Lekh Lekha: Diminished

October 24, 2012 at 11:01 pm | Posted in Lekh Lekha | Leave a comment

Sarai and Avram (known later as Sarah and Abraham), the founders of the Israelite people, are an unusual couple. In a society dominated by men, Sarai’s status is as high as her husband’s–even though she has not borne him a child.

One piece of evidence for their equal authority is that neither can give orders to the other. In this week’s Torah portion, Lekh Lekha (Go for yourself), they journey from Mesopotamia to Canaan to Egypt. Avram expects that the Pharaoh of Egypt will want to take Sarai to bed.  (His stated reason is that she is “beautiful”, but clearly some information is left out of the story.) He also claims that the Pharoah will shower him with gifts if Sarai says she is Avram’s unmarried sister, but will kill him if she says she is already married.

Avram explains this to Sarai, but he does not command her to masquerade as single. He implores her, saying “please” twice.

There was a famine in the land, and Avram went down to Egypt … And it happened, as he was close to entering Egypt, he said to Sarai, his wife: Please! I know that you are a  woman of beautiful appearance … Say, please, you are my sister, so that it will go well for me for your sake … (Genesis 12:10-13)

Sarai = My Ruler; Sarah’s name until God adds an “h” when she is 89

Avram = Exalted Father; Abraham’s name until God adds an “h” when he is 99

Sarai cooperates and moves into the Pharaoh’s house for her own reasons–perhaps to enrich her husband, perhaps in the hope of getting pregnant at long last, perhaps for some other reason. The Torah does not tell us her motivation. Nor does it say that Sarai is concerned about the Pharaoh’s attentions. She evidently knows what she is doing. Avram and Sarai return from Egypt to Canaan with great wealth, but no child.

This is a problem, because they are old. God has promised to give the land of Canaan to Avram’s descendants, but he has none. Sarai probably needs a child for practical reasons: to take care of her and/or Avram when they become infirm. Both of them want a son to take over the tribe and carry on their heritage after they die. For centuries, there was a legal custom all over the ancient Near East by which a barren wife could give her personal slave to her husband as a surrogate, and then adopt the resulting child as her own. Sarai finally decides this is their best course of action.

Since Avram is Sarai’s equal, she does not command him to comply with the arrangement; she implores him, saying “please” twice.

Sarai, the wife of Avram, had not borne children for him, but she had an Egyptian shifchah, and her name was Hagar. (Genesis/Bereishit 16:1) Sarai said to Avram: Please! God has shut me off from childbirth; please enter my slave; perhaps I will be built up through her. And Avram paid attention to the voice of Sarai. Sarai, the wife of Avram, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave, at the end of ten years of Avram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan; and she gave her to Avram, her husband, as a wife for him. (Genesis 16:1-3)

shifchah = female domestic slave

Hagar = The Foreigner, The Outsider

Although Sarai says “please” to her high-status husband, she can command her personal slave to do anything, so she does not even bother to ask Hagar about the arrangement. But because Sarai intends to adopt the child, she gives Hagar to Avram as a wife (ishah), not as a slave (shifchah) nor as a concubine (pilegesh). Hagar now has two very different roles. To Sarai, she is a slave. To Avram, she is a wife, with the same title that Sarai holds.

So he entered Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she saw that she was pregnant, the geveret was kalah in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Avram: The lawlessness against me is because of you! I myself put my slave into your lap; then she sees that she is pregnant, and I am kalah in her eyes. May God judge between me and you!  (Genesis 16:4-5)

geveret = noblewoman; slave owner

kalah = diminished, belittled, demeaned (from the same root as kalal = curse)

At first, Hagar is probably grateful to Sarai for giving her to Avram as a junior wife. Then she becomes determined  to hang onto her new life in a role that gives her some independence and respect. She refuses to act as Sarai’s slave any longer.

But Sarai cannot bear to be snubbed and ignored. Now she feels diminished, not just in Hagar’s eyes, but in her own eyes. She has lost some of her power. And although Sarai may not feel any sexual jealousy about the arrangement, I believe she is jealous in another way. Avram, her best friend and business partner, is spending time with Hagar instead of with her–and she cannot use her own authority to reverse the situation.

So Sarai accuses Avram of encouraging Hagar’s new behavior. Then she cries, “May God judge!” I think this protest is the biblical equivalent of our modern complaint, “It’s not fair!” I can imagine Sarai saying, “It’s not fair that I lose both my slave and my husband’s attention, when I’m the one who made the arrangement in the first place. I never asked to be barren. Why should I suffer?”

And I can imagine Hagar saying, “It’s not fair that my owner elevates me to the position of a free wife, and then tries to snatch it away from me again. I never asked for this role, but now that I have it, why should I suffer?”

As for Avram, I imagine him saying, “It’s not fair that I’m forced to choose between these two women, between my lifelong companion, and the mother of my child. I never asked for this mess. Why should I suffer?”

We are still protesting. No one likes being diminished; neither Sarai, after a lifetime of status and authority, nor Hagar, after her sudden elevation. To this day, humans prefer expanding into positions with more autonomy and more control over the things that are important in their particular lives. To this day, we suffer whenever we are diminished, whenever we lose a measure of control.

Life is still not fair. But then, fairness is not what God’s story is about.

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