Genesis 16 – Sarai and Hagar

Protecting the patriarchy and male supremacy.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.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.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Volumes have been written on these two women. Volumes.  This older US News article provides a good summary of some of the major themes and subjects that continue to attract us to this story, some of which include the similarities between Hagar’s story and the female African-American experience during slavery, and the origin of Islamic and Judeo-Christian tensions.

Coming at it from a decidedly feminist-revisionist standpoint (yes, I can totally admit that bias), the most interesting theory I’ve read while researching this chapter is that the writer was just as concerned with propping up male superiority and the patriarchal system as he was with illuminating the divine supremacy of God.  Again, according to the US News article, by illustrating that God, then considered male, has the ability to control female fertility, the author has established male superiority over the very female power of child-bearing.

I don’t want to come across as cynical, but I do wonder how much of this story was written to make Abram look good at the expense of Sarai and Hagar.  There are many examples of polygamy in the Old Testament, but it’s generally accepted that the belief was polygamy was not meant to be the moral ideal – remember Lamech lusting after both Adah and Zillah?  Sarai offering Hagar to Abram is reminiscent of Eve offering Adam the apple.  Here is something tempting (a young girl, a delicious fruit) that will bring about something desired (an heir, knowledge) that the weaker woman (Sarai, Eve) offers to the apparently blameless or at the very least coerced man (Abram, Adam).  As to this male inculpability, Abram is often depicted in art history with his hand extended palm up while Sarai brings him Hagar, a symbol of rejecting responsibility or designating innocence.  But he still sleeps with Hagar…so how is he innocent of impatience and faithlessness while Sarai is guilty of being so? I just have a hard time holding only Sarai responsible for deciding Abram better sleep with Hagar, especially if so many other parts of this story are written to reinforce male dominance.  I can’t imagine the anguish Sarai was going through experiencing infertility for so long, especially in a time when fertility was kind of your defining trait as a woman.  That just doesn’t seem like the mindset that would arrive at a decision of “oh, yes, let this other beautiful, fertile woman sleep with my husband instead.”  I don’t believe Sarai was blameless, because that would be reductive in the other direction, but I do think she’s been given too much of the blame.

Also, if Abram was (at least partially) more responsible for deciding to sleep with Hagar than the writing of this story would lead us to believe, it would help explain the animosity between these two women a little more, and why Sarai mistreated the pregnant Hagar (16:6) and why in a few chapters she is insistent upon Hagar and Ismael being sent into the desert.

Really, the more I write about it the sadder I become.  They both became mothers of nations, but how fraught both these women’s lives were.  Hagar literally needs an angel to lift her out of her despair in this chapter.  It sounds like Sarai has reached a breaking point, herself.  The only thing I can say is – Ladies, let it be a reminder that we need to work cooperatively.  Gentlemen (and everyone else!) you can totally get in on this, too.  Let us not be jealous of each other’s successes, or gloat over each other’s short-comings.  Let us work to uplift each other.  We have generations of embedded male superiority to overcome still, as was made abundantly clear by the recent Bret Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford Senate hearings, MeToo movement, and other news stories of the past year.

So yes, maybe I am a little sad and a little cynical this morning.  But I’m going to channel that anger into productive change in Jesus’ name, and I hope you will, too.  A quick Google search of “how to empower women” or “how to promote gender equality” comes back with some great ideas.  Below, in no particular order, are a few of my favorite, and I hope you’ll be moved to participate in some of them:

  1. Support New Moms – This can be anything from locally to globally.  The wonderful ladies at my church in Charlottesville set up a meal train for me when Betty was born, and I didn’t have to cook for a month.  It. Was. Amazing.  Reach out to moms of newborns, if they are in your community.  You can also support moms in developing countries through programs like the White Ribbon Alliance and the International Women’s Health Coalition, among others.
  2. Support Female Entrepreneurs – shop female-owned businesses, mentor female entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, or just provide encouragement and positivity to women and girls with an entrepreneurial spirit.
  3. Encourage young girls in school, particularly in STEM programs – girls are super smart, but we’re not always taught to value that.  Mentoring a girl you know, or one through a program like Big Brothers, Big Sisters goes a long way towards building a girl’s confidence to do well in school.  Additionally, you can support female education worldwide through organizations like the Campaign for Female Education.
  4. Speak up – speak up when you see sexism at work.  Speak up for the rights of other gender minorities (aka trans or non-binary peoples), because we are stronger together.  Speak with your vote and elect female candidates and candidates that are committed to furthering gender equality.
  5. Keep talking.  I’d love to hear some other ways you all have supported the women in your lives (or how someone has supported you) – whether it’s an anecdotal story of person-to-person support, or an organization you think is doing good work, or whatever!  I look forward to hearing them.

