Cast into the Desert
Power, Privilege, and the Perpetration of Harm
This is the Monday essay from Life is a Sacred Text— the newsletter from Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, which you can read about here.
TW: Enslavement, Child Endangerment
Two weeks ago, I wrote about, among other things, how Sarah urged Abraham to conceive a child with Hagar, an enslaved woman treated as reproductive chattel. Today we’ll pick up on the Hagar/Sarah story, which continues to be about power, and continues to unravel.
A few years after Hagar’s son Ishmael is born, Sarah herself becomes pregnant, and gives birth to a son, Isaac. As Isaac leaves babyhood, Sarah begins feeling threatened by Hagar and Ishmael.
The child grew up and was weaned, and Abraham held a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned.
Sarah saw the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing.
She said to Abraham, “Cast out that enslaved woman and her son, for the son of that enslaved woman shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:8-10)
The Rabbis, ever-eager to defend the actions of the matriarchs and patriarchs, claim that Ishmael tormented his younger brother in some way, but the plain meaning of the text says that Ishmael was playing, nothing more.
The word used in the text for “playing” shares a root with Isaac’s name--laughter--and in the Bible, those sorts of things don’t tend to be accidents. The plain meaning of the text indicates that Ishmael was merely having fun in some way—presumably he was still a kid, doing kid things—or, if you want to push the literary angle, he was “Isaacing.” It’s tempting to read into the text that the two boys were playing together, but, actually, the verse has the younger child nowhere to be found.
The real issue is clearly about wealth, and perhaps power: "the son of that enslaved woman shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac!"
In this culture—as is seen clearly in the story of Jacob, Esau and the birthright—the eldest son generally received a preferential status, so Sarah may have regarded Ishmael’s legitimacy as doubly threatening—both in sharing the inheritance, and perhaps in receiving a preferred status as the eldest. Both of these things were truly Ishmael’s.
(Is this a good time to observe that Hagar’s conception was Sarah’s idea, and that Sarah originally assumed that Ishmael would be considered her own child? Hmm. After all: “And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, God has kept me from bearing. Consort with my enslaved-woman (shifchah); perhaps I shall have a son through her.” (Genesis 16:2))
I also want to note Sarah’s language for Hagar down here in Genesis 21, as this new conflict is brewing—”that enslaved woman!” She uses the word amah here, one of two words for enslaved women that often get used interchangeably (the other is shifchah, as seen in Genesis 16), though some posit that amah is used for an enslaved woman performing maternal duties (whether nursing, childcare, or on the other side of forced reproduction.)
And yet, Genesis 16:3 had already told us that Hagar had been given—not with any indication of her consent, again, not in any way Hagar could have refused—to Abraham as a wife.
“So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her enslaved-woman (shifchah), Hagar the Egyptian—after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan ten years—and gave her to her husband Abram as wife.” (Genesis 16:3)
Hagar’s status had been raised, and now Sarah’s choice of words deliberately, I think, seeks to lower it, to articulate that this woman, and this child, will never be on the level of Sarah herself, and her own child. And they will not share in the inheritance (to which they are entitled).
Sarah would rather imperil the life of a woman without resources —the archetypical vulnerable stranger—and the life of that woman’s child than allow him to claim the inheritance that is legitimately his. I will not defend this.
This is the part of the Torah that is read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year (beginning the night of September 6th this year); it’s a time of accounting of the soul, looking harshly at our mistakes, doing the humbling work of repentance and repair. Of seeing when we have become so attached to our desires that we have harmed others in the process. Of facing when we have become cold, calculating, caring only for our own, turning away from others.
Sarah is wrong, here. But she’s the Jews’ ancestor, and Jews are meant to identify with her — and, in my opinion, in this story, it’s not meant to be a comfortable identification. This story reminds us to scrutinize our actions, to think of the ways in which we have abused power, chosen not to consider how our privilege has caused us to bring suffering to others, to people we don’t fully see, choose to not fully see. This Torah reading is meant to be an uncomfortable mirror, a call to empathy and accountability. (Jewish clergy friends, this parsha could also be an opportunity to speak about Sheikh Jarrah and/or Silwan, just saying.)
Back to Hagar: She and Ishmael are cast out into the ruthless desert of Beersheva, with a little food and water. She is a mother in desperation.
“When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bowshot away; for she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears.” (Genesis 21:15-16)
Hagar. As noted two weeks ago, she is the stranger--ha-ger is the stranger, the non-citizen, the immigrant. Can you read these verses and not think of migrant families today trying to make it through the desert, trying to make it to safety, even as the heat rises?
Her desperation is real. Her pain is real.
Fortunately, in this story, there is salvation.
“God heard the voice of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and let the boy drink. God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 21:17-21)
God heard the child’s voice, his cry.
Again, we see the Israelites’ story foreshadowed:
“The Israelites were groaning under the enslavement and cried out; and their cry for help from the enslavement rose up to God. God heard their moaning.” (Exodus 2:23-24)
And in case we have forgotten Hagar’s national origin, or want to blur it at this late point in the story, the narrative reinscribes it just at the end, telling us that Ishmael himself reconnects with this part of his heritage, marrying an Egyptian woman. And, as will be the case of the other line of Abraham--Isaac, Jacob, and on down--of Ishmael God makes a “great nation.”
The Egyptian child endangered by Israelites calls out and is heard by God.
The Israelites endangered by Egyptians call out and are heard by God.
Abraham has, here, two children.
God ultimately rescues both of them.
God is with both of them.
God makes of both a great nation.
In that sense, perhaps—Ishmael got his inheritance after all.
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