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LEAH AND HAGAR: An Intergenerational Conversation of Belonging.


The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the patriarchal recitation and reminder of the biblical covenant with the Deity. But what about the God of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel? These matriarchs are too often neglected in not only the stories of the Torah, but in theology, historical analysis, academic work, and exegetical commentary. They have a less significant role, with no place of their own in the androcentric confines of the Abrahamic religions. So then, if these matriarchs are dominated by the reigning men of the Hebrew Bible, where do other women fit into the story? What about the God of Hagar, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah? What of these "less significant" women--the women who are hated, mistreated, and abandoned in the biblical text?

In recent feminist scholarship, there has been a concerted effort to bring more attention to these women and create a space where their roles, lives, dreams, heartaches, and deaths are explored by scholars. (1) Alice Bach, Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Phyllis Trible lift up numerous women of the Bible to intentionally remember and revitalize their oft overlooked contributions and negotiate feminist ways of approaching ancient texts. In her newest work, Nyasha Junior offers a reception history of Hagar as a Black woman, examining the influence of cultural-historical interpretation of Hagar in Black communities. Tammi J. Schneider finds that a closer reading of the text challenges hegemonic readings and interpretations of women; revealing Hagar, for example, to be embodied by opposites--slave and free, oppressed and favored by the Deity--making her a highly complex figure that is emblematic of the human condition. (2) Jerry Rabow weaves together interpretations of Leah found in the biblical text and midrash to expose a much fuller and more heroic picture of the commonly forgotten matriarch.

This article seeks to contribute to this same scholarship of recognition by focusing on two seemingly unrelated women: Leah, the "unloved" (Gen. 29:31) wife of Jacob, and Hagar, Sarah's slave (3) and mother to Abraham's firstborn son. In Genesis 29-31, Leah is the woman that Jacob, son of Isaac, is deceived into marrying after serving seven years for marriage to Leah's younger sister, Rachel. After Jacob marries Rachel as well, Rachel grapples with infertility for many years while Leah is able to have many children. Both Leah and Rachel also have children through their maids, Zilpah and Bilhah respectively. Hagar's story is found in Genesis 16-18 and 21, where she is given to Abraham by Sarai, her sterile owner, to provide a son in fulfillment of the covenant established with the Deity in Genesis 15. Upon conceiving, Hagar is mistreated by Sarai and flees, until the Deity instructs her to return to Sarai. Ultimately, Sarah births Isaac, completing the covenant, and Hagar and Ishmael are banished from Abraham's house permanently. (4)

The striking resemblances between their stories throw into sharp relief the connection between the two women and force a reconsideration of how these stories have historically been read. In reading these epics together, light shines on the other and an intergenerational conversation forms between two unwanted women. Bernadette Brooten enjoins scholars researching women to "place women at the center of the frame" and that by doing so "a different constellation of...cultural milieu and social world will emerge." (5) Traditional scholarship that even mentions Leah and Hagar understands them adjacent almost exclusively to Jacob and Abraham. This article seeks to intentionally put Leah and Hagar at the "center of the frame."

Three distinct categories serve as a useful structure with which to explore the two matriarchs: their relationships with the other wives; their relationships with their husbands, the patriarchs; and lastly, their relationships with the Deity. The first category will explore interrelated themes with the other wives, such as fertility and sterility; jealousy and perceptions of threat; and an ensuing competition for children. The second category will address Leah and Hagar's relationship to their husbands, evaluating areas such as the women's (un)desirability in the eyes of their husbands; issues around firstborn sons; and chosenness, sex relations, and feminine agency. The last category of analysis will examine the matriarchs' relationship to the Deity in the ways the Deity interacts with them and, at times, the ambivalent nature of the Deity's care for Leah and Hagar.

Relationship to the co-wife

Leah and Hagar are characters that stand in relation to others, rarely standing independently as their own person. Even as Leah is first introduced as a character in Genesis 29:16, she is described as the elder daughter of Laban and older sister to Rachel. (6) In Genesis 16:1, the same pattern emerges as Hagar is introduced to the reader through her position and her functionality: "Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar." Since Leah and Hagar's relationship with the other wife is so prominent, this is the first relationship to be considered.

Fertility and sterility are main themes that circulate Leah and Hagar's connection to their co-wives. Genesis 29:31 states, "When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, he opened her womb." Leah's womb is opened by the Deity due precisely to her subordinate, even hated, status in the polygamous marriage between Leah, Rachel, and Jacob, while Rachel continues to struggle with sterility (29:31). Rachel appeals angrily to Jacob for not providing her with children and he rebukes her asking, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" (30:2). It is clear in these passages that the Deity alone is the arbiter of fertility and barrenness.

