Let’s talk about Sally Hemings for a moment.

When genetics finally confirmed that her children were fathered by her owner, Thomas Jefferson, I recall the flurry of controversy over the results, the concerns about how to teach this to children, and the endless theories on how it happened. There were two basic scenarios: in the first, Jefferson, like many other slaveowners, just straight-up raped her; and in the second, this was an unofficial marriage (he was widowed at the time) and a thwarted interracial romance. The reality was nobody wanted to believe the former about Jefferson, but no one could really bring themselves to accept the fantasy of the latter.

Then along came Annette Gordon-Reed and her wonderful The Hemingses of Monticello, which shifted the focus away from Jefferson and his actions to those of Sally Hemings. And one of the things she argued was that even if she felt no love for him, Sally Hemings made a thoughtful decision for herself and the well-being of her children. By choosing to be the mistress of her owner, she ensured that her children would be freed and that she herself would never be auctioned off. In fact, her son wrote that she agreed to return with Jefferson from Paris (where she was technically a free woman, since slavery was illegal there) precisely because she wanted freedom for her family.

Which brings us to Hagar. Hagar is officially a concubine, a slave-mistress (sobame in Japanese, literally “a woman on the side”), but her role in the story of Abram and Sarai is more as a surrogate mother. It’s been ten years (v 3) since Abram first came to Canaan after being promised descendents as many as the grains of sand, and Sarai isn’t seeing any results in the bearing children department. So she pragmatically comes up with an alternative. She gives Abram one of her slaves – an Egyptian slave, one of the ones Abram earned for putting her in harm’s way – and tells him to sleep with her until she’s pregnant. I imagine that if turkey-basters had been available back then, they would have used them.

But in the chapters that deal with her, I don’t want to focus on Sarai or Abram, and whether their actions were good or bad but rather on Hagar. It’s easy to see her as a victim of a system that allowed slaves to be raped by their owners. It’s impossible to see her as madly in love with the 86-year old man attached enough to his wife that he’s never divorced her after decades of barrenness. But I can see her as Sally Hemings. She made a choice to put up with some awkward sex because at the end of it, she’d be pregnant with her owner’s only heir, and it would put her in a position of privilege and give her son the freedom he might never have known had she been with a male slave.

Small wonder, then, that Sarai perceives her to be contemptuous once she’s pregnant. (v 4) “Contempt” is a strong word. The Japanese seems to give her a little more credit by saying she “thought little” of Sarai or “made light of her,” giving the impression that Hagar became indifferent to her status as Sarai’s slave, rather than outright hating her. Hagar now considers herself Sarai’s equal, a co-wife, and Sarai can’t stand it because this isn’t want she planned.

So Hagar is treated terribly, and she runs away, into the wilderness, still pregnant. There, at a spring, she meets an “angel” (messenger – it could be a human prophet or a celestial emissary, really) of the Lord, who tells her to go back and “submit” to Sarai. She’s promised that in exchange, her son will have countless descendents. This son, called Ishmael (God hears), will be “a wild ass of a man,” and I don’t know what the image of a wild donkey was to the Israelites to know whether this was a compliment or not. Regardless, the messenger predicts enmity between Ishmael and his kinsmen. Given that Muslims claim to be spiritual descendents of Ishmael (or literal ones, for Meccan Arabs), I think that turned out to be true. I’ll keep an eye out for Ishmaelites in later books to see if this bears fruit in the Bible itself.

The point is, like Sally Hemings, Hagar goes back for her son. She knows things won’t be good for her, but she’s been given a promise, by no one less than God, that he son will be free.

And what’s more, she gives God a new name, El Roi. That’s her name for God, not the name her owners use. NRSV suggest this means “the God who sees.” The NCT offers “the God who reconsidered me.” Either refers to her astonishment at having had a divine visit, but the NRSV puts the emphasis on Hagar (“Have I really seen God?”) while the Japanese emphasizes God (“Has God really reconsidered me?”). Apparently the Hebrew’s unclear, but I like the latter as an idea. Hagar’s amazed that God saw her, listened to her complaint, and yet she’s still alive. She has to go back to an awful mistress, but she’s going to have a son, and he’ll be free, and he’ll be the father of a nation.

In this chapter, God is on Hagar’s side, and she’s the heroine.

The Japanese this time: sobame “concubine” (v 3), migomoru “to become pregnant,” koronjiru “to think little of, make light of” (v 4), futou “undeserved, unfair,” me ni au “to endure, to suffer through” (v 5), juujun “obedient, submissive” (v 9), yasei “wild,” furikazasu “to raise (a sword, fist, etc.) over someone’s head” (v 12), kaerimiru “to reconsider, to look back at” (v 13).

Advertisements