Hagar’s Story as a Story of Class Conflict

One of my favorite stories in the Old Testament is the Hagar’s story found in Genesis 16. This story has been read as an etiological tribal story of the Ishmaelites after H. Gunkel suggested, but it is a story on “the struggle between the two women” (Van Seters, 192-96). What struggle is this story? Is this a class struggle or a family struggle? The story demonstrates a family struggle of Abram’s two wives as presented in the story. It reflects an ancient family conflict, consisted of a beginning, a body, and a resoultion. The three main characters in this story, Hagar, Sarai, and Abram, are husband and wives. John Goldingay sees that the story falls into three scenes: (1) Sarai’s scheme of surrogate motherhood (vv 2-6), (2) Hagar’s encounter with the angel (vv 7-14), and (3) the birth of Ishmael (v 15). He diagrams the structure of the story as follows:  
The Story Structure of Hagar's Story
The Story Structure of Hagar’s Story (Goldingay, Genesis 16-50, 4)

Abrams’ family conflict begins with the problem of his wife Sarai’s barrenness because of her “old age” and ends with the solution stating Abram’s “old age.” In the midst of the story, however, Hagar is portrayed as a pivotal character in all three scenes: Scene 1- Hagar and Sarai; Scene 2- Hagar and an Angel; and Scene 3- Hagar and Ishmael.

What does this story of family conflict disclose about the life of ancient Israel? In ancient civilization, a woman’s self-worth and social status revolved around her family. While Sarai is considered superior in many aspects, her barrenness brings shame to her family. Sarai’s dialogue with Abram in Gen 16:2 demonstrates well this ancient custom: “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (NRSV, my emphasis). Sarai sees this as the social custom of having a child through a surrogate (see C. F. Fensham, “The Son of a Handmaid in Northwest Semitic,” VT 19 [(1969]: 312-21).

But the story reveals more a class conflict than a family struggle; it seems that a family struggle comprises many social aspects of conflict. In her article, “A Mistress, A Maid, and No Mercy” in Just A Sister Away (San Diego, California: 1988), Renita J. Weems describes the different social status of the two women: 

Comparision between Sarai and Hagar

Comparision between Sarai and Hagar

Hagar is more higher status in that of the ancient society as reflected in the story by contrasting Hagar’s fertility and Sarai’s barrenness. However, Hagar is Sarai’s property. The story could be understood as a story of ethnic prejudice that was made worse by economic and social exploitation as Weems states as follows:

Like our own situation, the stroy of the Egpytian Hagar and the Hebrew Sarai encompasses more than ethnic prejudice. There is a story of ethnic prejudice by economic and sexual exploitation. There is a story of conflict, women betraying women, mother conspiring against mothers. Theirs is a story of social rivalry (p. 2).

Weems stresses that the social equality has always been problem not just for black against white women, but all races, colors, and ethnic background, as Sharon P. Jeansonne proposes to read Hagar’s story as a story of “powerless foreigner.” In American history, this would be comparable to the rich white landowner and the poor black slave.

I assigned my students to write a reflection paper on Weems’ article in the inaugural week of the first black president, Barack Obama. Most students appreciated that they were assigned to read the article since they currently face to the transitional period from the Bush administration to the Obama administration. One of the parts of the paper should be included the concepts/ideas of the article for analyzing our contemporary society. Many students mentioned the major successes by electing their first black president, Barack Obama. I quote one of the students’ refleciton on the article:

I have pondered since the inauguration on how significant of an event this is, and in the Middle East, and terrorism in our nations to elect this man as president, and hope for a new way of life.

The students believe that America is in store for a new begining after the inauguration of their new president.

Reference List

Jeansonne, Sharon Pace. The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife. Minneaspolis: Fortress Press, 1990: 43-52.

Van Seters, John. Abraham in History. Yale Univ. Press, 1975.

Weems, Renita J. “A Mistress, A Maid, and No Mercy,” Pages 1-21 in Just A Sister Away. San Diego, California: Lura Media, 1988. 

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. WBC. Dallas : Word, Incorporated.