Nyasha Junior shares that Hagar's narrative includes "tension between multiple characters, and highlights questions of ethnicity, age, fertility, inheritance, [and] obedience," making an excellent model for "concerns regarding inclusion and exclusion." (7) This unique situatedness is exemplified from the beginning of Hagar's polycoity (8) relationship, as her only pathway to becoming Abram's wife is strictly through her owner's sterility (16:1). Hagar is more an instrument than a person; her sole role is to build up her mistress through her supposed fecundity. (9) Genesis 16:2 reveals Sarai's intention behind providing Abram with her slave, not to procure him a son or even to fulfill the covenant, but to provide herself with children. Sarai is her own concern as it pertains to bearing a future generation, yet again instrumentalizing Hagar's body. The reader also never sees Sarai speak directly to Hagar nor even refer to her by name, perpetuating the intentional distancing between the two wives first created by the utilization of Hagar's reproductive system.

Both of these women are defined by their ability to bear children to the patriarch, and defined over and against the other wife's inability to do so. In that sense, the Deity, "ensures the fertility of the unloved while restricting it for the loved so that no woman has the full gamut of joy and fortune." (10) This is their explicit role to fulfill in the polygamous marriages, but it does not necessarily follow that their lives are elevated by fulfilling this role.

In a reversal of traditional sensibilities, the value and honor that would normally be bestowed upon a wife who bears sons instead harnesses contempt on Leah and Hagar, increasing their burdens. Rachel's jealousy of Leah increases with every child Leah brings forth, and functions as the motivation for Rachel giving her slave, Bilhah, to Jacob in order to create a lineage for herself (Gen. 30:1, 8). The text mentions twice that Leah is hated, but it is unclear as to who is doing the hating--Rachel or Jacob or both. The text is clear, however, that Leah has earned Rachel's envy and that Rachel intends to best her sister however she can.

The discord in relationships continues with Hagar's affliction at the hands of Sarai. Cuneiform texts of the second and first millennia B.C.E. attest to the custom of using a female slave to bear children for a sterile wife. A marriage contract from Anatolia dating to around 1900 B.C.E. stipulates that the wife will buy a slave woman for the husband if the wife does not provide a child within two years. (11) Although Hagar is essentially a "womb-with-legs" (12) she does not reflexively see herself in that reductionist light, as evidenced by the way she "looked with contempt on her mistress" upon conceiving (16:4). Sarai views Hagar's attitude toward her as threatening, especially considering her place in the family as the barren wife. Hagar is the object of Sarai's wrath--voracious enough that Hagar's preferred option is to flee the household in the middle of her pregnancy (16:6). (13) Leah and Hagar incur the acrimony of the other wife in the process of fulfilling their larger roles as son-bearing-wives, caught at the nexus of a veritable quagmire.

Lastly, there exists a competition around babies that neither Leah nor Hagar seem particularly interested in, but one with which the co-wives are quite preoccupied. The text never shows Leah obsessing over having the first son before Rachel, or even more children than Rachel. (14) In fact, according to midrash about Leah's last birth, a daughter named Dinah, Leah specifically prays that the baby is a girl so that Rachel may conceive and bear a son. (15) In Genesis 30:18, Leah's motivation for giving her slave, Zilpah, to Jacob is in hopes of having more children, not to participate in the race for children but to win the heart of Jacob. In contrast, Rachel equates having no children to death, and Leah is clearly the nucleus around which Rachel's longing for children oscillates (30:1). Rachel chooses to rectify her situation by providing her slave, Bilhah, to Jacob so that Rachel may "have children through her" (30:3-4). Since Jacob already has children vis-a-vis Leah, Rachel is not obligated to do this. (16) This supports the argument that Rachel's desire to have children is more personally motivated; centered more firmly on the fertility competition with her sister than on securing a lineage for Jacob. Again, this impetus is repeated when Rachel quickly declares victory over Leah upon the birth of Bilhah's second son, naming him Naphtali, or "I have prevailed." Rachel affirms, "With mighty wrestlings I have wrestled with my sister, and have prevailed" (Gen. 30:8), despite Leah having four children, and four sons at that.

Likewise, Hagar is caught up in a race to provide Abram with children not only for progeny's sake but, more importantly, to fulfill the Deity's covenant with Abram; for until chapter 17, the Deity is not clear that the covenant will be established with the child born of Sarah. From that revelation forward, the conflict shifts from bearing children to Sarah securing Isaac's place as covenant-fulfiller and inheritance-receiver over Hagar's child, Ishmael. As is the case with Leah, the text never reveals any competitive spirit on the part of Hagar, but the text does illuminate Sarah's triumphant move as she demands Abraham to "cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac" (21:10). Leah and Hagar possess little agency with whom they have children, both in the biological sense (Jacob and Abraham) and in the household sense (Rachel and Sarah). To be the fertile wife in both of the triangles immediately sets up a dichotomy against the backdrop of the sterile primary wife, which culminates in an unwanted (on the part of Leah and Hagar) fertility contest.

