Is it proper to say that the morality of actions depends upon cultural context? That aside, was Hagar a young girl taken advantage of and pressured into Abraham’s bed against her will, or was she a willing adult participant who came to arrogantly disrespect the legitimate authority of her mistress? We will be addressing these matters in our discussion here.
(Before reading this discussion, I recommend reading through Genesis chapter 16 several times)
Q: God’s judgment doesn’t let people off-the-hook just due to cultural background, right?
In Genesis 16, when Hagar is given to Abraham to conceive a son in Sarah’s place, there was presumably a large power gap between her and Abraham, right? Didn’t women have less equality in antiquity to begin with? And Abraham was influential and powerful. And he was also old – really old!
Nowadays, in our culture, people would be all sorts of troubled by all this. Where was Hagar’s consent? Is this human trafficking, even rape?
So why is it treated like no big deal? If, nowadays, a young immigrant maid was trafficked into the bed of an old rich guy, in our culture, that guy is probably going to jail as public enemy #1, with effigies of him burned on streetcorners.
So it is wrong now… but wasn’t wrong then because it was considered culturally acceptable (even expected) at the time? But isn’t God’s justice objective, not relative?
So what gives?
No, of course not. But there is much more to this particular situation than might meet the modern Western eye
One initial point: it is true that relative to Abraham (and Sarah), Hagar may have been younger, although we can’t even say that with great certainty. But at the point in history during which this story occurs, general life expectancy seems to have been quite a bit higher than today (as various accounts in Genesis show us), with continued fecundity into old age. For this reason, it is likely improper to be picturing Abraham as a stooped white-haired geezer in the context of this story, with Hagar as a young teenager; in other words, any knee-jerk disgust from that sort of mental picture is likely entirely misplaced.
There are several other very important clarifications that need to be made about exactly what went down in Genesis 16, but before we get to those, let’s answer the core question, making pretend that Abraham was truly a monster in this situation. (Even if, as we shall see, he wasn’t in reality).
God’s standard of right and wrong is objective, and for all time
Restating the question then, we would get something like this:
If a young girl was human trafficked and raped in an ancient culture that wouldn’t bat an eyelash at this, so long as the perpetrator was rich and powerful, then does the fact that a perpetrator of such would be harshly sentenced and judged in our modern culture mean that God judges the behavior “worse” nowadays, but it was “more okay” previously?
Before we say absolutely anything else… does the above “smell right” to you? Does that sound like the God we serve?
Our God never stands for stomping on the downtrodden, for the strong “getting away with it.” It obviously flies in the face of justice. So why would God allow it and not condemn it? That can’t be right.
No matter where else we go in discussing these matters, we must first believe in the character of God and the truth of His inspired Word. It is popular nowadays for people within Western cultures to look down upon all societies of the past, as if they were all uniformly barbaric and ignorant. Allegedly, we now know “so much better.” We are enlightened, you see, having sacrificed upon the altar of technology and secular equality. While there is much more to say in regards to this problematic modern arrogance, the operative point in context here is that these people view the Bible with this same dismissive attitude. “Its views of women and equality are 2,000 years out-of-date. The loving others stuff is OK, but we can’t look to such an antiquated book for guidance on treatment of women!”
We can’t let this infect our own thinking. It is true, as we shall see, that the cultures within the Biblical narrative are markedly different than our own, but that doesn’t mean we get carte blanche to think ourselves superior to them, or that it is proper for us to judge all cultures throughout history with our current set of assumptions and presuppositions. What matters is God’s unchanging scale of Justice with a capital J, not our culture’s ever-changing scale of justice.
So, to turn back to the question, wrong is wrong – what one’s surrounding culture has to say about it has nothing to do with it. For example, in our supposedly-enlightened modern culture, it is no longer seen as wrong for people to sleep together before marriage, divorce is rampant, and homosexuality is glorified and celebrated not treated as sinful. It matters not what our culture thinks about these things. Sex before marriage is wrong. Divorce without legitimate cause (as in, for example, adultery or abuse) is wrong. Homosexuality is wrong, no matter how loudly people shout it isn’t so.
Trafficking vulnerable young women is wrong (obviously). Rape is wrong (obviously). It doesn’t matter what place or time. It doesn’t matter if the surrounding culture would treat it as no big deal, or go so far as to chop your head off for engaging in such. The only thing that matters is God’s standard. And by that standard, these actions would always be gross sin, no exceptions.
God’s judgment will perfectly take into account all circumstances, but this is not something we ought to worry ourselves about
Now, on the question of “would God judge the situations differently, based on prevailing cultural assumptions?” that is a question that it is best for us to not weigh in on ourselves. We cannot pretend to know all the things that would go into God’s perfect judgment concerning a situation. He knows not only what we say and do, but also what we think, what we intend, what we desire and wish for.
