What Does Sarah’s Expulsion of Hagar Signify for Abraham's Descendants?
Ramban on Genesis 12:6
כל מה שאירע לאבות סימן לבנים, ולכן יאריכו הכתובים בספור המסעות וחפירת הבארות ושאר המקרים, ויחשוב החושב בהם כאלו הם דברים מיותרים אין בהם תועלת. וכולם באים ללמד על העתיד, כי כאשר יבוא המקרה לנביא משלשת האבות יתבונן ממנו הדבר הנגזר לבא לזרעו.
Everything that involves the ancestors is a sign for their descendants. For this reason, scripture writes extensively about their journeys, digging of wells, and other incidents. The reader likely considers these narrations to be trivial and without benefit, but all of them teach us about the future, since when one of these things happens to one of the three patriarchs, the reader can consider it carefully and derive from it what will happen to his descendants.
This is how R. Moses ben Nahman, the thirteenth-century commentator known as Ramban or Nahmanides, introduces his discussion of events in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their respective wives (Gen 12:6). Genesis, Ramban explains, does not recount the experiences of these founding figures for the mere sake of preserving history, but rather because their activities anticipate and justify what will happen in the future, including—we will see—in the reader’s own day.
Ramban’s approach to understanding stories about Abraham and his family as directly relevant to contemporary audiences already appears within the Bible itself. The prophet known to scholars as Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah) comforts Jerusalem and its exiles by reminding them that they are the children of Abraham and Sarah, whom God blessed with numerous descendants; Zion likewise will flourish joyfully, perhaps within the lifetime of Second Isaiah’s community (Isa. 51:1–3).
The clearest pre-rabbinic example of the principle that the deeds of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants, however, appears not in the Jewish Bible but rather in the Christian New Testament: Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Paul’s retelling of the Sarah and Hagar story in this mid-first-century work, along with the reception of that passage by later Christians, sheds valuable light on an assumption ingrained within Judaism and Christianity alike: The Bible speaks to the present circumstances of its audience. This assumption empowers diverse interpreters to understand biblical texts in light of their own particular perspectives, agendas, and concerns. The results vary widely.
Are Gentile Christians Required to Observe Commandments?
Paul was a Jew who belonged to a predominantly Jewish community noteworthy for its belief that Jesus, though crucified, was in fact the long-awaited messiah (Greek: christos) foretold in Jewish scriptures. To call the members of this first-century community “Christians” would be anachronistic: that term, invented after Paul’s death, implies a sharp distinction between Christ-believers and Jews, but Paul and most other members of the community he joined proudly self-identified as Jews. These Jews anticipated that Jesus would soon return to earth to establish the Kingdom of God for the benefit of the righteous. Christ-believers sought to spread this good news to others, and Paul proved quite successful in his efforts to found communities of non-Jewish believers in Christ.
The influx of gentiles into an originally all-Jewish movement prompted a hotly debated question: do non-Jewish members of the community need to keep mitzvot like Jews, or will they be admitted into the Kingdom of God solely on the basis of their faith in Christ? The Jerusalem-based leadership of the Christ-believing community insisted that gentile believers must adhere to ritual norms incumbent upon Jews including, paradigmatically, male circumcision. Paul vigorously disagreed.
In a public letter to the gentile churches Paul had founded in the region of Galatia (in present-day Turkey), Paul makes a spirited case that gentiles who have faith in Christ need not observe mitzvot that apply to Jews alone. He declares that true believers rely solely on God’s covenantal promise, and he condemns his rivals for foolishly demanding gentile observance of biblical law and its fleshly rites. Those bound by the law, Paul teaches, are like slaves, while those whom Christ redeems are like free children. These contrasting terms—free and slave, promise and flesh—reappear in Paul’s rendition of the story of Sarah and Hagar.
Paul’s Reading of Sarah and Hagar
Paul recounts this story in a direct speech to gentile Galatians who, under the influence of Paul’s rivals, think that they need to follow the laws of the Torah.
Tell me, you who desire to be subject to Torah (Greek: nomos, Law), will you not listen to the Torah? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. (Gal. 4:21–23)
Paul emphasizes that only the child of the “free woman,” namely Sarah, was born on account of the covenantal promise of offspring (Gen. 17:1–21, 18:9–14); the “child of the slave” is merely the result of fleshly sexual intercourse between Abraham and Hagar (16:4). Isaac is special and worthy of emulation; Ishmael, who bears the attributes of slavery and fleshliness that Paul associates with his rivals, is not.
