Ishmael and Hagar
A man, a woman. Abraham and Sarah. Who has not heard of them? Everyone loves them. They radiate goodness, nobility, human warmth. Who doesn’t claim kinship with them? Humankind is what it is because they shaped our destiny. He is the father of our people, she the mother. Everything leads us back to them. The promised land bears their seal. Faith—our faith—was kindled by theirs. A couple unlike any other, they inspire joy and hope. Tormented by our own troubles, we recall theirs, which give ours a transcendent meaning. Abraham, the first to be chosen, the first to choose God and crown him God of the universe; Abraham, synonymous with loyalty and absolute fidelity, a symbol of perfection. And yet . . . a shadow hovers over one aspect of his existence. In his exalted life, we encounter a painful episode that cannot but puzzle us, if not cause us to recoil. I refer, of course, to his behavior toward his maid, concubine, or companion, Hagar, and their son, Ishmael.
Let us read the text, shall we? It tells us that Sarah, poor Sarah, is barren. She cannot conceive. Unhappy above all for her husband, who desires a son and heir, she proposes that he have this child with his Egyptian servant, Hagar. Jewish women being good matchmakers, the shiddukh is successful. Abraham and Hagar are together, Hagar becomes pregnant—and that is when the problems start: the servant becomes disrespectful toward her mistress, who takes offense. Eventually, a persecuted Hagar takes flight. Proud, she prefers to die in the desert rather than remain a slave in Sarah’s house. By chance, an angel notices her and advises her to return home. Hagar obeys, goes back to Abraham, and gives birth to Ishmael. Fourteen years later, Sarah finally gives birth to her own son: Isaac. What must happen, happens: When Ishmael, like any other boy, plays tricks on his young sibling, Sarah arranges for Hagar and her son to be sent away for good.
The text, of course, is more detailed and contains some astonishing descriptions: Sarah’s state of mind, Hagar’s character, Abraham’s behavior—it’s all there. Sometimes a single word suffices to paint a vivid picture; a silence conveys the ambiguity of a situation. The more we reread the story, the more it troubles us. It makes us feel ill at ease. We wish it had happened somewhere else, in another book, in someone else’s memory. It has no place in ours. How is it possible? Can Jewish history really begin with a domestic quarrel between an elderly matron and her young maid? And if so, why did the Bible preserve it?
Naturally, none of this would have happened had Sarah not been childless for so many years. But then, why was she? Why did she have to be so afflicted?
Actually, there are those who answer that Sarah has this in common with other matriarchs who had the misfortune of being bar- ren at first. The reason? One midrashic author offers a generous explanation—generous, that is, to the husbands, the patriarchs. This author says that pregnant, the most beautiful wives appear less attractive because they lose their figures. So to be desirable to the patriarchs for as long as possible, the matriarchs had no children for years and years. A compassionate and courteous Midrash adds that Sarah, when she became a mother at the age of ninety, still had the looks of a young bride on her wedding night.
In other words, the entire tragedy of Hagar and Ishmael would not have happened if God—or the text—had not decided to cater to the masculine pride of our forefather Abraham. Is it possible? Is it plausible? Let us not forget: if Sarah had given birth to a son earlier, immediately after her marriage, Hagar would have remained a servant, Ishmael would not have been born—and Israel, today, would not have an Arab problem.
But let’s be serious: this story unfolds on a higher level; it has a deeper meaning. Nothing in Jewish destiny is frivolous. All doors open on metaphysical dilemmas and conflicts.
Let us begin at the beginning. Abraham is not yet called Abraham, but Abram. Sarah is known as Sarai. They are a lonely couple whose life seems rather turbulent. Abraham has left the home of his parents to follow the path leading to God—a dangerous path, full of obstacles and traps. Famine and wars succeed each other, as do divine promises. Except the earthly troubles are more real. Abraham does not stop: his life is one long battle. Against neighboring kings, against the powerful unbelievers, against the cruel nature of some people, against drought. Nothing comes easy to him. Everywhere he must fight, but everywhere he wins. After all, isn’t God on his side? And yet, on one front, he feels beaten: he has no child. But God has made promises—solemn promises! We can imagine his grief: with no son, no heir, what kind of future is there? Who will continue his work? We can understand Sarah’s grief: when they were young, they had hope—each day, each night could bring good news. Now, after so many years, it is more and more difficult to imagine, more improbable, and—why not?—even impossible. Uncertainty, anguish, agony without end.
Then Sarah, in a characteristic gesture of empathy, offers to lend her servant Hagar to her old husband. Hagar is young, she will bear him a child. Perhaps a son. Thus Abraham will be the father of a child even if she, Sarah, will not be the mother. Abraham does not refuse. Hagar, with pregnancy, becomes arrogant; Sarah makes her pay dearly. Hagar flees, returns, gives birth to Ishmael, and remains for fifteen years—long enough to witness the birth of Isaac, whose arrival overshadows all else. Then comes the final drama: the breakup, the explosion between the two women, the two brothers, and, above all, between father and son. Sarah demands that her husband expel Hagar and Ishmael, who provoke her. Abraham hesitates. Ishmael is his son; he feels he has neither the right nor the strength to drive him away into the unknown. Divine intervention is needed to make him decide. But what about pity in all this? And compassion? And the human heart and Jewish morality?
These are troubling, painful, baffling questions. And there are others, many others. All of them inevitable. They call into question the actions of the entire cast of characters. Who are they? A father—Abraham. Two mothers—Sarah and Hagar. Two sons—Ishmael and Isaac. Is that all? Surely not. For God—yes, He too—plays an essential role in the evolving plot. Except for Him, all the characters seem to be real, living beings, so detailed and colorful are their features.
