Family Conflicts and the Restoration of the Cosmos

In a previous article, posted here on the Center for Hebraic Thought site, Dr. Shira Weiss discussed how moral instruction in the Hebrew Bible’s narratives can be ambiguous, or at least not very explicit and clear. I would like to offer in this present article a case study for Dr. Weiss’ assertion, which will also explore an interesting feature in moral instruction in the Hebrew Bible: the move from the particular to the universal. For that, I will present the reader with the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in Genesis 16.

Between Genesis 1-11 and the following chapters of Genesis, there is a drastic move. In the former we are dealing with narratives with a cosmological scope, while in the latter we narrow down to narratives about the everyday life of an average family dealing with its relational difficulties and survival in its local context. Interestingly, the cosmological scope is never lost. The biblical text establishes a relationship between God’s cosmic covenant with Noah and the covenant God makes with Abraham’s family. In both cases, the covenant is God’s response to human violence. The violence before Noah’s covenant is described quite clearly in Genesis 6:11, 13. The violence before Abraham’s covenant is described more implicitly in the narrative of the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9). The construction and whole enterprise is founded by Nimrod, a royal figure described as gaining power on earth as a powerful hunter (Gen 10:8-10). He commands the construction of Babel to be done in the same manner as the constructions done by the Hebrew slaves in Egypt, with bricks (Gen 11:3; Exod 1:14). God’s covenants with Noah and Abraham are both called “an everlasting covenant” (Gen 9:16; 17:7), and they both come after God destroys the violent environment, creation and the Tower of Babel. Most importantly, Abraham’s covenant complements Noah’s. God’s commitment in his covenant with Noah is to never curse the earth again nor kill all life (Gen 8:21; cf. 9:11). God’s commitment in his covenant with Abraham is the positive version, in which he promises to bless Abraham and, through him, all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). From the local to the universal. But the biblical narrative does not offer an abstraction; it presents a concrete picture of how this works out by describing an ambiguous resolution for family conflicts.

The family dynamic described in Genesis 16 is not only conflict-ridden, but also carries violent connotations. As it is well known, Abraham and Sarah were childless and in advanced age. Sarah, then, decides she will “build” (אבנה) Abraham’s family through Hagar, her Egyptian servant (v. 2). The conflict begins when Hagar, now with the status of Abraham’s concubine (אשׁה, v. 3), conceived a child, and looked down at Sarah, her mistress (v. 4). Sarah interprets this situation as violence against her (חמסי), which she then puts on Abraham, making it their conflict to be judged (ישׁפט) by YHWH himself (v. 5). Just as the conflicts begins by Sarah putting her servant on “Abraham’s chest” (v. 5), he puts the matter into Sarah’s “hands” (v. 6). Sarah’s judgment of the case is a reversal of status by means of violence. As Hagar had raised herself up by looking down at her mistress, Sarah, then, sees to oppress, make her bow (תענה, v. 6). Hagar runs away from Sarah’s presence and is met by YHWH’s messenger, who offers her a way to solve the conflict: she must bow down under Sarah’s hand (v. 9). This is not merely a resolution for the conflict, as YHWH’s messenger promises Hagar that her offspring will greatly increase (v. 10), because YHWH heard her “painful groans” (עניך, v. 11, NET). The biblical text does not narrate Hagar’s return and how it all turned out. The narrative wraps up with Ishmael’s birth (v. 15) and indicates the resolve of the conflict. We know that later on another conflict will arise between Ishmael and Isaac, which will lead to a complete breach between the parts of this family (Gen 21.8-21). However, this does not occur without another demonstration of God’s care for Hagar and her son, and the confirmation that God was with the boy (Gen 21.20).

It’s quite hard to imagine that this conflict-ridden, even violent and disruptive, family is God’s answer to a world that too is in a state of conflict, violence and destruction. It seems, though, as if this characteristic is exactly what gives this family what it takes to be God’s means to restore the world. The real answer to understand this is how the learning process of dealing with conflicts in the small scale, local family environment, becomes the basis to deal with cosmic conflicts, be they political, economical, or environmental. The narrative does not offer a clear and explicit moral instruction. That would actually go against the biblical mode of operation from the local to the universal. The particularity of each local situation demands different responses. However, this biblical narrative offers us a moral principle that must underlie each proposal to solve small scale family conflicts or big picture cosmic conflicts. Let’s take a look at the narrative again.