Genesis 04 – Women in the Bible

Adah and Zillah – warnings to be reviled, or mothers of the arts to be celebrated?

Adam made love to his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man.” Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.

Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord.And Abel also brought an offering—fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock. The Lord looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? Why is your face downcast? If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

Now Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

10 The Lord said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. 11 Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you. You will be a restless wanderer on the earth.”

13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear.14 Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

15 But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. 16 So Cain went out from the Lord’s presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

17 Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch. Cain was then building a city, and he named it after his son Enoch. 18 To Enoch was born Irad, and Irad was the father of Mehujael, and Mehujael was the father of Methushael, and Methushael was the father of Lamech.

19 Lamech married two women, one named Adah and the other Zillah.20 Adah gave birth to Jabal; he was the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock. 21 His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes. 22 Zillah also had a son, Tubal-Cain, who forged all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron. Tubal-Cain’s sister was Naamah.

23 Lamech said to his wives,

“Adah and Zillah, listen to me;
    wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
    a young man for injuring me.
24 If Cain is avenged seven times,
    then Lamech seventy-seven times.”

25 Adam made love to his wife again, and she gave birth to a son and named him Seth saying, “God has granted me another child in place of Abel, since Cain killed him.” 26 Seth also had a son, and he named him Enosh.

At that time people began to call on the name of the Lord.

Chapters 4 and 5 can be seen as contrasting allegories of wicked and righteous living, so I’ll discuss them more next blog post, together.  What I find most interesting today is we have, after Eve, the next three women of the Bible mentioned.  The Bible is filled with male figures and written from a male perspective, so whenever a woman is mentioned, my interest is piqued.  What made her unique enough for the writers to take notice? In a time when women were often viewed as property, gaining name recognition in sacred text is a big deal, so let me share what I’ve found out about them. Poor Naamah is just a name, and I can’t find much on her, so I’ll focus on Adah and Zillah.

I promise this is related, so bear with me: One of my favorite podcasts is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, where two Harvard divinity graduates use reading practices from different religions and apply it to each chapter of the books, along with a themed reading.  They’re not making Harry Potter sacred, but using it as a starting point for conversations about life’s challenges and truths.  It’s really great, even if you’re not a Harry Potter fan.  But I mention it because this podcast introduced me to Havruta, a Jewish practice of studying the Torah that is based in partnership and conversation.  To paraphrase, the truth is found more so in the discussion than in seeking an actual “answer.”  I loved that idea, and after reading several opinions on Adah and Zillah, I think that the truth of these women may be somewhere in the conversation, rather than any hard-and-fast answer.

First, we’ll start with their names.  Adah basically means adornment and Zillah basically means the tinkling of bells.  OT names often imply some sort of characteristic truth about the person.  If we’re to believe that (which, whether this is a historically factual story or just an allegory, we can either way), then these women were beautiful.

Adah and Zillah seemed to focus upon their beauty by adorning themselves.  Is this a good or bad thing, or just a thing?  It depends who you ask.  Some see it as the first story of female vanity – Adah and Zillah made themselves appealing so Lamech would be tempted into polygamy, where he then used their beauty against them to incur rival-wife jealousies.  Or, perhaps they were so beautiful that he just couldn’t help his attraction to both of them, and they both had genuine love for him.  Others see Adah and Zillah as a mirroring of the dual-female role in other mythologies, and indeed elsewhere in the Bible (such as Sarah and Hagar or Naomi and Ruth).  And there must have been something inspiring about them, beyond their looks: they are the mothers of the closest thing Christianity has to muses. Their sons, the ones they taught and raised, are responsible for music, animal husbandry, and metal-smithing.

So what is the “real” meaning of Adah and Zillah’s story? Are they warnings to be reviled, or are they they mothers of art to be celebrated?  They were human, just like you and me, and a little bit of both.  They loved the wrong man – tell me you haven’t heard that story a million times over.  Maybe they were a little vain – I certainly am.  But, they were good mothers who encouraged their boys to create things the world had never seen before, things that benefited all of mankind.

I think the moral of the story is this:  It is easy to pass people over.  These women are barely more than names, here.  It is also easy to reduce and compartmentalize people.  We need to remember that every person has a complete and complex soul, and there is good and bad in everyone.  It’s hard. It’s downright exhausting, to be honest. And, just like I mentioned last post, we’re going to fail in our compassion. I fail every day. But (trying to) remember that everyone deserves compassion when you come across someone who is mean, or different than you, or even just driving too slow, will help us make the world a better place, one interaction at a time.