Reconciling Hagar and Sarah: Feminist Midrash and National Conflict
The Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob cycles in Genesis are not merely collections of stories about ancient Israelite figures, but etiological origin stories about Israel and its neighbors. In the case of the Abraham cycle, his two sons Ishmael and Isaac represent Arabs and Israelites/Jews respectively. The two groups are thus presented as Abraham’s descendants, and the rivalry between their two matriarchs, Hagar and Sarah, is ominous for what it implies about the nature of the future relationship between these two peoples.
The Conflicts between Sarah and Hagar
The first conflict appears in Genesis 16, when, after Sarai suggests to Abram that he lie with her slave-woman Hagar and produce a child, Sarai complains to Abram about her behavior:
בראשית טז:ד …וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וַתֵּקַל גְּבִרְתָּהּ בְּעֵינֶיהָ. טז:ה וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל אַבְרָם חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ יִשְׁפֹּט יְ־הוָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ.
Gen 16:4 …When she (Hagar) saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her eyes. 16:5 And Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave-woman in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her eyes. YHWH shall judge between you and me!”
Abraham does not defend Hagar or try to calm the dispute, but accedes to Sarai entirely, by transferring back his wife Hagar, whom Sarai had previously given to him, and reducing Hagar again to the status of Sarai’s female slave and, in that sense, her “property”:
בראשית טז:ו וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל שָׂרַי הִנֵּה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ בְּיָדֵךְ עֲשִׂי לָהּ הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיִךְ וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי וַתִּבְרַח מִפָּנֶיהָ.
Gen 16:6 Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-woman is in your hands. Deal with her as you think is good in your eyes.” Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.
The Hebrew וַתְּעַנֶּהָ, “treated her harshly,” explicitly judges Sarah by identifying her behavior as abuse of her female slave, prompting her to escape into the wilderness. As the story progresses, an angel finds Hagar in the wilderness, and tells her to return:
בראשית טז:ט וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ יְ־הוָה שׁוּבִי אֶל גְּבִרְתֵּךְ וְהִתְעַנִּי תַּחַת יָדֶיהָ.
Gen 16:9 And the angel of YHWH said to her, “Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.”
The angel affirms that Sarah’s treatment of Hagar is harsh, and yet consigns her to return and submit to more persecution. When Hagar does not respond to this directive, the angel foretells how her seed, this son to be born, shall become a populous nation and further the angel assures her that God has “heard” of her mistreatment and bids her to call the child “Ishmael” (The One God Will Hear).
In short, Hagar will become a matriarch on her own terms, blessed with children whose destiny God guarantees. Apparently, she returns to serve her mistress and to give birth to Ishmael who is so named by Abram (Gen 16:15). In the next episode we find Hagar and her son in Abraham’s household (Gen. 21) at the weaning celebration of Sarah’s first-born Isaac, when another conflict breaks out between these two co-wives:
בראשית כא:ט וַתֵּרֶא שָׂרָה אֶת בֶּן הָגָר הַמִּצְרִית אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לְאַבְרָהָם מְצַחֵק. כא:י וַתֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָהָם גָּרֵשׁ הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת וְאֶת בְּנָהּ כִּי לֹא יִירַשׁ בֶּן הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת עִם בְּנִי עִם יִצְחָק.
Gen 21:9 Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing. 21:10 She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son, with Isaac.”
The text continues with Abraham’s emotional reaction:
בראשית כא:יא וַיֵּרַע הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּעֵינֵי אַבְרָהָם עַל אוֹדֹת בְּנוֹ.
Gen 21:11 The matter was very bad in Abraham’s eyes on account of his son.
The text makes no mention of Abraham being upset at the loss of Hagar, but God, when consoling Abraham, does mention her, saying, אַל יֵרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עַל הַנַּעַר וְעַל אֲמָתֶךָ “do not let [the fate of] the boy and your slave-woman be bad in your eyes.”
