Parting from Mesopotamia

Three women who secured the future of the Jewish people.

Hagar abraham 298.88 (photo credit: 1699, Staatsgalerie, Schleissheim)
Hagar abraham 298.88
(photo credit: 1699, Staatsgalerie, Schleissheim)
There seems to be little question as to why Sarai offered her maid Hagar, an Egyptian slave, to her husband Abram as a surrogate wife. Was this just routine behavior, did biology not count? Being childless, Sarai hoped that a fertile Hagar would be able to provide the child for which she, Sarai, longed. Presumably Sarai was expected by Abram to provide a child and heir, and Abram would be satisfied if her maid supplied the necessary infant. The unmarried couple go ahead and Abram makes Hagar pregnant. Seeing her enhanced state, Hagar naturally begins to lord it over her barren mistress to such an extent that Sarai complains to Abram, as if it was his fault. Abram allows Sarai to do what she wants with Hagar and she is chased away without a stitch, Abram not raising a finger to help his bedmate. However, God's angel persuades Hagar to go back to Sarai, promising her that she will have a male child who will become a great nation, and Hagar returns. LATER IT is the turn of Sarai, now called Sarah, to have a son by Abram, now Abraham, and Isaac grows up with Hagar's son Ishmael. Ishmael's behavior displeases Sarah and she asks Abraham to throw out Hagar and her son Ishmael. This time Abraham protests violently and it takes the intervention of God Himself to persuade him that Sarah is right (Gen. 21:12). Abraham shows great sympathy for Hagar and Ishmael and supplies them with food and water before sending them on their way. Why is Abraham now so reluctant to expel Hagar, when before he had made no protest? Abram and Sarai came from Ur of the Chaldees, a very important Sumerian city where they will have lived by the laws of Mesopotamia, which are known to us to some extent through the ancient laws of Hammurabi, of the 18th century BCE. These laws were not invented by Hammurabi but were based on earlier legislation that he codified and organized into regulations to be used to unify his extended territories (from Ur to Haran). Two hundred and eighty-two of them are still known to us. Law 138 states that a man can divorce his wife, while paying her marriage price, if she does not bear him children within a reasonable time. This is qualified by Law 144 which says that if the wife gives her husband her slave-woman and she gives him a child, he cannot then divorce his wife; and Law 146 states that the wife cannot expel the slave if she has the husband's child, even if she claims unjustified equality with the wife. Furthermore, Law 170 states that the son of the slave-woman shall share the inheritance with the son of the wife, provided the husband has acknowledged the son of the slave-woman as being his own. THUS IT was in the interest of Sarai to offer her slave Hagar to Abram. Until she had the child, Abram had no commitment to Hagar and was happy for Sarai to exercise her right to expel her. But once Hagar was delivered of Ishmael, and Abram had acknowledged him as his own child, as he clearly did (Gen. 17:15), he was bound by the laws of Mesopotamia to give Ishmael equal status with Isaac, and Sarah was forbidden to expel Hagar. But Sarah could not abide Ishmael remaining within the family and expected Abraham to throw him and his mother out, because she saw that the future lay with Isaac and not with Ishmael. Her vision was clear; she was prepared to defy the law of Mesopotamia and she expected Abraham to do likewise. But Abraham's vision was ambivalent. He had even hoped that Ishmael would live before God (17:18). Abram was still living by the laws of Mesopotamia which forbade him to expel Hagar. It took the intervention of God Himself to force him to do Sarah's will. Sarah's vision was clearer. She saw that the tradition had to be transmitted through Isaac, and God backed her up. It was she who secured the future of the Jewish people; she and not Abraham. And the incident must have made a lasting impression on Abraham, that the laws of Mesopotamia no longer ruled. WHEN ISAAC married Rebekah, there was no slave-woman to help her out when she failed to conceive. We are now in Canaan and that custom did not apply. Rebekah prays directly to God and is rewarded with twins, Esau and Jacob. Isaac favors Esau and Rebekah favors Jacob, and it is Rebekah who has the vision to see that Jacob will carry on the tradition and not Esau. Isaac was happy to encourage both twins, to hope that the future would be secured by the hunter combining with the scholar. Rebekah saw that this was an impossible dream and she went so far as to devise a complicated plan for Jacob to secure the first and chief blessing of his father, which would enable him to receive God's promise to Abraham. It was Rebekah who had the vision to put Jacob in pole position and it was she who had the determination to carry out her devious plan. Both Jacob and Isaac were pawns in her hands; it was Rebekah who secured the future of the Jewish people. When Jacob goes to Laban to seek a wife, and ends up with two sisters, both of them are given slave-women, as we are back in Haran, in territory annexed by Hammurabi. The favorite wife, Rachel, is barren at first and needs help, so she offers her maid Bilhah to Jacob, and Bilhah produces two sons, Dan and Naphtali. When Leah, albeit fertile, sees the advantage of using her maid, she offers Zilpah to Jacob and Zilpah also produces two boys, Gad and Asher. Subsequently Rachel is cured and her own son Joseph becomes destined for great things. It is Rachel who is concerned for the new order, for it is she who steals her father's teraphim, or personal idols, while Jacob is busy secreting his large family out under Laban's nose. When the young Joseph has his dreams of leadership, his father's reaction is silence. When the brothers bring Joseph's many-colored coat stained in blood to Jacob, he goes into deep mourning. He does not rebuke Joseph in the first case nor his brothers in the second. In neither case is the mother's reaction recorded, perhaps because Rachel remained silent. Perhaps she had the greater trust in God, that He would preserve her firstborn son and that his youthful dreams would one day come true. Be that as it may, it was Rachel who produced the charismatic Joseph and it was she who removed the idol worship from Haran. Like her mother-in-law Rebekah and Rebekah's mother-in-law Sarah, it was these three women who secured the future of the Jewish people, in the face of the ambivalent attitudes of their several husbands. The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeology, Jerusalem.