Sarai and Hagar: The Original Handmaid’s Tale (Genesis Chapter 16)

Sarai and Hagar: The Original Handmaid’s Tale (Genesis Chapter 16)

In last week’s post, I talked about how God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. The difference between Abram and Abraham is subtle but meaningful. However, I commented that the difference between Sarai and Sarah was not readily apparent. Both mean “princess” or “queen.” One possible explanation comes from Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a professor of the Hebrew Bible, who says “It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family, but to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large.” If he is correct, Sarai would mean “my princess,” or perhaps “my queen.” Sarah would mean simply “princess” or “queen.” Like the change from Abram to Abraham, a subtle but significant difference, one that marked a change in the trajectory of both their lives.

When I’m analyzing characters or stories, I don’t necessarily go in chronological order. Last week we were in chapter 17 of Genesis. This week we will look at chapter 16. With the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in its third season on Hulu, I thought this would be an interesting scene for many people.

Genesis Chapter 16

Now, we are going back to a time when they were still called Abram and Sarai. In chapter 15, God promised to give Abram a son “of his own issue,” and to give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. Chapter 16 picks up about ten years later. Abram and Sarai have been trying to have a child, and they are no spring chickens. Abram was 75 and Sarai was 66 when God first made that promise. Sarai never had a child of her own, even when she was young. Now they are 85 and 76, respectively. Sarai is afraid if Abram is limited to her, he will never have a son of his own issue, no matter what God said. To borrow a phrase from Atwood, no matter how many times she said, “Blessed be the fruit,” the LORD was not opening. So she approached her husband.

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store.
A scene from the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

(Gen 16:1- 2 NRS)

Hagar is Sarai’s slave-girl, also called a handmaid. In Abram and Sarai’s culture, this seems to have been an accepted practice. If a man’s wife was unable to conceive, the man could obtain children through his wife’s slave (presumably, if the wife permitted it). But as we already know, Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body or the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. So he told Sarai, “Just calm down now. God promised us a child, and God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises. We don’t need a plan B.” You know I’m kidding, right?

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.

(Gen 16:3 NRS)

…and [Sarai] gave her to her husband Abram as a wife? I doubt that “wife” is a good translation here, because clearly in the rest of the story, Sarai was Abram’s one and only wife. She would not have let Hagar forget that. Perhaps “concubine” is more accurate.

Here is the mistake God made when God spoke to Abram in chapter 15. God told Abram he would have a son “of his own issue,” but God did not specify it would be through Sarai (15:4).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

(16:4-5)

Okay, if I’m Abram, at this point, my first thought is, “Oh, it’s all my fault? And whose idea was this in the first place?” And how she describes the wrong done to me, when you look at it in the Hebrew, reveals a lot about her.

The Hebrew word for “wrong” here is chamas. It is occasionally translated “wrong” in a general sense. But more often, it means specifically “violence.” For example, Jeremiah says this to Babylon after they conquered Jerusalem: “’May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,’ The inhabitant of Zion will say” (Jer 51:35 NAS).

One of the authors of the Psalms says this, “Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends” (Psa 7:16 NRS).

One of Gideon’s sons killed all seventy of his siblings, with the help of the men of Shechem, to make himself his father’s heir. But later, the men of Shechem “dealt treacherously with Abimelech…so that the violence done to the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon) might be avenged” (Jud 9:23-24).

The word for “violence” in all these passages is chamas. Sarai equated the wrong Hagar was doing to her with mass murder.

May the LORD judge between you and me.

People only used this expression when they were 100% sure that the wrong, or the violence, done to them had no cause or justification. The responsibility of the other party was so obvious, they knew God was on their side (cf. 1 Sa 24:12, 15; Exo 5:21; Jud 11:27).

If you invoke God to judge between you and another, you’d better be right, because God will judge justly and with no partiality. I don’t buy for one second that Sarai did nothing to provoke Hagar in this. And Abram bears some responsibility, but certainly not all of it, as she claims. Hagar may have done wrong to her, but Sarai is blowing it way out of proportion, just like many wealthy and privileged women do. And she is not even considering the wrong she did to Hagar.

Abram gives her the same advice a wealthy slaveowner would give.

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

(Gen 16:6)

“Sarai, dear, did you forget who is the master and who is the slave? You don’t have to take it from her if you don’t want to.”

And Sarai is like, “Oh yeah. Time to remind her who the queen of this household really is.” She strikes back at Hagar, and Hagar runs away.

What Are We To Think of Hagar?

When [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress? Because she’s just a “B-word, rhymes with witch”? That is a question you really have to think about if you intend to turn this episode into a fictionalized account, especially if you want it to be as good as Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. You would have to consider her situation and how that would affect her attitude. You would have to flesh out just how she showed contempt for her mistress in what she said and did. And then you would have to flesh out what Sarai did when she dealt harshly with her. Whatever it was, it would have to be bad enough to make her run away, while pregnant, with nothing but desert around her.

