Thursday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 16:1-12, 15-16

In spite of God’s promises, Abram is still without child by his wife, Sarai. But among her staff was an Egyptian maidservant, called Hagar. She may have been acquired while Abram was in Egypt (an anecdote not covered in our readings).

Sarai is aware of how she has disappointed her husband by not giving him a son and she attributes this to God’s action. She now makes a generous offer, suggesting to Abram that he have intercourse with her maid so that Abram can have sons through her. Hagar would act as a surrogate mother.

Sarai’s actions are all in keeping with the laws of the time, as known from ancient extra-biblical sources. According to Mesopotamian law an infertile wife could offer one of her female slaves to her husband and recognise the child born as one of her own. There will be a similar situation with Rachel, the wife of Jacob, and Leah, Rachel’s older sister who was also a wife to Jacob (see Gen 30:1-24).

So, after they had lived 10 years in Canaan, Sarai offers her maidservant Hagar as a concubine to her husband. The servant very soon becomes pregnant. As soon as she did so, she looked on her mistress with disdain and contempt. Although a mere slave, she was able to do what her mistress had not been able to accomplish. As mother to Abram’s long-wanted son she was not afraid of any reprisals from him.

Sarai then turns on Abram and blames him for Hagar’s behaviour. “You are responsible for this outrage against me.” She had generously given her maid to Abram and now that the maid is pregnant she has only disdain for Sarai. “May the Lord decide between you and me!” An expression of hostility or suspicion on her part.

Abram’s response does not sound very admirable to our ears today: “Your maid is in your power. Treat her as you think fit.” Taking him at his word, the jealous and grieved wife treats Hagar so badly that she flees the household.

She is found on a road by a messenger of God near a spring out in the wilderness at Shur. This is understood as a manifestation of God in human form and not – as angels are later understood – a created being distinct from God.

He asks her where she has come from and where she is going. She says she has run away from her mistress Sarai. The messenger tells her to go back to Sarai and to submit to her mistress’s abusive behaviour. In return, he promises that she will have descendants too numerous to count.

In addition, the messenger tells her that she is in fact already pregnant. She is going to have a son and he is to be called Ishmael. This is in answer to her prayer. In fact, the name Ishmael means either “May God hear!” or “God has heard”.

However, this son is strangely foreseen to be “a wild ass of a man, his hand turned against everyone and every hand turned against him. He will encamp in opposition to all his brothers.” Away from human settlements, Ishmael would roam the desert like a wild donkey and the hostility between Sarai and Hagar will be passed on to their descendants. Ishmael’s descendants will be the desert Arabs who have
“…made the wilderness his home…and…scoffs at the uproar of the city” (see Job 39:5-8).

Sure enough, Hagar bore a son for Abram, his father and the son was named Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old.

It is clear that this story represents a more primitive society with different social values. The having of an heir transcended any duties of marital fidelity, a fact which Sarai clearly acknowledged. Her primary responsibility as a wife was to produce an heir. Being a loving marriage companion was secondary to this.

Hagar’s attitude to her mistress is certainly not commendable, though it is understandable that a slave should feel good about being able to do something so important for her master which the mistress could not. Abram’s attitude is not altogether commendable either. But he was simply recognising the superior status of his wife over a slave, even if that slave was to be (as he thought at this point in time) the mother of his heir. She was, in contemporary terms, “only” a surrogate mother, a baby-bearer.

In our own day, there is still a good deal of confusion over the status of wife and mistress. There are extremes all the way from reducing wives to the status of slaves to total amorality about sexual relations and everything in between. The victims all too often are the children of such relationships; here the seeds of future problems are sown and so the problem continues…

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