The parshah for this week is Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:27). I’ve actually written about Lech Lecha on this forum before, concentrating on the parental aspects of the divine. See here. However, this time I want to look at the Torah portion from a different angle: what happens to the women?
While I’m concentrating on this theme, the parshah is rich with other material on which one could comment. For example, the Holy One asks Abram to leave his home and all he’s known to travel through and eventually live in a foreign land. There seems to be much fighting and strife between various rulers in the area through which they travel. Abram too goes to war when Lot is kidnapped. The first covenant between G-d and humanity takes place. The deity promises many blessings (from land and material prosperity to innumerous descendants) for Abram and Sarai if they obey the terms of the covenant. We also learn of the markers of the covenant: name changes and circumcision.
Enmeshed within these happenings are the lives and experiences of two named women: Sarai (who becomes Sarah) and Hagar. There are three main stories in which these women appear. Yet, as will become clear, their lives revolve around men, being defined by them only in terms of their beauty, their sexual availability and their ability to give birth.
What’s worse is that it seems that Abraham benefits immensely from Sarai and Hagar being in such positions and behaving in such prescribed ways. He is enriched by the Pharaoh when Sarai becomes his wife. He has two male offspring. His descendants will inherit a Promised Land. He and his sons will be the founders of great nations and have been materially blessed.
Likewise, the covenant is predicated on the patriarchal complacency of the women. Hagar has to return to live with Abram and be mistreated so that her son may become the founder of a great nation. Sarah births Isaac so that he may found another nation. Likewise, without their sons, the covenant would cease to exist.
Finally, Sarai’s treatment of Hagar is grounded in a patriarchal mindset of power-over. There are aspects of jealous there as well as self-aggrandizement. The text portrays Hagar as acting better than Sarai once she is pregnant. It also tells of Hagar being afflicted by first Sarai and then both Abram and Sarai.
As one can see there is much to critique, but perhaps there is also something to salvage. Let’s turn to the stories and see. First, traveling through Egypt, Abram expresses worry that if the Egyptians knew, given Sarai’s beauty, that she was his wife, they’d kill him. In other words, he seems quite confident that someone else will want her as a wife, so he devises a plan for them to lie and say that she is his sister. Indeed, Pharaoh pays Abram handsomely for her and takes her to be his wife. Afterwards, the Pharaoh and his household is struck by a plague. It is unclear how Pharaoh connects the plague to figuring out that Sarai is Abram’s wife, but, nonetheless, he is angry that he’s been duped and forces the couple from the land.
Second, Sarai is barren and wants Abram to impregnate Hagar, an Egyptian handmaid. Abram “acquiesces” and soon Hagar is pregnant. According to the text, the now-pregnant Hagar no longer respects Sarai, and Sarai wants nothing more to do with her. Abram gives Sarai permission to cast her out, but before she does, Sarai turns violent with Hagar. In her wandering, Hagar is visited by an angel of the Divine who says that her son Ishmael will be the father of a great nation so long as she first returns to the house of Abram and puts up with Sarai’s mistreatment of her. She complies.
Third, Sarai’s name is changed by G-d to Sarah as she and her husband enter into a divine covenant. Likewise, as long as Abram allows Ishmael to live with them, G-d will bless Sarah in the form of pregnancy (at the ripe old age of 90) and the birth of a son whom she will name Isaac.
It seems trite to celebrate the shear appearance of two women, let alone the fact that they have names and that they managed to be remembered by patriarchy even if it was only for their beauty and their sons. Yet, it is sort of all we have. Or, is it?
If we look at the text differently, there may be more worthy of salvaging. One way to do this is with what is commonly called an “argument from silence.” What isn’t said? And, from there, what could be inferred, suggested or reasonably assumed?
For example, let’s look again at the story of Pharaoh taking Sarai as his wife. It is quite unclear in the story how Pharaoh connects the plague to being lied to about Sarai’s sexual availability. But, what if Sarai boldly spoke up at some point during her captivity and said “I’m married to Abram,” ? What if that is how the Pharaoh was then able to interpret the meaning of the plague? This would also suggest that Sarai is an agent of her own freedom.
Or, what if Sarai’s barrenness signifies not that she couldn’t have a child or children, but that she had not yet born a son? This could also help explain why she “finally” conceives at such an old age. It could well be that Sarai and Abram did indeed have many daughters before they had the son, the patriarchal concern. Perhaps that’s why Isaac’s name has to do with laughter. She laughed because she never was barren.
This is all well and good. Clearly, one could continue making inferences from what isn’t said in the text. Yet, something has me thinking that the lesson doesn’t lie there, that the critique of the text is more powerful than what is salvageable.
Time and again, I return to what we know of the relationship between Sarai and Hagar: the way Hagar acts after becoming pregnant and Sarai’s abuse of her. These are two women acting out patriarchy. They behave with jealousy, use power-over and comply with abuse.
Still today, in relationships between women, we replicate patriarchy and its sexism, racism, classism, ageism, heterosexism and transphobia. What are we doing to rectify this? What do liberating relationships between women, in all our diversities, look like? In other words, what can we learn from the relationship between Sarai and Hagar? How can we live and behave differently?
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.