Seeds of Conflict: Sarah and Hagar

And this is the line of Terah: Terah begets Abram, Nahor and Haran with Emtelai, and with Ednah he begets Sarai in Ur of the Chaldees. Terah prospers as his children grow and Abram delights in the keen intelligence of his young beautiful half-sister, Sarai, who longs to read and write like the male children. And Abram teaches her, and, defying Terah and King Nimrod, he brings her his new iconoclastic philosophies about one omnipotent, omniscient God.

Abram and Sarai are wed. But Sarai is barren, she has no child. She teaches alongside her husband; she weaves, sews, plants, nurtures the poor, until she becomes a legend in the land. But still she has no child. Abram, inspired by his new God, leads them to Canaan, the promised land.

There is a famine in Canaan and the tribe of Abram goes down to Egypt to sojourn there, for the famine is severe. Because of Sarai’s extraordinary beauty, she is presented as Abram’s sister to save his life. The Pharaoh sees her beauty and takes her for his harem. Despite her protests, he loves her and gives her his daughter, Hagar, as a handmaiden to teach her to walk in Sarai’s ways. The tribe returns to Canaan and the relationship deepens between Sarai and Hagar. Ten years pass.

Sarai remained barren as the arid stretches of desert wasteland….

In despair, secretly she resorted to forbidden white magic for fertility boiling and eating the mandrake’s large forked root that resembled a human body.

Often she awakened in the cool desert nights in a sweat of fear that Abram would cast her aside, knowing how deep was his desire for a son. Crawling off her couch in the darkness, she groped for a change of dry clothing, all the while praying that she would become fertile. For him.

“Only one son. That is all I ask, O God of Abram. One son to begin an infinitude of people to serve You. Why do You withhold my heart’s only wish? I have served You well.”

And she wept as she pulled a dry tunic on over her head.

When they were together, Abram still loved her tenderly and passionately, but she knew well the tribal law permitting that a sterile woman could be served a bill of divorcement at any time, to which she had no recourse.

And there was nothing that Abram wanted more than a son.

The morning was bright blue and breezy, the kind that she always had found invigorating, but already she was tiring. The women were in the open-sided tent at the edge of the encampment where they created the fabric for the tribe’s clothing. All the retting and breaking of the flax had been completed.

“Enough for one morning,” Sarai announced, wiping the beads of perspiration from her upper lip as she put the combs away. “Let’s go back to our tents.”

They passed the servants who were busily baking and circles of heat were winding around the coals on the ground, scorching the sand.

Only Hagar looked cool. Her hair was perfectly in place and her thin fingers effortlessly kneaded the meal into flat, round cakes. Hagar, always imperceptibly aloof, did everything easily and gracefully.

Swiftly she had learned and responded to Sarai’s wisdom, but on Abram’s heroic stories she had thrived like a new fig tree sprouting lush, green fruit. His dialogues with God, his personal victories, and mostly his rebelliousness seemed to arouse her spirit. She would listen to him tell how he smashed the idols of Nimrod and she appeared infatuated with his words and his voice. Her body seemed to thrill to the story.

Sarai heard none of the handmaidens’ chatter; intently, she studied Hagar’s movements as she reached for a basket, and placed it on her head in one swift arc. She was off to the orchards for the picking and crushing of the olives, on her way to her second assignment.

As Hagar passed, her ankle bracelet catching specks of sun as she walked, Sarai stood aside, but her eyes didn’t leave the young Egyptian’s bronzed body firm and supple under her brightly striped dress. It sent out the heavy aroma of myrrh and hyssop, filling Sarai with faded memories of her own sensuous bath in the Pharaoh’s golden palace. She felt old and colorless, not at all remarkable as her people believed her to be, and much less a princess than Hagar.

The unseasonal heat, too intense and stifling for this time of the year, depressed her even more. She searched in her mind for that magnificent palace of gold and carved stone when time was new and green, and Hagar’s father, the Pharaoh, had found her to be so desirable.

