Hearing the Voice of the Powerless: Lech L’cha, Genesis 12:1−17:27
In Parashat Lech L’cha, Abram (later known as Abraham) has been promised by God that he would father a child, but Sarai (later known as Sarah) remains childless. Seeking to provide him with a much-needed and much-desired heir, Sarai concocts a plan.
“Now Abram’s wife Sarai, who had not borne him a child, had an Egyptian slave named Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram: ‘Seeing as the Eternal has kept me from bearing a child, have intercourse with my slave: maybe I will have a son through her.’ Abram heeded Sarai’s voice. Ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took her slave Hagar the Egyptian and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.” (Genesis 16:1-3)
Surrogacy of this kind was well-known in the ancient world and a common way to adopt a child in the wake of continued infertility: her maidservant would bear the child while resting between Sarai’s knees, allowing Sarai to symbolically participate in the birth experience. It should be noted that Hagar, an enslaved person, did not have the power of refusal-though on the positive side, any male offspring would be free and heirs to Abraham’s fortune.
Nonetheless, such surrogacy arrangements could be highly problematic. On one hand, the adoptive mother was the one with the greater social and financial power; on the other hand, the surrogate had the socially sanctified role of biological mother, which was its own kind of power. The question then arose: who was in charge? Who had the power to determine the child’s fate?
The text continues in Genesis 16:4: “He came to Hagar and she became pregnant; and when she saw that she had become pregnant, her mistress became for her an object of scorn.”
It should be kept in mind that in the context of this society, fertility was a sign of God’s favor. Clearly, Hagar thought that God was not with Sarai. Abram was favored by God; not Sarai.
In Genesis 16:5 we read: “Sarai then said to Abram, ‘My wrong is on your head! I put my slave in your arms; no sooner did she see that she was pregnant , I became for her an object of scorn. Let the Eternal judge between us!'”
Sarai seems unaware of the disconnection in her argument: if she put this maid in his bosom, how is Abram culpable?
Sarai was in a double bind: she had suggested a socially sanctioned method of producing an heir, but the solution didn’t consider the wife’s feelings. Caught in a society that did not expect her to be angry about the situation, Sarai may have been stunned by the depth of her hurt. She was enraged to discover this abrupt shift in power, and likely feared that she might be cast off. What if Abram fell in love with Hagar? What if he divorced Sarai? Where would she go? Who would want her?
This series of events makes it clear how dependent Sarai is upon Abram’s continued interest in keeping her as his wife. Prior to these events, Sarai had likely seen herself as the powerful wife of a powerful man; now she had become the childless one, “lower” than her maidservant.
Abram, on the other hand, seems to have not fully understood the power struggle between the two women. He had no lived experience to give him insight into the situation. On the contrary, he was the one who decided other people’s fates. Which is perhaps why he was not particularly curious as to what Sarai would do to keep her power. He did not know what it meant to be powerless, so he did not recognize Sarai or Hagar’s vulnerability both women feel in this situation.
Historically, the Reform Movement has taken the concerns of women seriously: it was the first Jewish movement to institute family seating in worship services, change the process of divorce so women had equal rights, ordain women in the United States, and change the prayer language so that references to the Holy One were not exclusively male.
In this regard, we are attempting to emulate the divine: God remembered Sarai, the childless wife. God also sent an emissary to Hagar, the “lowly” maidservant. A consistent theme of the Lech L’cha narrative is that God hears the prayers of the forgotten and the oppressed. One of the most surprising aspects of the Biblical narrative is the divine concern for the invisible among us. We are called to listen for that cry.