Because the Bible came out of patriarchal culture, whenever women's stories are told it is unexpected. In fact, I've come to see these women as signs of inclusion at many points in the Bible. Inclusion often involves some sort of conflict or trouble, which may cause people to consider women as causes of trouble rather than signs that trouble is implicit in the cultural norms.
Recently I looked into various marriages in the Bible, starting with Abraham and Sarah, because St. Peter refers to Sarah as a model for all wives in her submission to her husband, calling him, “Lord.” So I went to read the story. There are two places where Sarah joins Abraham in lying about their relationship, acquiescing to being known as his sister (which is apparently half-true, showing again that this culture is not the same as ours). First, before they are known as Abraham and Sarah—before God renames them—they take refuge from famine in Egypt. Sarai is barren, so it is easy for them to mislead the Egyptians. Because Sarai is beautiful, Pharaoh takes her into his house and gives Abram gifts, perhaps even the slave-girl Hagar. God sends plagues, Pharaoh wises up, sends Sarai back to Abram, and complains about being deceived. Much later, Abraham asks Sarah again to join him in his half-truth in the land of King Abimelech; again, the king takes Sarah; this time, God warns him in a dream that Sarah is married. (As an aside, this shows God speaking directly to a Canaanite king and the king’s immediate obedience.) So two times, Sarah follows Abraham’s lead in misrepresenting their relationship.
In the rest of the story, her submission is less obvious. When she can’t conceive, she decides to help God fulfill God’s promise by offering Abram her Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a surrogate; Abram listens to Sarai and has sex with Hagar, who becomes pregnant. Sarai accuses Hagar of having contempt for Sarai and treats her so harshly Hagar runs away.
God meets the pregnant girl in the wilderness and speaks directly to her. Think about this: not only does God reveal God’s self to the chosen man Abram, he also speaks to a Canaanite king and to an Egyptian slave-girl. God tells her to go back to Sarai and be respectful, and God promises that her son will be the father of multitudes too numerous to count. She names her son Ishmael—“God hears”—and names God as “the God of seeing,” marveling that she really saw God and remained alive. Remember this—a runaway Egyptian slave-girl saw God, received a command which she obeyed, received a promise like the one given to Abram, and lived to tell about it.
In the past, some may have read this passage as defining the duty of slaves to be submissive and respectful to their owners. We wouldn’t do that nowadays, now that we know slavery is wrong. But we don’t hear the rest of the amazing truth in this passage. God meets Hagar face to face and reminds her that he is taking care of her and her unborn son. (I want to write it this way: God. Meets. Hagar. Face. To. Face.) He also confronts her with her contempt for Sarai. Hagar affirms her human dignity by choosing to obey God.
Fourteen years later, Isaac was born to Sarah. When Sarah saw Ishmael and Isaac together, she said to Abraham, “Cast out the slave woman and her son.” Really Sarah is saying, “Cast out your son who is not my son.” Abraham loves Ishmael; he doesn’t want to send him away. God says, “Don’t worry about Ishmael and Hagar; I will make a nation of his descendants also. Do whatever Sarah says because Isaac is the one I promised you and intend to work through.” God can say this because God is the one taking care of Hagar and Ishmael. So in the morning, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael off into the wilderness with a canteen of water and some bread.
When they run out of water, she places Ishmael under a bush and goes far enough away that she cannot see him. She does not want to watch him die, and she weeps aloud. God hears Ishmael, who must also be moaning, and God’s messenger says to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard Ishmael’s moans. Go raise him up and hold his hand. Remember that I will make a great nation of him.” Then God shows her a well of water. They live in the wilderness, Ishmael learns to hunt, and eventually his Egyptian mother finds him a wife from Egypt.
Notice this: God again communicates supernaturally with Hagar. God cares for her again in the wilderness. God makes sure she and her son (and Abraham’s son) do not die. God does not berate her for forgetting his promise. God treats her tenderly and rescues them. God includes the father of the Arabs in his care, knowing full well that there will be enmity and war between the descendents of Abraham, just as there has been enmity between the mothers.
The lessons from this are so challenging: God is the God of Hebrew and Arab. Indeed, with all the attention paid to the supernatural nature of Isaac’s birth, it is easy to overlook the supernatural care given to Hagar and Ishmael. God includes them. This ought to challenge Christians who see Zionism as the will of God, and it ought to challenge Christians who see patriarchy and sexism as the will of God as well.
