Sarah in the Bible

How historical evidence shapes our understanding of this biblical matriarch

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Frymer-Kensky interprets the story of Hagar in keeping with this theory.  Like Teubal, she cites historical evidence from the ancient Near East in her interpretation.  She explains that Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham in keeping with ancient Near Eastern tradition. Three ancient Near Eastern marriage contracts state that if the wife remains barren after a specified number of years, she gives her husband her slave to have children on her behalf.  Frymer-Kensky also cites the passage from Hammurabi’s Code regarding the priestess, but she does not conclude from this parallel that Sarah was a priestess; the other marriage contracts describe a similar situation, and they do not refer to priestesses.

If Sarah is merely acting according to ancient Near Eastern law, what is the significance of the Hagar story?  Frymer-Kensky argues that Hagar, too, symbolizes Israel.  Just as God tells Abraham that He will multiply Abraham’s progeny, but first his descendants will be degraded slaves, so too God promises Hagar that He will multiply her progeny, but first she must return to Abraham to be exploited as a slave.  Hagar’s story shows that the path to redemption leads first through degradation.

Frymer-Kensky and Teubal both use historical evidence from the ancient Near East to come to different conclusions regarding the Sarah-Hagar story.  Teubal argues that Sarah is asserting her traditional role as Mesopotamian priestess, while Frymer-Kensky argues that both Sarah and Hagar serve as paradigms for Israel: one exercising great influence despite her secondary social status, the other beginning a journey to redemption.  Frymer-Kensky and Teubal’s differing interpretations of the Sarah-Hagar story provide two ways to understand the strong and independent women of the Bible in the context of the patriarchal world in which they lived.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.