God continues by saying that, although Abraham should listen to what his wife Sarah says (vv. 12–13), he should know that Ishmael too will become a nation כִּי זַרְעֲךָ הוּא “for he is your seed” (v. 13).
Abraham complies and evicts Hagar and Ishmael sending them into the wilderness (v. 14). When their lives are endangered by dehydration, God keeps his promise to Abraham and to Hagar by saving the child because he hears Ishmael’s cries who was justly named “The One God Will Hear” (v. 17–18).
On a covenantal level, this story has an all’s well that ends well conclusion. God’s promises to Abraham and to each of the matriarchs will be fulfilled, as Isaac and Ishmael will each become great nations. But what about the interpersonal level? Is there ever a happy ending to the familial and, thus, national conflict?
Isaac and Ishmael (Genesis)
The Torah itself implies a reconciliation of sorts between the brothers. First, after Abraham’s death, Ishmael returns “home” to encounter his brother once more at their father’s funeral:
בראשית כה:ט וַיִּקְבְּרוּ אֹתוֹ יִצְחָק וְיִשְׁמָעֵאל בָּנָיו אֶל מְעָרַת הַמַּכְפֵּלָה.
Gen 25:9 His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah.
Somehow Ishmael overcomes his memory of being expelled by his father and does his filial duty by him. Apparently, he does not bear a grudge against his brother Isaac who became the covenantal son. In fact, Genesis Rabbah (62:3) sees Isaac being mentioned before Ishmael in this verse as a sign of Ishmael’s acquiescence:
כאן בן האמה חולק כבוד לבן הגבירה.
Here the son of the slave-woman gives honor to the son of the lady of the house.
Eventually the children of Isaac and Ishmael even marry each other:
בראשית כח:ט וַיֵּלֶךְ עֵשָׂו אֶל יִשְׁמָעֵאל וַיִּקַּח אֶת מָחֲלַת בַּת יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן אַבְרָהָם אֲחוֹת נְבָיוֹת עַל נָשָׁיו לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה.
Gen 28:9 So Esau went to Ishmael and took to wife, in addition to the wives he had, Mahalat the daughter of Ishmael son of Abraham, sister of Nebaiot.
Of course, Esau is not the covenantal child of Abraham who receives the divine blessing and does not represent Israel or Judah, but he is the father of the nation of Edom, Judah’s neighbor to the south. Still, the Torah and the Deuteronomic history ending with the fall of David’s dynasty do not present further conflict between the two brothers or their immediate descendants.
Abraham and Ishmael (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer)
The Biblical text leaves us with the inner ambivalence of Abraham toward his oldest son. While he feels bad about the expulsion, he does not comfort his rejected son or worry about his future, as he does later for Isaac whose marriage he arranges through his servant with a woman of great hospitality.
To soften the seeming callousness and paternal irresponsibility, the 8th/9th century C.E. midrash compilation, Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (30), adds that Abraham visited Ishmael’s household to check up on him, where he meets his wife.
Dissatisfied with her lack of hospitality, Abraham leaves a message for Ishmael, urging him to divorce her, and Ishmael complies, remarrying a woman of Hagar’s choosing, who ostensibly would share the Abrahamic value of hospitality. When Abraham eventually returns, he is pleased with the second wife, and leaves a message to that effect. Thus וידע ישמעאל שעד עכשו רחמי אביו עליו “Ishmael knew that his father still loved him.” This same account appears in Islamic sources.
Abraham and Hagar (Genesis Rabbah)
In the biblical text, Hagar, of whom God assumes that Abraham felt bad about her expulsion, is never mentioned after the story of the expulsion, leaving his breach with Hagar unresolved. In another example of midrashic rewriting of the narrative, some rabbis identify Keturah, whom Abraham marries after Sarah’s death (Genesis 25:1), with Hagar. (In the biblical text, the two are not identical.) For example, in Genesis Rabbah (61), the identity of Keturah is debated:
ר' יהודה אמר: זו הגר. אמר ליה ר' נחמיה:... והכת' ושמה קטורה? אמר ליה: שקיטרה מצוות ומעשים טובים.
