This week on “Things Katie Learned from the Bible”: The whole child-by-proxy/Ishmael thing was only possible because Abram had lied to Pharaoh.
Background. Abram (later renamed Abraham) was married to his half-sister Sarai (later, Sarah) [Gen 20:12]. They lived in Canaan and, at one point, a local famine became so bad that they fled to Egypt (Gen 12:10). If this sounds familiar, but not with these names, that’s because something similar happens to Joseph’s family later in Genesis (chapter 43).
Sarai’s really beautiful. And because of her beauty and of how terrible men can be, Abram’s afraid the Egyptians will kill him so they can rape Sarai. So, Abram instructs her to lie and say that she is his sister, not his wife. (12:11-13)
Egyptians do notice Sarai’s beauty, officials tell Pharaoh all about her beauty (not her, mind you), and then Pharaoh wants her in his harem. So, he gives a bunch of stuff and animals—and also male and female slaves—to Abram, and generally treats him well, in exchange for his alleged sister Sarai. (12:15-16)
Now God gets ticked and sends plagues upon Pharaoh’s household (12:17). Apparently God’s the only one (other than Sarai) who doesn’t want her to be raped. When disasters befall you, you naturally wonder why, and somehow Pharaoh figures out that these plagues are because he’s been lied to and then took a married woman into his harem.
So now Pharaoh is ticked and calls Abram before him. Basically, he shouts, “What the hell, man?” (12:18-19). If Abram explains, it doesn’t hold any more weight with Pharaoh as it does with me. Then Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the region—if not the world at that time—an absolute ruler with power to take anything he wants at a mere word…let’s them go. Technically, he tells Abram to take his wife and get out (12:19). That seems rather generous, but Pharaoh’s priority was stopping whatever illnesses and suffering had come upon his household, and he wasn’t interested in risking further suffering by harming Abram for being such a callous, yellow-bellied, faithless liar. And although Pharaoh is framed as a victim here, let’s not lose track of Sarai, the real victim.
Abram does as Pharaoh commanded, leaving with Sarai and “all that he had” (12:20). Although it’s not said outright, it’s very likely that the Egyptian slave Hagar was one of those given to Abram. After all, Abram came to Egypt poor and is now leaving well off, if not rich. And there’s no mention I’ve seen of them returning to Egypt at any point, though we know from Joseph’s story two generations later that slave traders traveled between Canaan and Egypt (Gen 37).
Some years later—before pulling this mess all over again in Gen 20 with King Abimelech—God promises Abram and Sarai that they’ll have a baby (Gen 15:5; 18:10). There’s some laughter along the way, some disbelief, but they’re excited. And, by the way, I’d eavesdrop on my husband’s in-tent meetings if he once traded me to another man. (Gen 18)
After a while of continued infertility, Sarai gets impatient. Presumably Abram is, too, because he agrees when Sarai tells Abram to have children with her Egyptian slave Hagar. Sarai is planning to claim those children as her own. (Gen 16:1-2)
Sarai has probably been working out for a while how she can be infertile and past menopause, but going to have a child. This Egyptian woman is not past menopause, and we know from Jacob/Israel’s many children by his two wives and their various slaves that having a child-by-proxy was a practice of the times.
But once Hagar is pregnant, after Ishmael is born, and even after Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac is also born, Sarah is incredibly jealous of Hagar. Hagar doesn’t act perfectly either. But on top of instructing her husband to repeatedly Hagar, Sarah mistreats Hagar so badly that she runs away once and is sent away once. Hagar could have died both times, but apparently God is the only one who cares that Abram raped her and Sarah orchestrated it. God saves her and promises to bless her son (16:1-12; 17:20). Hagar names God, “The God Who Sees Me” (16:13).
Now, you may be a bit edgy, even outright upset, because I have twice stated that women were raped in these stories, one by a patriarch, and the Bible’s usual language for this [“laid with her by force” (Gen 34:2; Deut 22:25); or “violated” (2 Sam 13:14)] is absent. So let’s have a little refresher on consent.
