Sarah's Treatment of Hagar

Introduction

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An Unwarranted Affliction?

Bereshit 16 shares how the barren Sarah decides to give her maidservant, Hagar, in marriage to Avraham. Hagar conceives, leading her to belittle her mistress ("וַתֵּקַל גְּבִרְתָּהּ בְּעֵינֶיהָ").1 Sarah, in turn, reacts harshly:

EN/HEע/E

(ה) וַתֹּאמֶר שָׂרַי אֶל אַבְרָם חֲמָסִי עָלֶיךָ אָנֹכִי נָתַתִּי שִׁפְחָתִי בְּחֵיקֶךָ וַתֵּרֶא כִּי הָרָתָה וָאֵקַל בְּעֵינֶיהָ יִשְׁפֹּט י״י בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶיךָ. (ו) וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל שָׂרַי הִנֵּה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ בְּיָדֵךְ עֲשִׂי לָהּ הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיִךְ וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי וַתִּבְרַח מִפָּנֶיהָ.

(5) Sarai said to Abram, “This wrong is your fault. I gave my handmaid into your bosom, and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes. Hashem judge between me and you.” (6) But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your maid is in your hand. Do to her whatever is good in your eyes.” Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face.

Though the meaning of the phrase "וַתְּעַנֶּהָ שָׂרַי" and the exact nature of Sarah's actions are unclear, Sarah's treatment of Hagar was apparently harsh enough to cause Hagar to flee.2 Elsewhere,3 the root "ענה" refers to oppression or abuse; is that what it means here as well?  If so, did Hagar's haughty attitude really warrant such a severe response? Was Sarah justified in afflicting her to such an extent? Finally, what role did Avraham play in the episode? Did he condone or condemn Sarah's treatment of Hagar? Was he wrong to have given his wife free reign to do as she pleased?

"וְהִתְעַנִּי תַּחַת יָדֶיהָ" vs. "כִּי שָׁמַע י"י אֶל עׇנְיֵךְ"

The text does not explicitly share Hashem's evaluation of Sarah's deeds, but it does provide a few clues via the angel's speech to Hagar.4 Unfortunately, though, the message relayed appears to be self-contradictory. On one hand, the angel tells Hagar to return to her mistress, "וְהִתְעַנִּי תַּחַת יָדֶיהָ".  This would suggest that Sarah's treatment of Hagar was justified; otherwise how could the angel expect Hagar to return to be further mistreated?  On the other hand, just two verses later, Hagar is told to name her son Yishmael, "כִּי שָׁמַע י"י אֶל עׇנְיֵךְ".  This implies that Hagar really had suffered and was afflicted unduly!  How is one to understand the contradiction, and which statement best reflects how we are meant to evaluate Sarah's deeds?

Blessing or Curse?

The tone of the rest of the angel's words is similarly ambiguous. After telling Hagar to return to Sarah, he makes several promises:

EN/HEע/E

(י) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ י״י הַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֵךְ וְלֹא יִסָּפֵר מֵרֹב. (יא) וַיֹּאמֶר לָהּ מַלְאַךְ י״י הִנָּךְ הָרָה וְיֹלַדְתְּ בֵּן וְקָרָאת שְׁמוֹ יִשְׁמָעֵאל כִּי שָׁמַע י״י אֶל עׇנְיֵךְ. (יב) וְהוּא יִהְיֶה פֶּרֶא אָדָם יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ וְעַל פְּנֵי כׇל אֶחָיו יִשְׁכֹּן.

(10) The angel of Hashem said to her, “I will greatly multiply your seed, that they will not be numbered for multitude.” (11) The angel of Hashem said to her, “Behold, you are with child, and will bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because Hashem has heard your affliction. (12) He will be like a wild donkey among men. His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. He will live opposite all of his brothers.”

Though the promise of multitudes of offspring is clearly positive in nature, how is one to understand the prophecies regarding Yishmael?   What does the image of a "wild donkey of a man" connote, and what is meant by the phrase, "יָדוֹ בַכֹּל וְיַד כֹּל בּוֹ"?  Are these blessings or curses?  Is the angel rebuking Hagar, telling her to return to be punished and promising her unworthy progeny because she, rather than Sarah, was the guilty party? Or, is the angel heaping on Hagar reward upon reward as compensation for having to bear unjust treatment?

Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael

A few chapters after this episode, when Yitzchak is born, Yishmael's "laughter" apparently prompts Sarah to expel both him and Hagar from her home. Here, too, the response seems out of proportion to the crime, yet in this case Hashem clearly takes Sarah's side, telling Avraham to do as Sarah demanded.5 Should one learn from Hashem's positive evaluation of Sarah in the second story back to our incident? Or, might the lack of Hashem's explicit sanction in Bereshit 16 suggest that the two cases are different?

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