Leah and Hagar's relationships with their co-wives are fraught with difficulties and complications, with "each [having] the outside perspective to the other's experience." (17) The women's lack of agency in their own lives is exhibited through the absence of choice regarding whom they marry--husband and co-wife alike. Even in their own story they are not understood as main characters with defining attributes and contributions, outside of what they can offer that the primary wife cannot. These two women successfully fulfill the expectations placed upon them by providing firstborn sons to their husbands. This would traditionally elevate their status and establish social capital, but instead, it brings them misfortune, particularly around their relationship to the other wife. Lastly, almost as a result of fulfilling their roles well, Leah and Hagar are thrust into a competition for children with the co-wife that the text does not indicate they want nor consciously participate in, but nonetheless one that contributes to their precarious situations.

Relationship to the husband

Leah and Hagar's relationship to their husbands, Jacob and Abraham, is a complicated one at best. The relationships are characterized by abandonment, issues of progeny, and a clear lack of being chosen. The husbands' treatment of Leah and Hagar demonstrates that they are not the primary wife, and their value is such that they are easily discarded--Leah emotionally and Hagar physically. Although both the women give birth to the first son of their husband, this does not afford them the approval that is to be expected. Lastly, neither of the women are chosen by their husbands to be a wife, but are inserted into the men's lives nonetheless.

Not only are Leah and Hagar not regarded favorably by their co-wives, they are also discarded by their respective husbands. Leah is abandoned in an emotional sense, as she is not loved by Jacob. This is clearly exhibited in Genesis 29:31-34, as the naming speeches of Leah's first three sons consistently revolve around the fact that she is not loved by her husband: Reuben or "See, a son," Simeon or "Because the Lord has heard that I am hated, he has given this son also", and Levi or "Now this time my husband will be joined to me, because I have borne him three sons." (18)

It is also evident that Leah is not Jacob's preferred sexual partner, since Leah has to purchase a night with Jacob from Rachel with Reuben's mandrakes (30:15). Leah turns the loss of sexual agency into its very reclamation when she uses the advantage the mandrakes provide to gain control; Leah once again reverses the traditional sexual prowess in her relationship with Jacob. In their first sexual encounter, Leah is the "knower" and not the typical "known", and Jacob is the "known" rather than the typical "knower." Here, the sexual encounter is purchased by a woman (instead of a man) and the man (not a woman) is the commodity acquired. In this instance, the woman is also the one initiating the sexual encounter (instead of a man) and the man acquiesces to what is requested of him (instead of a woman). Leah adroitly pursues a remedy for her emotional abandonment through whatever recourse is available to her, namely through the successful provision of sons and through manufacturing sexual access to Jacob.

Relatedly, Hagar is not only cast aside, she is cast out--twice. Sarai's mistreatment leads Hagar to flee to the wilderness of Shur the first time (Gen. 16:7-8), and the second time, she is cast out at the behest of Sarah who does not want Ishmael to inherit in the same way as her son Isaac (21:15). Hers is a very literal abandonment by the patriarch. Interestingly, Hagar's name is also never used by Abram either, representing an abandonment of her personhood by the very people who own her personhood.

While Leah longs to be accepted by her husband, this sentiment is not observed with Hagar, who reciprocally rejects her rejecter. This difference in approach may be attributed to their differing statuses in the relationship: Leah as true (yet secondary) wife, and Hagar as slave child-bearer. Leah has a clearer--although still murky--relationship to the patriarch, and therefore has more invested in the success of the relationship. Hagar's even murkier standing as slave/mother-of-the-firstborn-son produces less investment, allowing room for more dissention. Through this, Hagar emerges as the true counter-weight to Abraham's distinction as a character, even more so than Sarah. She is spoken to by the Deity, as is Abraham (16:11-12; 12:1-2); her son is the receiver of a divine promise, as is Abraham's (17:20; 17:19); her son is saved by the Deity's intervention, as is Abraham's (21:19-20; 22:12); she chooses a wife for her son, as does Abraham (21:21; 22:2-4); (19) and she is the ancestor of twelve nations, as is Abraham (17:20; 35:22-26). Counterintuitively, Hagar with the title "slave" can be seen as more equivalent in relation to the patriarch than Leah with the title "wife."

