Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss


Many interpreters (both Jewish and otherwise and ancient and modern) assume the Tnakh was divinely inspired although the text itself never states that. As James Kugel (emeritus Professor of Hebrew  Literature at Harvard University and currently Professor at Bar Ilan University (Israel) and a Modern Orthodox Jew has noted ancient “Interpreters . . .  assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history.” 1 We are intended to learn from the major personalities noted and hence the text does not describe them hagiographically.  Abraham, Moses and David, perhaps the three major heroes of the Tnakh, are not considered perfect human beings; they sin in different ways and are punished for their disobedience. This article focuses on Abraham avinu, our father, discussing his weaknesses rather than his strength. Knowing a great deal about his strengths we may have be able to learn from his weaknesses as well.

We can learn about the impact of powerlessness coming from gender, racism or poverty. Hagar suffering from all of these categories is the most obvious candidate as the ‘other’. But Sarah suffers from gender discrimination as well.

Sarah assumes she is the infertile one of the couple as do all of the barren matriarchs; while the story ‘confirms’ that as true in reality close to half of infertile couples are the result of the husband’s disability. There are no men in the Bible who cause the couple’s infertility. 2 Hagar, the Egyptian is assumed to be of a darker color than Sarah from Ur in Babylon and ‘whiter’ that Egyptians. That is why many Africans sympathize with Hagar as see her as a ‘matriarch’. Hagar being a ‘slave’ makes her particularly appealing to African-Americans as a foremother. 3

From a psychological perspective the reaction of Hagar at suddenly becoming her mistresses master’s wife and pregnant must have been overwhelming. She has succeeded when her mistress has failed. That she might smirk with her swollen belly is not unreasonable. It also would be hard not to understand Sarah’s rivalrous jealousy at realizing that the couple’s infertility can be seen by the outside world as her responsibility even if she believed God had caused her womb to be closed.

Abraham certainly reacted with joy that he had a child from his own loins and he reasonably assumed this child represented God’s promise to him of fathering a great nation. He named the child Ishmael meaning God heard. What did Abraham think of his secondary wife who provided him the child God had promised? Could he not be pleased? He seems to be very passive in his reaction to Sarah who complains to him (Gen. 16:6). He also seems passive when God suggested that he sacrifice his second son Isaac by then his promised son. (We shall discuss later that Rashi suggested that Abraham misunderstood Abraham instructions.) Abraham also hides the information that he is intent at sacrificing Isaac from his mother – Sarah. Do we consider that appropriate behavior?

The only time Abraham argues with God is when the lives of the people of Sodom are at stake. What are we to learn of a man who does not negotiate for or with his family but does for strangers?

There are further paradoxes about Abraham. Earlier Lot is seen as an adoptive son who might bring him the promised descendants to become a great nation. When Lot and Abraham’s servants’ conflict Abraham does not attempt to negotiate but immediately agrees to split the family. But then when Lot is kidnapped Abraham gathers an army and releases his nephew.


When we are first introduced to Sarah 4, we receive no details of her ancestry, but learn merely that ‘Sarah was barren; she had no child’ (Gen. 11:30).  The point is made twice in order to impress the reader with its significance.  Abraham, accompanied by Sarah and his nephew Lot, then proceeds to Canaan, where God informs him that he will become a great nation (12:2).

In a time of famine Abraham descends to Egypt and misrepresents to the Pharaoh, pretending that his beautiful wife was his sister; his motivation stems from fear for his life; he tells Sarah that he fears the Egyptians would covet her and kill him. He asks her to help pretend she is his sister. As a result Sarah is placed into the Pharaoh’s harem. In this incident Sarah was the victim of abuse which stemmed from Abraham’s fears and lies. It later becomes apparent that had the Pharaoh indeed known the truth that Sarah was a married woman he would never have taken Sarah into his harem.

Pharaoh bestowed upon Abraham flocks, oxen, donkeys, camels and servants, when Sarah was placed into the harem (12:16). Was this intended by the Pharaoh as a purchase price for his new wife or concubine, a normal transaction in ancient days? The possessions showered upon Abraham appear as a payment for the use of Sarah.

