Women, Hagar, and #MeToo
Since I wrote about Abraham last week, it seems only right in this era of #MeToo that I should write about a woman — Hagar. She too is far more complex and multifaceted than a surface reading of the text would suggest.
Hagar was caught up in a world in which she was a pawn. She was a slave with everything that implied — and she fought it, to the best of her ability and under very difficult circumstances. Most slaves then as now had little or no choice and only rarely a chance for freedom. Even today, in many parts of the world, women are treated as chattel to be abused or disposed of.
What Hagar was asked to do was not uncommon in those days — to give birth so that a more holy woman wouldn’t have to. Hagar had no choice. Sarah in her desperation was the one who suggested it and begged Abraham to agree. And yet Abraham did actually make Hagar a wife, even if of the second rank. He must have felt he had to do “the right thing.” Hagar could easily have remained a servant and indeed is described as such later.
Inevitably, once Hagar became pregnant, she felt she had the upper hand. She bridled at obeying Sarah and resisted. Sarah felt her position was being undermined and appealed to her husband. He listened to her. That is significant. In those times I don’t think many husbands listened to their wives. He told her to do as she pleased. Sarah was strict with Hagar and made her feel her subservience.
Hagar ran away into the desert, where an Angel of God found her by a well. There, he told her that she had a great future: She would be the progenitor of a mighty nation, beginning with a son. He would become a strong, wild man, in conflict with all those around him but having the upper hand. In the meantime, she should go back and humble herself and accept Sarah’s authority. She called the place where this happened Be’er LeChai Roi, which could mean “the well of God (as the source of life).” She went back, submitted herself to Sarah’s authority, and gave birth. It is Abraham who then called the child Ishmael. Did she tell Abraham what had happened? Did she say that God had appeared to her? We don’t know. The text does not tell us.
Some years later, Sarah gave birth to Isaac. Abraham had a celebration when the child was weaned where Sarah noticed Ishmael making fun. The word the Torah uses is metzahek, which has the same root as Isaac’s name Yitzhak. It implies laughter, which can sometimes be innocent, but also can have a tinge of ridicule. It is also the word used to describe the orgy at the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:6).
Sarah, assuming that Hagar had instigated it, insisted on driving Hagar and her son out. Abraham prevaricated. For the first time, he was not supportive. God told him in no uncertain terms to listen to his wife. He sent Hagar and her son away with some water and bread. She wandered and got lost. The water and the food ran out. She feared her son was going to die and placed him under a bush and then went to sit far away, so that “she wouldn’t see his slow death.” An angel appeared to her, and this is where she and Ishmael set up home and thrived. All’s well that ends well.
Yet there are questions. When she ran away the first time, she found a well. And the second time she ended up at the same well. Was she so distraught she could not remember? Why did Abraham send Hagar away with so little? And what mother would want to leave a dying son and go sit far away? There are so many ways of looking at each narrative and we can choose the one that appeals most to us. The Torah is often unconcerned with the details we find fascinating. Its aim is to deal with larger themes and messages.
There are two interesting postscripts to these narratives. In Genesis 26:62, Isaac went out to meet his incoming bride Rebecca. The text says he went from Be’er LeChai Roi — the very place where Ishmael was living. Is this because he had made peace with Ishmael and they were getting on and living in close proximity? Indeed, they were reconciled and came together to bury their father. Or was it simply that Be’er LeChai Roi had always been part of Abraham’s estates and Isaac inherited it.
After Sarah died, Abraham married again to a woman called Keturah. Rashi quotes a Midrash saying that Keturah was Hagar. Her name in Hebrew resonates with sweet incense. The Midrash suggests that she was so much in love with Abraham, she was willing to wait, a single woman, now presumably a free one, for some 30 years until Sarah’s death, in order to resume her relationship with Abraham. To some of us, this is a very romantic idea.
Now back to #MeToo. The Torah and indeed Judaism are often accused of being patriarchal. And there is no doubt that the world in which the Torah emerged was male-dominated. Yet in biblical Judaism, women were judges, prophets, queens, and important personalities, often independent and in control of their own destinies. But they were the exceptions. So I think the rabbis, 2,000 years ago, were conscious of the need to redress the balance and help women. You see this in the way they introduced laws to protect women, such as the marriage contract.
I think this is also why they chose the Haftarah that is read in conjunction with Hagar’s story. It comes from Book of Kings 2 at the time of the great prophet Elisha. One of the pivotal women in the book is the anonymous woman Shunem. She hosts Elisha and is the dominant figure in her family. She is the one who makes the decisions, goes to court to get back her stolen property. Her husband is a passive shadow. She controls the narrative and decides to go where she wants to go and when. Like Sarah, she is barren. Elisha promises her a child. And the boy appears to die out in the field helping his father. Her story resonates with Sarah’s.
Of course, I think we have not gone far enough in regards to women’s rights — and that much more needs to be done.
Rabbi Jeremy Rosen has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than forty years, in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.