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Here's my answer to this week's question:
Even though the overarching theme in Genesis chapters 16 and 21 is one of God remaining faithful to God’s promises, the passages reveal much about the familial roles of the time. One’s status affected one’s actions. Therefore, free persons had more leverage in complicated social situations than slaves, and males held more sway than females in any situation. The passages clearly show that a free male was the most powerful figure in ancient Israelite society, while a female slave had no rights whatsoever. Therefore, when arguments and jealousy seek to impede the promises of God, free Israelite males are presented as blameless and the culpability can be placed almost exclusively on female slaves.
In Genesis 16, the story is told of Abram and his wife Sarai’s ill-fated attempts to conceive. Having received a promise from God that all nations are to be blessed through Abram’s offspring (12:2-3), Sarai’s patience wore thin and she suggested to her husband that he rape her slave and thus begin the long line of heirs (16:2). As soon as this happened, Hagar looked at Sarai with contempt (16:4), which deeply angered Sarai (16:5). Sarai was not angry that Abram had gotten someone pregnant (this was the intent of her idea); she only became mad when Hagar seemed to act privileged about getting pregnant while Sarai could not.
In ancient Israelite society, the wife who gave birth to the oldest son had an elevated status. Thus, Hagar thought she was more privileged than her master, and Sarai became jealous. Because slaves were meant to be completely utilitarian, Sarai thought her slave could be ‘used’ to conceive. But as soon as Hagar began to have feelings about her child and becoming a mother, she was acting out of her prescribed social role.
Because first-born males inherited the family’s wealth, pressure was put on wives to conceive such a child. If a wife was found to be unable to conceive, another one of her husband’s wives might beat her to it. Even though Sarai suggested that Abram have sex with Hagar for the purpose of becoming a father, she did not seem to react angrily until Hagar instigated the dispute with her contemptuous glares. Because Hagar was simply property without free will or emotion, Sarai dealt harshly with her, causing her to flee for her own safety (16:6). While in the wilderness, an angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar, and told her to be an obedient slave and return to her owner (16:9). If she would return to her previous social status as a slave, God would bless Hagar’s son and multiply his offspring, even though he was seen as the illegitimate child of promise (16:10).
In Genesis 21, status again determines action and reaction. Upon seeing Abraham’s two sons playing together (21:9), Sarah was upset that Ishmael might inherit along with her son Isaac (21:10). Because Ishmael was technically born first, it was easier to send him and his mother away than force Isaac to compete for birthrights and status. The son of a slave was not afforded any privilege whatsoever, and to make sure of it, Sarah wanted Ishmael and his mother out of the camp. Therefore, Hagar and Ishmael were sent off (21:14), but again God took care of Hagar and promised (to Abraham) to bless Ishmael (21:13).
Throughout these two chapters, favoritism is at work on the part of the author. The writer, a free Israelite man, never blames Abram (Abraham) for anything. In fact, both sons will be blessed because of God’s promise to Abram. At fault are the two women in the story. Both stand in the way of God’s promise to Abram, but God’s faithfulness will prevail.
In the narrative, Abram is a mildly passive character. Sarai comes up with the idea for him to have sex with Hagar (16:2), and Abram innocently received Hagar (16:3). Active verbs are only used with Abram when he did something nice or proper. He circumcised (21:4), cooked a feast (21:8), worried about Hagar and Ishmael (21:11), and gave them food (21:14). Abram is presented as a good father and a great man who did everything right and was deserving of the promise God gave to him.
On the other hand, Sarai tried to stand in the way of God’s promises. She was unable to conceive (16:2), and thus complicated God’s promise to begin a great nation from Abram’s children. She originated the idea that later causes her problems and jealously, and in order to assert her place in society as a free female, she sent off Hagar and her young son to fend for themselves in the desert (21:10). When she finally did conceive a child, she is nearly in disbelief and laughed that such a thing had even happened (21:6). She is portrayed as mean, callous, and unrighteous.
Likewise, Hagar was also to blame for the family dispute. She was the one who looked with contempt upon her owner (16:4). She was to blame for running away (16:8), and she was a bad mother for throwing her child into the bushes, leaving him to die (21:15). Again, God stayed faithful to the promise God made to Abram and allowed the child to grow and thrive despite Hagar’s terrible mothering skills (21:18).
Each character acts as he or she should given his or her social status. Sarai is overly protective of her child. She wants to make sure her offspring carries on the family line, complete with its physical blessings. Hagar is a slave without options and is raped and banished from the camp, forcing to survive on her own. Abram is righteous and worthy of God’s promise, doing nothing wrong throughout the entire spat. And, God’s promise is the most faithful of all, carrying on despite human attempts to thwart divine work.