In a kind of melancholy compulsion, her eyes followed Hagar as she glided along the path. Her young body could bear sons easily, agile and strong sons, like Egyptian princes. She would have to offer her to Abram.

Her breath caught at the thought and her body glistened with a sudden outpouring of sweat, even as her hands felt icy and clammy as she touched them to her cheeks and her forehead.

It was an ordinary, accepted custom to offer your maid to your husband to have a child to build up your house. Why did the idea feel brand new and so sharp-edged? It made her whole body ache. And God, how she wanted to weep.

The heat grew even more intense, as if the sun cried out to her to notice that it burned with compassion.

She headed for her tent to hide from the world.

If only it were cooler, she could think.

The afternoon turned white-hot and glimmered like metal until, slowly, it melted into the coolness of evening. Its quiet hush brought her no relief.

Hagar entered the tent carrying a pitcher of fresh water for the evening meal. Sarai’s cheeks were flaming as she watched Hagar’s graceful movements. She was learning forward, carefully setting the water jug on the table precisely where Abram liked it. Sarai saw how young and firm her breasts were.

“Hagar, come here to me,” Sarai called in a strange, high-pitched voice.

“What is it, Sarai? You look…”

“Hush. Just come here to me.” Sarai’s hand went up to her mouth as Hagar moved closer, searching to read her face. The Egyptian was puzzled and on the verge of upset seeing this unknown agony in the anxious eyes of her mistress. Unknowingly, she pulled at her beads.

“Tonight,” Sarai swallowed, “you will go to Abram’s tent and… lay with him.” She was trembling and her voice was deep and husky as she held Hagar’s forearm. “I will never be able to give him a son. You go to him.”

Hagar turned mute but her face shone like a moon aglow in a black, velvet sky. She didn’t understand her sudden, joyous feelings but she turned from Sarai consumed with such happiness that it carried her all the way to the tent entrance, floating like one who has had too much wine. She checked herself, tiptoed back as if fearful that any noise would break this spell and she put her face up so close to Sarai’s that her lips were brushing her mistress’ ear.

“The covenant,” Hagar whispered, her chest heaving as if she had run all the way home from the outer hills. “Abram will surely want the covenant to be fulfilled through you.”

“Go to him, I say His God has spoken only to him,” Sarai continued. “His God has said that Abram’s descendants will be as plentiful as stars and sand and dust.” She stopped and pressed her hands on her temples. “God has never shown Himself to me, Hagar The covenant is with Abram and his children. Go to him, while I have the strength in me and the love for him to send you.”

Hurriedly Hagar left, flinging the doorflap open in her haste, letting in silver streaks of moonbeams that stretched across the floor in even rows, like painted, iridescent stripes. Sarai stood alone, every muscle in her body pulled taut, peering through the doorway at the path to Abram’s tent. Already Hagar was nowhere in sight.

Striped with silvery moonbeams, like a wounded tigress she lay down on her rug and curled up into a taut fetal ball as if to ward off great, physical pain. Pressing her hands over her ears, she locked her eyes shut to obliterate all sensations from her surroundings — the hot aching night, the dry desert, even fertile Egypt.

Why couldn’t she rise up like Abram against the mores of society?

Give him your maid! That was a custom to claw out a woman’s heart.

He had stood up against Terah; he had smashed icons, laws and idols. How could he love her? She couldn’t even squash out this flaming agony that burned within her as she pictured his strong arms around Hagar And Hagar’s young, pink mouth, her silky skin, the graceful curve of her arms….

Sarai’s body ached along with her heart.

She had always gone to him so willingly and openly whenever he wanted her and he had always found delight in her and in their love, staying the whole night to be with her She could feel his firm thighs against her now, his jaw against her cheek.

And he had to be with Hagar.

She couldn’t cry. All night, she lay there on the rug, her body streaked with moonbeams.

In hushed whispers she prayed that Hagar would become pregnant.

Then she wished as hard as she could that she wouldn’t.

