Hagar and Ishmael

An example of ancient surrogate motherhood and the biblical destiny of the child.

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Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women's Archive.

Hagar is Sarai’s Egyptian slave girl, whom Sarai (later Sarah) gives to Abram (later Abraham) as a wife who would bear a child that would be considered Sarai’s child (Genesis 16:3). Although it displays a resemblance to modern technological surrogate motherhood, this custom may seem bizarre. However, cuneiform texts of the second and first millennia B.C.E. attest to this custom in ancient Mesopotamia.

The first such text, from the Old Assyrian colony in Anatolia, dates from around 1900 B.C.E. A marriage contract, it stipulates that if the wife does not give birth in two years, she will purchase a slave woman for the husband.

The most famous text, in the Code of Hammurabi (number 146), concerns the marriage of a naditu, a woman, attached to a temple, who is not allowed to bear children. Her husband has the right to take a second wife, but if she wishes to forestall this, she can give her husband a slave. In the world of the ancient Near East, a slave woman could be seen as an incubator, a kind of womb-with-legs.

Sarai and Abram see Hagar in this role and never call her by name. She, however, sees herself as a person and, once pregnant, does not see Sarai as superior; “she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Genesis 16:4). With Abram’s permission, Sarai regains authority over Hagar. She “degrades her”, possibly by treating her as an ordinary slave (Genesis 16:6).

The Hammurabi laws acknowledge the possibility that the pregnant slave woman might claim equality with her mistress, and they allow the mistress to treat her as an ordinary slave (law 146). This seems to be what Sarai is doing. However, Hagar is not passive.

Rather than submit, she runs away to the wilderness of Shur, where she meets God’s messenger, who tells her to return to submit to Sarai’s abuse for then she will bear a son who will be a “wild ass of a man” (Genesis 16:12). Just as the wild ass was never domesticated, so too Hagar’s son would never be subject to anyone, and would live “with his hand against everyone” and “in everyone’s face” (Genesis 16:12).

Destiny of the Child

The angel’s annunciation to Hagar is similar to announcements to Hannah, to the mother of Samson, and to Mary the mother of Jesus: all would have children with special destinies, and all are addressed personally, not through their husbands. God’s request that Hagar become a slave again and return to be degraded by Sarai seems strange: why should God respect property rights over the freedom of persons? This is particularly odd, considering the legal code of Israel, which, alone among ancient law systems, specified that runaway slaves should not be returned to their masters (Deuteronomy 23:16).

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality. She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.