He also knows what talents, resources, and opportunities have been given to us in life. He knows how we have either put these things to good use, or squandered them away. He knows all of this, and more.
So is it possible that God would deem the person from a culture that views/viewed a certain behavior as “less bad” as correspondingly less culpable for their action? Could that be a variable? Possibly. But we don’t know for certain, since we aren’t God.
Regardless, everybody gets exactly that which they deserve. Nobody “gets away with” anything. So we should rest easy in this knowledge, and leave judgment to the Lord.
So what actually happened in Genesis 16?
I started off by saying that we needed to clarify some additional things about what went down in Genesis 16. We will now turn to that.
Let’s start by noting a few things:
- The concept of heirs is not so important for us nowadays as it traditionally has been throughout history.
- Our culture is not polygamous, and is so highly prejudiced against the idea of one woman offering another to her husband to sleep with that the very notion seems preposterous to us. This is a very major way in which our modern culture is different from others, including ancient ones.
- Our post #MeToo culture is presently quite sensitive to the sexual abuse of women, and the bar of evidence needed for blaming the woman in any way is higher now than it has ever been before. Cases of authority relationships turning sexual (i.e., those in which a man is in a position of power over a woman, and then sex gets involved) are met with massive skepticism.
- Also of late, the mistreatment of immigrants (and particularly the human trafficking of women and girls) has been another sensitive topic receiving reasonably widespread media attention.
- American culture particularly likes underdog stories, for whatever reason.
To be clear, I am not here necessarily being critical of the spotlight that has been shone on the sexual abuse of women, and the human trafficking of women and girls. It is true that these things have gone underreported for far too long (in part because there are many inherent barriers in reporting these matters, such as the possibility of reprisals from those accused), and it is something to rejoice about in cases where justice is finally served, long overdue. A degree of caution is necessary to exercise to make sure innocent people do not have their names smeared without even the smallest sliver of due process (i.e., to make sure innocent people are not lynched in the court of public opinion, regardless of facts), but on the whole, we needn’t find these trends objectionable in and of themselves.
I am merely bringing all of these observations up because they “prime us” to view things in a very specific way. This isn’t necessarily a huge failing on our part, by the way. It is simply a brute fact that our culture sets us up to view certain matters relating to this story in one way and not another. Different cultures inherently give different “tints” that color interpretive assumptions, and we just need to be mindful of this.
So what sorts of things are we sort of inherently set up to think?
An incorrect, culturally-conditioned interpretation of Genesis 16
Something like this:
- Bitter that she can’t have a child, Sarah plots to get her powerless foreign maidservant Hagar pregnant, so that she can take the baby as her own, and get legitimacy that way. (For women in antiquity, producing an heir was hugely important for their social status).
- Hagar, with little say in the matter, is dragged into Abraham’s bed.
- When she gets pregnant, she “despises” Sarah. (We’ll come back to this translation choice soon). In this interpretation path, we might take this word to mean “resents” = she is bitter at being impregnated and used as a substitute without her opinion mattering at all.
- When Hagar lets her resentment show and Sarah realizes that she won’t just roll over any more, Sarah throws a tantrum and gets Abraham to give back control of Hagar to her. (When she was introduced into Abraham’s bed, Abraham did marry her as a junior wife, so had at that point starting looking after Hagar, instead of Sarah). Sarah then “mistreats” Hagar (another translation choice we’ll come back to soon), and then Hagar understandably runs away from the unjust abuse.
If you actually buy this version of events, then Hagar becomes an underdog victim, and Sarah and Abraham come off looking pretty bad. Sarah seems heartless and vindictive, and Abraham seems improperly aloof as he lets his wife step all over the poor girl.
As I say, this is sort of the version of events that our culture primes us to look for. Abraham is this wealthy, powerful man who won’t say no to another woman in his bed, and after the powerless foreign maidservant is taken advantage of, to add insult to injury, she is even driven out by the jealous wife.
The problem with all this is that it is complete rubbish. It flips the story exactly on its head, making Sarah the villain and Hagar the victim, rather than vice versa.
The correct interpretation of Genesis 16
So why would Sarah kick off this sequence of events to begin with? It seems attractive to say that it is entirely because she wanted to adopt the child of her maidservant as her own to avoid the stigma of not being able to produce an heir (on account of being barren), but then why wouldn’t she be cautious to have the child in hand before dealing with Hagar, to make sure her goal was obtained? (I suppose she may not have thought Hagar would run away, and that is a completely fair point).
In any case, because the text seems to directly say as much, it is entirely possible that this motivation of “building a family through Hagar” is at least part of it. But it is also possible that part of the reason Sarah had Abraham take Hagar into his bed was that she legitimately did not believe that Hagar would get pregnant; she thought the problem was with Abraham!
