Sarai's and the Surrogate Mother
Since it was socially acceptable for Sarai (Sarah) to use her slave girl as a surrogate mother, why did it cause such a mess? Are there any lessons for us today?
We need a little background first. Sarai was concerned that she and Abram were not having the children God promised Abram. So she stepped in and took control by offering her slave-girl, Hagar, to Abram as a surrogate mother. As mentioned in the question, this was an acceptable custom. But Sarai couldn't predict how she would feel if her plan worked. And it did work.
When Hagar gets pregnant, she looks "with contempt on her mistress" (Gen 16:4 NRSV). Why? Perhaps Hagar feels superior to her mistress, since having a child increased her status. But she could be upset at Sarai for forcing her to give up the child she's carrying in her womb. Hagar doesn't have a choice. She's a slave. Whatever her feelings, Hagar treats Sarai in a way that is disrespectful.
It is quite possible that Sarai feels hurt or self-righteous or something in-between. We do know that Sarai gets angry at Abram, telling him it's his fault for not making Hagar respect her (Sarna 120). Abram responds by telling Sarai that she can treat Hagar as she pleases.
In The Feminine Spirit, Lynne Bundesen interprets Abram's response: "Abram also recognizes that it is not up to him to resolve this situation. He tells Sarai it is up to her to figure this out. She has been and is in charge. She is responsible for her own conscious understanding of God" (38).
What does Sarai do? She treats Hagar "harshly," and Hagar flees (16:6). While the writer of this story doesn't make a judgment on Sarai's or Hagar's emotions or actions (simply reporting the "facts"), we can look at the outcome and make some observations of our own.
It seems that Sarai, who truly was an amazing woman and whom Abram respected and consulted, made a mistake when she relied on human reasoning -- offering up Hagar rather than trusting in divine guidance. Then she compounded the problem by treating Hagar poorly, reacting to Hagar with defensive anger rather than appreciation or compassion.
Should she have treated Hagar harshly? No. Her reaction is understandable, but not acceptable. When people treat us poorly, it only makes the situation worse when we react with anger, resentment, or hatred. People don't make good choices when they give into emotions, such as impatience, fear, desire for recognition, willfulness, control, anger, frustration. Sarai's behavior is no exception. And Abram's apparent silence on this issue isn't exemplary either.
Sarai didn't know that God was planning great things for her later on in her life. Sarai didn't trust God to work things out in a heavenly way -- on a divine, not a human, timetable. Almost fifteen years later, Sarai, with the new name of Sarah, bears Abram a son, Isaac.
What can we learn from all this?
- We mess things up when we resort to human reasoning rather than divine guidance.
- Regardless of how others treat us, we need to treat them with respect.
- It's never too late to be redeemed and make positive changes.
- It's important to remember that God is in charge of our lives.
- Patience is a virtue that brings happiness and joy.
- God's plan for us truly is good, even if we can't see it right now.
- God will always find a way to bless us and everyone.
One more note: Sarai (Sarah) was a remarkable woman who made a couple of major mistakes. We have the opportunity to learn from her mistakes and not make the same ones. We also can find comfort knowing that God will help us recover from our mistakes. If we're open to the blessings God is sending, we'll find that whatever the situation, we can come out of it stronger, more compassionate, and more sure of God's control.
Bundesen, Lynne. The Feminine Spirit: Recapturing the Heart of Scripture. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2007.
Sarna, Nahum. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.