Rabbi Yehudah said: “This is Hagar.” Rabbi Nehemiah responded… “Doesn’t it say ‘and her name was Keturah’?!” [Rabbi Yehudah] answered: “She was perfumed (ק.ט.ר) with commandments and good deeds.”
Thus Abraham renews his responsibility and his affection for Hagar as soon as Sarah, who could not stand her, is buried. Not only does the midrash solve the problem of the use of two different names for the same wife, but it dispels Sarah’s character assassination of Hagar and demonstrates that Abraham was correct in remarrying this good woman as soon as shalom bayit permitted.
Isaac and Hagar (Midrash Tanhuma)
Another version of the midrashic tradition maintains that even Isaac and Hagar were reconciled. Although one might have expected the son of Sarah to continue his mother’s vendetta against her, this imaginative midrash suggests that Isaac took an active part in bringing Hagar back to his father.
Noting that Genesis 24:62 tells us that when Isaac sees Rebekah for the first time, he was coming from Beer-lahai-roi, a place named by Hagar (Gen 16:14), and that only a few verses later it says that Abraham took another wife (Gen 25:1), Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi suggests (Midrash Tanchuma, Chayei Sarah 9, Buber ed.):
אלא בשעה שנטל יצחק לרבקה אמר יצחק: נלך ונביא לאבי אשה. היא הגר היא קטורה.
When Isaac took Rebekah, Isaac said: “Let’s go bring my father a wife.” This is Hagar, this is Keturah.
According to this, when Isaac thought about his lonely father, he remembered the woman whom his mother expelled and whom Abraham apparently loved, and brings her back.
What About Sarah and Hagar? What of the Blessed Nations they Spawned?
The one character who is never reconciled with either of the offended parties, in either the biblical text or the midrash, is Sarah. This is especially stark when we note that the direct tension between two female characters, adult women fighting over their relative position in Abraham’s household and that of their sons, is left unresolved. Some feminist readings would point out that it is no surprise that conflict between women would have been seen as less significant a problem and thus, could be left to simmer. Others note that rabbinic midrash offers a tale of reconciliation between Leah and Rachel, also co-wives who compete bitterly. For these reasons, some contemporary feminist readers and poets have felt an urgent need to add a new episode to the narrative to bring the two women together.
Further, these feminist poets wish to reimagine the relationship between the nations born of these matriarchs in a period of ongoing violent conflict between Muslims and Jews in the Middle East and the fragile beginnings of a new religious and ethnic dialogue between American Muslims and American Jews in North America.
Lynn Gottlieb: Sarah’s Confession
Jewish Renewal rabbi, Lynn Gottlieb (b. 1949), took up the challenge, wishing to demonstrate that animosity over patriarchal favor among rival co-wives of Abraham could be reconciled, after proper reflection and repentance, and transformed into exemplary solidarity between sisters. She uses what is often called “modern midrash,” because it does similar things to what classical aggadic midrashic expansions do, rewriting the ending of the biblical tale of violent sisterly competition to include some form of reconciliation. Such modern midrashim rework the biblical text, utilizing contemporary literary forms and styles.
In this case, Gottlieb frames her opening around the issue of how Sarah addresses Hagar. The great Bible scholar, Nechama Leibowitz (1905–1997) once pointed out in a lecture that Sarah never talks directly to Hagar, referring to her merely as הָאָמָה הַזֹּאת “that slave woman,” further depersonalizing her with the demonstrative zot / “that one.” In the opening to her poem Achti, an Arabic term meaning “My Sister,” Gottlieb, more radically, suggests that Hagar is not a name but a derogatory epithet – “the immigrant, the alien, ha-ger” (in the Bible ger refers to resident aliens, not converts).