This would make her words in Genesis 16:2 somewhat disingenuous, but you can also see why she might do this. After all, if her maidservant didn’t get pregnant either, the stigma would be removed from her, as she would be able to say with a degree of certainty that it wasn’t her – “See, she didn’t get pregnant either – it’s him not me!” Now, this is 100% speculation (the text does not say or even imply this anywhere), but it makes a degree of sense.
Regardless, compared to the faulty interpretation from before, the first point of divergence is viewing Hagar as an unwilling participant. You have to understand exactly what it would mean for Sarah herself to suggest that Hagar be elevated in status to a junior wife. For someone who was previously a slave, this was a huge kindness. And her own mistress was the one petitioning that this happen for her, not Abraham. Hagar was going from the bottom of the household hierarchy to just a step below Sarah herself. Are we really supposed to think she was unwilling? Do you actually believe that?
Perhaps you aren’t convinced yet. The Hebrew of verses 4 and 5 ought to help. Before, I mentioned that that we’d revisit the translation “despise.” The Hebrew verb here is קָלַל (qalal), used in the Qal.
If that doesn’t mean anything to you, the short version is that the same three-consonant root in Hebrew, when being used as a verb (roots can show up as nouns and adjectives too, e.g. – Hebrew loves its roots), can have different meanings depending upon which of the “patterns” for the stem (called binyanim) is used, as in Qal vs. Piel vs. Niphal vs. Hitpael, etc. Here, we need to look in the lexicons for what meanings the word takes on when being used in the Qal.
In this passage (both places) קָלַל is being used as a sequential imperfect = wayyiqtol, which basically means it functions like a perfect, but is being used to establish a sequence of time. This usage is common in narrative for relaying sequences of events, as here in this story.
In the Qal, qalal can mean several different things based on context, but meanings revolve around the idea of something being “slight/light/swift.” Metaphorically, when used of people, it means “being lightly esteemed” – of being taken lightly and treated as of little account. Aside from here (that is, Genesis 16:4; 5), for this particular usage you might also compare 1 Samuel 2:30 where this verb is set opposite kabad (which is the antonym of both the physical and metaphorical aspects of this verb = heavy rather than light, honored rather than being lightly esteemed), and also 2 Samuel 6:22.
All this to say, “despised” is not indefensible as a translation, but the sense in which someone is despised is that they are mocked as unimportant or lightly esteemed, not resented for legitimate cause. In plainer English: verses 4 and 5 say that once she became pregnant, Hagar started looking down on Sarah, the very mistress who had been the one responsible for Hagar’s sudden increase in station. Talk about being ungrateful and biting the hand that feeds you!
The situation is somewhat messy because Hagar didn’t really seduce Abraham or inject herself in between Sarah and Abraham independently (i.e., strictly by her own agency). She was not a concubine (legitimate wives had higher social status), but she was nonetheless a junior wife relative to Sarah – a junior wife who had only obtained her position because of Sarah. It is difficult to find exact modern parallels since Western cultures have not been polygamous for a very long time, but it would be something like this:
- A wealthy couple hire a maid to do housework. The wife is the one who vouches for the maid and “sells” her qualifications to her husband, meaning the maid got the job entirely through the wife’s graciousness.
- In time, the husband starts sleeping with the maid.
- The maid subsequently rubs it in the wife’s face and looks down upon her as if she were inferior; the maid preens and postures as if she is the preferred woman, and despite completely relying on the couple for her sustenance, stops listening to any directions from the wife, and instead mocks her for not having her husband’s devoted love.
That’s not perfect as a parallel, but hopefully that helps give a sense of the breathtaking arrogance and “overstepping of station” that this attitude represents.
Other cultures that are not so far removed from polygamy may have an easier time understanding all this, especially given that this idea of siring heirs by other women is not unique to this specific situation in scripture. The risk in such a practice is always that when the junior wife/concubine gets pregnant and has children, she will start thinking that because she has children – sons, even more specifically – and the primary wife does not,1 that she will on this account now become “woman #1”, supplanting the primary wife.
In any case, this single clarification reframes the entire rest of the story. When Sarah comes to petition Abraham again and says “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me” what she is coming to him about is the fact that she is now being unjustly disrespected and scoffed at (something that would be all the more painful for her given her seeming inability to have children – a fact that Hagar no doubt knew, though that doesn’t seem to have stopped her insolence), and that Abraham needs to do something about it. He should not just sit back and let this happen to her.
