Friday, November 21, 2008

The Bondwoman and Her Son

Nothing about the story of Abraham is normal or conventional. That bears emphasizing, given the tendency in our culture to value normality and convention, and to equate deviance with sin. For one thing, on his travels through Egypt and Canaan, Abraham had this tendency to tell people that his wife Sarah was actually his sister. Sarah must have been extremely beautiful, because even at the age of 90, powerful men wanted to marry her.

The Book of Abraham in the Pearl of Great Price actually has the Lord commanding Abraham to tell Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister, because apparently the Egyptians would have killed Abraham to steal his wife. This story never really made much sense to me, though I accept that it's possible. After all, if the Egyptians would have killed Abraham in order to steal his wife had he told them the truth, why would they suddenly have scruples about killing him once they discovered he had been lying to them? I guess Abraham wasn't lying when he said he was a stranger in a "strange" land.

After finding out that Sarah was actually Abraham's wife (in the case of Abimelech, the Lord warned him of this in a dream), both Pharaoh and Abimelech were understandably miffed at Abraham for lying to them, and subsequently asked him and his wife to please leave. This part of the story does actually make sense to me. Abimelech even made elaborate amends for the wrong he had (inadvertently almost) committed, by giving Abraham sheep, oxen and male and female slaves before sending him on his way.

Abraham excused himself to Abimelech by explaining that, in fact, he and Sarah were siblings. Half-siblings. They were children of the same father, but had different mothers (Gen. 20:12). Again, a bit creepy in the context of modern sensibilities regarding incest. But, one assumes, not unheard of in Old Testament times.

Then of course, there's the whole storyline of Sarah being unable to bear children, and asking her husband to have sex with her slave, Hagar, so that Hagar could have a son for her. It is hard for me to read this without filtering it through the U.S.'s own baleful history with slavery, which included slave masters using their slaves sexually. Certainly there's nothing in the account in Genesis to suggest that Hagar had any more say in the matter than American slave women had in such situations.

If we believe Abraham to be a kind and honorable man, then we must believe that she did have a say and was free to accept or reject his offer. What we read in Genesis may suggest that Hagar saw this as an opportunity for advancement in the household hierarchy. But that is not saying much, considering she was a woman and a slave.

By the way, did I mention that Abraham, prophet and "friend of God," owned slaves? I suppose there are different ways we could interpret that. We could take from this that slavery (or at least the type of slavery that Abraham practiced) is a divinely sanctioned institution, ordained by God. OR we could assume that Abraham, prophet and "friend of God," was enmeshed in the unjust economic and social systems of the time and place that he lived in, and that his status as a prophet did not mean that he automatically rose above every circumstance of the culture into which he was born. But I digress...

What we can say about Hagar and her status, regardless of how much say she did or did not have in this situation, is that she was abused from the beginning by Sarah. Sarah, jealous that Hagar was able to conceive when she couldn't, made life so miserable for her slave that Hagar felt forced to flee for a time, facing starvation and death in the wilderness. Hagar eventually returned "submitting herself" to her mistress, whatever that meant. But when Sarah finally had a son of her own, she furiously insisted that "the bondwoman and her son" Ishmael be banished. Abraham was chagrined by Sarah's demands, but he acquiesced in this supreme injustice. And if we believe the Genesis account, banishment under these circumstances was a virtual death sentence for Ishmael and Hagar. All for the "crime" of having submitted to Sarah's own request that Abraham father a son by Hagar.

This text feels strangely relevant to me in today's charged debate over same-sex marriage. Certainly the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar reminds us what is most painfully evident now in the whole same-sex marriage debate: that marriage is all about rights, but even more about status. Marriage tells us not only what claims a person is entitled to make on society, but who is legitimate and who is illegitimate. Why should anybody be surprised that most gay folks are disgruntled by the offer of the "separate but equal" status of "civil unions," when it is so obvious that it is offered only as a sop to demands for rights that cannot be reasonably refused, while denying the equal status that gay folks understandably feel they also deserve in a democratic society?

The logic of American history and the American political way suggests that those demands will ultimately be impossible to refuse, for the same reason that, in order to be true to its democratic principles, America rejected slavery, segregation, and "miscegenation" laws. Americans reject outright the notion that God favors some over others due to accidents of birth. And Americans abhor unfairness, and believe in the sanctity of individual rights and equality under the law, and they believe that God sanctions that belief.

But God's intervention in the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar is a bit less clean-cut and tidy than should be liked by most Americans with their irrepressible insistence on unambiguous resolutions and happy endings. Isaac does go on -- with God's blessing -- to be the "chosen" son, the son through whom the "chosen people" claim their lineage. But God intervened with Hagar too, sending angels to protect her and her son from starvation and thirst and the other dangers of the desert.

God did not intervene in such a way as to give Hagar the status she probably hoped for (or deserved). God let Sarah have her way on this count. (Though this particular outcome, in any event, probably had little to do with Sarah's desires or Hagar's worthiness.) But he preserved Hagar's life and her son's life, showing unbiased love for them in the face of Sarah's deadly jealousy, and granting them a role in his plan. God had a work to do both through Isaac and Ishmael, both through Hagar and Sarah, despite the peculiarities, anguish and injustices of the particular situations in which they lived.

I take comfort in that.


Scott said...

I always enjoy your posts, and this one was especially thoughtful, thought-provoking, and beautiful.

Thank you.

GeckoMan said...

There is quite a good read in Orson Scott Card's trilogy of books on the OT patriarch's wives, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel. Most of it is pure speculation, based on the Biblical storylines and prevailing culture, but it is still a fascinating dialogue.

You raise an interesting comparison about rights and status in the whole gay marriage equation, with the sticky undercurrents of the Haggar/Ishmael story. I too have wondered the apparent set-up that eventually led to the enmity of two nations of peoples. Obviously, there are no easy answers.