I am pained I did not call you
By the name your mother gave you.
I cast you aside,
Cursed you with my barrenness and rage,
Called you “stranger”/ Ha-ger,
As if it were a sin to be from another place.
For Emmanuel Levinas the primal human sin is not seeing the face of the depersonalized other, while for Gottlieb it is the sin of not knowing and not recognizing the stranger by name. Thus Sarah (Gen. 16, 21) has betrayed the ethos of feminist sisterhood simply by failing to call Hagar by her name.
Gottlieb further notes that Sarah’s anger stemmed from her own barrenness. For Gottlieb, Sarah’s sin derives in part from her blindness to the patriarchal system that pressures wives to be fertile and generates an inhumane competition between women, breaking down their solidarity. Sarah admits to having tried to steal Hagar’s womb, as if another woman, her womb and her child, could be property.
They used me to steal your womb,
Claim your child,
As if I owned your body and your labor
Having offered an original interpretation of Hagar’s name, Gottlieb does the same with “Sarah.” Etymologically, her name is connected to “ruler” (שַׂר, sar), but Gottlieb’s midrash connects it to “see-far” (שׁוּר, shur). Thus Sarah ought to become, by virtue of her name, the far-seeing woman, the prophetess. The word also has resonance with name of Israel as “Jeshurun” and to the desert of “Shur” in which Hagar seeks refuge (Gen.16:7). Yet she realizes to her chagrin that Hagar sees visions of God, while God has stopped communicating with the woman meant to be a prophetess:
I, whom they call “See Far Woman” / Sarah,
Could not witness my own blindness.
But you, my sister,
You beheld angels,
Made miracles in the desert,
Received divine blessings from a god,
Who stopped talking to me.
Using the midrash on Sarah’s name, Gottlieb has Sarah contrast her own moral blindness with Hagar’s power of vision in having seen God. By contrast, Sarah never speaks to God or sees him. What she does witness, however, is the near death of her son Isaac:
Only at the end,
When I witnessed my young son screaming under his father's knife,
Did I realize our common suffering.
The Akedah or “Binding of Isaac” (Gen 22) follows on the heels of the expulsion of Ishmael (Gen 21), suggesting a connection to many interpreters. Gottlieb here picks up on this but also on the midrashic connection between the Akedah and the account of Sarah’s death in the following chapter (Gen 23). As Rashi says (gloss on Gen 23:2):
ונסמכה מיתתה לעקידה, שעל ידי בשורת עקידה שנזדמן בנה לשחיטה, וכמעט לא נשחט, פרחה רוחה ומתה.
Her death was placed next to the Akedah for through the announcement of the Akedah, that her son had been prepared for slaughter and had almost been slaughtered, her soul fled from her and she died.
But Gottlieb says Sarah’s trauma, seeing her son almost slaughtered by her husband, led her to repent. When Sarah is herself shunted aside and her son taken—without consulting her—to be sacrificed by the same Abraham and the same God who drove Ishmael away and exposed him to death, Sarah then discovers herself as an unwitting collaborator of patriarchy who betrayed her sisterly duties to Hagar by actively expelling a helpless woman and child into a life-threatening situation. Now that she has suffered, she develops an empathy with Hagar based on their common motherhood (“our common suffering”).
In fact, whereas the biblical text has an angel calling from heaven to Abraham, telling him to stay his hand (Gen 22:11–12), Gottlieb envisions Sarah’s voice seeking to save her son from slaughter at the last minute:
And I called out, “Avraham, Avraham, hold
back your knife!”
My voice trumpeted into the silence
of my sin.
