The Bible’s stories tell of lives lived so long ago, in such a different clime, we look for difference and find types of ourselves.
There are the women of today who choose to be childless, and there are women for whom childlessness is a calamity. Does their calamity compare with that of the Bible’s barren women? Sarah is born into a new, underpopulated world and commanded to multiply; the fear of our day is overpopulation; some cultures hope to stave off starvation by mandating one child per family.
Barren Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel belong to the main branch of the dynasty God has chosen to fulfill His plan. And what would become of the story if Hannah had not gotten to give Samuel birth? God’s narrative strategy withholds the longed-for child long enough to make its miraculous birth extra wonderful.
Habit of thought inclines us to think the biblical woman dependent on her menfolk with no recourse but to pray, hope and wait, but that’s not what the stories say. Except for Rebecca, who becomes pregnant after Isaac prays to God about it, the women are remarkably proactive in their reproductive lives. There are Lot’s two daughters who, in an unpromising situation, resort to raping their father with the express intention to not live childless, and to preserve the family seed — seed destined to produce hostile cousins to trouble Israel’s future. Interesting that Hannah (and Mary for that matter) deal with angelic messengers out of sight of their menfolk. Barren Rachel and Sarah use a stratagem common in their day as it is in ours: motherhood by proxy. Both women arrange for their husbands to sexually know their slave women, whom the wives can hold on their laps to metaphorically birth sons for themselves.
This is the mystery of story: Whether we believe in the existence of these characters or not, we believe in their feelings and in what they say and do. Fecund Penninah teases and mocks her co-wife, barren Hannah, whom their husband loves and spoils with extra good things to eat. With the birth of one son after another, Leah hopes to gain the love of Jacob. (Since this doesn’t work she gets herself more sons by her maidservant.) But Jacob goes on loving barren Rachel. When Rachel nags him to give her a child, he gets irritated. It’s not his fault, for heaven’s sake! These events smell of human behavior as we know it.
Time for Midrash: There are so many human elements in the Sarah-Hagar-Abraham triangle. You can choose to ignore them if you need our spiritual ancestors to have been purely virtuous. Here is Sarah, her biological clock ticking, her belly and arms empty year after year after year, stigmatized in her own eyes by failing her husband, failing her tribe’s destiny. She acts out of her despair to provide herself with a proxy son, but what has seemed a good idea when it was an idea turns, as things do tend to do, into an untenable reality. Here is Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant/slave, available for Sarah’s purpose. How can Hagar, her master’s lover and pregnant with his child, resist the delicious temptation to be rude and lord it over the childless wife, her old mistress? It’s downstairs against upstairs added to latent enmity between Egyptian and Hebrew. It is payback time. Ishmael is born. If it’s a myth, it’s one we believe: Couples who adopt become promptly pregnant. Isaac is born. The two boys play and laugh together, and Sarah can’t stand it. Sarah is hurt enough, angry enough to pay back the Other Woman by sending her and her child into that wilderness which was to destroy a later generation of Israelites. But why does Abraham acquiesce? This is the first of two sons he is required to sacrifice. Does he, like Samson, succumb to the woman’s 24-hour day-in, day-out nagging? The narrative goes to lengths to show us Abraham’s reluctance and his tenderness: It turns the teenage Ishmael into a little boy so that we get to imagine Abraham lifting him, along with as much water as a woman can carry, onto Hagar’s back.
And always there are the deliberately unfathomable acts of the character called God: He bids Abraham to follow Sarah’s wishes and banish his mistress and her child to death by thirst and starvation, but sends His angel to save her and save Ishmael, progenitor of the Ishmaelites, another tribe to be pricks in the flesh and thorns in the eyes of the children’s children’s children of his legitimate half-brother, Isaac.