Hagar’s body grew round and full almost overnight, her tight breasts bursting forward like ripe pomegranates and her swarthy skin glowed with a new brightness as fresh milk under moonlight.

Anger and scorn sprouted in Hagar. She carried Abram’s child and that elevated her to the position of second wife. She made the transition easily, smoothly, and too eagerly. She reveled in her new rank, flaunting it by issuing orders like the headwife in an Egyptian harem….

Sarai saw that Hagar despised her.

The Egyptian wore her feelings openly like a new, brightly colored robe and the more she let them show, the stronger they grew, as if exposure to sunlight and air made them thrive. Her years of devoted service she counted as payment in full for everything Sarai had ever done for her. Her royal blood ran hot; it bubbled in fermenting angers and vintage dreams.

For my father’s lustful dream, she thought, I was delegated to second-class female. A handmaiden! Such a generous gift for ravishing Sarai, to woo her.

This anger was always with her and she questioned Fate. If she was second to Sarai, why had God opened her womb and made her the triumphant one who became pregnant immediately while Sarai lived in sterile defeat? Why had God blessed her more bountifully than the legendary Sarai?

She stroked her body that was as fertile as the sunny land of Egypt, smiled upon by Isis, the Egyptian goddess of motherhood.

She placed her hands on her belly caressing herself in small, circular motions and purring with a small smile as she took little, delicate dancing steps.

“Beautiful Sarai — barren and sterile, despairs her marriage is in peril” she sang.

Daily, Hagar walked a lonely mile along the dusty paths of the encampment.

She passed Sarai’s dear friend, Tabora the noblewoman, in the courtyard, the geographical and social center of tribal life. In her loneliness, she stopped Tabora and greeted her warmly.

“Come visit with me this afternoon,” she added.

“Thank you, Hagar, but I’m on my way right now to Sarai’s tent.”

“Come, walk with me a little while, Tabora.”

“I don’t want to insult Sarai by making her wait. She is always considerate of others.”

“What makes her so remarkable in your eyes, Tabora? It didn’t take her very long to teach me everything she knows!”

Several of the clanspeople stepped through their tentflaps, eager to observe the impending drama.

“Sh, sh, Hagar, everyone hears you,” Tabora whispered, grasping her by the forearm.

Fiercely, Hagar pulled away.

“Good,” she shrieked. “Let the whole tribe listen! I hope all of Canaan hears me!” She cupped her hands around her mouth and faced the gaping tribesmen. “Clan of Abram, here my words! I hereby announce that Sarai is not at all remarkable as she seems!”

Tabora grasped her by the shoulders and pulled her around to face her.

“Be quiet, Hagar!” she said hotly. “Don’t tread on Sarai’s virtues!”

“If she is so virtuous, why does she suffer the worst curse cast upon woman? A vacant womb! Why? Why has God made her childless?”

“Hold your viper’s tongue! I order you to!”

“Be silent, be silent! Why will no one ever speak it? It is a punishment! A punishment from God!”

“I said hold your tongue!” Tabora shouted.

“Why don’t you ask why God is punishing your wonderful Sarai? Why must I carry Abram’s seed to continue his line? I am his second wife now. I am her equal!”

She thrust her pelvis forward and threw her arms out wide, vibrating her bulging belly in a wild dance of blatant pregnancy like Canaan had never seen. She sang and chanted as she twisted and circled awkwardly, heavily, all around the courtyard for everyone to see.

“Are you watching my son’s first tribal dance?” she shouted to the observers.

But her smile was unnatural and forced. And her black eyes blazed wildly with unconcealed hatred and sadness.

Sarai stood behind her tentflap listening, ashen and trembling with fury. She pulled nervously at the neck of her tunic.

“Abram,” she called, “why do you sit there? I know you hear her violent words, like spears.”

“She carries a child for us. She is upset,” he tried to soothe her. “We should not be listening.”

She paced the length of the tent and back again.

