Published: 6 December 2021

Was Hagar Exploited And Abused?

Exploited?
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In certain Christian circles it is presently fashionable to opine that Hagar was sexually exploited and abused by Abraham and Sarah. Is this true? Was Hagar mistreated by being given to Abraham as a concubine? What were the circumstances which gave rise to this situation? 

God promised Abraham a child when He called him out of Ur. Since Sarah and Abraham were a married couple, it was perfectly reasonable for them to conclude that Sarah would be the mother of Abraham’s children. However, after ten years of waiting (Gen 16:3) it seems they began to question that conclusion.

Can we blame them for questioning? After a decade of waiting they still didn’t have the child God promised. Sarah may have thought that her previous conclusion about being the mother of the promised child was in reality only an assumption. After all, God promised Abraham offspring, not Sarah (Gen 12:2, 7). Maybe Sarah decided she would not be the conduit of this blessing to her husband.

Sarah “had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” (Gen. 16:1–2 ESV). Hagar was an Egyptian. Where did Sarah obtain an Egyptian servant? This brings up another situation where a woman was allegedly exploited; namely, Sarah. Let’s take a look at that situation before returning to Hagar.

A trip to Egypt

Not long after Abraham and Sarah arrived in Canaan, a famine arose. There was food in Egypt, so they did the only thing they probably could have done to stay alive – they went where the food was. On the way, Abraham assessed their situation and started to feel paranoid because of his wife.

11 When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to Sarai his wife, “I know that you are a woman beautiful in appearance, 12 and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me, but they will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared for your sake.” (Gen. 12:11–13 ESV)

Saying she was his sister made Abraham a party to be negotiated with instead of an obstacle to be eliminated. Abraham wants two things from this situation: to profit and to protect his own life

We tend to focus on the part about Abraham saving his own neck. So much so that most people miss the part about Abraham’s desire to profit from this situation. Moses (the author of the first five books of the Bible) uses the phrase “go well with” repeatedly to suggest blessings, good fortune, and perhaps even prosperity (Deut. 4:40; 5:16, 29, 33; 6:3, 18; 12:25, 28; 22:7). 

Abraham’s scheme succeeds

Sarah was “taken to Pharaoh’s house” as a bride (Gen 12:19). As a result, it appears that Pharaoh paid Abraham a bride price for her. Verse 16 lists the assets Abraham received as a result of Pharaoh taking her. Part of the bride price Pharaoh paid probably included Hagar: 

Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels. (Gen. 12:16 NASB)

It is a tad disturbing that Abraham, a man of faith, would hatch this plan to enrich himself at the risk of his own wife being given to another man! Did Abraham have a plan to extricate themselves from the situation? Or, was this an act of desperation by a couple trying to survive a severe famine? We should probably not be too hard on Abraham; he did not have the fullness of God’s revelation that we have today. He was probably still learning how faithful God is to provide for His own. Regardless of his motives, he took quite a risk in defrauding Pharaoh! 

God stepped in and saved Abraham and Sarah from themselves. Men of great faith such as Abraham are still very flawed people. God is faithful to his promises even when we do stupid things. It is noteworthy that a pagan king reprimanded Abraham (Gen 12:18-19). It is also noteworthy that Abraham’s scheme succeeded on both fronts.

Surrogate mother

Hagar was most likely obtained as part of the bride price Pharaoh paid Abraham for Sarah. As Sarah’s servant, Hagar finds herself in the middle of a family dilemma and Sarah sees Hagar as the solution to their problem. She’ll have Abraham father a child by Hagar. 

Judging this situation by the standard of our modern culture is what leads some people to say that Abraham and Sarah sexually exploited and abused Hagar. Many people today may consider what they did as immoral and exploitative. Yet, it was normal and expected in societies of the ancient Near East. This was a surrogate arrangement which was a socially acceptable practice at the time.

“The solution proposed by Sarai is not as shocking or outlandish as it would seem to us today. In the ancient world, barrenness was a catastrophe because one of the primary roles of the family was to produce the next generation. The survival of the family line was of the highest value, and it depended on producing progeny. Whatever threat a second wife might pose to harmony in the family paled in comparison to the necessity of an heir being produced.

Marriage contracts of the ancient world, therefore, anticipated the possibility of barrenness and at times specifically dictated a course of action. Solutions ranged from serial monogamy (divorcing the barren wife to take another presumably fertile, bride), to polygyny (taking a second wife of equal status), to polycoity (the addition of handmaids or concubines for the purpose of producing an heir), to adoption. The third option is the one pursued here; this attempted remedy is consistent with contemporary practice as a strategy for heirship. This option was often more attractive because if the wife were divorced, there would be an economic impact on the family (she took her marriage fund/dowry with her). Concubines bring no dowry, only their fertility, to the family.

A marriage contract from the town of Nuzi a few centuries after the patriarchal period illustrates the practice: “If Gilimninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife. But if Gilimninu fails to bear children, Gilimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from the Lullu country (a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Gilimninu herself shall have authority over the offspring.” An old Assyrian marriage contract closer to the time of the patriarchs reflects a similar solution to infertility. It is therefore plausible that Sarai is simply invoking the terms of their marriage contract.”[1]NIV: Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016, 44.

We have greater revelation from God today than Abraham and Sarah had. We know that certain sexual relationships are off-limits and are bad for us. Nevertheless, we must not be guilty of presentism (judging people of the past by today’s standards). We should take care not to be overly critical of Abraham and Sarah. They were engaging in a practice considered completely normal in that place and time.

Even though Abraham and Sarah’s decisions are repugnant to modern readers, we must remember that we don’t know all the facts. Commenting on Abraham’s scheme in Egypt, Walton says, “Unfortunately at present we remain ignorant of what sociological realities commanded this course of action to Abram.”[2]Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009, 75. This is equally true of Sarah’s decision to give Hagar to Abraham as a wife (Gen 16:3).

Conclusion

Without succumbing to moral relativism, we should not be too quick to judge actions of the past for which we don’t have complete information. I wonder what modern practices we consider normal and acceptable today will be considered immoral by our descendants a few hundred years from now? How do we want history to judge us? Let’s give a little leniency to people such as Abraham and Sarah and not be too quick to accuse them of abuse or exploitation.

References

References
1 NIV: Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. Bringing to Life the Ancient World of Scripture. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016, 44.
2 Walton, John H., ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2009, 75.