Pharaoh was then punished with plagues by God for his having intimate relations with a married woman. He says to Abraham ‘Why did you not tell me she was your wife’ (12:19)? One can surmise the Pharaoh did indeed engage in intimate relations with Sarah (12:19). How did the Pharaoh know that the plagues were the result of Abraham deceiving him; did Sarah tell him? Since Sarah was Abraham’s wife Pharaoh expelled him with all his new possessions from Egypt, probably including Hagar as Sarah’s maidservant; where else would this Egyptian servant come from?

God had previously presented Abraham with a vision of the future as a great nation; this promise was unrelated to Sarah. In as much as Abraham already had experienced Sarah’s apparent infertility he may have well have begun to expect that she would not provide the heir he needed.  In order to translate this into reality he indeed would need another wife; economic wealth would certainly be beneficial in attaining another wife and accomplishing his journey to nationhood.  Shortly afterwards we are told Abraham ‘was very rich in livestock, in silver and in gold’ (13:2).

Years later after Ishmael was born and after God had promised that Sarah herself would give birth to her own biologic child Abraham told Abimelech, the King of Gerar that Sarah was his sister and not his wife and gave her away for a second time. Assuming this indeed took place after God’s promise in regards to Sarah this incident is more difficult to comprehend.  Perhaps Abraham as he claimed did not really believe Sarah could any longer conceive (17:17), Sarah did not believe either (18:13). God warned Abimelech and he did not have intimate relations with Sarah. God send plagues to Abimelech and his people. Abimelech said to Abraham the next morning, ‘What did you imagine when you did this thing (20:10)? Abimelech gives Abraham, sheep, cattle, slaves, servants and 1000 pieces of silver, as compensation. He then gives Abraham the right to live in his land (Beersheba) and again gives him additional sheep and cattle in exchange for a covenant of peace (21:27-31). 5 Although the latter part of this incident appears after the birth of Isaac as Robert Alter points out it is apparently part of the same story. 6

In both cases Abraham claims Sarah is his sister; my father’s daughter though not my mothers’ (20:12) Of course the more important relationship was their marriage status.

In my opinion this qualifies Sarah twice as an abused wife.


Hagar is introduced in a verse that tells us that Sarah was Abraham’s wife who had no children and in addition she had a servant girl – property - named Hagar (16:1). Hagar is introduced as if her value was to provide a child to Abraham for the benefit of Sarah. 

Hagar is portrayed as a powerless servant and foreigner.  ‘Ha-ger’ in Hebrew can mean the outsider. Some consider that Hagar represents ‘slavery, poverty, ethnicity, sexual and economic exploitation, surrogacy, rape, domestic violence, motherhood and single parenthood’. 7


Hagar is used by Sarah as a surrogate mother whose womb is available at no cost to her mistress. Sarah stated in her first words in the text that the child would belong to her (16:2); 8 ‘ib-ba-neh’ – I will be built up - a word play also meaning ‘sonned’ (in the Hebrew ‘ben’ is son) through her. 9 Sarah can be compared with Rachel who too was preoccupied with her own immortality when she a barren woman at that time cried to her husband Jacob ‘give me children or I will die’ (30:2); meaning to her that without a child her house or lineage would die.

Hagar becomes a second ‘wife’ – not a pilegesh – concubine - to Abraham at Sarah’s request. Hagar presumably was given some (undefined) rights of a wife, albeit a secondary wife. 10

Hagar naturally makes no comment to either Sarah or Abraham in regards her new status. Hagar might have conjectured that having sexual relations with her mistress’ master and having a child would elevate her status. Abraham appears aloof and largely abdicates any responsibility in this very sensitive triad system but as we shall see the dynamic and interpersonal relationship assume massive importance to the two women involved.

Hagar was impregnated by Abraham; whether this relationship continued beyond the point of Hagar’s conception is not explicitly stated but seems at least likely given her wifely status.

Earlier God had promised that Abraham that his descendants would inherit the land (12:7). No explicit mention was made of a wife; so Abraham naturally assumed that the child born to Hagar would be his promised son.