“This is not the first time that she flaunts her hatred. The women have told me that she often disparages me. I have tried to ignore her to keep peace, but you heard her venom. How can you sit there and try to calm me? And do nothing to protect my name?”

His eyes offered her his sympathy.

“Abram. Please. Don’t you see that Hagar now acts as a freewoman? Confirm her position. Tell her her rightful place.”

“I cannot mark her as a slave to sell her,” he answered. “She carries our son.”

“Then it is you who wrong me,” she said, counting out each word deliberately.

Abram winced.

“Sarai, you are the one who must deal with her She is yours. She is subject to your authority,” he said softly. “If she is to be punished, you, the mistress, must be the one to do it. It is a tribal law.”

“Let your God judge between you and me,” Sarai said, grabbing a shoe from the floor as she fled in disbelief.

Outside, leaning against the tent, her cheeks blazing, she held back tears of anger at his emotional desertion of her. She needed more loyalty from him than this.

He worries only about his unborn heir. And the pledge. Her good deeds and her sacrifices for him were only as a light rain on parched earth. She would handle this entire affair herself in accordance with tribal law.

Briskly, she walked in Hagar’s direction, the spectators moving like silent shadows back into their tents.

Hagar bounded forward but Sarai held out her hand with the shoe, motioning for her to stop, leaving a few scant feet between them.

“I order you to leave ,” she said, her lips barely moving, her vocal cords bulging in her neck. “Go away, away from here.”

Hagar stood mute and rigid like a stone sculpture. She seemed not to breathe. Her eyes were fixed on Sarai’s face flushed red with fury, something she had never seen before.

Sarai followed the tribal procedure and threw the shoe at Hagar to name her a slave, to reassert her possession.

Clumsily Hagar ducked.

“Now get out to the scorching desert! Back into the wilderness where you belong, you bondwoman!” Sarai spit out the words as she pointed to the desert beyond.

Hagar’s eyes grew wide and blank. Still, she stood frozen in fear.

“Back to your land of painted, green-eyed harlots! Find yourself a harem there! Go!”

Hagar was shaking beyond control.

“Go, bondwoman, with your bulging belly! Go where I cannot see you! I order you to go from here!”

Hagar fled.

The hot sand shooting up around her sandals burned her feet. She ran lightly for a woman so heavy with child and speedily as if pushed on by demons. Her body was aflame with anger; her face was hot with shame. Deeper into the wilderness she ran seeking to put out the fires that drove her on. Faster she ran, her hair flying in the wind cooling the back of her neck.

Like a madwoman she howled and shrieked as she leaped on the dunes in the sand. Back to your land, back to your land, she heard Sarai’s voice repeating in its fury.

“God, how I hate her! I hate her, I despise her!” she screamed to the skies.

Breathlessly, she ran in the direction of her home, back toward her land, her fertile land of Egypt….

In despair, Hagar wanders in the desert until an angel of the Lord finds her asleep on the ground and tells her to return to her mistress, promising that she will bear a son, Ishmael. The angel predicts Ishmael will be a wild man, with everyone against him. Hagar returns to tell Abram the story and to give birth to his son.

God renews the covenant with Abram and renames them Abraham and Sarah. His predictions come true and Ishmael grows to be wild and arrogant, but Abraham is consumed with love for his heir who is skillful in hiding his unsocial behavior from his father.

Finally the Lord takes note of Sarah and miraculously she bears a son, Isaac, for Abraham.

Their joy in Isaac is overwhelming; their life is as a watered garden. But Sarah sees how Ishmael shoots arrows at Isaac at his weaning celebration and stalks his younger brother when Abraham is not present. She implores Abraham to help shield Isaac by banishing Hagar and Ishmael. God affirms this request.

And Abraham takes some bread and a skin of water to give them to Hagar, and together with Ishmael sends her to wander in the wilderness of Beersheba.

Marjorie Hirshan, a retired school teacher, is a craftsperson and writer: “Sarah and Hagar” is excerpted from an as yet unpublished novella.