Sarai and Avram (later renamed Sarah and Abraham) are an unusual couple. In a society dominated by men, Sarai appears to have authority equal to her husband’s. Neither can give unilateral orders to the other.
The Torah portion Lekh-lekha (“Go for yourself”) begins with Avram, Sarai, and their nephew Lot leaving Charan (along with all their livestock and servants) and traveling through Canaan. Since there is a famine in that land, they continue south to Egypt.
It happened, as he was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarai, his wife: “Hey, na! I know that you are a woman of beautiful appearance. And it will happen that the Egyptians will see you and they will say: ‘This is his wife!” And they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say, na, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake, and my soul will live on account of you.” (Genesis my12:11-13)
na (נָא) = Please! (An indicator of courtesy and urgency.)
Avram believes that Sarai will end up in an Egyptian’s bed one way or another: either they will kill her husband to get her, or they will pay her brother to get her. (I will discuss Avram’s peculiar assumptions about Egyptian customs in my next two posts, Lekh-Lekha, Vayeira, & Toledot: The Wife-Sister Trick, Part 1 and Part 2.)
Even though Avram believes his life is on the line, he does not command Sarai to masquerade as his unmarried sister. He implores her, saying na twice.
Sarai cooperates, and the Egyptian officials at the border take her to the Pharaoh’s harem. Perhaps she foresees that her stay there will be temporary, and then they will both leave Egypt with extra wealth. Or perhaps the childless 65-year-old is making her last bid for a baby.1 (Her menopause might be late, and at this point she does not know whether Avram is fertile.) The Torah does not tell us Sarai’s motivation.
Avram and Sarai return from Egypt to Canaan with more more livestock, slaves, gold, and silver, but no pregnancy. This is a problem for both of them. God promised to give the land of Canaan to Avram’s descendants, yet he has no descendants. Sarai does not need a child to take care of her after her husband dies, like other biblical women. She appears to have wealth of her own, enough so that in very old age she can afford to leave Avram in Beersheba, move north with her retinue, and pitch her own tent near Hebron.2 But like Avram, she would want a child to inherit her possessions and continue her name.
Later in this week’s Torah portion, Sarai concludes that her best option is to adopt a baby. A long-standing legal custom in the ancient Near East was for a childless wife to give her personal slave to her husband as a surrogate, and then adopt the resulting child as her own.3
Since Avram is Sarai’s equal, she does not command him to comply with this arrangement; she implores him.
Sarai, the wife of Avram, had not borne children to him, but she had an Egyptian female slave, and her name was Hagar. Sarai said to Avram: Hey, na! God has shut me off from childbirth. Enter, na, my slave; perhaps I will be built up through her.” And Avram listened to the voice of Sarai. Sarai, the wife of Avram, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave, at the end of ten years of Avram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Avram, her husband, as a woman for him. (Genesis 16:1-3)
Sarai uses the same approach that Avram used on the border of Egypt, opening with “Hey, na!”4 then stating the problem, then asking for a favor with a second na. (These are the only two speeches in the Hebrew Bible in which the word na appears twice.) Like Sarai, Avraham agrees to go along with his partner’s scheme.
Although Sarai says “please” to her high-status husband, she can command her personal slave to do anything, so she does not bother to ask Hagar about the arrangement. When Sarai says “perhaps I will be built up through her” she indicates her intention to adopt the child Hagar bears as her own.
But once Hagar is pregnant with Avram’s child, she is not as subservient as Sarai expected.
When she [Hagar] saw that she was pregnant, [her] mistress was demeaned in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Avram: “The violence against me is because of you! I myself put my slave into your lap. Now she sees that she is pregnant, and I am demeaned in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!” (Genesis 16:4-5)
Sarai, accustomed to having complete authority over her own slaves, cannot bear to be snubbed and ignored by Hagar. She has lost some of her power.
Why does she blame Avram? Although Sarai may not feel sexual jealousy about the arrangement, I believe she is jealous in another way. Perhaps Sarai’s husband and business partner is continuing to spend time with Hagar instead of with her, thus reinforcing Hagar’s idea that her status has increased. Others in the household who notice this might also begin to treat Sarai with less respect, and Hagar with more.
So Sarai accuses Avram of encouraging Hagar’s new behavior. Then she cries, “May God judge between me and you!” She still believes that she and Avram are supposed to have equal authority. Anything that demeans Sarai challenges her God-given status. And Avram recognizes this.
Then Avram said to Sarai: “Hey! Your female-slave is in your hand; do to her as you see fit.” And Sarai oppressed her. And she [Hagar] ran away from her. (Genesis 16:6)
An angelic messenger from God reassures Hagar that her son will prosper in the long run, and tells her to return to Sarai and “submit yourself to her hand” (Genesis 16:9) Hagar obeys God. Sarai does not adopt the baby; instead of reporting a birth on Sarai’s lap or knees (the usual adoption ritual), the Torah says:
And Hagar bore to Avram a son, and Avram named his son that Hagar bore: Ishmael. (Genesis 16:15)
Thirteen years later God changes the names of Avram and Sarai to Avraham and Sarah, and tells Avraham that Sarah will bear him a son when she is 90.5 In next week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, Avraham holds a celebration on the day Sarah weans her own son, Isaac.
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Avraham, making fun! And she said to Avraham: “Drive out this slave-woman and her son, so that the son of this slave-woman will not inherit with my son, with Isaac!” (Genesis 21:9-10)
Now Sarah is giving Abraham orders without saying “please”. Abraham does not argue with her, but he is worried about his son Ishmael. God reassures him that Ishmael and his progeny will become a great nation, and tells him:
“Everything that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice; because through Isaac your descendants shall be identified.” (Genesis 21:12)
Abraham follows Sarah’s orders and exiles Hagar and Ishmael the next morning. At this point, Sarah has more authority than Abraham. What she says, goes—because God is backing her up.
Unlike Sarai/Sarah, I have never had much authority. I never had staff working under me in any of my paid jobs. In one congregation I became a leader by dint of years of hard work, continuing Jewish education, and volunteering, but I learned that my opinions held no more weight than anyone else’s. Sometimes even when I thought we had reached a consensus, other volunteers ignored it. I felt snubbed and demeaned, like Sarai in response to Hagar.
I wonder if any of the other volunteers felt like Hagar under Sarai’s—my—thumb?
Or was I like Hagar, pregnant with knowledge and know-how, slaving away day and night without remuneration, sometimes appreciated and sometimes snubbed?
Authority and deference are still hard to balance, even when you say “please”.
- Sarai and Avram leave Charan when Avram is 75 (Genesis 12:4) and Avram is ten years older than Sarai (Genesis 17:17). Therefore Sarai is 65 or so when they emigrate to Egypt.
- And Avraham stayed in Beersheba (Genesis 22:19). Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is [now] Hebron … (Genesis 17:17). Isaac inherits his mother’s tent (Genesis 24:67).
- The Code of Hammurabi specifies that when a wife gives one of her female slaves to her husband for the purpose of bearing his child (or children), she remains a slave until the husband dies, and her children by him are free. The man’s wife has the option of adopting her child.
- Hey, na = הִנֵּה־נָא. Hineh (הִנֵּה) is often translated as “Behold!” or “Look!” or “Here!”, but since it is an attention-getting exclamation, I have been translating hineh as “Hey!”
- Genesis 17:17.