The Banishment of Hagar: Did Avraham and Sarah Sin?

  • Harav Yaakov Medan

Translated by Kaeren Fish



A challenge of faith


The accounts of Hagar’s expulsion (first by Sarah [Bereishit 16], and then, together with Yishmael, by Avraham [chapter 21]) raise moral questions which have accompanied us, from the time of Avraham until the present, in our relations with those claiming to be the descendants of Yishmael. Ramban (Bereishit 16:6) is the fiercest critic of Sarah, concerning whom the Torah records that “She afflicted [Hagar], and [Hagar] fled from her," and of Avraham, who permitted her to behave in this way:


“Our matriarch sinned in this affliction, as did Avraham in permitting it. God heard [Hagar’s] affliction and gave her a son who would be a wild man, afflicting the offspring of Avraham and Sarah with all manner of afflictions.”


Ramban finds a causal connection between the narrative here and the relations between Jews and Muslims in his time; in our times the connection would seem even more clearly apparent.


However, other commentators have viewed the story differently from the Ramban, such that we are faced with an exegetical question no less than a religious one.


Turning our attention first to the religious problem, there is certainly no prohibition against discussing misdeeds of our patriarchs and matriarchs; indeed, there are many examples of Chazal and the commentators doing so. This discussion assumes that the patriarchs and matriarchs were mortals with normal human feelings and desires, facing inner challenges which they had to deal with, at all times, by exercising their free will. This assumption is true, and it is only on this basis that Chazal could demand, “Every person should say, ‘When will my actions reach [the level of] the actions of my forefathers?’” For if the forefathers had been like heavenly angels, devoid of the basic desires so familiar to us, how could we ever hope to emulate them?


At the same time, our discussion of their faults must take into account two reservations.


1.            We would expect, and rightly so, that the Torah would state – or, at the very least, hint to – its disapproval of a misdeed, since the essence of the Torah is guidance as to the proper path for a person to follow, and which path is worthy in God’s eyes. An example is Avraham’s sin in the Covenant between the Parts – a sin deduced by Chazal from the punishment decreed upon Avraham’s descendants for four hundred years. In contrast, it is difficult to discuss a sin when the Torah seems to regard it with equanimity. Admittedly, in the case of Hagar’s banishment, this does not represent a challenge to Ramban’s view, since the angel does tell Hagar, “for God has heard your affliction," and this may well allude to improper behavior by Avraham and Sarah towards her.

2.            An occasional misdeed by one of the forefathers is one thing, but if we detect numerous grave sins, then we must ask why God chose to reveal Himself to them. The verse, “You are not a God Who desires wickedness, nor shall evil dwell with You,” demands that we proceed from the assumption that the patriarchs and matriarchs were righteous people of positive character, as well as people of great faith, even though they were not angels. Unjustified affliction of Hagar and expelling her to the wilderness, viewed not as an incidental act but as a way of life, cannot be reconciled with such a view. Therefore, even if we adopt the position of Ramban, who is most critical of Sarah’s behavior here, we shall have to understand her act as a momentary lapse rather than as an ongoing sin.


The expulsion of Hagar


Other commentators have rejected Ramban’s view of the act of expelling Hagar, and have adopted a more forgiving attitude towards Sarah. I shall follow this trend in proposing my interpretation. My points of disagreement with Ramban concern two verses: “When she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes," and “Sarai afflicted her, and she fled from her.” What situation is concealed behind the words, “Her mistress became despised in her eyes”?


A story that I read as a boy, The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck, an American writer who lived for many years in China, is engraved in my memory. She describes a poor Chinese farmer of lowly standing who marries a woman of equally humble background, homely, but devoted and resourceful. She helps him to the best of her ability with the difficult work in the fields, even when she is pregnant, and fights alongside him most conscientiously in their struggle to survive. They experience years of drought and hunger, the village is deserted, and the couple move with their children to an unfamiliar town, with no income and no home. The husband despairs and becomes feeble; his wife assumes the helm of the family and by virtue of her efforts and resourcefulness the family is delivered from its troubles. The couple returns to the village, rebuild their home and their farmstead, and grow prosperous.


Once the husband is finally in a position to rest a little from his hard work by hiring laborers, he looks at his wife, whose face has been blackened and whose body has grown old from all the effort during the difficult years, and he feels that he deserves a younger, more beautiful wife. The now-wealthy farmer is inundated with offers, and a beautiful young concubine joins his household to entertain him in his free time. Slowly his wife is pushed aside and marginalized as the concubine comes to occupy her central position in the home.


We glimpse a similar scenario between the lines of Malakhi’s prophecy to the returnees from the exile, at the beginning of the Second Temple Period. The Jews have returned from Babylon with their wives, and it is likely that the long journey by foot, as well as the difficulty of unfamiliar surroundings, have done nothing to enhance the women’s appearance. The new arrivals encounter the local women, daughters of the Shomronim and the other nations who had been imported by Assarchadon, King of Ashur, some two hundred years previously. They may have been younger and more beautiful, and the destruction of the Jewish family was about to commence. The last of the prophets, Malakhi, was called upon to address the situation and warn of the consequences.