Paul proceeds to explain the meaning of the Sarah and Hagar story.
Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One of these is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, which is in slavery with her children. The Jerusalem above, in contrast, is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children, burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs; for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous than the children of the one who is married.” (Gal. 4:24–27, citing Isa. 54:1)
Hagar the slave woman, Paul explains, represents the covenant of mitzvot established at Mount Sinai. Paul links Hagar with Sinai because she and her son settled in the vicinity of that mountain after Abraham sent his slave away (Gen. 21:21, 25:18). Like Hagar’s children, the disciples of “the present Jerusalem”—the earthly city that is home to Paul’s rivals within the Jewish Christ-believing community—are enslaved by their misplaced faith in the law revealed at Sinai.
There is, however, another covenant: the one associated with Sarah and “the Jerusalem above.” This, Paul teaches his followers, is our covenant, the one that rests solely on faith in Jesus Christ. Paul, who dismisses the relevance of fleshly ancestry, contends that Sarah is the figurative mother of all believers in Christ—Jews and gentiles alike—who share her faith in the divine promise.
Sarah, moreover, represents not the flawed present-day Jerusalem but its ideal heavenly counterpart, which first-century Jews believed would descend to earth with the coming of the messianic era. (Paul apparently quotes Second Isaiah because he understands this passage as referring to that heavenly Jerusalem.)
Drive Out Hagar and Those She Represents
Paul, like Ramban and the rabbinic tradition on which he draws, firmly believes that the deeds of the ancestors are a sign for their descendants. For that reason, he presents the story of Sarah and Hagar as a blueprint for understanding and addressing the conflict within the first-century Christ-believing movement:
Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. Moreover, just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman” (Gen. 21:10, adapted). So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal. 4:28–5:1)
Just as Hagar and Sarah represent two competing ideas about what it takes to enter the Kingdom of God (adherence to mitzvot or faith in Jesus Christ), Ishmael and Isaac represent the rival factions within the Christ-believing community. Abraham’s sons, moreover, prefigure the ways in which these factions necessarily interact.
Ishmael’s present-day successors, the Jerusalem-based Christ-believers, “persecute” the Isaac-like Galatians by insisting that these gentiles adopt Jewish practices such as circumcision rather than rely solely on the promise of salvation through Christ. (Paul takes for granted a midrashic interpretation of Gen. 21:9 that understands Ishmael’s “play” [מְצַחֵק] to be nefarious.) Paul’s Isaac-like followers, in turn, ought to carry out the order of their figurative mother, Sarah, by driving out those who urge them to observe biblical law in its entirety. As children of the free woman, gentile believers in Christ should not enslave themselves to the mitzvot.
In Genesis, Sarah explicitly refers to a one-time act: “Drive out this slave and her child, for the child of this slave will not share in the inheritance with my son, Isaac” (Gen. 21:10, emphasis added to the words that Paul changes). Paul, however, takes for granted that the Torah’s stories about biblical ancestors bear eternal relevance, so he applies their lessons to his own community and paraphrases Sarah’s instruction accordingly. As James Kugel observes,
For Paul, as for all ancient interpreters, the Bible is not essentially a record of things that happened or were spoken in the past. That they happened is of course true; but if they were written down in the Bible, it was not so as to record what has occurred in some distant past, but ‘for our instruction,’ so that… we might learn some vital lesson for our own lives.
Paul urges the Galatians to “stand firm” in their refusal to adopt biblical laws binding upon Jews alone. Paul’s aggressive rhetoric, designed to encourage a weak and beleaguered group, masks the reality that he and his followers lacked the ability to take direct action against their rivals, who were the dominant faction within the early Christ-believing community. This rhetoric, however, would eventually have real world consequences: when Paul’s followers gained sufficient power during the second century, many began to reenact Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by driving out rivals from within their Christian communities.
The influential early-fifth-century bishop Augustine, for example, justifies violence against those who challenge Christian orthodoxy with reference to Paul’s teaching. “When God wishes to stir up the authorities against heretics, against schismatics, against the wreckers of the Church,” he declares, “this is God stirring up Sarah to give Hagar a beating.”