Metaphorically, both Leah and Hagar are abandoned in their deaths, which reveals a lack of regard toward the women. Both of their deaths are silently passed over in the text, but both Rachel and Sarah's are specifically noted (35:18; the whole of chapter 23, respectively). Neither Leah nor Hagar hold a place of prominence in the eyes of their husbands and their (un)desirability facilitates this discarding.

Not only are Leah and Hagar deserted by their husbands, they are also divested of the traditional advantages that accompany birthing sons. Issues of progeny feature prominently in both stories, as both of the matriarchs give birth to their husbands' firstborn, and firstborn sons at that (16:15; 29:31). A woman's worth in a marriage is cemented by her reproductive capabilities, not only because it increases her husband's lineage but also owing to the economic augmentation of the family's workforce. (20) In a culture where this is held in high esteem, both Leah and Hagar should be reaping the social benefits that come with the status of being the mother of the firstborn son. However, it is clear this is not the case with Leah and Hagar. Leah understandably believes that providing Jacob a son will earn her what she most desires, Jacob's love, saying, "Surely my husband will love me now" (29:32). Instead of addressing this point, the text immediately moves on to Leah's second conception (29:33). Despite Leah giving birth to Jacob's first son, Reuben, and despite the six sons she ultimately carries and births, it is never revealed that Jacob loves her in return. By the birth of her fourth son, Judah, Leah effectively abandons this linkage between sons and love from her husband, saying, "This time I will praise the Lord" (29:35). Leah's sons are born with the job of cultivating a loving relationship between their parents in the absence of one, but the text does not reveal that this is ever accomplished.

The narrative never affirms that Hagar longs for anything except to flee from Sarai's wrath (16:7-8) and for her son to live after they are cast out of Abraham's house the final time (21:15). Although Ishmael is born under the notion that he will be Sarai and Abram's son, interestingly, Genesis 16:11 shows that this son is promised to Hagar, not Abram or Sarai. From the beginning of the story to the end, Ishmael is squarely under Hagar's jurisdiction. Despite this, Abraham has a meaningful connection with the child. Abraham advocates twice for Ishmael, pleading with the Deity, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" (17:18) and again in Genesis 21:11. As Abraham fights for his son with one hand, he rejects him with the other. Both Abraham and the Deity reject Ishmael as the son who fulfills the covenant (17:19), and Abraham ultimately complies when he is called upon to eject Hagar and Ishmael from his household (21:14). In fact, it appears that Ishmael, not Hagar, is the reason behind their banishment from Abraham's house (21:9-10). As it pertains to Leah and Hagar's relationship with their husbands, successfully conceiving and bearing sons worsens their predicament instead of alleviating their difficulties, inverting the traditional cultural precept. (21)

In both narratives, Jacob and Abram play an active role in choosing their primary wife, Rachel and Sarai, and do not play such a role as it pertains to Leah and Hagar. In fact, in something resembling a perverse sort of parity, neither Leah and Hagar nor the patriarchs choose to marry each other. There are some differences between the two epics, however, as evidenced through a subcategory of choice, namely consent.

Regarding consent, the agency seems to lie in greater part with Leah and Abram than with Hagar and Jacob. It is speculated that Leah consents to marrying Jacob by using the signs that Rachel gives her, signs originally designed to confirm Rachel's identity to Jacob in anticipation of a scheme. (22) The details of this ploy are intended to recall Jacob's own deceit in obtaining the blessing from his blind father through mimicking his older twin brother Esau, the original beneficiary. Commenting on Jacob's deceit and Leah's ruse, Jagendorf states, "The blessing itself is like the sexual gift of the passion-blinded virgin groom to his open-eyed virgin bride...Sensual knowledge has turned out to be the opposite of true knowledge." (23) In other words, just as Jacob's identity is "confirmed" to be Esau's through tactile touch, Leah is "confirmed" to be Rachel through the tactile touch of sex; in both instances, the only knower of the truth is the deceiver. Jacob is the one who lacks consent in Leah's epic, as further evidenced by his angry statement to Laban upon finding himself married to Leah instead of Rachel: "What is this you have done to me...why then have you deceived me?" (29:25). Jacob neither chooses Leah nor consents to marrying her.