Hagar behaves in a manner displeasing to Sarah – Sarah ‘was lowered in Hagar’s eyes’ (16:4). 11 This is a classic situation of a pregnant wife as opposed to a barren wife – not dissimilar to Rachel and Leah or Hannah (mother of Samuel) and Peninnah. In each case the wife who is able to produce offspring may act and is almost undeniably perceived by society as superior to the barren woman. Perhaps Hagar ceased to feel quite so subservient and more confident; she had achieved the ‘mission impossible’ assured Abraham his posterity. Hagar’s very swollen belly and a smile may have seemed an affront to Sarah.

Sarah blames Abraham saying ‘The outrage against me is because of you’ (16:5). The term in Hebrew ‘hamasi aleha’ is very strong (‘my violence is upon you’ would not be an unreasonable translation) and implies an injustice had been committed to Sarah by Abraham.  What crime had Abraham committed?  He was in fact merely obeying and passively carrying out Sarah’s unilateral suggestion.

Sarah asks God to judge between Abraham and her. A midrash suggests Abraham should have reprimanded Hagar’s behavior protecting Sarah’s feelings. Others however are more critical of Sarah (Gen. Rabbah. 45:5-6).  ‘Our mother sinned by this harsh treatment as did Abraham in permitting her to act this way’ (Ramban 1194-1270, 16:6).

It would appear that the intimate relations between Abraham and Hagar challenged the status quo between all three of the parties. 

Abraham says to Sarah ‘do what is good in your eyes’ (16:6), giving Hagar back to Sarah’s control – from a wife back to a shifhah. It is difficult for a woman to be a shifhah – a chattel - and wife at the same time. Sarah brought strife and anguish into the family to satisfy her own needs not those of Abraham; he already had received his promise from God.  As Elie Wiesel stated ‘Hagar’s is Sarah’s victim and Sarah was wrong to impose a role upon her and then begrudge her for playing it well’. 12

Sarah was harsh and abusive toward her pregnant slave girl who was intended to be a surrogate mother for her son. Sarah abused (va-ta’anneha) Hagar. The Hebrew word suggests physical as well as mental abuse (Gen. Rabbah 45:6).

Sarah had silently been abused at the hands of Pharaoh and Abimelech as a result of her husband. She may have felt Hagar deserves to suffer for her husband’s sexual pleasure. Was the abuser reacting to her own abuse? Abusers have often experienced abuse themselves.  At the core of the abuser’s behavior is the perception that the victim is not a person but a possession.

Hagar pregnant and abused runs away to the desert.  An angel of the LORD calls her and tells her to name the son, when born, Ishmael – God hears - and that he would be ‘a wild ass’ or perhaps ‘a free man’ (16:12). 13 He will not tolerate what his mother was forced to tolerate. He will be ‘sturdy, fearless, fleet footed . . . impossible to domesticate. 14 The Ramban suggested he would punish Sarah’s descendants for having abused his mother.

Hagar then names, rather than blesses God as El Roi - the ‘God who sees me’. The narrator defines her understanding ‘Did I not go on seeing here after He saw me?’ 15 The Targum Yonatan (pseudo Jonathan) translates ‘you are the living and lasting one who sees but is not seen’. 16 The implication is that Hagar recognizes that despite being a servant she has had an epiphany and survived.

Later and unstated in the text Hagar bears her son apparently alone and in the desert. Sarah having abandoned Hagar is uninvolved with the birth of the child she instigated for her own purposes. When under similar circumstances Rachel gives her shifhah Bilhah to Jacob the surrogate mother joins in the birth process as part of the adoptive process (30:3). Rachel raises her child Joseph. Sarah’s plan of being built up by Hagar acting as surrogate womb for her child appears to have failed. We read nothing of Ishmael being raised by Sarah.


We are told that Abraham named Ishmael (16:15) but we were previously told that God told Hagar to name her son Ishmael. The Ramban suggested that Hagar actively participated with Abraham fulfilling God’s request for the naming of Ishmael.


No direct dialogue appears between Hagar and any other human being, not with Sarah, her mistress not with Abraham her husband, only God does speaks to her(16:8); but even God refers to her as Sarah’s shifhah! I am not suggesting that Abraham never spoke to his second wife, but rather that no conversations were considered noteworthy to be recorded by the writers of the text.