Abraham: submissive in his relationship to God, sure of himself in his relationship with those around him. He obeys heaven but is obeyed on earth. We perceive him as moody, impulsive, used to giving orders. Strong, invincible. He appears vulnerable only with Sarah. Inflexible with others, he is patient with his wife. He was able to resist his father, Terah, but Sarah is irresistible. Whatever she desires, she obtains. It is Sarah, not Abraham, who comes up with the idea of a match with Hagar. Abraham never would have dreamed of living with another woman. He loves Sarah. Too much perhaps. She is his strength and perhaps his weakness as well.
At this point, an obscure incident ought to be recalled. It happened in Egypt which the two visited as tourists—though their interest was not tourism, but food. At home, in Canaan, people were starving. An unexpected problem confronted Abraham and Sarah in Egypt: the king Avimelekh fell in love with her. It was love at first sight. And Abraham knew that kings usually get their way. Avimelekh could easily eliminate the cumbersome husband and keep the widow. So Abraham, with her consent, introduced Sarah everywhere as his sister. She spent a whole night with the king who, lo and behold, thanks to heavenly intervention, was struck by some illness and was unable to touch her.
This strange episode smacks of unpleasantness; it has always left me uneasy. Yet instead of separating the couple, it strengthens their bond. Bravo, but we still don’t understand Abraham: Fearful? For his life? And what about his honor? How could he abandon his wife—his adored, beloved wife—to the whims of a king who has an eye for women, especially strange women, other men’s women? How could a hero like Abraham—who had defeated five kings—yield to a single one without so much as a fight? How is it possible that a man of his stature thinks only of saving his own skin? Admittedly, he is preoccupied with theological questions, but is there no loyalty in him, not to mention chivalry?
We shall ask these same questions with regard to Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham drives them away? He who is famous for his hospitality? For love of his wife he sacrifices his son? For sacrifice is what we are talking about! He sends them into the desert, where death surely awaits them. How can he be so cruel toward a woman who has loved him, be it for one night only—and toward a child, his own child at that! Sarah doesn’t like them—good, let them stay at a neighbor’s. Let them go and live with some distant tribe! But why condemn them to death? How are we to explain these flaws in Abraham’s character? To what shall we attribute them? Is this the same Abraham whose faith and goodness remain models for all time? Could he have committed such acts of heartlessness?
Let us read again the passage about the second character in the drama—Sarah. We shall see that she too doesn’t come off too well in a second reading. Negative traits appear. In Egypt, she is a willing accomplice in her husband’s play-acting. Like a couple illegally crossing some dangerous border, together they try to cheat the police. But have the police nothing better to do than wait for Sarah? Thousands upon thousands must be pouring into the region in search of food—and Sarah alone is threatened? The answer is yes, and Abraham tells us why. She is very beautiful. Agreed. But to whom does Abraham say that? To his wife. And she accepts the compliment without protesting? And what about humility? Modesty? Couldn’t she, shouldn’t she, answer her husband: Really, you are very sweet, but there are women more beautiful, more attractive; let’s not play such a charade. We are married, let’s remain so in the eyes of the whole world! Besides, what good is such a game? Why not ask God to protect us? No, Sarah’s behavior in Egypt does not become her.
This grows even more evident later on, in the conflicts with Hagar. No sooner has Sarah persuaded Hagar to try to conceive Abraham’s child, than she seems to regret it. She is jealous, keeps close watch over her servant, and looks for quarrels. She slaps her face with her bedroom slippers, says the Midrash. As soon as Hagar is pregnant, Sarah finds her arrogant. What if she is mistaken? What if the servant’s behavior is simply due to her pregnancy? Pregnant women have strange desires, impulses, whims—everybody knows that—everybody but Sarah! It is quite possible that the text is mistaken, and we are mistaken, because Sarah herself is mistaken: Hagar may have meant no disrespect toward her mistress. Sarah may have imagined all sorts of terrible things. In other words, in this story, Hagar is Sarah’s victim! Sarah was wrong to impose a role upon her and then resent her for playing it too well.
Later on, things become even more inflamed: Hagar comes back with her son, and then Sarah has a son of her own. But instead of making peace with the servant, instead of being grateful to fate—after all, her greatest wish has come true, she has become a mother—Sarah continues to torment Hagar and her child. The servant acts with restraint and watches her every step, every gesture, every word—that’s clear, since Sarah no longer complains. Then, suddenly, Abraham’s wife picks on little Ishmael! Now it is he whom she scrutinizes and suspects! This too is clearly indicated in the text: she sees Ish- mael playing with Isaac and she gets upset! Why does that upset her? What could be more natural, more beautiful than to see two children—two brothers!—playing together? Sarah finds this neither beautiful nor touching. Had Ishmael done otherwise, had he avoided his little brother, had he chosen not to play with him, Sarah surely would have accused him of something else—of duplicity, of selfishness. Of childish cruelty. She seems to hate him. Nothing about him pleases her. She dislikes the way he dresses, eats, speaks, and sleeps. She resents his joy. Finally, she turns to her elderly husband and demands that he expel the servant and her son. She does not even refer to them by name. “Send them away,” she says, “for I refuse to let the son of the servant share my son Isaac’s inheritance.” Her son has a name, the other does not. The apparent reason for this request? Abraham’s wealth. The text says so, and most commentators emphasize the point. What? Sarah is concerned with earthly possessions? Sarah, a materialist who wants everything for her son alone? A mother for whom no one else exists in the world? No, her behavior toward Ishmael is not appealing. Our empathy—our sympathies—go instead to her victims: Hagar and Ishmael.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Wise Men and Their Tales by Elie Wiesel. Copyright © 2003 by Elie Wiesel. Excerpted by permission of Schocken, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.