Let’s start with that question, “Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress?” You could go with the B-word explanation, but that would ignore critical details about Hagar’s situation. She is a slave. She has already experienced the dehumanization of being sold or given to Abram and Sarai like a piece of chattel and taken from her home in Egypt (Gen 12:16-13:2). Then she is told her master will come in and lie with her, because her mistress decided that for her. Did they ask her if she would help with their fertility problems? She might have been willing if they had asked, and she saw how desperate they were to have a child.

Today, some women are willing to be surrogates for infertile couples. They negotiate the terms of conception (usually in-vitro, but that was not an option then) and what kind of care or compensation they receive. Hagar never had that chance. You didn’t negotiate with your slaves. You ordered them. “My husband needs to have a son. The LORD has withheld me from having children, so you’re going to do it in my place.” That was the negotiation.

Abram and Sarai saw nothing wrong with this. Your slave-girl is in your power. You can do with her as you please (Gen 16:6). They expected Hagar to accept this, because that was the way it was in their world. Many other slaves had to do the same, and they accepted it. It probably never even occurred to them she might have feelings about this. The most intimate decisions regarding her own body were taken from her, and something in her knew it was wrong. She would not accept the status of being property and not human. Like most slaves, she obeyed out of self-preservation.

The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer's character Janine, caption reads: Your body is no longer your own.

But when she conceived, that gave her a leg up on Sarai. She finally had a chance to let out the resentment she had kept inside, because, Don’t upset her. You don’t want to hurt the baby she’s carrying. Her resentment was not just at Sarai and Abram. It was at the whole system that did not recognize her rights as a woman or as a human being. Let’s not sugarcoat it. What was done to her was legitimized rape. Should we be surprised she showed contempt for her mistress?

And yes, it was no different for her than for countless other slaves. You could legally do anything to your slave you wished. They did not recognize at that time that slaves were human, made in the image of God, and as such had certain inalienable rights. Hagar was one of those independent souls who, over time, forced us to come to terms with an entire institution whose purpose was to dehumanize others. If you ask me, she should have been on that list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Serena and June Anyone?

If you’re familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably think this saga between Sarai and Hagar sounds like the relationship between Serena and June. June went along with the system in Gilead she was forced into, but she resented it. She resented the system that took away her husband, took her daughter away, made her the handmaid of Serena and Fred Waterford, and in every way possible told her that her only value was her ability to receive Mr. Waterford’s seed, get pregnant, and bear a child for Mrs. Waterford. The child she was forced to conceive would not even be hers. It belonged to Fred and Serena. It was primarily for Serena’s benefit, because she could not have children of her own. June’s family, career, autonomy, and even her name were taken from her, so a wealthy, powerful, childless family could use her womb, and she had no say in it.

There are a few moments of connection between her and Serena, but Serena is mostly harsh with her. She’s a little jealous that June can give her husband something she can’t and takes that frustration out on her. June engages in little acts of defiance, quietly, and mostly behind their backs, but gradually she becomes bolder with it, especially after she conceives. She milks the concern for the baby for all its worth. And she aims some insults right at Serena’s greatest insecurities.

In her introduction to the novel, Atwood does not name this particular scene but rather the episode where Rachel gives her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob, so she can have children (Genesis 30:1-8). But as I described the characters of Serena and June, don’t they sound just like Sarai and Hagar? I’m not knocking Atwood for lifting these characters from the pages of the Bible. On the contrary, I think what she did is a fantastic example of the potential of Biblical Fiction for creating compelling drama.

Biblical Fiction Vs. Christian Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale is not Christian Fiction, in case you were wondering. There’s too much sex, cursing, and graphic violence for it to be Christian Fiction. Biblical Fiction, you have to understand, is not the same as Christian Fiction. Christian Fiction has strict rules about what kind of worldview and morality your characters can present and endorse. Characters can be morally ambiguous at first, but in Christian Fiction, they usually convert to a Christian worldview and morality by the end. But hopefully, you see in this Biblical text all of the characters are morally ambiguous, and there is no “conversion” for any of them. Therefore, I say Biblical Fiction does not have to follow the same rules as Christian Fiction, because the Bible doesn’t.

Atwood lifted these characters from the Bible and placed them in a modern dystopian setting with new names. She did not take the Christian approach of turning Abraham and Sarah into heroes and Hagar into a villain. She kept all of their moral ambiguities intact. That is why Atwood’s story works so well. Her approach not only makes the characters more believable and human. It is a more faithful rendering of the Biblical text than the rules of Christian Fiction would allow. It highlights how unjust and dehumanizing the society of Gilead is. June acts like a fiercely independent handmaid would in a society like Gilead, and so does Hagar. The Waterfords act like members of a privileged class who want a child would act, and so do Abram and Sarai.

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Remember Hagar ran away to escape Sarai’s harsh treatment? What happened to her? The saga continues in the next part of this character study. If you are interested in buying a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, you can follow my affiliate link here. My “Recommended” page has links to this and other excellent examples of Biblical Fiction.

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