Conversely, Abram consents to sleeping with Hagar at the prompting of Sarai, even though the idea nor the desire originated with Abram (16:4). In this relationship, it is apparent that the power lies with Abram and not Hagar. Although Abram consents to take Hagar as a wife, Hagar is not actively selected in the way that Abram chooses Sarai to be his wife. Additionally, Hagar's economic status as a slave-now-wife immediately places her closer to a contemporary surrogate mother than to a wife, considering that "a secondary wife is a woman without economic standing in her husband's household." (24) This standing, or lack thereof, is further fortified when Abram returns his ownership of Hagar to Sarai, telling Sarai, "Your slave girl is in your power" (16:6); again as Abram advocates only for Ishmael and not Hagar when the Deity announces the pathway of the covenant through Sarah's child (17:18); and lastly, when Sarah demands the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, which is "distressing to Abraham on account of his son" demonstrating no regard for Hagar (emphasis mine; 21:11). Not only is Hagar repeatedly not chosen by the patriarch, she is also not chosen by the Deity. In Genesis 17:19-22, the Deity is clear that the pair of covenantal promise is Sarah and Isaac, not Hagar and Ishmael.

Although the two stories in some ways are the reverse of each other, there exists a central theme of Leah and Hagar as a secondary, unchosen, and therefore unwanted, wife. Despite the fact that they are not chosen by the patriarch and largely do not have control over what happens to their own destinies, they are active agents any time an opportunity presents itself. Leah is the "knower" instead of the "known" in each significant sexual encounter with Jacob in the biblical narrative, and is not timid about manipulating a situation that is in her favor (the mandrakes) to gain access to Jacob. Likewise, Hagar emerges as Abraham's equal in many respects and is quite active within the narrative. Although Leah and Hagar's relationships to the patriarchs are characterized by abandonment, an increase in suffering due to bearing children, and trauma by repeatedly not being chosen, they express their agency in powerful ways within their marital relationships.

Relationship to the Deity

The Deity plays a vital role in both of these epics, but one that is somewhat ambivalent. The Deity neither acts totally benevolently nor totally maliciously toward Leah and Hagar. In surveying the Deity's interactions with the two women, some prevailing patterns emerge. Both of the women have encounters with the Deity; both of the women's children play special roles in the sacred lineages of their families; and then, there is the matter of divine justice--or lack thereof. What is unmistakable is that the Deity does not ignore them, starkly contrasting the way they are largely ignored by their husbands and co-wives.

Leah and Hagar each have unique encounters with the Deity. The Deity shamas, or hears, each of the women; Leah is heard twice (29:33, 30:17) and Hagar is heard once (16:11). However, it is also interesting to note that Ishmael's name means "God hears" (25) and that is precisely what happens in Genesis 21:17 when the Deity hears Ishmael's cries as he and Hagar are dying in the desert. Hagar is also found by the Deity (16:7), and the Deity speaks to her twice--both of the times that she is evicted from Abraham's house (16:7, 21:16). In fact, the Deity is the first entity to speak to Hagar and use her name, thereby acknowledging what Sarai and Abram cannot--her personhood. (26) Further, she is the only woman in the Hebrew Bible to name the Deity, saying, "You are El-roi [the God who sees me]...I have now seen the One who sees me" (16:13). This is extraordinary, especially considering that she is never identified as being Jewish. (27)

What is just as remarkable are the similarities in the renaming narratives between Hagar and Abraham's encounters with the Deity. The renaming narratives both involve the promise of a multitude of offspring (16:10; 17:5-6), land (Beer-lahai-roi [Well of the Living One Who Sees Me] in 16:14; Canaan in 17:8), and the naming of a forthcoming son (Ishmael in 16:11; Isaac in 17:19). Where the parallels diverge is who, exactly, leaves the encounter with the name change: Abraham's encounter results in a name change for him (Abram to Abraham), while Hagar's story sees the Deity's name changed (El-roi).

If the parallels match so directly up to that point, what is the significance behind this reversal of the renaming? Abraham's story may provide a clue. One objective of the Deity's new name for Abraham is to bind him to the covenant and serve as a reminder to Abraham to fulfill his obligation to the covenant, namely circumcision. The same can be said for the Deity's name change. It serves to bind the Deity to the promise made to Hagar regarding Ishmael in chapter 16, and serves as an injunction to remember that promise when Ishmael lays dying in the wilderness in chapter 21. It is not Hagar that needs to be reminded, but the Deity and Abraham that require the remembrance associated with the significance of a name change.

Leah, too, is heard and seen by the Deity; however, all of the interactions produce a very specific result, a child. Leah proclaims that she has received her second son, Simeon, because the Deity heard that she is hated (29:33). The second time the Deity hears Leah it is confirmed by the narrator, with the result being a fifth son, Issachar (30:17). Leah is also seen by the Deity, and this is what enables her to conceive initially (29:31). This continues a motif of seeing and eyes that is woven throughout Leah's story. Her eyes are the only feature mentioned when she is introduced in Genesis 29. As previously discussed, this idea of seeing is dripping with irony, as Jacob first deceived his father, who could not see, to obtain the blessing meant for his older twin brother, and in turn was deceived by Leah when he could not see the night of their marriage. These two secondary wives encounter the Deity in ways that the primary wives do not; this signals their value to the Deity and should reframe their significance in each narrative.