On two separate occasions (12:7, 15:2-5) Abraham is promised many descendants who will inherit the land. Since Sarah was infertile his promised descendants would be born from another wife. During the ensuing thirteen years Abraham reasonably assumed that Ishmael would represent his promised many descendants. And he no doubt treated him as such.


Thirteen years after Ishmael’s birth God comes to Abraham and creates the covenant of circumcision, wherein both Abraham and Ishmael are circumcised. God again makes a covenant of land to Abraham’s descendants. God finally then tells Abraham that Sarah will bear a child who would be the covenantal child.

God tells Abraham that Sarah his elderly wife of ninety years will give birth. He expresses doubts about his own fertility despite having had a son thirteen years earlier with Hagar (17:16). Furthermore seventeen years later after Sarah’s death he marries again and fathers more children; it is unclear that he in fact doubted his own fertility when he was one hundred years old. (We cannot consider current ages of fertility as relevant in the Biblical age. Noah in the previous age is reported to have lived 950 years.)

Nevertheless he apparently disbelieved that Sarah would not give birth at age ninety in as much as during her fertile years she never conceived and now had already come into her menopause years (17:17).  Thus Abraham never directly informs Sarah of God’s message that she will give birth. Sarah overhears from inside the tent when the angels repeat this to Abraham again in Mamre (18:10). Not surprisingly Sarah reacted to this with laughter having already moved into her menopause years (18:11-12).

‘And the LORD singled out Sarah  .  .  . and she conceived and bore a son’ (21:1-2). Abraham named the son Yitzhak - Isaac. 

When the boy is weaned Sarah unexpectedly and aggressively demands that Abraham send away and banish Ishmael, the son of his ‘amah’ his slave.  ‘The son of this slave woman (amati) will not inherit with my son’ (21:10), note not ‘your’ son. Sarah’s appellation of referring to Hagar as an ‘amah’ suggest a further reduced status; less than even a servant, a slave. 17  She disregards that Ishmael is Abraham’s son and that she instigated the entire scenario resulting in his birth.

The two boys – 15-16 years apart in age - are laughing or playing ‘tz’hok’. One can even say Ishmael was ‘isaac-ing’ his younger brother. 18 A midrash states that the term may bear some connotations of sexuality or a tendency to idolatry (53:11). There is nothing in the text to suggest this forced implication. The Tosefta, an ancient mishnaic text, states ‘Heaven forbid that a son who received training from Abraham would engage in idolatry, adultery or bloodshed’ (Gen. Rabbah 53:11). The root of laughing or playing is identical to the root of the Hebrew ‘Yitzhak’. 

Sarah noted perhaps at Isaac’s eighth day circumcision blessing and naming ’laughter has God made me, whoever hears will laugh at me - Yitzhak li’ (21:6). It is difficult not to see the sarcasm in Sarah’s statement accompanied by an anxiety of people reacting to the actual paternity of the child – would they consider Abimelech, King of Gerar as the possible father? Abraham confident but perhaps insensitive nevertheless chose to name the boy Yitzhak.

The inheritance originated from Pharaoh’s possessions – including shifhahot/maidservants given to Abraham probably including Hagar. Other possessions come from Abimelech also given to Abraham because of his willingness to sacrifice Sarah a second time. Sarah having been abused twice may well feel she is entitled to all the inheritance. Sarah may well have demanded that all these possessions received by Abraham from Pharaoh and Abimelech go to her son and not Ishmael; she felt she had earned them. Since Abraham had in a sense sold her to Pharaoh and Abimelech, they can be considered a ‘dowry price’ which under ancient law belonged to the wife. 19

The Book of Jubilees (in the Pseudepigrapha) suggested that Sarah was jealous of Abraham’s pleasure and satisfaction of the joyous coexistence of his two sons playing with each other (17:2-4). Did she see the sixteen year old playing father surrogate to her son? Abraham ibn Ezra also suggested a motherly jealousy for her younger son. 20


God approved Sarah’s demand for Ishmael’s expulsion and tells Abraham to fear not for the young man - ‘na’ar’ - of your ‘amatekha’ (21:12). In the morning Abraham gave Hagar an insufficient amount of bread and water for herself and the Boy - ‘yeled’ - (21:14). Why would Abraham who apparently loved his son and saw the expulsion as evil (21:11) not supply sufficient food and drink to guarantee his survival? One midrash says Sarah is to blame for the insufficient supplies inasmuch as she refused to allow Abraham to send camels and sufficient supplies. 21

Since the ‘yeled’ is clearly at least fifteen years of age why is he called a ‘boy’ and why does Abraham put him on Hagar’s shoulders (21:14) as if he were a child?  Another midrash explains that as the result of Sarah’s aggressive behavior by putting a curse on Ishmael making him ill (Gen. Rabbah 53:13).

