Lekh-Lekha: Belittlement

Here is another essay from the first version of my book on moral psychology in Genesis, which I am now rewriting.  The Torah portion this week is the beginning of the Abraham story, Lekh-Lekha (“Get Going” or “Go for Yourself”).



And Sarah, the wife of Abraham, had not borne children to him, and she had an Egyptian domestic slave, and her name was Hagar. And Sarah said to Abraham: “Here, please! God has barred me from bearing [a child]. Come, please, into my domestic slave; perhaps I will be built up through her.” (Genesis 16:1-2)

Hagar (הָגָר) = ha- (הַ) = the + geir (גֵּר) = male resident alien; or ha- (הַ) = the + hitgar (הִתְגָּר) = opposed, struggled with. (Hagar is a foreigner who becomes Sarah’s opponent.)

Sarah is 75 years old and God has never “opened her womb”, enabling a first pregnancy. Maybe she concludes that God must intend Abraham to have descendants through a different woman, so he might as well do it now. Or maybe she hopes to adopt Hagar’s son as her own, so he will support her if she outlives her husband. Maybe she believes that once Abraham has impregnated one woman, God will make it easier for him to do it again, and she will finally give birth.1

Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham, by Matthias Stom, 17th century

And Abraham paid attention to the voice of Sarah. And Sarah, the wife of Abraham, took Hagar the Egyptian, her domestic slave, at the end of ten years [that] Abraham had been dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Abraham, her husband, as a woman for him. (Genesis 16:2-3)

Sarah does not ask Hagar if she is willing to have intercourse with an 85-year-old man. The whole premise of slavery is that one person gives orders and the other must obey. Later books in the Torah establish some rights for Israelites who become slaves because of debt,2 but foreign slaves have fewer protections.  There is no limit to how long a foreign slave must serve, and the foreign slave is considered property that can be sold or inherited, like a herd of cattle.3

Today a world-wide consensus of opinion considers slavery grossly unethical, though it still occurs. By our own standards it is unethical for Sarah to own Hagar, but not by the standards of the Torah.

And he came into Hagar and she became pregnant. And she saw that she was pregnant, vateikal, her mistress was, in her eyes. (Genesis 16:4)

vateikal (וַתֵּקַל) = and she was diminished, of no account. (A form of the verb kalal, קלל. Various stems of this verb mean to be small and unimportant, to demean oneself, to declare a curse, to reduce, to shake something or someone.)

Hagar upsets the premise of slavery when she stops treating Sarah with deference. The Torah does not say exactly what Hagar does. Perhaps she continues to visit Abraham’s bed after she is pregnant. Perhaps she does not follow Sarah’s orders as thoroughly as she used to, or perhaps she complains. All these actions would be unwise, but they may not be unethical.

Sarah becomes enraged when her pregnant slave belittles her by acting above her station.

Then Sarah said to Abraham: “The cruelty I suffer from is on account of you! I myself placed my domestic slave in your bosom. Now she sees that she is pregnant, va-eikal in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!” Then Abraham said to Sarah: “Hey! Your domestic slave is in your hand. Do to her whatever is good in your eyes.” (Genesis 16:5-6)

va-eikal (וָאֵקַל) = and I am diminished, of no account. (Another conjugation of the verb kalal.)

From Sarah’s point of view, Abraham is guilty of encouraging Hagar to treat his real wife as if she has no status. Maybe he was unusually considerate of the slave in his bed. Maybe he continued to take Hagar to bed even after she was pregnant.4 Regardless of whether Abraham did anything to contribute to Hagar’s new attitude, he refuses to take any responsibility for her future welfare.

Yet by agreeing to impregnate Hagar, Abraham implicitly accepted some responsibility for her. She is the future mother of his child, and therefore he is morally obligated to protect her.


When Sarah tells Abraham “May God judge between me and you!” she means that the situation is not fair. I can imagine her thinking: It’s not fair that I lose both my slave and my husband’s attention, when I’m the one who made the arrangement in the first place. I never asked to be barren. I was only promoting God’s plan. Why should I suffer?

I can imagine Hagar thinking: It’s not fair that my mistress elevates me to the position of a concubine, and then snatches it away from me again. I never asked for this role, but now that I have it, why should I suffer?

And I can imagine Abraham thinking: It’s not fair that I’m forced to choose between these two women, between my lifelong companion and the mother of my child. I never asked for this mess. Why should I suffer?

The situation is unfair to all three characters, but no one deliberately creates an unfair situation—until Abraham tells Sarah “Do to her whatever is good in your eyes” and Sarah does it.