Not only is their significance revealed in their encounters with the Deity, but also with their positionality as matriarchs in consequential lineages. Leah and Hagar each contribute significantly to the unfolding of the divine lineage in the Hebrew Bible. Leah gives birth to half of the tribes of Israel (35:23), which increases to two-thirds if Zilpah's children are counted as Leah's (35:26). She is also the mother of Judah, who features prominently in Jewish tradition as the notable Tribe of Judah and as part of the messianic patrilineal line in Christianity.

Hagar has only one child, Ishmael, who is an influential character in his own right. He is the first son of Abraham, born to fulfill the covenantal prophecy before the Deity clarifies the matrilineal line. He is also considered the father of the Arab people according to Islamic tradition. (28) The Deity also establishes a separate promise with Ishmael in which the Deity "will surely bless him," giving him many descendants who will become "a great nation" (17:20). Schneider notes that with this promise, Hagar is elevated to the same level as all the patriarchs. (29) She is the "only woman to receive a divine promise of seed, not through a man but as her own destiny." (30) Additionally, while Ishmael does not inherit in the same way as Isaac, he still inherits, notably not through his father but through his mother. (31) Leah and Hagar are the progenitors of key figures in the Hebrew Bible, and their bodies are the arena upon which this divine drama is enacted.

In these epics, the Deity "appears to be promoting the affairs of families and nations through the happy and natural combination of male weakness and female intelligence, resourcefulness and fertility." (32) Without these women's ability to conceive, successfully birth, and then raise their sons, the epic would not continue. Their bodies creating and sustaining life is sharply juxtaposed to their co-wives enduring (but eventually overturned) sterility. The text reveals that the Deity was involved in Leah (29:31) and Hagar's conceptions (16:11) just as the Deity caused Sarah (21:1-2) and Rachel (30:22) to conceive. This is a surprising commonality for the secondary wives to share with the primary wives. Again, the Deity exercises control over the entirety of the fertility narrative in these two lineages.

While the Deity may be in control, the outcomes are often unpredictable and, at times, seemingly unjust. The Deity's treatment of Leah and Hagar vacillates throughout the account from benevolent at times to dismaying at others. The dubious nature of the Deity toward the women offers no consistent moral architecture with which to accurately predict the responses of the Deity. The Deity does not intervene when Leah and Hagar are treated as pawns in a larger scheme that is devoid of concern for their desires or well-being. The Deity allows Leah to be in a marriage where she is not loved but hated, envied, and overwhelmingly valued less than her sister. Hagar is impregnated without the ability to give consent, is abused by her owner/co-wife, and then commanded to return to the abusive household in a masochistic turn of events (16:9).

Conversely, provisions always seem to be made for the women in their dire circumstances. The Deity saves Hagar and Ishmael's lives twice as they wandered the wilderness, and acts as a guardian every time they are outside of the protection of Abraham's house (16, 21). In Genesis 21:11-13, the narrator shares, "The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, 'Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.'" The text is not specific about which son Abraham is distressed about, but looking at the Deity's response in verse 12, one can infer that Abraham is distressed at Sarah's request to banish Ishmael from his house. Abraham expresses concern over Ishmael, but only the Deity includes Hagar's well-being in the Deity's response to Abraham's protestations. The Deity also acts on Leah's behalf three times, "enabling her to conceive" when it was clear that "[she] was not loved" (29:31, 29:33, 30:17). Although the Deity does not "demonstrate a uniformly affirmative divine judgement" (33) toward Leah and Hagar, the Deity does offer provision of some kind to alleviate their suffering.

The Deity's treatment of Leah and Hagar can be characterized as ambivalence at best, and instrumentalization at worst. The Deity clearly interacts with these two matriarchs in ways that the Deity does not with the primary wives. Leah and Hagar also play significant mother roles in their respective divine lineages, and the Deity takes full advantage of their fecundity to build nations. However, the overarching unpredictable nature of the Deity's relationship to the two women problematizes any accurate prediction of future treatment.


The traditionally diminished reading of Leah and Hagar in the larger biblical narrative belies their substantial contributions to the overall Genesis epic. In reading the two epics together, a number of surprising corollaries materialize. Both the women have difficult relationships with their co-wives who unapologetically see themselves as the primary wife. Leah and Hagar's status as the fertile wife inadvertently generates more hardship than advantage in their polygamous marriages. Both women are reminded of their stature as secondary wives through Abraham and Jacob's treatment. Due to their deleterious place as second-rate wives, their value is diminished in spite of bearing the firstborn son to the patriarch, making them disposable in varying ways. This is yet another example proving that where inequality exists, violence is bred. The Deity is neither the proverbial rescuer nor the perpetrator in these two stories, but something resembling and/both. What cannot be ignored, however, is how involved the Deity is with Leah and Hagar, in ways that are conspicuously absent when it comes to Sarah and Rachel.

