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September 29, 2017 by

Hagar, or: The Handmaid’s Tale

Introduction

You may recall the story of Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar. We read about them on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, from Bereishith in Genesis. The crone Sarah is barren, so she gave “Hagar, the Mitzrite woman, her maidservant” to Abraham to bear a son for him. Later Sarah has her own child, Yitzhak, and thinks that Ishmael, the son of Hagar her handmaid, is mocking her. In response, she tells Abraham: “Cast out the handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit together with my son Yitzhak.” Abraham is reluctant. God has told him that each boy will be the seed of a great nation. Still, Abraham sends Hagar and her son Ishmael away with “bread and a skin of water.” Hagar becomes lost in the wilderness and leaves Ishmael under a tree because she cannot bear to see her son die. Eventually, God leads her to water and they survive. Ishmael grows up, becomes a “great archer,” and marries.

Rabbis tell us that Hagar was an Egyptian princess.


You never forgot: you were a princess. You had ladies in waiting, too many to count, who poured sweet oil onto your skin and made your arms lacy with henna. You had men, many men. They brought you gold and silk scarves and more girls to tend to you, to plait your hair. But these men really had nothing to offer. They were dull.

You had nothing nothing to do. Then came the visitors and you saw how Abraham and Sarah were favored by god. You wanted to be with them, even if you had to lower yourself, become a maid yourself. You wanted to learn the secret of their power.

He knew you would satisfy him, that was why he took you. He wanted your fire, which he consumed, yes, but re-ignited. His touch was arousing, always. I am satisfied, that’s what he said. I am so satisfied.

He always said it was her idea, Sarah’s. She wanted you to provide children for her. One after another.

His wife was too old. That was the simple fact.

In time, the inevitable. So maybe you did complain—you were dizzy in the morning. Your limbs felt so heavy. You could no longer carry in the great bowls of water. Sarah watched your belly grow and said, You are still young and still strong. It wouldn’t hurt you to bring me the usual bowls and baskets. She said, You were a princess in Egypt. You’re not in Egypt.

She said: You are here for one purpose. 

She said: How do we know it’s his? It could be anyone’s. 

You boiled inside and all he would say was: Women must patch their own quarrels.

You ran away and the angel led you back, telling you lies. That you would become a leader and a shaman. Others would follow you and seek your wisdom. You imagined lines of the penitent and perplexed, waiting to hear your judgment. Hanging on each word.

** 

You provided an heir. That is what you were told to do, and that’s what you did.

Sarah strove to go beyond nature and the limits of nature. She detested nature. She imagined that she was above it. She looked at the world as if it were a market—everything, plant, animal, water, stone—was something she could take. Lay claim to. She grasps and grasps.

The thing is, Sarah did not have a self or a soul. She eats souls. 

Abraham would not see it. Impossible, he said. And again: Women must patch up their own quarrels. 

You left again, this time with Ishmael. Everywhere, dry dry sand. You thought that both of you had died, of thirst. Slowly, you learned the secrets of living with the desert. He grew into a hunter who charmed the animals. He began to lead. You lived in obscurity. No one knew what wealth you possessed. You had so much to say. You knew many languages.

Sarah finally died, a husk. Isaac finally invited you back. Abraham acted as if no time had passed. 

**

You hate them all.

They separated you from your self. Hatred moves through you like a storm. All these years, centuries, millennia, in mythic time. It moves like a storm but does not wear itself out. It stays. Like the bush that burned and was not consumed, the storm gusts but never winds down. This storm is never-ending. It is never calm inside you. 

Resentment blooms. Resentment broods.

Your hatred is not a stone. It is a plant. It feels like the most natural thing in the world.

Each night it grows larger.

All around you the angels counsel: Forgive. This is what you do: You spit in their faces.

Author’s Note

I am quoting from the English translation of Samson Raphael Hirsch’s “The Pentateuch” (Judaica Press, 1997). In his commentary, Hirsch notes that Sarah had intended for Hagar’s son to become hers, but Hagar “had proven utterly unfit for such an arrangement.” Hirsch uses this space to praise Jewish mothers over others: Hagar’s leaving her son “reveals the primitive character of the Hamites,” who became the Arab Nation. Apparently Hirsch believed it was appropriate to slip in his own political-religious prejudices.


S.L. Wisenberg is a Texan living in Chicago. She is the author of three books and is working on a musical about a 1917 race riot. 


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.