That brings us to the second word – “mistreat.” In Genesis 16:6, after Abraham has handed Hagar back over to Sarah, Sarah is said to treat Hagar in a way that causes Hagar to flee. It is easy to understand why our minds immediately jump to physical or emotional abuse when we hear “mistreat.” But in fact, the Hebrew word here is עָנָה (ana), this time in the Piel. In the Piel, this root means to humble or afflict, without necessarily having explicit overtones of cruelty or impropriety. We are not to suppose that Sarah was particularly kind to Hagar when she was handed back into her charge – in fact, given what traitorous behavior Hagar had just perpetrated against Sarah, we can imagine Sarah probably made Hagar’s life rather unpleasant (and justifiably so, to an extent), in an attempt to humble the woman. But in doing this, we cannot say based on the verb’s meaning alone that Sarah was horribly out of line and at moral fault. The lexical range of the verb doesn’t 100% preclude the possibility either, I suppose, but “mistreat” is far too interpretive a translation choice for my tastes, since it is not neutral connotatively, but quite negative.
One piece of evidence that would serve to indicate that Sarah’s harshness here did not cross legitimate boundaries is that God tells Hagar to return after she had fled. If Sarah were in fact harming Hagar’s person in as terrible a manner as some people seem to imagine, would God send Hagar back to such a hellish environment and mistress? And, more to the point, the fact that God commands Hagar to submit to Sarah is reasonably strong circumstantial evidence that she did not in fact have a humble attitude even at this point time, when she was fleeing (which means that she ultimately chose to flee Sarah’s discipline than learn from it in any meaningful way). In fact – and this is where the root-heavy nature of Hebrew can be so fascinating – the verb that some versions translate as “to submit” in Genesis 16:9 is the exact same root as the verb “to humble/afflict” from verse 6, except this time in the Hitpael rather than the Piel. In the Hitpael, the verb means, essentially, to “humble oneself” or “to be afflicted”.
To put all this differently, God tells Hagar to humble herself (verse 9) after she is said to have fled because Sarah was causing her to be humbled (verse 6). So how likely is it that whatever Sarah did in verse 6 was terribly out of line, if God uses the exact same verbal stem in a command to Hagar in reference to Sarah (i.e., Hagar is supposed to humble herself to Sarah specifically)? This observation doesn’t necessarily mean that Sarah never did any wrong whatsoever, but it is not nothing either, since context is important in interpretation.
How should we assign blame in this story?
We shouldn’t past a certain point – judgment is not ours, but the Lord’s.
Sometimes in historical accounts in the Bible nobody is completely pure, and everybody is at fault to some degree or another (one might compare the less-than-ideal relationship between Jacob and Leah). This would seem to be one of those cases:
- It might have been wise for Abraham to reject things upfront, saying something like “We will wait for God’s promise of an heir and not resort to things like this.”
- If Sarah had thought and prayed a bit more, she may have foreseen some of the problems that could come about were Hagar to start becoming haughty and disobedient after getting pregnant, and thus forgone presenting this “sleeping with the maidservant” idea to Abraham to begin with. Sarah’s behavior is somewhat understandable given how strongly the lack of an heir would have weighed upon her in their culture, but that doesn’t mean she should have necessarily taken things into her own hands instead of waiting upon the Lord.
- Hagar should not have have disrespected Sarah after becoming pregnant. If she had maintained propriety, this whole situation would not have escalated as it did.
Even noting all of these things, however, it is foolish for us on the outside to say from the armchair that we would have done so much better. It’s easy for us because we see the story laid out on a timeline; we have the benefit of hindsight in a way we wouldn’t were we living the situation, as these folks did. Abraham and Sarah were exceptional believers by all accounts, and Hagar too may well have come to trust in the Lord through her association with them. But, just like the rest of us, they too were imperfect human beings corrupted by the sin nature, meaning they made mistakes and had to live with the consequences of these mistakes. In fact, while it is speculation, it may well be that, as punishment for Abraham and Sarah’s lack of faith (as demonstrated in this sequence of events that we have now just finished going through), God further delayed Sarah’s eventual pregnancy and the birth of Isaac – the heir He had long promised. We can’t say for sure, but it is possible that this was the case.
Later interactions (as in Genesis 21) seem to indicate the relationships torn asunder here were never mended completely. Sarah and Hagar probably never really got along properly after this (for reasonably obvious reasons), and Abraham was forced to send his son Ishmael away, even though it pained him. It should not be lost on us that even the family of Abraham and Sarah – the family of Blessed Promise, the family whom God made an everlasting covenant with – was not without its own problems. How much less should we despair, then, of our own families being inevitably less than perfect, as if there were something uniquely wrong with us! But just as the answer for Abraham and Sarah lay in trusting God and His promises, so too for us and our problems, whatever they may be. We ought to be pleased to trust Him enough to lay them at His feet and ask for His help, rather than thinking we can do it all on our own.
Because of either barrenness, or seemingly only carrying daughters to term. ↩︎