When the water supply is exhausted Hagar put the ‘yeled’ under one of bushes . . . saying I cannot watch the ‘yeled’ die (21:15-16). Jewish midrashim consider Hagar as the first woman to pray to God for help (Gen. Rabbah 53:13-14).

God heard the voice of the ‘na’ar’. It is at this critical moment when Hagar and Ishmael’s lives are at stake that an angel of God spoke to Hagar. She is, for the first time addressed as an independent human being, and not as the servant of Sarah nor as Abraham’s wife.  He states that He has heard the voice of the ‘na’ar’ (21:17). She then sees a well of water saving their lives (21:19).

Abraham and Hagar refer to Ishmael as ‘yeled’ a boy while God and the angel refer to him as ‘na’ar’, young man. His father and mother see him as still a boy, whereas God recognizes he is in fact a young man. God is also noting that Ishmael no longer a boy will be a progenitor of a great nation and God will continue to protect him. ‘God was with the na’ar while he grew up’ (21:20) as God promised Abraham in regards to Isaac (18:18).



Abraham is the Patriarch of the three monotheistic religions and more specifically of the Jews through his son Isaac. Hagar is the Matriarch of the Arabian people as the mother of Ishmael. 22 Abraham is the father of both sons. In certain ways the Torah makes comparisons between the two children. And yet despite Ishmael being Abraham’s first born son, circumcised with his father, being part of the family and being loved by his father, he is nonetheless the ‘other’, the ‘ger’. His mother is silenced in her family and speaks only to God; Ishmael is completely silenced, he never utters a word in the text. 

Hagar and Ishmael are in danger of dying from thirst: ‘an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said’ (21:17).  This text is exactly the same as the words when Abraham is called to sacrifice Isaac ‘an angel of the LORD called to Abraham from heaven and said’ (22:11). 23 

In both cases the angel intervenes to save one of Abraham’s sons. Are the identical texts 24 of both stories intended to compare God’s care for both children? This despite God’s allowed the first – the expulsion of Ishmael - and seemingly commanding the second – the binding of Isaac.  Abraham is often called the Father of Faith 25 as a result of this incident; but why would someone willing to sacrifice his child be consigned as a model of faith. He is certainly not a model of a Father. Perhaps Abraham failed both trials; success would have been saying ‘No’ on both occasions. 

Each journey begins with nearly identical wording; in each case a child was carrying items that could lead to death. ‘So Abraham rose early in the next morning and took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar, placing them on her shoulders with the child’ (21:14). ‘So Abraham rose early in the morning .  .  . took the wood of the burnt offering and placed it on Isaac his son’ (22:3-6). The skin is then used for water which God finds for Hagar and the wood is used to sacrifice the ram. 26

 ‘Then God opened her eyes and she saw {va-tere) a well of water, she went and filled the skin with water and gave the lad a drink’ (21:19). ‘Then Abraham looked up and saw (va-yar) there a ram behind him and Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up for a burnt offering in his son’s place’ (22:13). 27

Hagar saw the well whose water saved their lives and Abraham saw the ram which substituted for Isaac. Immediately both Hagar and Abraham name the God and place that saved their children.

When Hagar first meets God’s messenger as noted above ‘she called Yahweh who spoke to her ‘El Roi’, the ‘God who sees me’.  . . Therefore the well was called well of the Living One who sees me (be’er lahay roi)’ (16:13-14). For the place of the near sacrifice ‘Abraham named that site the LORD (Yahweh yir’eh) sees, to this day on the mount of Yahweh it will be seen (b’har Yahweh yera’eh)’ (22:14).

