Hagar, Sarah, and Hope

In Torah, Sarah and Hagar have a troubled relationship. They live as family, but Sarah is mistress of the house and Hagar is her legal property. Hagar gives birth to Avraham’s first son Yishmael, but the family birthright is destined for Sarah’s son Yitzchak. The two women take turns “lording it” over one another emotionally. Their sons, however, seem to have a fine relationship: playing, fulfilling family responsibilities, encouraging their children to marry one another.

Over the centuries, however, theologians used the figures of Sarah and Hagar to describe conflicts between the women’s descendents. In early Christian writings, Paul uses Sarah and Hagar to argue that Christianity is the true development of Judaism. Hagar, the slave, whose son is born of the flesh, represents Jews who cling to the old revelation. But Sarah, the free woman, whose son is born through the divine word, represents the Christians, whose children receive the true inheritance. Medieval rabbis fought back intellectually, insisting that Sarah represented the Jews and Hagar represented the Christians. They highlighted Christianity’s debt to Judaism by teaching that Hagar chose to become a slave to Sarah.

In our time, Sarah and Hagar have come to represent Jews and Muslims. Influenced by medieval interpretations of Torah, we imagine that we have inherited current tensions from Biblical times. Perhaps we can find hope rather than fatalism in the text of the Torah. Perhaps we can remember that, according to Torah, the sons of Sarah and Hagar were close, and that they did not carry on their mothers’ conflict.

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