Hagar as the Representative of Jews and Muslims
Paul, writing at a time when the Christ-believing movement was predominantly Jewish, used Hagar to represent a rival group within his own community. By the end of the first century, however, Christianity became a mostly gentile movement. Christian readers of the New Testament reinterpreted Paul’s story of Sarah and Hagar as a condemnation of Judaism itself. Jerome, who wrote the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible in the late fourth century, neatly summarized the consensus interpretation, which he himself endorsed:
Nearly all the commentators on this passage [of Galatians] interpret it to mean that the slave woman Hagar represents the Law and the Jewish people, but that the free woman Sarah symbolizes the church.
This interpretation remained dominant among Christians into the late 20th century, when historical-critical scholars of the New Testament began to adopt a new perspective on Paul’s relationship to Judaism.
Later Christians living under Islamic rule applied Paul’s teachings to Muslims as well as Jews. They followed in Paul’s footsteps by using the story of Hagar and Sarah to bolster the faith of fellow believers despite the dominance of contemporary Muslim rivals, whom they regarded as Ishmael-like persecutors.
European Christians who sought to justify the expulsion of Jews and Muslims alike also drew on both Genesis and Galatians. According to Oldradus de Ponte, a lawyer in the papal court during the early fourteenth century,
Sarah signifies the Holy Catholic Church; the slave Hagar, the accursed sect of Muhammad which took its origins from her. Therefore, the Holy Church, symbolized by Sarah, may treat that accursed slave as the blessed Sarah had treated her, by beating her. She may treat her as the Lord commands, by driving her out and depriving her children of inheritance and possession, that they not share with the free children.
Oldradus offers identical guidance regarding Christian–Jewish relations and, more broadly, intentionally blurs the distinction between Jews and Muslims. In fact, premodern Christians frequently portray Jews and Muslims alike as the heirs of Hagar. Rhetoric of this nature reinforces the notion that Jews and Muslims are inherently inferior to Christians, accounts for the ongoing enmity that Christians perceive between themselves and their Abrahamic rivals, and justifies the use of force even against subservient neighbors.
Ramban’s Perspective on Sarah and Hagar
Ramban, who defended Jewish teachings against Christian attacks during the famous Barcelona Disputation of 1263, was intimately familiar with Christian anti-Jewish rhetoric. As a native of Catalonia during the era of the Spanish Reconquest, he presumably heard plenty of anti-Muslim rhetoric as well. While he may well have known how Christians understood the contemporary significance of Sarah and Hagar, Ramban offers a completely different interpretation of the “sign” embedded in their story:
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 in this persecution [of Hagar], as did Abraham in allowing her to do so. But God paid heed to her suffering and granted her a son who would become a wild ass of a man, to persecute the descendants of Abraham and Sarah with all sorts of suffering.
Ramban and his Jewish audience take for granted that they—not Christians or Muslims—are the true heirs of Abraham and Sarah notwithstanding the counterclaims made by others. Why, then, do the recipients of God’s covenantal promise suffer fleshly persecution? Because of their ancestors’ sins, Ramban explains.
The siddur includes numerous prayers that God remember the merit of the ancestors by acting mercifully toward contemporary Jews, but here Ramban highlights the logical inverse of this dynamic: current suffering, he suggests, may be the result of our ancestors’ shortcomings. If so, at least, they are all part of a divine plan in which Isaac, Jacob, and the Children of Israel will ultimately prevail.
The Torah in the Eye of the Beholder
Paul’s retelling of the Sarah and Hagar story, along with the reception of that passage by later Christians, sheds valuable light on an assumption ingrained within Judaism and Christianity alike: The Bible speaks to the present circumstances of its audience. This assumption empowers diverse interpreters to understand biblical texts in light of their own particular perspectives, agendas, and concerns.
Interpretations of biblical stories about Abraham, Sarah, and other founding figures can offer comfort and hope to communities that suffer persecution, bolstering their faith at moments of vulnerability. In times of strength, however, the same stories can be used to justify morally dubious acts of aggression. This paradoxical reality stems directly from the principle that Torah is eternally relevant: as scripture, its meaning rests in part on the perspective of those who read it.
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Dr. Rabbi David M. Freidenreich is the Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies at Colby College. He earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University and rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of the award-winning book, Foreigners and Their Food: Constructing Otherness in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Law.
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