Sarai Punishes Hagar: Where History and Bible Collide

I’ve been doing a weekly series on the Matriarchs of Genesis, and breaking down history in order to defend the choices that these women make. This blog is building off the previous blog post, so if your wondering what a “shifhah” is, read the previous post:

Why did Sarai “deal harshly” with Hagar?    (GEN. 16:4-6)

Before we jump in this week, I want would like to say that this passage is not straight forward. There are 4,000 years (if not more) separating this story from our present day.

If you were to read these three verses in the original Hebrew, you would find that there are words being used that have never been used before and there are weird grammar slips that don’t quite make sense. So I’m not going to sit here and try to chase down some scholars’ belief about the vocabulary and the grammar (you would be bored to tears).

Instead, I want to take a step back and simply look at what is taking place on a larger scale – as if this this scene were in front of us on a stage. Instead of looking at the little details, I will look at the major movements in these three verses.

So what do we know from Genesis 16:4-6?

1. We know that Hagar conceived and that Abram was the father.

2. We know that when Hagar conceived, Hagar “belittled” or “looked down on” her mistress, Sarai.

I would like to stop here for a moment and talk about this mysterious word that I translated multiple ways. The word in question is קלל/qalal. And when it’s a noun, it means “small”. So turning it into a verb is . . . . difficult. So I looked to see where else this word was used in Genesis and I discovered that it was used in Genesis 12:3.

And it’s used by God when He is making his first promise to Abram. God states, “I will bless those who bless you, and him who קלל/qalal’s you, I will curse.” We may not know the best way to translate this word – but we do know that God said anyone who does this to Abram will be cursed. And now we find that Hagar is doing this very thing – not to Abram, but to Sarai! That means it’s very serious business.

3. We  know that Sarai confronts Abram about Hagar’s behavior, not Hagar herself.

Again, I would like to point out how strange this is. Since Hagar is Sarai’s shifhah (see previous blog post) then Sarai would be able to confront Hagar,  unless Abram is the reason that Hagar is acting out. That means that Abram did something which changed the relationship Sarai has with her most trusted confidant.

4. We know that Abram gave Sarai permission to deal with the situation, which means Sarai made a valid point when confronting him.

5. We then know that Sarai “dealt harshly” with Hagar. And Hagar fled.

So are we ready to fill in the blanks? Well, we aren’t quite ready yet – I would like to point out some interesting law-codes around the time that Sarai and Abram were living.

But what are law-codes? I’m glad you asked!

Do you know how in the Bible, Jesus says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye, and tooth or a tooth’” (Matt. 5:38)? It may surprise you to know that Jesus is quoting ancient law-codes.

Law codes are simple: They are the “rules” that a king of a large empire would make so he could have dominion over a vast area of land. Since the King can’t pass judgement over every situation (every goat that was stolen from a neighbor, or every slave that was mistreated) he created a code that every city council should live by. And it is by these codes, that local judges could pass judgment. And there were hundreds of these things!  So, what do you do when your neighbor’s ox gorges your family member? There is an answer for that – and the answer will demonstrate how to make the wrong right.

Now, that you know what they are, there are two very prevalent  law codes to the situation Sarai and Hagar and in.

The first is from the law code of Ur-Nammu who was the King of Ur around the time that Abram and Sarai were living (and the city they came from). Law 25 states,

If a man’s slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with  one quart of salt.”

Sound familiar? It’s similar to Hagar’s situation, only Hagar is Sarai’s, not “a mans”. Let’s look at another law-code.  This one comes from the famous, Hammurapi, (a King that post-dates the time of Sarai and Abram by a few hundred years). Law 146 states,

If a man takes a wife and she gives this man a maid-servant as a wife and she bears him children, and then this maid assumes equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.”

Again, sound familiar? This sounds even more like what’s going on with Sarai and Hagar.

What these laws demonstrate is that the situation that happened between Sarai, Hagar, and Abram was common enough that there were laws made about it during both their time in history (the first law code), and later in history (the second law code). And remember law-codes aren’t laws as we know them, they are guidelines, so a judge uses them as templates to pass judgement.

So what is the conflict going on in Genesis 16:4-6? We don’t know for sure. But I am going to offer up what I see going in the text in light of these law codes.

*Deep Breath*

Abram received a promise from God in chapter 15 that his own child would inherit. So Sarai gives Hagar to her husband in order to create a child for her own inheritance as well (read previous blog post). But Abram did something that lead Hagar to believe that Hagar herself would retain the rights of a wife and the rights over the child, (and by extension become a potential matriarch).

I am guessing that while Sarai gave Hagar to Abram to build up her own house (as well as Abrams). Abram gives a promise to Hagar – saying that she will be considered “as a wife” and not just as Sarai’s shifhah. Could it be that Abram is promising Hagar a household of her own with a seperate  inheritance than Sarai would give her? Is it possible he told Hagar about this promise of a child that God gave him and he is butting Sarai out? (Afterall, she is barren and God never said that Sarai’s child would be a part of the promise, only Abram’s would).

Therefore, I propose that Abram  treated Hagar as a second-wife, instead of treating her as Sarah’s shifhah.

If so, Hagar may have been going around acting like the matriarch due to Abram’s actions towards her.  So Hagar, starts to “speak insolently” or “makes herself equal” with her mistress.

So Sarai confronts Abram and reminds him that Hagar is her’s and that the child should be brought up as her heir as well as Abrams.  When Abram realizes the error of his ways, he allows Sarai to deal with Hagar’s actions since Hagar is Sarai’s responsibility.

So Sarai, acting as a judge in this scenario (and this would not be the first time she had to be a judge over a satiation as the matriarch) follows the law codes of the time, and punishes Hagar the way a second-wife would be punished since Abram treated her as one. Ironic? Or justice? Becasue Hagar would have known better.

I propose that Sarai demotes Hagar to the status of a normal servant which is why Hagar is refereed to as a normal servant in chapter 21.  (Read previous post). And this demotion is how Hagar (and Abram) was able to right the wrong.

So Hagar fled, because she lost her status as a wife (through Abram) and a shifhah (through Sarai). It is later in chapter 16 that Hagar returns to camp and agrees to submit to Sarai’s role as the matriarch. This means that while Hagar has been demoted, Ishmael, her child is still considered both Sarai and Abram’s child. All seems perfect and well – there is no more conflict . . . but God has other ideas.

So why did Sarai dealt harshly with Hagar? Becasue Hagar was acting as a second-wife to Abram when she is really in Sarai’s employ and their are laws against his type of behavior.

We will pick up with Sarai, Hagar, and Abram and see what God is doing two weeks from now. But first, we will encounter Lot and his daughters in the land of Sodom. Stay tuned next week! Thanks for all your support!


*The picture at the top of this blog post is a part of the stela (tablet) that contains that Law Code of Hammurapi. The language is cuneiform script known as Akkadian – the language that biblical Hebrew branches off from.

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