This semester I am taking a course in Peace and Conflict. Recently we have been talking about the power of narrative to color, and help resolve conflict. The challenge is always to understand the narrative of both sides so well that you see them in their highest light. In order to begin this work, we have been reading narratives from Jewish and Islamic traditions about Sarah and Hagar.
Although it has been fascinating for me to see the different ways both traditions present our forefathers and mothers, I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the narrative of my tradition. I am angry at the way Sarah behaves and angry with the way the Torah and the Rabbis have colored Ishmael and the people that will come from him. I challenged myself to rewrite the biblical story in a way that presents all characters in their highest light. I wanted to see how Sarai, and Abram, and Hagar could all be acting out of love and respect for each other. I wanted to see if I could understand what exists in the Torah in a way that would be spiritually meaningful to me. This is part one. The rest, I am sure, will follow.
And so it was that in Abram’s absence, Sarai and Hagar grew close. The two women would laugh together as they worked about the camp, and it wasn’t long before both were sharing their deepest secrets with one another. Sarai wanted a child; Hagar dreamed of true love. Time passed.
Abram returned from his journey to find the two women sitting together at the tent’s opening. Sarai was telling Hagar about the antics of a small child in the camp, when she noticed her friend’s gaze shift. She turned to see Abram approaching. His eyes shifted almost immediately to her, but she had seen the connection between her friend and her husband. Hagar looked away, blushing. A seed of pain planted itself in Sarai’s heart.
Later that night, Sarai approached Hagar. The words tumbled out of her mouth, “did I see you looking at Abram today? Are you attracted to my husband?” Hagar rushed to quell Sarai’s suspicions, but Sarai interrupted her suddenly: “I have an idea.”
Sarai had been thinking about it all day. She had seen the look of attraction between her friend and her husband. Her heart ached as she watched Abram reluctantly shift his gaze from Hagar to her, and even more so as she saw the look of determination and obligation in his eyes. She knew they were in love. And yet, she knew with equal certitude that neither had acted on their feelings. Abram would never do anything to hurt her. Her distress at her inability to to conceive was obvious, and Abram did his best to comfort her. She knew he would never ask to consort with her handmaid. And, Hagar was limited by social hierarchy. She could not ask. But maybe that was the solution for them all. If she gave Hagar to Abram, and Hagar conceived, she could have a child, and Abram and Hagar could have each other. Maybe that would be enough. A child was all she wanted, right?
Sarai approached Abram. “You know I want a child more than anything in the world; and yet God has kept me barren all these many years. Will you consort with Hagar, so that I might have a chance at motherhood?” She tried to ignore the look of happiness and desire that crossed Abram’s face. He agreed appropriately. The pain sprouted.
Hagar quickly became pregnant. She began to glow with joy and health and motherhood, and became fat with new life. As her belly grew, emptiness began to swell within Sarai’s womb. The sight of Hagar so ripe with life brought tears to her eyes and more ache to her heart. Soon she began to avoid her all together. That was best, she found. In privacy, she could remember the logic that had motivated her decision. In privacy she could convince herself to smile. With Hagar, it was all she could do not to cry.
Hagar was also at the point of tears. At first she had been overjoyed. Going to Abram’s tent as his wife was more than she had ever dreamed possible. But as the months passed, it became clear that Sarai was avoiding her. Before the little one sprouted in her belly, Abram would console her and compliment her and make her feel so special the worry faded away. But now Abram was avoiding her too. He had told her not to come to his tent any more: he did not want to hurt Sarai any more than they already had. Tears of anger and betrayal prickled at the back of her eyes and Hagar was resolved to take action.
She sought out Sarai, and cried out to her, “Have I done something to offend you? Please tell me, because as far as I can recollect I have done nothing beyond your instructions. I did not ask for this baby, or to be with your husband, and I certainly did not ask to have you treat me in this way!” Sarai looked away and did not respond. Tears streamed down Hagar’s face. In utter despair she choked out, “you think Abram does not love you because he took me to wife; and yet, because of you he will not see me again!” Sarai turned and walked away.
That evening, Sarai went to Abram’s tent. The look of relief that passed over his features as she neared him threatened to rip the tears from her heart. She looked away remembering what it was she had come to say:
“Abram, Hagar came to me today crying because she says you refuse to lie with her out of consideration for my feelings. How many times must I tell you? I am happy for you to lie with Hagar and wish for nothing but your happiness and well-being. And yet,…” emotion weighed on her voice, “ And yet you have set me up. Now she comes to me whining and crying because of your ignorant assumptions about my emotional reality. It is all your fault! I myself offered her to you when I saw the attraction in your eyes and in hers. I sacrificed my status as your only wife to make sure that you would have a heir. And do you know why?!? BECAUSE I DO NOT CARE! And yet you have the gall to set me up! You waited until she was emotionally incontinent with pregnancy, and then you told her that because of my feelings she must stay away from you?!? Now it is all I can do to avoid her crying and her screaming. I see the judgement and hatred in her eyes. And what have I done to deserve this?!? This is all your fault!”
Abram looked at her tenderly, and with great sadness. He spoke softly, “Sarai, I am truly sorry for hurting you in this way. I had no idea. I thought you gave Hagar to me because you wanted a child. I only wanted to make you happy. You thought I was attracted to her? I love you! I cannot bear to see you unhappy like this.”
His eyes sought out hers. Sarai made no response. She stared intently at the wall of the tent, biting her bottom lip so hard it seemed about to burst.
Abram continued, “Sarai, I do not wish to hurt you. My heart breaks at the realization that I have. I wish to cause no more pain. Please do as you see fit. She is your friend…I leave this in your hands.”
There was silence. Without a glance in Abram’s direction, Sarai turned and walked numbly from the tent and straight into Hagar. Without warning, tears began to stream from her eyes, and hateful screams ripped from her throat. Hagar’s shoulders caved, and tears blurred her vision. It was all she could do to run away.
She ran blindly until she reached a quiet stream. There she collapsed and began to sob in earnest. After some time, her tears began to come more slowly, and her moans and sobs quieted until they were no more than hiccups. And, as the creek trickled by and the soothing sounds of nature embraced her, she found her inner strength. She felt the small being within her, and resolved to do everything in her power to protect and love this dear child.
At that moment, a voice echoed in the clearing. “Hagar, maid of Sarai, where are you coming from and where are you going?” She responded hoarsely, “I am coming from the tents of my mistress and master and I am going as far away from them as I can.” The voice echoed once more with compassion, “Sarai is blinded by her own pain, and cannot understand your plight. But you must make things right with her. Go back. Listen to her cries and feel her pain as I have heard and felt yours. Your empathy and compassion will bring forth much goodness on the planet. I will fill your womb, and make you the source of countless generations. See now the child that blossoms there? Call him Ishmael and know that God hears your pain. Call him Ishmael and remember that you are created in the image of a compassionate God, in the image of a God who listens. This child that you carry will make his voice heard. He will speak and force people to hear him. He will have no patience for silence. He will even fight to make them listen, and they will rise against him in anger. Still, he belongs amongst them, amongst his brothers. He will remind them to speak up. You must remind him to listen.”
Hagar’s voice echoed to match the voice in the clearing. “My God, you are a God of Vision. I know that you see beyond my reality, and through my pain, and envision my future. I will trust in your vision and will call you El-Roi. You have spoken to me on this day. I heard your voice, and your vision opened my eyes to see your truth.”
And so it was, Hagar went back to the tents of Abram and Sarai and gave birth to a son, who she called Ishmael. With patience, she waited until Sarai was ready to speak. Then, she listened. And so did God.