Repetition within the Hebrew Bible is always significant and demands a closer examination. The similarities between these two epics are striking and indicate that they should be read together. By doing so, a fuller picture emerges of two complex women in two exceedingly difficult human circumstances with a Deity that is not altogether predictable--not unlike circumstances of modern women. Bach posits an intriguing point, saying, "By rerouting the circuits of conventional comparison, we can clarify and restore the identity to each woman through her relation to an other who embodies and reflects an essential aspect of the female self" (34) An intergenerational conversation ensues which illuminates Leah and Hagar's status within the narrative in ways that are not accomplished when read in a traditional comparison either with their respective co-wives (Leah to Rachel and Hagar to Sarah) or with their lateral social status partner (Leah/Rachel/Sarah and Hagar/Bilhah/Zilpah). By placing Leah and Hagar's lives in conversation with each other across space/time, they serve to empower each other's stories, thereby reclaiming their rightful space in the Genesis family tree.


(1.) Alice Bach, ed., The Pleasure of Her Text: Feminist Readings of Biblical & Historical Texts (Philadelphia, PA: Trinity Press International, 1990); Norman J. Cohen, "Two That Are One: Sibling Rivalry in Genesis," Judaism 32(3), pp. 331-42; Tikva Frymer-Kensky, "Hagar, My Other, My Self," in Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 2002); Bradley C. Gregory, 2008, "The Death and Legacy of Leah in Jubilees," Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 17(2), January, pp. 99 120; Mignon R. Jacobs, Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007); Zvi Jagendorf, 1984, "Tn the Morning, Behold, It Was Leah': Genesis and the Reversal of Sexual Knowledge," Prooftexts 4(2), pp. 187-92; Nyasha Junior, Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); Elizabeth Wyner Mark, 1998, "The Four Wives of Jacob: Matriarchs Seen and Unseen," The Reconstructionist 63(1), pp. 22-35; Jerry Rabow, The Lost Motriorch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash (Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society, 2014); Tammi J. Schneider, "Hagar," in Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008); Phyllis Trible, "Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection," in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (London: SCM, 2002).

(2.) Schneider, "Hagar," 119.

(3.) In Hebrew, Hagar is a shiphchah, which may be translated numerous ways. For more on the translation and usage of the term, see Schneider, 103-5.

(4.) Sarai/Sarah and Abram/Abraham are used interchangeably throughout the paper, based on their name at the time of the instance referenced.

(5.) Bernadette Brooten, "Early Christian Women and Their Cultural Context: Issues of Method in Historical Reconstruction," in Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship, ed. Adela Yarbrough Collins, Biblical Scholarship in North America (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), pp. 65-91.

(6.) Harold W. Attridge and Wayne A. Meeks, eds., The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocraphal/Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance, Fully revised and updated; 1st ed (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).

(7.) Junior, Reimagining Hagar, 2.

(8.) Polycoity refers to the marriage of a man to an additional, secondary wife who is of a lower social status than the primary wife. See Carol Meyers, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 170.

(9.) Trible, "Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection," 11.

(10.) Jacobs, Gender, Power, and Persuasion, 167.

(11.) Meyers, Craven, and Kraemer, Women in Scripture, s.v. "Hagar." See also, Schneider, "Hagar," in Mothers of Promise, 117.

(12.) Meyers et al., Women in Scripture, 86.

(13.) Hagar's attitude towards Sarai and Sarai's responding treatment of Hagar is reflected in Hammurabi law 146, where a slave may claim equality with her owner and the owner may treat her as a common slave.

(14.) Jacobs, Gender, Power, and Persuasion, 172.

(15.) Samuel A. Berman, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes (Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House, 1996), Vayetzei 8:3.

(16.) See Meyers et al., Women in Scripture, 86 and Schneider, "Hagar," in Mothers of Promise, 117.

(17.) Jacobs, Gender, Power, and Persuasion, 175.

(18.) Attridge and Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, Genesis 29:31-4.

(19.) Genesis 21:21 shows Hagar as the authoritative chooser of her son's wife. While Rebekah is technically chosen for Abraham's son by a proxy, Abraham is still the ultimate authority behind the decision, as demonstrated in Genesis 24:2-9.

(20.) Meyers et al., Women in Scripture, 170.

(21.) While this is the case when it comes to their marital relationships, the text never reveals that the children themselves contribute to the women's misery. In fact, it appears that the women have positive relationships with their children and love them (Gen. 30:13, 21:16).