Previously, we did not consider a crucial feature of Hagar’s identity: she is Egyptian. The biblical text emphasizes her ethnicity by calling her “the Egyptian” (המצרית, Gen 16:3). It seems like she valued her Egyptian roots enough to give her son an Egyptian wife (Gen 21:21). In the narrative, this identity connects Genesis 16 to Genesis 15:18b-21, where Egypt is the first geographical reference to establish the land God promises to give Abraham’s family. There are some hints of how Abraham and his family wander around exactly this piece of land with some shy demonstrations of their possession of it. But in the case of the patriarchal narrative, it seems like the biblical text is more interested in how they must start to bless all the families of the earth. So, why not start with Egypt, where Abraham’s family will have to face a huge conflict later on? 

Hagar runs away as if someone is actually trying to kill her (check these other instances of people running for their life, Gen 27:43; 35:1; Exod 2:15; 1 Sam 19:12, 18). But YHWH’s messenger says that she must return (שׁובי) to this life-threatening situation. Instead of dying under Sarah’s hands at her return, Hagar ends up participating in God’s blessing, through Abraham’s family. This is clear by how her son, Ishmael, is named by Abraham himself, giving him the rightful status as his son (Gen 16:15). Hagar’s blessing is even similar to the ones received by the patriarchs, as YHWH’s promises to her resemble the ones given to them (Abraham, Gen 12:2; Isaac, Gen 26:4; Jacob, Gen 28:3, 4) — the only woman in Genesis with such honor. 

Participating in YHWH’s blessing through Abraham’s family is based on participation in YHWH’s covenant with them. Hagar is visited by YHWH in a similar manner as YHWH’s visit to Abraham, especially in Genesis 18:1-16, and to Jacob, especially in Genesis 32:22-32. The especial occasion of YHWH’s visit to Hagar is established by the verb מצא (“to meet,” Gen 16:7). When this verb has God as the subject and is followed by a personal object, it is not a frivolous encounter, but a divine favor, even election for a special task, as YHWH’s encounter with Israel in a desert land (Deut 32:10). Hagar, as a representative of Egypt, is blessed through Abraham’s family, and enters into a special relationship with YHWH as the result of her participation in YHWH’s covenant with them.

How does that happen? The fact that she conceives a child by Abraham, one of the blessings YHWH assures Abraham as the fulfillment of his covenant with him, could be the answer to that question. But the narrative points in the direction of Hagar’s attitude, rather than her pregnancy. I suggest that the answer is in the use of words derived from the Hebrew root ענה, from which we get the verb ענה (“oppression”) and the substantive עני (“poor,” “afflicted”). 

This root is used in three different instances in the narrative of Genesis 16. It describes how Sarah treated Hagar (v. 6), how YHWH’s messenger requires Hagar to behave at her return to Sarah (v. 9), and how YHWH qualifies Hagar’s condition under Sarah (v. 11). The whole conflict revolves around the issue of social status within Abraham’s family. Once Hagar turned from Sarah’s servant to Abraham’s concubine and got pregnant, she saw an opportunity to gain a higher status than Sarah. The narrative works with this conflict to show how status is gained in the covenant family. It is not a matter of self-aggrandizing, but a matter of humiliation. The path to participation in YHWH’s covenant with Abraham’s family and his blessing flowing from it is one of humiliation. But here enters the ambiguity of the whole situation.