It has to be noted that Hagar’s worst enemy is not Abraham but Sarah; yet the grounds of their animosity is in the patriarchal system that values women because they give birth. Barrenness is shameful to a woman for the same reason a woman must have a child on behalf of a dead husband; the important achievement is to provide the man with immortality through descendants. Sarah wants a child for Abraham for reasons Tamar will understand. In a patriarchal system, women compete with women to be valuable to men. If what men want is a son to carry on the patrimony, women will value themselves as they are able to produce that son.
However, Sarah, who somewhere in her life called her brother/husband “Lord,” has intrinsic value before God. It isn’t enough that Ishmael was born on her knees, symbolically her child. She wants her own child. She cannot reconcile herself to the legal fiction that makes Ishmael her child. Sarah also wants to birth a child for her own sake, and her jealousy of Hagar has to do with Sarah’s own hunger for immortality. When she went through menopause, she must have despaired. No wonder she laughs bitterly when she overhears God’s messengers repeating the promise to Abraham that Sarah herself will bear a child. No wonder she laughs with joy when Isaac is born. The gift of Isaac, the gift of laughter, the gift of immortality comes courtesy of God only, not from the legal fictions of human beings. No wonder the child of Hagar is an intolerable intruder on this gift as Sarah sees it. Sarah behaves cruelly to Hagar; God does not punish this cruelty, perhaps because God knows that patriarchy has crippled Sarah’s understanding of what gives a woman value.
A few generations later, Jacob’s two wives, Leah and Rachel, compete to give Jacob sons. Leah is far more fertile, producing three sons; so to compete, Rachel gives Jacob her servant girl Bilhah as a surrogate; those two sons count for Rachel. When Leah quits having children, she gives Jacob another servant girl Zilpah as surrogate; those two sons count for Leah, who leads five to two. When Leah’s son brings her mandrakes, which supposedly help make women fertile, Rachel begs for the mandrakes. In exchange, she sends Jacob in to sleep with Leah. Leah had two more sons and a daughter.
When God opens Rachel’s womb, as the Bible puts it, she has a son. Significantly, she rejoices by saying, “God has taken away my reproach.” What is reproachful about being barren? In this culture, the wife has failed in her main duty to her husband—the duty to make sure his line does not die out. Much later, Rachel dies birthing her second son, whom she names “son of my sorrow.” Her sorrow is not just the hard labor, but the sorrow of being unable to measure up to others. Despite being genuinely loved by her husband, she values herself for her fertility, and Jacob’s willingness to go elsewhere sexually in order to have children shows that he too believes a wife’s barrenness requires the remedy of more sexual partners to ensure descendants.
Women are primarily property in these times. Adultery is a property crime in a culture that permits polygamy. It isn’t having sex with more than one woman that is a crime; it is having sex with someone else’s wife. If a wife has more than one sexual partner, who knows which man’s descendant the child is—who has gained immortality thereby? So the response, as seen in the story of Tamar (which will be for another day), is to kill the woman. This ostensibly will reinforce the faithfulness of women so that husbands can be sure the children are theirs. Comically, it is after her sojourn in the house of King Abimelech that Sarah gives birth to Isaac. This seems to me to be a small divine joke at the expense of patriarchal anxieties.
It makes me sad that because of the mistaken use of the Bible to perpetuate patriarchy, people who know in their hearts that God doesn't favor men over women and patriarchy is wrong have felt that they must stop respecting the Bible as an authority for faith and practice. They dismiss and devalue a text that is an enormous resource for understanding the relationship between God and humanity—that tells us over and over that even at our worst, God loves us and is committed to making us whole and holy. They don’t get to know the historical Jesus with his tender heart and tough mind, his focused obedience to his Father, his full humanity in such unimaginable tension with divinity. How sad to know little to nothing of how God has touched the lives of humans in one small tribal group, how God has insisted that other tribal groups matter to God also, how God has entered the circle God drew, as William Blake challenged him (William Blake: "To God/ If you have formed a Circle to go into/Go into it yourself & see how you would do."), and how God has made available to all a new way of living in this world and a hope for joy after death.