In the Hebrew text the phonetic and morphologic resemblances are obvious. 28

These comparisons are being made between Abraham and Hagar and their respective children; Ishmael and Isaac. These two children of Abraham are the only children pre-named by God before their birth in the Torah (16:11;17:19). 29 One can conclude that Abraham has two chosen sons.

Even after Isaac was born God promised that both of his sons would have innumerable descendants; in fact Ishmael would have twelve sons, all Princes (17:20) although the covenant of promised land would go to Isaac.

In the midrash Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer the author suggests Abraham maintained a relationship with his son Ishmael after the expulsion and visited him. On the first visit Ishmael and Hagar were not at home; only Ishmael’s wife was home. Abraham asked for some water and bread; the wife said ‘there is no bread and there is no water’, perhaps an ironic response reminiscent of the insufficient water and bread Abraham supplied on their expulsion. Upon Ishmael’s return home his wife tells him of the visit and he divorced her. Three years later Abraham came again and Ishmael and Hagar were out; the new wife gave him bread and water. When Ishmael came back his new wife told him what happened and the narrator tells us Ishmael knew his father loved him.  30

Perhaps as a midrash says Keturah whom Abraham married after Sarah’s death (25:1-2) was Hagar and the two brothers suggested their father remarry Hagar after Sarah’s death (Gen. Rabbah 61:4).

After Abraham’s death he was buried by both of his children. Isaac went back to live near the well (25:11) where his brother was saved by God.


On two occasions Abraham enabled his senior wife Sarah to be abused. Hagar is abused by Sarah with Abraham passive consent. Hagar is never seen as a singular individual on her own. Even God tells her she must return and submit to Sarah, but God does bless her with innumerable descendants. Only Hagar, Abraham and Jacob are noted by God as destined to have innumerable descendants (Sarah is not so noted).

Hagar is the first woman to have an annunciation from God or his angel, at least twice; in the two explicit scenes she is promised innumerable descendants (only given otherwise to Patriarchs), in the first she names the God who sees and in the second this God shows her a well which saves her and Ishmael’s life. No other woman in the Torah is treated with two annunciations (Rebekah has one) and none is given a promise of innumerable descendents. Hagar may have had third epiphany with God; she apparently gave birth to Ishmael alone in the desert perhaps with an angels help. 31

It is only after she is expelled from Sarah and Abraham’s hands that she can be independent. In each case her annunciation takes place is in the desert, in exile. She is in a place of rejection but gains strength through God. We will shortly relate this to the Hebrews exile out of Egypt and their annunciation with God at Mt. Sinai.

The next incident is the binding or near sacrifice of Isaac; why does the ‘binding’ – the near sacrifice – of Isaac occur immediately after the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael? Was the binding intended as a punishment for the expulsion of Ishmael? The binding is introduced with ‘after these things’ (22:1); these things are the expulsion. 32

One can consider that Abraham abused his son Isaac by tying him to an altar and almost sacrificing him; God saved the boy. 33 Why did Abraham not dispute God’s request to make an ‘olah’ over Isaac. Abraham had no problem intervening and pleading for the people of Sodom.  We should not forget that Rashi (1040-1105), the great exegete of Bible and Talmud, points to the ambiguity of ha'alehu le-olah [bring him up as an offering] addressed to Abraham, is a subtle hint of the LORD's true intention. ‘God did not say to him shahtehu [slaughter him], because the Holy One did not desire to slaughter him (Isaac), but only to bring him up to the mountain in order’ 34 to perhaps bless him.

Sarah then dies; midrashim suggest she died early, owing to her abuse of Hagar (Gen. Rabbah 45:7).

Abraham abused both his children who would have died but for the intervention of God. The impact of Isaac can be summarized by his being considered a shadow of a man; the weak son of a powerful father and the weak father of a powerful son. 35

After the binding of Isaac, Abraham went to Beersheba (22:19) while Sarah lived in Hebron (23:2). Did the event of the binding separate Abraham and Sarah? When Sarah died, more than three decades after Isaac’s birth, Abraham and she were not living together; Abraham ‘came’ to mourn Sarah’ (23:2). He negotiated a plot because he did not reside there. In Hebrew he is called ‘ger’ and ‘toshav’, a stranger and a visitor. 

