The Sins of Abraham and Sarah
And What the Torah Demands We Learn From Them
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TW: Sexual Abuse
People often refer to Abraham’s audacious voice in the Sodom story to laud his bravery, to hold him up as a role model for the fact that we can all challenge God, and to talk about the importance of tempering our lofty ideals with mercy. That’s real. Abraham merits that.
And yet. Abraham has the opportunity to do this very same thing at other times at critical junctures in his life, and he fails, utterly.
Before we explore that, however, some backstory on Sarah and Hagar.
Sarah was Abraham’s wife; she had traveled alongside with him from Ur, leaving behind her own home, her own kinfolk, to follow her husband to the land of Canaan.
After they are there for some time, however, Abraham and Sarah are forced to journey to Egypt because of famine in Canaan—a foreshadowing of the later story of Joseph and his brothers.
As they’re on their way, Abraham asks Sarah to tell those in power in the Egyptian court that she is his sister, not his wife; he's afraid that Pharaoh would kill him in order to have access to her. So, instead, he chooses to offer his wife to the man in power.
Imagine the betrayal, here.
Sarah’s consent, here, is fuzzy at absolute best; women in the ancient Near East had very few options without patriarchal protection, and Sarah has already left both her homeland and her adopted home by the time she is on the road to Egypt. As a vulnerable stranger with only her husband to rely upon, she was not in the best position to refuse his decision to send her to Pharaoh’s bed.
She is, in this chapter of Torah, given no lines to speak, no voice. She rendered only in passive, objectified ways. Pharaoh’s courtiers “saw how beautiful she was”, she “was taken,” into Pharaoh’s palace, because of her “it went well” (Genesis 12:15-16) for Abraham. She does not say or do; she is silent. She is acted upon.
God, displeased, apparently, with this sexual abuse, plagues Pharaoh with great afflictions. Pharaoh, angry as he uncovers Abraham’s deceit, sends the couple out of Egypt, and they take the wealth they have accumulated with them in their exodus. (Genesis 12:17-20) Once again, we see that the Torah here is not terribly subtle in its foreshadowing of the Exodus story—Plagues! Getting sent out! Taking spoils! Though, notably, the enslavement of this story is of a sexual kind.
Abraham’s betrayal and Sarah’s experience, here, drives home the force of a story that takes place a few chapters later. Sarah, we learn, is unable to conceive, so she “gives” Hagar, an enslaved woman in her household, to Abraham as reproductive chattel. If he is sexual with Hagar, she suggests, perhaps she and Abraham will have a child “through her.” (Genesis 16:2-3)
Hagar is the non-citizen. Even her name is a wordplay on her outsider status, as the Hebrew for “the stranger” or “the non-citizen” is ha-ger—spelled the same way as her name in an alphabet (without vowels, which weren’t included in ancient Hebrew). Her national identity marks her—Hagar the Egyptian, Torah calls her.
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We don’t know her backstory, but we do know that she has come to be enslaved; while the Torah says that she became Abraham’s wife, there’s no indication that she consented to coition and pregnancy, that she had any alternative but to be “taken” into reproductive servitude. Like Sarah in Egypt, she is not recorded as speaking as arrangements are being made for her to enter her enslaver’s bed.
And, then, she is cast out when she poses a threat to privilege.
For, when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah grew jealous and “afflicted her” (Genesis 16:6)—in Hebrew, it’s the same verb that is used in the beginning of the Exodus story (Exodus 1:11-12) to explain the oppression by the Egyptians of the Israelites. These parallels and allusions to the Exodus are right up on the surface; in the story of Sarah and Pharaoh, the Egyptian mistreats the Israelite. In the Hagar story, the Israelite oppresses the Egyptian.
The Torah doubles-down on siding with Hagar. After she’s expelled from Abraham and Sarah’s home, she has an encounter with an angel and ultimately gives God one of God’s names. (Genesis 16:13) She's the only woman in the Torah who does so. Ishmael, both in utero and, when she is expelled from Abraham and Sarah’s house a second time, later, gets blessed.
Hagar, the Torah tells us, is OK. She didn't do anything wrong.
Hagar. Hager, the stranger, as in
“The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34)
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)
All those verses later on in Torah about our obligation to care for the non-citizen speak of hager, the stranger. Because we too were gerim—strangers—in Egypt.
Again, it’s not subtle.
It’s as though the Torah is telling us:
"Sarah didn’t learn from her own experiences of exploitation—on the contrary, she then harmed another woman in almost the exact same way when she gained some power.
The mere fact of experiencing oppression is sometimes insufficient for providing the necessary empathy for others.
So, then, after the entire Israelite people endure profound oppression, we will have to spell out very clearly that harming others is unacceptable.
Just in case suffering does not open you to empathy, to understanding of your obligation to care for vulnerable people, to the importance of wielding power responsibly, it will be made very, very explicit.”
As a result, the Torah commands us at least thirty-six times—thirty-six! More than any commandment in the Torah--to love, care for, celebrate with, and treat-as-equals hager, the stranger/non-citizen who resides among us.
That's our job. To care for the vulnerable who came to us because home wasn't viable anymore.
Sarah wasn’t cared for when she was a stranger.
Neither was Hagar, or the Israelites under Pharaoh.
Our obligation now, however, is—should be—clear.
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