(22.) William Davidson, "Rashi on Megillah 13b:5:1," The William Davidson Talmud,

(23.) Jagendorf, "'In the Morning, Behold, It Was Leah,'" 190.

(24.) Meyers et al., Women in Scripture, 170. Economics largely determine the status of a wife in the Hebrew Bible. Meyers et al. elaborate, saying, "Marriage to a primary wife is established on the basis of a conjugal fund property to which both spouses contribute and which becomes the foundation of the economic and legal rights of the primary wife." Since Hagar is Sarai's slave, her economic status clearly delineates her as a secondary wife.

(25.) Attridge and Meeks, The HarperCollins Study Bible, Genesis 16:11.

(26.) Trible, Texts of Terror, 15.

(27.) At this point in the biblical text, Judaism as it comes to be known has not yet begun; the tradition is amorphous in nature. Hagar presumably would have practiced religious traditions common to her Egyptian heritage.

(28.) Scott B. Noegel and Brannon M. Wheeler, The A to Z of Prophets in Islam and Judaism (Lanham, UK: Scarecrow Press, 2010), p. 154.

(29.) Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 115.

(30.) Frymer-Kensky, "Hagar, My Other, My Self," 230.

(31.) Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 115.

(32.) Jagendorf, "'In the Morning, Behold, It Was Leah,'" 189.

(33.) Rabow, The Lost Matriarch, 125.

(34.) Bach, The Pleasure of Her Text. 30.

Works Cited

Attridge, Harold W., and Wayne A. Meeks, eds., 2006, The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, Including the Apocraphal/Deuterocanonical Books with Concordance. Fully revised and updated; 1st ed. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

Bach, Alice, ed., 1990, The Pleasure of Her Text: Feminist Readings of Biblical & Historical Texts, Philadelphia, PA: Trinity Press International.

Berman, Samuel A., 1996, Midrash Tanhuma-Yelammedenu: An English Translation of Genesis and Exodus from the Printed Version of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu with an Introduction, Notes, and Indexes, Hoboken, NJ: Ktav Publishing House.

Brooten, Bernadette, 1985, "Early Christian Women and Their Cultural Context: Issues of Method in Historical Reconstruction," in Adela Yarbrough Collins, ed., Feminist Perspectives on Biblical Scholarship. Biblical Scholarship in North America. Chico, CA: Scholars Press, pp. 65-91.

Cohen, Norman J., 1983, "Two That Are One: Sibling Rivalry in Genesis," Judaism 32(3), pp. 331-42.

Davidson, William, "Rashi on Megillah 13b:5:l." The William Davidson Talmud.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, 2002, "Hagar, My Other, My Self," in Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York, NY: Schocken Books.

Gossai, Hemchand, 2010, Power and Marginality in the Abraham Narrative, Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications.

Gregory, Bradley C, 2008, "The Death and Legacy of Leah in Jubilees," Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 17(2), January, pp. 99 120.

Jacobs, Mignon R., 2007, Gender, Power, and Persuasion: The Genesis Narratives and Contemporary Portraits, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Jagendorf, Zvi, 1984, "'In the Morning, Behold, It Was Leah': Genesis and the Reversal of Sexual Knowledge," Prooftexts 4(2), pp. 187-92.

Junior, Nyasha, 2019, Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible, New York: Oxford University Press.

Mark, Elizabeth Wyner, 1998, "The Four Wives of Jacob: Matriarchs Seen and Unseen," The Reconstructionist 63(1), pp. 22-35.

Meyers, Carol, Toni Craven, and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., 2002, Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books and the New Testament, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Noegel, Scott B., and Brannon M. Wheeler, 2010, The A to Z of Prophets in Islam and Judaism, Lanham, UK: Scarecrow Press.

Rabow, Jerry, 2014, The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash, Philadelphia, PA: The Jewish Publication Society.

Schneider, Tammi J., 2008, "Hagar," in Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Steinberg, Naomi, 1993, Kinship and Marriage in Genesis: A Household Economics Perspective, Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

Trible, Phyllis, 2002, "Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection," in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, London: SCM.

Yoo, Philip Y., 2016, "Hagar the Egyptian: Wife, Handmaid, and Concubine," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 78(2), April, pp. 215-35.

Ashley Starr-Morris is an American scholar, writer, and activist living in Southern California with her circus of one amazing spouse, a newly added tiny human, and two big furball pups. She is currently earning her Ph.D. in Women and Religion at Claremont Graduate University, doing the work her soul must have. Her research is inspired by the many women in her own life who encouraged her to liberate her voice and make known the silenced voices of others.
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