheard of.

Leviticus 25 covers the years of Sabbath and Jubilee, and among its many laws, it talks about the redemption of slaves, the removal of their debts, and the options available to accommodating the wishes of the slave with regard to his/her freedom.

When we understand how slavery worked in the nations around Israel, it brings God’s opinion of slavery into sharper focus.  His “no” resounds more clearly when we contrast the inspired words of these ancient authors with the words of the nations around Israel.  Some day, I will deal with slavery much more deeply, but since Hagar’s story began and ended long before the Law was established, I think we’ll stop here for the purpose of this post.  Numbers and Deuteronomy must be included in any serious discussion of slavery in the Bible, as well as the letter of Philemon and other NT texts.  So…for today, let’s stop here and see what we can conclude about Hagar’s situation in Genesis.

The scholarly article I found most helpful in my reading for this post can be found at JSTOR, here.  There are many articles and books about ANE slavery practices, and I regret that I cannot remember all of the ones I’ve looked at over the last three years.  This article should be very helpful, however, as a starting place.

Mendelsohn, I. “Slavery in the Ancient Near East.” The Biblical Archaeologist 9, no. 4 (1946): 74-88. Accessed January 13, 2020. doi:10.2307/3209170.


Muller Nasleh I Fellahmädchen
This is another painting of the young Egyptian woman named Nasleh by Leopold Carl Müller, Austrian, 1873-74.  Walters Art Museum of Baltimore, MD, USA.

Hagar’s Slavery Was about Shame and Dishonor
Hagar was not a slave because she was Egyptian.  She was not a slave because she was “foreign.”  She was a slave because somewhere, somehow, she was sold into slavery.  She was reduced from a place of honor to a place of dishonor.  Either her family or something in her own life made slavery an option.  Debt, crime, or a combination–and it’s likely that none of it was due to Hagar, herself–landed her in a place of subservient and total dependence upon an elderly Hebrew man and his barren wife.  Her food, her clothing, and her shelter were distributed by their mercy and favor, and none of the laws that Abraham’s descendants would receive at Sinai were available to her, yet, as a remedy.  The price was total obedience and deference.  The penalty for trying to escape was generally death, and even if Abraham didn’t punish her, the wilderness would.  This is the position Hagar held in this family.

Washing, cleaning, carrying, fetching, catering, calming, flattering, and accommodating the needs, whims, and desires of Sarah, the princess from the land of Ur, was Hagar’s daily grind.  For years.

One day, the mistress took her into the tent of Abraham and asked her to perform an even larger service.  Hagar had no right to refuse.  She had no ability to protest.  She had no agency and she had no choice.  She was a thing.  She was a tool.  She was a vessel like any other owned in the family to be used for utilitarian purpose.

This…this is the foundation of Hagar’s relationship with Abraham and Sarah.  It shaped everything that came afterward.  In Part 3, I’ll get into the relationship between Hagar and Sarah, and we’ll look at how both women behaved in light of their relative positions.  We’ll talk about what power struggle between women looked like and what it meant, and it matters because we’ll see it again later in Genesis.  In Part 4, we’ll talk about Hagar’s relationship with Abraham, and we’ll look at what it meant for a man to abandon his role as head of the family.  In the last posts, we’ll shift from Hagar to her son, Ishmael.  It’s gonna be a long series.

There’s more to it than you thought, right?  We modern Christians tend to sum up the story of Hagar as a moral platitude about the consequences of doing things our way instead of God’s way because Sarah and Abraham looked to a concubine (the world’s solution) to have children instead of patiently trusting that God would keep his promise (God’s solution).  And, yes, that is the main thing from this story, but there is more.  I hope you can see that and appreciate the need that some people might have for dealing with the “more” parts before they can move on to the next story.

The inclusion of this story in Scripture does not equate to God’s approval of everything that happens in it.

God clearly did not approve because a lot of what happens in this story is later made illegal under Mosaic Law.  The sins of Abraham (and Sarah…and Hagar) had consequences.  Many of us need to look at that and ask our questions before we can fully embrace this miraculous Bible as a living Word of God.

That’s okay.  You’re allowed to come seeking.  You know that, right?  Just in case nobody ever gave you permission to seek and be honest about the fact that you have questions, doubts, or deep concerns:

My own pastors, Warren Wiersbe (who wrote the first commentaries I ever bought), Bible scholar Dr. Mike Heiser, and Bible scholar Dr. Peter Enns all told me that I have permission to question the Bible and that God would be pleased by the work I did in my seeking.

That permission applies to you, as well.

God uses imperfect people to execute his plan for redemption and reconciliation with humanity.  Every single hero of the Bible (except one) was a sinner, corrupted since the original sin of Adam and Eve.  We are no different today.  We desire to do good, but we make terrible choices and fall prey to our selfish nature and worst inclinations.  That’s why we can love our parents and nurture our children but callously take friends or spouses for granted.  That’s why we can pray on a Sunday morning for peace and comfort to the persecuted and impoverished of the world but then go home and contribute to the divisions and strife in our own communities on social media.

We are hypocrites, all of us.  Even “good people” sin, and sin always has consequences.  The Bible demonstrates those sins and those consequences.  It also demonstrates the glorious ways God can redeem the messes we make by turning them into something good.  That’s what God is doing in the story of Hagar.

If trusting the Bible didn’t require all of this work from you, pray gratitude for that.  If, like me, you need to do this kind of thinking and work in order to believe, take heart.  The Bible is its own apologist, and it will answer your questions if you’re willing to receive the answers.  Just stay with it.

See you next time.

Leave a Reply