Sarah vataneha, and [Hagar] ran away from her. (Genesis 16:6)

vataneha (וַתְּעַנֶּהָ) = then (she) oppressed her, humiliated her, overpowered her, violated her. (A piel form of the verb anah, עָנַה = was wretched.)

The Torah outlaws humiliating or overpowering an Israelite slave,5 but not a foreign slave. Nevertheless, the use of the verb anah implies that Sarah’s behavior is unethical.  The Torah uses a piel stem of anah to describe the unfair working conditions of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, where they are the foreigners.6

Hagar runs away impulsively; she has no particular destination in mind, though she does head south, in the general direction of Egypt.  When she stops at a spring on the road and a messenger (a.k.a. an angel) from God asks her two questions, Hagar can only answer the first one.

Hagar and the Angel, by Rembrandt. 17th century

And he said: “Hagar, domestic slave of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?” And she said: “Me? I am running away from my mistress, Sarah.” And the messenger of God said to her: “Return to your mistress, vehitani under her hand.” (Genesis 16:8-9)

vehitani (וְהִתְעַנִּי) = and submit to being humiliated or tormented. (An imperative hitpael form of the verb anah.)

But Hagar does not obey, at least not immediately. Since she is silent, the divine messenger adds that Hagar will have too many descendants to count. Hagar still does not respond. The messenger adds that her son will be like a wild ass, impossible to discipline or domesticate, fighting everyone. After hearing that, Hagar obeys and returns to Sarah. She is willing to project her desires on her son and let him be the rebel.

She may also be having second thoughts about running away. If continuing south meant that she would escape slavery and her son would not be born a slave, then that would be a better moral choice that obeying God. But Hagar may now realize that if she stays on the road, sooner or later someone else will capture and enslave her, or worse. In that case it would be better to return to Sarah and Abraham, who at least want to keep Hagar’s unborn child alive and well.

For whatever reason, Hagar makes the most ethical choice open to her in a bad situation.


Sarah accuses Hagar of belittling her, but actually both Sarah and Abraham belittle Hagar.  The treatment of foreign slaves varies even within their household.  Abraham trusts and respects one of his foreign slaves, Eliezer of Damascus, enough to promote him to the post of steward.  If Abraham remains childless, Eliezer will be his heir.7

On the other hand, Sarah does not respect Hagar.  She assigns Hagar to Abraham long enough for her to get pregnant, but then instead of promoting her to the status of a concubine she takes full control over her slave again.  Even then, Sarah is insecure about her own value relative to the value of the woman carrying Abraham’s child.  When Hagar does something that triggers  Sarah’s insecurity, she abuses the woman who became pregnant at her own command. Sarah does not master her own emotional reaction in order to treat Hagar more ethically.

Abraham ducks his responsibility to protect Hagar.  He looks the other way when his wife is cruel to her, and he fails to promote Hagar to concubine over Sarah’s head, even though in his society the mother of a man’s heir is normally a wife or concubine.8 Abraham is motivated primarily by a desire to avoid confrontation with Sarah.  He does not master his own emotional complex in order to treat Hagar more ethically.

Even when biblical characters do not consider whether slavery itself is immoral, they still face moral choices about individual actions. Today, even when heads of governments do not consider whether war itself is immoral, they still face moral choices about how they conduct war. Even when we do not transcend the evils that are commonplace in our societies, may we still strive to transcend our selfish interests and emotions in order to protect other human beings as much as we can.

  1. Pamela Tamarkin Reis, Reading the Lines: A fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass., 2002, pp. 60-63.
  2. Exodus 21:2-11, Leviticus 25:39-43, Deuteronomy 15:12-17.
  3. Leviticus 25:44-46.
  4. Reis, p. 66-67.
  5. Leviticus 25:46 rules that one may not dominate an Israelite slave with violence.
  6. Genesis 15:13, Exodus 1:11-12, Deuteronomy 26:6-7.
  7. Genesis 15:2.
  8. Pilagesh (פִּילֶגֶשׁ) = concubine, lesser wife. Hagar is always called a shifchah (שִׁפְחָה) or an amah (אָמָה); both terms mean a female domestic slave. The term pilagesh first appears in Genesis 22:24, in a list of the children of Abraham’s brother Nachor: eight by wife, Milkah, and four by his concubine, Re-umah.  Abraham’s grandson Jacob has two wives, Rachel and Leah, who ask their domestic servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, to bear children to him. The Torah calls Bilhah and Zilpah Jacob’s domestic servants (Genesis 32:23), and later refers to Bilhah as Jacob’s pilagesh. All other references in the Hebrew Bible to a mother of a free man’s children call her either a wife or a concubine, not a slave.


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