Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs

by Savina J. Teubal. Harper & Row, 1990, $15.95.

In her imaginative and provocative work Hagar the Egyptian, Savina J. Teubal claims that the stories we have learned for generations about our foremothers may not only be incomplete, but may mask truths about powerful matriarchs in a culture that attributed a deep magic to the religious experiences of women. “As I see it, the voice of prophecy has been frozen in history,” says Teubal of our extant biblical text. Yet according to a number of modern scholars, this was not always so. “The voice in the wilderness is female also,” Teubal asserts.

One of Teubal’s claims is that Hagar, first mentioned in Genesis 16:1 as mother of Ishmael and cast off into the desert by Abraham, father of her son, was not Sarah’s devalued servant or Abraham’s concubine as most interpretations suggest. Rather Teubal portrays Hagar as a matriarch with a deep relationship with Sarah and a spiritual life of her own. Investigating the possible matriarchal customs of the biblical era, Teubal posits a new Sarah-Hagar story that differs radically from the one we have always known.

Teubal claims that Sarah as priestess may have personified religious/sexual rites with Abimelech, making Isaac the son of the local king rather than of Abraham. In Teubal’s argument, this makes Abraham the father of neither Isaac nor Ishmael, as Ishmael’s lineage is attributed to a third woman, the unnamed Desert Matriarch who has visions in the wilderness, rather than to Hagar. Teubal argues, in fact, that biblical figures traced their lineage through female rather than male lines. Indeed one of the most striking features of Teubal’s presentation is a biblical “family tree” in which the names of the women are in boldface, while the names of Abraham and Isaac appear in lighter print as incidental figures. For a reader with a traditional religious background, this chart alone makes Hagar an inspiration.

Teubal’s scholarship is nothing if not thorough, and includes illuminating discussions of possible mistranslations of Hebrew words in the Hagar passages. Yet while Teubal’s work is inspiring as creative mythology, it has flaws as an accessible scholarly work. The material is appealing to anyone who has ever bridled at traditional interpretations of the Bible, but Teubal assumes too great a knowledge of biblical scholarship on the part of the reader. She draws conclusions boldly, sprinkling her text with phrases like “obviously” and “must be interpreted as,” when her arguments, at least to this layperson, often don’t seem obvious. A basic familiarity with the biblical texts may still leave the reader, for all her efforts, choosing between abandoning Teubal’s arguments or taking Teubal’s word for it and reading on.

But if the lack of clear explanation is a disappointment, the implications of Teubal’s research offer tantalizing possibilities. Teubal challenges our assumptions about the matriarch/handmaid relationship, and describes the various gods, male and female, that existed in a time that many would have us believe was monotheistic. Hagar is punctuated by maps detailing the routes travelled by the matriarchs and by photographs of archaeological finds. These include Biblical period statues of goddess figures and of women helping each other give birth, pointing towards a powerful tradition of women’s strength and unity. Tracing what she claims is redactors’ deliberate distortion of originally matriarchal narratives, Teubal makes our matriarchs more than shadows, and it is thrilling to see the existing material on biblical women gathered together in one place. Hagar emerges if not as a clear three-dimensional figure, then as an intriguing one, a new center around which we may construct legends. And that, after all, is where it all begins…