The narrative establishes a difference between what Sarah does to Hagar and what YHWH wants Hagar to do, although they seem very similar. YHWH’s messenger recognizes that Hagar’s condition is one of “affliction,” “misery,” and he still gives her an order to “humiliate” herself “under the hands of Sarah” (Gen 16:9). The difference, however, is that this divine requirement won’t lead to death, as apparently was the intention of Sarah, but to life, as YHWH intents. Although the results, death or life, are worlds apart, the conditions leading to them seem almost indistinguishable. That is why Hagar’s obedience to return was an impressive demonstration of trust in YHWH’s word and promise. A trust that, at this point in the patriarchal narrative, is only comparable to Abraham’s in leaving his father’s house to wander about the land promised to him by YHWH. In the case of Hagar, however, she needed to go through an experience of servitude, oppression and exile to learn this lesson. The reason, it seems, is because she exalted herself to gain a position in Abraham’s family, and in YHWH’s covenant. Hagar returns, trusting that YHWH, who heard her “painful groans” (Gen 16:11), will use her humiliation as a means to include her in his covenant with Abraham’s family and will bless her accordingly. And he does, as Ishmael is recognized as Abraham’s son and Hagar is promised a great offspring.

In her amazing display of trust in YHWH by completely humiliating herself in a situation of great vulnerability and risk, Hagar becomes a model to be followed. In the first episode of family conflicts within Abraham’s family, it is Hagar who demonstrated how to behave in conformity with YHWH’s covenant so that resolution might happen. Abraham and Sarah also must learn that in YHWH’s covenant with their family there is no place for self-aggrandizing as a means to affirm their status in this family and in this covenant. In the end of the narrative, Sarah was not able to affirm her position in the covenant with the status of matriarch by means of her plan to gain a child through Hagar. To the contrary, the child borne by Hagar is always considered her own son with Abraham. This is quite a humiliation for Sarah, who planned the whole thing for her own benefit. In the same way, Abraham, who gains the status of patriarch by fathering a son with Hagar, must give up this status to prioritize his responsibility towards Sarah and care for his wife. In light of the context and the superiority of offspring over other family issues, this is quite a humiliation for Abraham. By the end of the narrative, although implicit, Abraham and Sarah must humiliate themselves to receive Hagar back in their family as part of their household. 

In Genesis 18, the fulfillment of YHWH’s covenant with Abraham to bless all the families of the earth depends on him teaching his offspring to keep the way of YHWH by doing righteousness and justice. To be in covenant with YHWH is to do what is right and just. If we consider the family conflict between Abraham, Sarah and Hagar as an example of how this is lived out, then, we have some interesting guidelines. For YHWH’s blessing to find its way through Abraham’s family, it is necessary for those outside of it to enter not through self-aggrandizing, but through humiliation, trusting YHWH that this will not kill them but give them life. As for Abraham’s family, they too cannot assert their position in the covenant by their own status to the point of oppressing others. Those oppressed by them will be heard by YHWH in their affliction and he will demand that Abraham’s family, too, humiliate themselves, opening up the opportunity for the outsiders, who were wronged, oppressed, and are in a vulnerable condition, to enter the covenant and be part of their family and household. This is how the covenant family keeps the way of YHWH, how they do what is right and just.  This is YHWH’s way to bring about the resolution to cosmic conflicts, something the covenant family learn in their family conflicts.

Even if all parties in the conflict must learn to humiliate themselves, it is no doubt that Hagar, the foreigner and outsider, suffers much more. For some, it might sound like there is some kind of partiality and that vulnerable women and foreigners are abused in their position, and are merely passive objects of wrongdoing and care. This is far from true. As mentioned, Hagar displays an exemplary trust in YHWH, only compared to that of Abraham, and she becomes the model of justice to be followed by Abraham’s family. The same kind of dynamic will appear again in Genesis in the narrative of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38). However, here, the narrative is more explicit on how the covenant family must imitate Tamar, the afflicted foreigner, in her justice. The context presents how Joseph, as Israel’s representative, must go through an experience of servitude, oppression and exile to, just like Hagar, learn that his privileged position in the covenant family is established by self-aggrandizing, like he seems to believe in his dreams, but by service and care for the well-being of his family and all the families of the earth (check Gen 50.20-21). 