It is difficult not to see Abraham as an eccentric even abusive husband and father. ‘Anyone observing Abraham’s increasingly strange behaviors (Genesis 15: a covenant ritual involving walking between carcasses and then swooning; Genesis 17: adult circumcision; Genesis 18: lavishly entertaining strangers and debating/bargaining with God) would be impelled to take a proactive position to protect Abraham’s children. Their mother surely would. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to consider the possibility that an alarmed Sarah is moved to action on behalf of her natural son Isaac.’  36

Does Sarah suspect another rite for Isaac beyond his circumcision, after his weaning?  If the binding occurred shortly after Isaac’s weaning when Isaac came back he was surely scarred and his mother noticed his behavior. 37 Did she leave Abraham to further protect Isaac?

Perhaps the Hebrew slavery in Egypt two generations later is not unrelated. Abraham goes to Egypt because of famine. Several verses before Hagar is introduced Abraham is told of his future descendants exile into Egypt (15:13-14). Later on Joseph’s father Jacob and his brothers come to Egypt as a result of a famine and are eventually enslaved there. Abraham going to Egypt is clearly intended to remind us of the connection; as are the oppression and plagues. Perhaps the connection is closer. Sarah is the first Hebrew to be abused but the fault is Abraham’s. Sarah is not an accomplice but is powerless to respond. The Pharaoh after the plagues does not complain about them but only about Abraham’s injustice to him. Take ‘your wife and go’ (12:19). The first person Sarah herself abuses is Hagar an Egyptian whose son Ishmael marries an Egyptian wife. In the Exodus the Pharaoh ‘a new king’, an abuser does not let the Hebrews leave until a lot of pain comes to his people, the Egyptians.

It is only after the Exodus that God tells the Hebrew people that being Holy requires not only loving your neighbor (Lev. 19:18) but also loving the stranger (ha-ger) (Lev. 19:34) because you were slaves in Egypt. Perhaps it took being slaves to recognize its evil. Hagar finds an Egyptian wife for Ishmael so the Hebrew slave holders are at least metaphorically the Egyptians descendants of Hagar and Abraham.

1 Kugel, James, How To Read The Bible’, (Free Press, N.Y., 2007) pg. 27.

2 The cause of the infertility in the couple is the result of the male gender 30% and of the female gender 35%; 20% is a combined problem and 15% is medically unknown.

3 D.S. William, Union Theological Seminary, N.Y.C., 1990,  Analogous Relation Between African--American Women's Experience and Hagar's Experience: A Challenge, Young, Josiah Ulysses, Title   African theology, 

(Westport, Conn. Greenwood Press, 1993).

4 We use the name Abraham even before his name change from Abram and Sarah is used before her name change from Sarai as a matter of convenience.

5 According to the midrash she was his brother’s daughter Iscah from Terah the same father but a different mother (Gen. Rabbah 38:14). Abraham says in the text re Abimelech that she is ‘the daughter of my father’ (20:12) the Ramban notes he does not understand ‘the sense of this apology’ (Ramban, Commentary of the Torah, Shilo, N.Y., 1971).

6 Alter, Robert, The Five Books of Moses. (Norton, N.Y., 2004)  Pg. 106-107. This entire incident takes place after Abraham has rescued his nephew Lot from four kings by raising an army (14:1-16), after his trance vision of the pieces (15:7-12),  after his apparition at Mamre including the discussion about Sarah’s giving birth to her own child and after his intervention with God about Sodom and its eventual destruction. It seems likely to this author that the incident with Abimelech occurred much earlier, closer to its sister incident with Pharaoh.    

7 Williams, Delores, Sisters in the Wilderness, (Orbis, Maryknoll, N.Y., 1993) pg. 4.

8 Surrogate motherhood began early in the Bible and was apparently fairly common. Note Sarah, Rachel, Leah. It is also noted in the Code of Hammurabi #146. Westermann, C., Genesis, (Edinburgh, 1988) Pg. 124; also  found in the Nuzi and Mari texts (18th century BCE) in Mesopotamia.

9 Alter, pg. 77.

10 A Midrash stated Hagar had all the rights of a wife (Gen. Rabbah 45:4)

11 The Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New English Bible (NEB) translation are ‘contempt’ and ‘despised’ are much too harsh compared to the Hebrew.