Malakhi voices objection not only to copulation with these foreign women, but also to the betrayal of the wife of one’s youth who has accompanied her husband throughout the long journey. The hecklers who argue with him cite the example of Avraham and Hagar, but we don’t believe for a moment that Avraham intended to replace Sarah, who had accompanied him from Ur Kasdim, with her young handmaid, Hagar. At the same time, our question is not what Avraham’s intentions were, but rather what Hagar thought when she conceived Avraham’s firstborn child, and what she decreed – in thought and in her behavior – for Sarai, her mistress. Perhaps she viewed Sarah in the same light as the heroine of The Good Earth - her face blackened, regarded by her husband as unsuitable for the life of pleasure which he now planned for himself. It was no problem now for Hagar to evade housework, claiming that the pregnancy made it impossible for her and that she need to protect Avraham’s as-yet-unborn child. Perhaps she would now ask Sarah to carry out the work, and even to perform small personal favors for herself. Sarah, with her sharp perception, understood Hagar’s true intentions, and presented her claims fully to Avraham. Avraham’s good and respectful treatment of the handmaid-concubine, reflecting his kindness and respect towards every person, was interpreted by the handmaid as preferential treatment towards her in relation to Sarah, owing to her pregnancy.


Hagar’s return


It is possible that the covert conflict between Sarah and Hagar also raised another question. Ramban offers two interpretations of Sarah’s intention in proposing intimacy between Avraham and Hagar. However, it is difficult to ignore the parallel between this episode and the Torah’s description of Rachel and Leah giving over their handmaids to Yaakov in order that they too could bear him children. From Rachel’s words, “that she may bear children upon my knees," it would seem that her proposal involved the handmaid’s agreement that the sons who would be born to her from Yaakov would belong to her mistress, Rachel, and she would raise them. The names of the children also bear this out:


“Rachel said, ‘God has judged me [danani] and has also heard my voice, and has given me a son.’ Therefore she called him Dan.” (Bereishit 30:6)


“Rachel said, ‘With great wrestlings I have wrestled [niftalti] with my sister, and I have prevailed.’ And she called him Naftali.” (ibid. 8)



Dan and Naftali were considered sons of Rachel, and she was proud of them, viewing them as a victory in her rivalry with Leah. This would appear to be the reason why they are included among the tribes of Israel: the tribes need matriarchs as well as the patriarch Yaakov, and Bilha and Zilpa were not worthy of this status. Rather, Dan and Naftali are considered Rachel’s adopted sons, just as Gad and Asher are considered the adopted children of Leah. The structure of the encampment of Israel by its tribes (Bamidbar 2) and at the gates of Jerusalem (Yechezkel 48) are further proof of this.


It seems that Hagar at first agreed to this arrangement, but once she had conceived she felt a closeness to and possession of her fetus, and regretted her agreement. Indeed, it would appear that despite her original willingness, and despite her handmaid status, she had a right to change her mind; no one can take a child from his natural mother against her will. However, her change of mind had a price, and it had to be paid: she reverted to being a handmaid.


We need not imagine Sarah’s affliction of Hagar in the form of a whip. Suffice it that Sarah made a firm decision to allow Hagar no leniency in fulfilling her duties, despite her pregnancy. This does involve a certain cruelty and affliction, but considering that the alternative was to allow Hagar to imagine herself as Sarah’s replacement as the principal woman in Avraham’s household, we cannot be certain that Sarah was wrong in behaving in this way, nor that Avraham was wrong in permitting her to do so.


Hagar fled to the fountain of water in the wilderness, on the way to Shur. From her dialogue with the angel it would seem that she did not feel any loss of dignity; as a handmaid from a young age she accepted this exile as her fate – but could not under any circumstances live with the possibility that since she had reverted to being a handmaid, the son born to her would also be a slave. She wanted to raise him free.


Here, too, we might invoke the famous story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, describing a woman slave whose young son was destined to be sold to a different family. She kidnaps him and crosses a river, heading for the states where slavery is not practiced. Just before her death, exhausted by the crossing of the river, she expresses her satisfaction at having saved her son from slavery to mortal masters.


In our text, the angel speaks to Hagar:


“God’s angel said to her: Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her hands… And God’s angel said to her, Behold, you have conceived; you shall bear a son and you shall call his name Yishmael, since God has heard your affliction. And he shall be a wild man (pere adam); his hand shall be against everyone, and everyone’s hand shall be against him, and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.” (16:9-12)


The angel tells Hagar to return to her servitude even though God has heard her affliction. He promises that her aim will be fulfilled and that the son to be born to her will be free. If we adopt the modern understanding of the expression “pere adam," it is difficult to understand in what sense the angel is giving Hagar good news. But according to the original meaning and context of “pere," “pere adam” means a servant who goes free:


“Who has set the wild ass (pere) free, or who has loosened the bonds of the untamed ass (arod), for which I have made the wilderness its home, and the salt land its dwelling? It scorns the tumult of the city and does not heed the shouts of the driver.” (Iyov 39)


At the same time, the angel insists that the son who will be born to Hagar must be born into Avraham’s home; later on we find that he will also be circumcised, and he will forever remain a son of Avraham and will obtain a portion of the land which God has promised to Avraham from the “River of Egypt up to the Euphrates.” To this end Hagar must return and submit herself once again to Sarah. Hagar accepts this, and returns to Sarah’s tent, to wait…


The expulsion of Yishmael


The second narrative that we shall discuss here is the expulsion of Yishmael, following the birth of Yitzchak. We are confronted with the image of Avraham sending off Hagar and Yishmael into the wilderness early in the morning with only some bread and a bottle of water; and the image of the bottle emptied and the child cast under a bush, while his mother weeps at a bowshot distance. These are not pleasant images, and they might paint Avraham and Sarah in a negative light in our imagination.