By describing her voice as a trumpet, Gottlieb connects it to the shofar blasts of Rosh Hashanah, the day when the story of Ishmael’s banishment is read in the synagogue. Thus, she concludes her poem in the form of a ritual self-accusation, a vidui, the traditional confession characteristic of Yom Kippur, which follows soon after Rosh Hashanah, and is part of the same festival complex:
Forgive me, Achti
For the sin of neglect
For the sin of abuse
For the sin of arrogance
Forgive me, Achti,
For the sin of not knowing your name.
Like the ancient rabbinic poets (paytanim), Gottlieb too offers her midrash as a liturgical poem to be recited liturgically. The confession Gottlieb invents is about Sarah’s realization that she has betrayed the feminist sisterhood and motherhood she owed to Hagar.
Reconciling the Descendants Sarah and Hagar
Gottlieb does not stop at reconciling the biblical characters, since she sees them as symbolic of the tension between Jews and Muslims:
Sarah and Hagar are the first matriarchs of the Jewish and Muslim peoples…. It is a tragedy that religion and ideology have transformed this story into a conflict of faiths and peoples. The ultimate irony is the consequent suffering of the hundreds of thousands of women and children who have died as a result of religious and national wars fought in the name of this text. 
In the spirit of her poem, Gottlieb takes it upon herself, through the character of Sarah “our mother,” to confess what—in her political and moral opinion as a left-wing liberal—are the sins of the Jewish people in their “abuse,” expulsion and depersonalization of Palestinian refugees which Sarah’s command to Abraham to expel Hagar and son Ishmael foreshadows. The political strategy for healing this rupture is to build an alliance of liberated women across the patriarchal divisions into tribes and to moral strategy is to read this story as a resource for empathy and hope, not as a myth of origin about an irreparable enmity of 3000 years.
Mohja Kahf: Hagar’s Letter to Sarah
The inverse perspective was taken by Syrian American poet, novelist, and professor, Mohja Kahf (b. 1967) who wrote a poem titled “Hagar Writes a Cathartic as an Exercise Suggested by her Therapist,” which begins:
Dear Sarah, life made us enemies
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
What if we both ditched the old man?
He could have visitation rights with the boys
alternate weekends and holidays.
Yeah, especially the Feast of the Sacrifice—
everybody has forgotten anyway
that it began with me abandoned in the desert
watching my baby dehydrate for days—
I dared God to let us die.
In this imagined letter, Abraham represents the chauvinist legal system in which women who are co-wives compete with one another in a zero-sum game for their husband’s attention and for each son’s inheritance. But the poet teaches us that women who have internalized this competitive self-understanding can be liberated psychologically.
Anyway, you and I,
we’d set up house,
raise the kids,
start a catering business, maybe.
You have brains.
So do I.
We could travel.
There are places to see
besides Ur and this nowheresville desert
with its tribes of hooligans
Using the therapist’s letter-writing technique as a midrash, Hagar/Hajar—matriarch of the Arab people and specifically of Mohammed—suggests to Sarah they dump the old man (as Sarah called Abraham derisively – Gen. 18:12) and create an alliance of mothers in a blended family.
She also claims that her own feats in watching her son’s dehydration trump Ibrahim/Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son at Mount Moriah. Like Lynn Gottlieb, who ties her poem to the Jewish ritual calendar, Kahf connects her poem to Id al Adkha, a Muslim festival in commemoration of Ibrahim’s near sacrifice of his son (whether the latter son was Ishmael or Isaac is never clarified in the Quran).
Then Hagar turns to Sarah herself, who, she says, took advantage of her youth and weakness, treating her like a rival when she should have treated her like a daughter:
No. Your lips always thin when you disapprove,
like the mother I can hardly remember
from before I wound up in your house.
I was barely more than a girl. You are the one
Who brought me there from Egypt.
You used to laugh back then. In those days,
You could bear to look at me.
Having expressed this pain, Hagar turns back to her main theme of reconciliation. The women, she suggests, may draw near in sisterhood in mutual resentment of the old man, Abraham. Revisiting the double laughter of Sarah (Gen. 18:12-14; Gen. 21:6-10), the poet appeals to laughter to overcome anger. Thus she celebrates the therapeutic power of laughter:
Oh, Sarah, you need years of therapy
Can’t you admit that what he did to me was cruel?
