I’ve been giving voice to the women of Genesis by looking at the choices they make and bring those choices to life. So what is this week’s question?
Why did Sarai send Hagar to sleep with her husband? (Gensis 16:1-3).
Please note this is my personal opinion of what is going on in the text. Therefore, there is room for disagreement. That being said, I have heavily researched this topic and find that the following interpretation covers all the questions posed in the text. So if you have questions, feel free to ask them.
So what’s going on the first three verses of chapter 16?
Well, in the previous chapter (15), Abram tells God that he has no child (AKA: no inheritor). He then asks God if Eleizer, a member of his household should inherit. God answers not only saying no, but God informs Abram he his own son will inherit. It is then that God makes a covenant with Abram and his offspring.
And this is where chapter 16 opens. Sarai essentially tells Abram that if he is indeed to have a child to inherit – it can’t come through her because she has been childless for 10 years. So Sarai tells Abram to produce a child through her servant Hagar – and it is through Hagar that she, Sarai, will build up her own household.
Sarai’s own household? Catch your attention at all? I thought the focus was on Abram’s household.
As far as the story goes – Abram is the one looking to give his inheritance away – yet the request Sarai asks is that “I may be built up through her”. So Abram “obeys the voice of Sarai” and sleeps with Hagar “as a wife”.
So why did Sarai send Hagar? The text is pretty clear: to built up her own household through Hagar. Is that weird? Let’s jump into the Ancient world to find out!
So – the first thing that needs to be stated is this: Hagar is not a victim. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard that poor Hagar was forced to go into Abram’s bed and was raped repeatedly until she was bore this child that she did not want. By telling this narrative, we are forcing our context unto the text.
There are many levels of servanthood or slavery in the ancient world. The lowest form would be those acquired in warfare. When one village took over another village, the survivors would be amassed into the conquering culture by becoming slaves. These slaves could be hired for almost anything – it was in this context that women were mostly raped and sold.
There are also those who elect to serve. If you did not come from any money and had very little hope of a future, it would have been common for you to give yourself to a household or a trade in order to acquire stability. In this case, if you were a woman, the lines of sexual acts between master and servant are unclear. It really depends on the master of the house and what he expected of you. But it was common for men to carry on with some of the women in their houses.
In fact, it was so common for men to have children by slaves that there are laws in the ancient world which make the father of a child legally adopt his own children or else they didn’t get right to inherit from him. This class of servant (if you are a woman) is called being an “amah”/אמה. And this is what Hagar is referred to in Genesis 21 (which we will eventually get to a few weeks from now).
But Hagar is referred to as a different sort of servant in Genesis 16. And this class of “women-servants” is more rare. And it was reserved for the highest-status of servant-women: and they are known as “Shifhah”/שפחה. If you served as a Shifhah it meant that you served a prominent woman of society who possessed her own household outside of her husbands and were under her personal employ.
A woman serving in this position would be considered more than a servant or a friend. Instead, these companions would live as a part of the family that she serves. In this position, the servant is not available as a sexual outlet to the master of the house because she is in the employ of the mistress’ house. And this is the term used to describe Hagar in chapter 16.
This means that Hagar is the Shifhah of Sarai because it is Sarai who has the authority to order both her Shifhah and her husband in this sexual act.
This also means that Sarai holds a fairly important position – she has her own income to be able to afford a “handmaid” or a “companion” that is separate from the house of her husband. Having a separate household in the ancient world did not mean that they lived separately or lived in opposition to each other – it simply means that the wife held a position that gave her her own livelihood separate from that of her husband.
Therefore, women who hold these high positions are looking to give an inheritance to their own children as well – separate form the inheritance of their husbands. And this is what verse 2 displays when Sarai tells Abram, “Go, please to my Shifhah so I may be built up by her”. One of the main reasons for having a Shifhah is that they may provide heirs (or more heirs) for the woman of importance whom they serve. The kids produced by the Shifhah will bear the name and the heritage of the mistress while being raised by both women. This familial unit demonstrates a “clan” or “family-cluster” mentality against our idea of a nuclear family.
This would be a great time to go into who Sarai was historically to be able to afford Hagar- but I’m not going to discuss this here as this blog only seeks to answer the issues that are directly dealt with in the text. But I will say that Hagar may have come into Sarai’s employ after her time in Egypt.
Now, Hagar would have known that providing children was expected of her and would have entered into a Shifhah relationship willingly – with a legal contract – as was the normal for this special class of servants in their day. In fact, it would be an honor to know that your own children would be inheriting a legacy that is of great social importance. This being said, what I find interesting is that Sarai and Abram waited ten years before giving Hagar to Abram! This is what’s truly amazing about the text! All the parties involved: Sarai, Hagar, and Abram would have known that this is a perfectly plausible way to acquire inheritors.
So why did Sarai gave Hagar to sleep with her husband?
Because God told Abram in the previous chapter that his own child will inherit. And since it wasn’t coming through her barren womb she did what every prominent woman would have done – beget a child through her Shifhah. That way – both Abram and Sarai would have an inheritor.
But what happens in verse 4-6 turns Sarai’s world upside down – for all the sudden she finds herself in conflict with her most trusted confidant and her husband! But why? Stay tuned as we jump into some ancient law codes next week!