12 ‘Ishmael and Hagar’ in Edelheit, Joseph, ed. ‘The Life of Covenant’, Judaica Press, Chicago, 1986) pg. 236.

13 Hirsch, S.R., The Pentateuch, Genesis, (Judaica, N.Y., 1971) pg. 287.

14 Sarna, Nahum, Genesis, (JPS, N.Y., 1989) pg. 121.

15 Translated by Alter, The Five Books of Moses, pg. 80.

16 A. Schoors translates it ‘You are a God of visions’ for she said ‘Have I really seen the face of Him who sees me?’  ‘A Tiqqun Sapherim’ VT, 32, 1982, pg. 495.

17 ‘Amah’ is a new term which may mean slave while ‘shifhah may mean servant. But equally they may be interchangeable. Later on we are told that Laban provided a shifhah to his daughter Leah named Zilpah and for his daughter Rachel a shifhah named Bilhah (29:24, 29). When Bilhah bears Jacob a child at Rachel’s request and in her name she is called Rachel’s ‘amati’ (30:2).  Likewise when Leah invests in a similar arrangement with Zilpah the latter is noted as a shifhah (30:9-10).  Most conclude that the terms are interchangeable. (Alter, pg. 77.  See also Brown, F., Driver, S.R., Briggs, C.A., A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, (Clarendon, Oxford, 1951) pg. 1046, 1051). However Phyllis Trible does not agree, see ‘The Other Woman’ in Butler, J.T., Conrad, E.W., and Ollenberger, B.C. ‘Understanding the Word’, (JSOT #37, Sheffield 1985). She bases her believe on an article by A. Jepsen ‘Ama’ und Schiphera’ VT 8 1958. He however does not mention that Zilpah is noted as shifthah and Bilhah is noted as an Amah and therefore if the terms are different what is that difference.

18 Tollington, Janet, Abraham and his Wives, in Gordon, R. P., and Moor, J. C., eds., The Old Testament in its World, Brill, Leiden, 2005, pg. 192.

19 Meek, T.J., ‘The Code of Hammurabi’ in Pritchard, J.B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts Realting to the Old Testament, (Princeton University, Princeton, 1969) pg. 172-174.

20 Ibn Ezra, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Genesis, (Menoah Press, N.Y., 1988) pg. 218.

21 Quoted in Ramban 21:15.

22 Surprisingly the name Hagar is not mentioned in the Koran; although she is noted in numerous hadiths (authorized interpretations of the Koran).

23 S. Nikaido, Hagar and Ishmael, VT, 51,2, 2001, pg. 222.

24 The only difference is in one case God is referred to a Elohim  in the other Yahweh.

25 Kierkegaard, Soren, Fear and Trembling, Translated by W. Lowrie, (Princeton Uninversity Press, Princeton, 1941) pg. 64.

26 Op. cit, pg. 223.

27 Op. cit pg. 228.

28 Op. cit., pg. 225.

29 Two other are pre-named in the Prophets Josiah (I Kings 13:2) and Solomon (I Chron. 22:9). These four are noted in JT Berakot 1:6 with the statement that the ‘wicked are strangers from the womb’.

30 Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer, translated by Gerald Friedlander, Herman Press, N.Y., 1965) pg. 227-228. This author was writing after the advent of Islam and there are some polemical aspects of the text, but he clearly distinguishes between Ishmael as Abraham’s deserving son and the Ishmaelites as the final evil kingdom. A very similar story is told in an Islamic hadith ‘Prophets and Patriarchs’ by al Tabai. There is great debate in the literature as to whose text came first.

31 Elie Wiesel quotes Shimon bar Yochai, a mystical talmudic sage, that Hagar met with angels three times, Wiesel pg. 244.

32 Midrash Tanhuma, translated by S. Buber, Ktav publishing, Hoboken, 1989) pg. 125-128.

33 and

34 Rashi on 22:2.

35 Moshe Reiss, ‘The God of Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob’, Jewish Bible Quarterly, April 2004.

36 David J. Zucker ‘The Mysterious Disappearance of Sarah’, Judaism, Winter 2006.