Admit it – for just one second
It won’t make you hate him forever
just long enough to know the world won’t fall apart.
Long enough to pity him, yourself, me
Laugh, Sarah, laugh
God, the Possibility.
Here Hagar encourages Sarah to develop both healing anger and laughter. If only Sarah could see what happened to Hagar from the latter’s eyes, she would be angry at Abraham (and herself) for a short while, but then cathartic laughter can follow, leading to greater sympathy for all—including herself.
Both Gottlieb and Kahf work with the assumption that Sarah deeply wronged Hagar and that confession and repentance is called for. Such an assumption can already be found in the commentary of Ramban (R. Moses Nachmanides 1194–1270), who holds Sarah and even Abraham accountable for abusing Hagar (Genesis 16:6):
חטאה אמנו בענוי הזה, וגם אברהם בהניחו לעשות כן, ושמע ה' אל עניה ונתן לה בן שיהא פרא אדם לענות זרע אברהם ושרה בכל מיני הענוי.
Our mother sinned with this abuse, as did Abraham by letting her do so, and God heard her suffering and gave her a son who would be a wild ass of a man to make the seed of Abraham and Sarah suffer all kinds of abuse.
Gottlieb’s political reading finds resonance in Ramban’s interpretation, since he regards the suffering of the Jews under Islamic rule in the era of Ramban as a divinely sanctioned remedial punishment. While this is not a happy ending resolving the conflict, it does offer poetic justice. But whereas Ramban uses the story as a way of explaining the status quo, the feminist poets wish to go beyond this and use the attempt to reconcile the co-wives as a first step toward reconciling their descendants. History is not determined by past wrongs, but open subsequently to repentance that may transform tragic conflict into critical sober self-understanding and perhaps hopeful reconciliation.
In her article on Sarah and Hagar, in a compendium for the High Holy Days, Ruth Behar, a Jewish, Cuban-American anthropologist, highlights the specifically feminist motivation for solving the tension between Sarah and Hagar:
If feminism is about the search for sisterhood, then the story of Sarah and Hagar is a foundational story about the impossibility of feminism. The story of Sarah and Hagar is a story about women wronging women. It is a story so sad, so shameful, so sorrowful, that to own up to it is to admit that feminism has its origins in terrible violence and terrible lack of compassion between women. The story of Sarah and Hagar is a key source for the painful.
I want to show that the purpose of the story of Sarah and Hagar is to awaken in the Jewish listener both the humility and the courage to stand before the cold winds of self-scrutiny, an act essential to the spirit of the Days of Awe. I want to show that the story of Sarah and Hagar gives both women and men a fundamental basis for returning from the sanctuary of Jewish penitence to the wider world with an altered empathy for those we have wronged, a renewed sense of commitment to social justice.
In the call of Behar, and in the poems of Kahf and Gottlieb, we can hear the voice of a feminist ethos that, unlike men, women at their sisterly best advocate for values of peacemaking, compromise, empathy, care, and the repair and maintenance of relationships under stress. They reject male values of impersonal justice, repressed feelings, and the competitive drive for triumph over one’s opponent. Thus, contemporary American feminists have felt that imagining the reconciliation of Sarah and Hagar could nurture a hopeful vision of moral reformation and peaceful reunion between their putative descendants.
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November 15, 2019
January 16, 2020
Noam Zion is senior faculty and curriculum writer for the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jerusalem (1978-2019). He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University, and among his books are A Different Night: The Family Participation Haggadah (1997); Jewish Giving in Comparative Perspectives: Tzedakah, Charity and Greek Philanthropy (2013); Talmudic Marital Dramas (2018) and Foundations of Family Conflict and Reconciliation in Genesis (multidisciplinary study guides for educators).
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