But this is not the case; God Himself intervenes in this instance, and it is He Who commands Avraham to follow this course of action:


“God said to Avraham, ‘Let it not be wrong in your eyes concerning the boy and concerning your handmaid; in all that Sarah says to you – listen to her” (21:12).


Heaven forefend that God Himself should commit an injustice!


Before addressing God’s role in the episode of Hagar and Yishmael, let us go back to the role of Sarah, while Avraham is still against the idea of the expulsion:


“Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she [Hagar] had borne to Avraham, mocking (metzachek). And she said to Avraham, ‘Send away this handmaid and her son, for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak.’” (21:9)


What does the Torah mean when it describes Yishmael as “mocking”? According to the midrash, what we are supposed to understand from this is that Yishmael engaged in idolatry, forbidden sexual relations, and killing. On its simplest level, the term “metzachek” means to smile. But perhaps the smile here was crooked – as we shall see below.


For fourteen years, Yishmael grew up in Avraham’s home as an only child and the single heir. Everyone had already given up hope of Sarah ever bearing a son for Avraham. For Yishmael, Yitzchak’s birth came as an unbearably heavy blow. Every first child is anguished by the birth of a younger sibling who is his rival for the exclusive attention to which he has become accustomed. However, from Yishmael’s point of view, his specific situation here was much worse: he now stands to lose not only his father’s exclusive attention, but also the huge inheritance that awaited him – as well as his status as a free man, as Avraham’s sole heir. All at once, Yishmael once again become a slave forever to the family and to the newborn infant. While everyone else is rejoicing, Sarah, with her sharp perception, sees Yishmael looking at Yitzchak. Behind his smile she reads his hostility and his intention to be rid of Yitzchak before he ever has a chance to grow up.


It would seemingly be an easy task: a single moment of inattention of Sarah’s part and Yishmael could smother the baby with a pillow, leaving no trace of his action. The tragedy would be put down to “crib death," and Yishmael’s status as sole heir in Avraham’s household would be restored.


Sarah’s expression, “for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Yitzchak," may also be interpreted as “shall not agree to inherit with” – and will do whatever he can in order to obtain the entire inheritance for himself. In any event, Sarah cannot permit Yishmael to remain in the home if she wishes to protect Yitzchak.


Avraham does not suspect Yishmael of any such evil intentions, but God supports Sarah’s view. However, it would seem that God views the action that Avraham should take in a different light. What Sarah tells Avraham is “garesh” (cast out), while what Avraham actually does is “va-yeshalcha” (he sent her off). Both expressions also appear in the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden, and there too each expression means something different. “Gerush” (casting out) means being thrown out of one’s home. “Shiluach” (sending off) means freeing from bonds. The same two expressions appear again in the context of divorce. Standing under the chuppa (marriage canopy) a husband draws his bride into his home, as it were; in divorce he casts her out of the home. Through kiddushin (betrothal) he bound his wife to himself; now he sends her off, removing the bonds, rendering her permissible and available to someone else.


The act of sending off Hagar and Yishmael was at the same time the act of setting them free from the status of servitude. God demands this of Avraham as a continuation of the angel’s promise to Hagar on the way to Shur – that her son would be a “pere adam” – a slave who has been freed.


One might still wonder at the cruelty of sending off a woman and her son into the barren wilderness – but at the same time we view the sending off of Bnei Yisrael into the barren wilderness of Sinai as redemption. At times of crisis, such as in Refidim, the people who had left Egypt indeed wallowed in self-pity for having set off into such an inhospitable place, instead of remaining enslaved in Egypt, in a land full of food and water. But they were wrong: the freedom to which they had emerged justified all the hardships of journeying through the wilderness.


Still, one may argue, one cannot compare the situation of Yishmael to that of Bnei Yisrael, who enjoyed God’s constant assistance and protection throughout their journey. We may point out that God heard Yishmael’s voice, too. But what of Avraham’s behavior? He sent Hagar into the barren wilderness without knowing of the miracle that would happen to her.


From the text it would appear that Avraham sent Hagar off to the same place where she fled from Sarah years previously, to the fountain on the way to Shur. This was a well-known crossroads, with water and food to live on. It was for this reason that Hagar fled to there, intending to live there. Now, at least fourteen years later, Hagar reaches the same place but fails to locate the well, the fountain, and thus Yishmael comes close to death from thirst. God opens her eyes and she discovers the water. She is thereby able to continue living there until Yishmael grows up, and God is with him.