So with the promise of countless descendants, Sarai and Abram should probably have a kid. They’ve been trying, but it’s not like it’s happened. They’re not exactly spring chickens, either, with Abram clocking in at around 85. Having problems conceiving, they do what any couple does, go to the fertility clinic!
No, they didn’t have one, but they did something that has become a thing today, get a surrogate. Okay, well, there are differences since this surrogate doesn’t exactly have a say in things. She is a slave, probably one of the slaves that Abram got out of the deal with Pharaoh. The interesting thing, however, is that the surrogacy was not Abram’s idea.
Abram is content to wait because God promised that they would have children. Sarai is not. She feels her biological clock ticking (feel free to imagine Marissa Tomei from My Cousin Vinny, I always do), and lays out the blame: “the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.” She commands—yes, commands—Abram to “go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
Now before people jump in and start in on the horrors of slavery, the ancient world saw things completely differently. Ideas of basic human rights are thousands of years away. Moreover, the kind of slavery in the ancient world is fundamentally different compared to what most people associate with slavery, especially in the U.S. until the end of the Civil War.
Slavery was a constant. The particulars varied from region to region, but it was everywhere, and it wasn’t racially motivated. And we’re about to see proof of how different it was. Dun dun dun!
After conceiving, “[Hagar] looked with contempt on her mistress.” I find this interesting not because of the owner/slave dynamic, but because this illustrates a fundamental truth in the ancient world that women are not truly women unless they can bear children. It doesn’t mean that they are only good for bearing children, but it is essential, like a rite of passage. And now that it’s confirmed that the problem is not Abram, but Sarai, Hagar feels she is more of a woman than Sarai.
Unfortunately, Sarai takes her frustration out on Abram, giving him the blame. Abram isn’t having any of it, though, saying, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Predictably, Sarai “dealt harshly with [Hagar]” who then ran away. It’s a tragic little series of events, all stemming from Sarai’s impatience.
We benefit from this, though, as we’re able to get a look at a day of ancient biblical domestic life. As said before, being able to give birth is a major priority to women, perhaps even the defining trait of what it means to be a woman. The spat between Sarai and Hagar shows that even a slave feels herself more important than a woman who cannot give birth.
Abram also does not seem to be in charge when it comes to the domestic. Sarai gives him no choice in the matter. She commands him to conceive a child with Hagar.
I just want to pause on that as it seems absurd by even modern standards. A wife is commanding a husband to have sex with another woman for the express purpose of having a child. It’s a reality show waiting to happen.
I feel it’s very important to look at this slice of domestic life as it’s a neatly placed monkey wrench into a common complaint about ancient cultures and mythology (especially the Bible): Women were treated horribly by men, and had no value. Sarai quite clearly knows what she wants, and how to obtain it. There is no thought about Abram’s feelings on the matter. It may in fact be nagging, but she knows how to get Abram to do what she wants.
Of course, it will get more complicated, soon, so stay tuned for more of Days of Abraham’s Life.