There is more. Abraham’s family will also need to go through a situation similar to that of Hagar, the Egyptian. They too must learn YHWH’s way, even if they must be humiliated and oppressed. What Abraham’s family did to an Egyptian will return to them. The oppression Sarah inflicted on Hagar is the same condition the Israelites are in Egypt (ענה, Exod 1:11). In the same way YHWH hears Hagar’s “painful groans,” he sees the “affliction” of the Israelites in Egypt (עני, Exod 3:7). Just as Hagar flees from the presence of Sarah, the Israelites flee from Egypt (ברח, Exod 14:5). The comparison shows how Abraham’s family can reflect the same kind of behavior that is so disruptive to YHWH’s intentions with the covenant for them, all the families of the earth, and the cosmos. At the same time, it shows that outsiders, as Hagar, the Egyptian, can teach Abraham’s family how to be in covenant with YHWH in a way that makes his blessing overflow to all the families of the earth. The ambiguity of such a perspective is not merely because it is not clear, but because it is actually a little confusing as there is no clear division between good guys and bad guys. That is the reason, in my opinion, why humiliation and suffering, under the violence that results from a conflict-ridden family and cosmos, is YHWH’s way to resolution, restoration and blessing. In a world of ambiguous injustice, so to speak, to humiliate oneself is YHWH’s answer to achieve justice.

Interestingly, Hagar’s model of righteousness and justice through humiliation as a means to be in YHWH’s covenant with Abraham’s family finds some expression in the New Testament. Right after the family conflict of Genesis 16, which started with Sarah’s self-aggrandizing plan, comes a promise given specifically to her in the confirmation of the covenant: “I will bless her, she will become a mother of nations, and kings of peoples will come from her” (Gen 17:16). This royal identity of Sarah’s offspring seems to be the divine strategy to make Abraham’s family bless all the families of the earth. Therefore, underlying the patriarchal narratives we see two questions: who will be these kings and what kind of rule they will exercise? Especially in Jacob’s sons conflicts we see the question, “who is going to be king in this family”? And I suggest that in the examples of Hagar and Tamar we see the kind of rule will be exercised by these kings. 

From a Christian perspective, it is not that difficult to see how the New Testament authors answer to these two questions in their theological characterization of Jesus’s identity. I do not want to claim direct literary or even theological dependence, but it seems like the moral principle behind Abraham, Sarah and Hagar’s narrative, with all its ambiguity, is well expressed in the New Testament.

When reading Zachariah’s song in Luke 1:68-79, in the context of the birth of his son John [the Baptist], we find a description of Israel’s condition and God’s intention towards it, that can make us think of Hagar. Zachariah speaks of God saving Israel from the hands of its enemies, those who hate it (Lk 1:71). Such salvation comes as the result of his remembrance of his holy covenant with Abraham (Lk 1:72-73), and has the intention to free them to serve him in holiness and justice (Lk 1:74-75). And Zachariah envisions his son, John, as one who will prepare the way of the Lord (Lk 1:76). Of course these similarities are based on the fact that Hagar’s oppressed, vulnerable and exilic situation reflects Israel’s condition in Egypt. 

What we see in the New Testament in general, or when considering this text from Luke specifically, is that the way of God’s justice and the model to enter his covenant is by means of humiliation, with Jesus’ crucifixion as the clearest display of that. Hagar’s model becomes even more interesting when we consider the New Testament stress on the entrance of foreigners into God’s covenant with Abraham’s family. This time, however, the foreigners must follow the example of Israel, represented by Jesus, and not the other way around. Foreigners, actually, must share in Jesus’ humiliation to enter into his covenant and into God’s own family, as Paul says in Romans 8:17: “And if children, then heirs (namely, heirs of God and also fellow heirs with Christ) — if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him” (NET). This family context, although now extrapolating the human realm in its conceptualization of a divine family, also points toward the cosmic context and God’s justice through humiliation. Right after this assertion of sharing in Jesus’ suffering, Paul goes on to speak about the hope of a redeemed cosmos, a new creation (Rom 8:18-27). The renewal of the cosmos comes about as the result of God responding to creation’s “painful groans,” like Hagar’s, and how the “sons of God” also express their “painful groans,” indicating their share in creation’s affliction, which is answered by the Spirit (Rom 8.22-23, 26-27).

God has a purpose and a means to preserve and restore the cosmos in conformity with his justice. Be it for ancient Israel, Judaism or Christianity, this justice comes by means of humble submission to his purposes and trust in him, even when it seems like this is a threat to our own life. For that, we have Hagar as forerunner who trusted God, submit to his purposes, exemplify his justice, and received life from him.