Consent means that both parties in any sort of exchange, but especially a sexual one, verbally agree to the proceedings and the way in which they will happen. If I’m exchanging money for vegetables at the grocery store, the grocery store and I both agree on the amount I’ll give, the number and kinds of carrots I’ll take, when possession will shift, that I’ll use modern and legal US currency. We also agree that I can return the uneaten, undamaged carrots and receive the same amount of money back, but I cannot return half-eaten carrots for the money. Neither can the store compel me to return the carrots. Both parties have power and rights and the ability to make choices about the exchange and terms. I have the power to refuse to pay the price the store demands. I have the right to return the carrots.
In a sexual relationship, power is extremely important. “By force” is aptly used in the Bible to convey that the physical power between the people was not equal and was not used equally for a consensual exchange. However, that is not the only kind of power at play. And let’s remember that rape is sexual intercourse with a person when that person refuses or is incapable of giving consent. Someone incapable of giving consent might be unconscious, for example. A slave is incapable of giving consent to a master or other member of the oppressive group because a slave has no social power. Neither does a slave have the legal right to refuse anything that their master demands.
Remember Joseph? Potipher’s wife tried to compel him to have sex with her, and Joseph had the physical power to flee. However, he had no social power and no rights, so his word was not believed when she accused him of rape and he was jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. (Gen 39)
Therefore, a slave of any kind cannot consent to a sexual relationship with their master. Or to anyone the master “gives” them to. This includes Sarai to Pharoah, Hagar to Abram. There cannot be consent because neither Sarai nor Hagar had any social power to refuse. As a concubine, Sarai had no rights in Pharaoh’s haram. As a slave, Hagar had no rights in Sarai (really, Abram’s) household.
How else does this concept apply?
Well, let’s look at Esther. Yes, she became the queen and saved the Jewish people. But she did not have equal power with her husband. She did not have equal power with any Persian, particularly when the edict against Jews was written (Esther 3:12-15). Remember how afraid she was to go before her husband? Especially because she hadn’t been summoned in a month (4:11). Remember how long she prays and fasts before doing so, stating “If I perish, I perish?” (4:14; 16). She has some social power in the court, but her power is still no where equal to her husband’s. This is especially true when she first had her one night with the king (Esther 2). She’d been taken from her home and family by force (2:8). She had no rights and no possibility to leave. Because she did not have equal rights and power to the king, she could not consent to a sexual relationship. Therefore, she was raped.
Let’s come forward in history a bit. Sally Hemings was not Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his slave. She could not consent. She was repeatedly raped and forced to have and raise several of his children. When Jefferson was made ambassador to France during the Revolution, he took Sally with him to France, where slavery was illegal. She had no rights or power to refuse to go to France, and still had no social power once she got there. She was paid a wage so small she wouldn’t have even been able to afford a trinket sold on the street.
When Jefferson was returning to Virginia at the end of the war, he gave Sally, and perhaps other slaves, the opportunity to stay in France as a free person. However, Sally chose to return to Monticello. Why? She was a pregnant 16-year-old in a country she did not know and in which she could not speak the language. She had no friends or opportunities, no means of supporting herself or her child, and Jefferson still owned her entire family. He could do anything to them in retribution for her staying in France. And even if he didn’t, she would never have seen them again if she stayed in France. She likely wouldn’t have survived. If she’d lived long enough to see the French Revolution, her life may well have looking a lot like Fantine’s in Les Miserables. So no, Sally was not his mistress. Theirs was not a love story. And neither was Hagar and Abram’s or Sarai and Pharaoh’s.
In another vein, have you read any books, or heard about any advertised, in which a Jew falls in love with a Nazi during WWII? There are a few. I know of one that won a major Christian romance award. But the two main characters do not have equal power or rights, so true consent was not possible. I call shenanigans. And I’m not the only one. Jews and many, many members of various marginalized groups spoke strongly against the book and against it winning awards. This isn’t a love story. It’s a rape story. It’s romanticizing the rape of Jews who did—and did not—survive WWII. At the expense of today’s very real, very alive Jewish community, by the way.
To return to my original point, the whole garbage fire of a situation in Genesis 20 is only possible because Abram lied to Pharaoh and risked his wife being raped, which he did because he was scared for himself.