All references are to the Joseph Smith Translation.
The story of Sarah giving Hagar to Abraham is commonly used by pro-polygamists to bolster their position of polygyny being approved by God. However, others point out that the only reason Sarah did this was because she didn’t have enough faith that God would give her a son. Meaning that it was only through Sarah’s lack of faith that Abraham committed polygyny to begin with. In this article I will look deeper into this issue and expound this a bit more.
The Lord first give a promise to Abram in Genesis Chapter 12. In verse 2 God promises that he will make of Abram a great nation and that in him the nations of the earth will be blessed. In verse 6 the Lord promises the land to Abram’s seed. So far there is just a general promise of becoming a great nation and his seed possessing the land. There has been no indication from the Lord that these promises must be fulfilled through Abram’s literal descendants. As far as anyone knows Abram’s house qualifies for fulfilling these promises.
We learn later in Chapter 15, when the Lord comes again to talk with Abram, that Abram has already arranged an heir. That heir is Eliezer, a man who was born of Abram’s house. In verse 2-6 the Lord clarifies that it will be a literal descendant of Abram who will be his heir. This is important in understanding what comes next.
In Chapter 16 we get into the situation with Sarai and Hagar. Before giving Hagar to Abram, and Abram consequently becoming polygynous, Sarai recognizes that she is barren. At this point in time Sarai is about 75 years old. Abram and Sarai have been married for some time now and it is pretty clear that not only was she barren in their youth, but she has long past the age of child bearing. It is important to note that Sarai says that “the Lord hath restrained me from bearing”. Now, considering the fact that she truly was barren, I think it would be accurate of her to say that the Lord has restrained her. Certainly if the Lord wanted her to have a child, He would have caused it to happen.
It is because of this that Sarai decides to give her handmaid(servant) Hagar to Abram as a wife so that through her Sarai might have children. It is here that Sarai lacked faith in the Lord, or so people say. But let’s look carefully at what is going on.
– First, the Lord promised Abraham seed (plural).
– Second, one of these seed that would be his heir, would be a literal descendant of him.
– Third, Sarai was barren and there was no indication that the Lord had not caused it.*
The assumption behind the Sarai lacking faith theory is that they say Sarai knew that it must be through her that the heir was born. And that she did not have enough faith that the Lord would open her womb. The problem with this is that nowhere in the text does it state that the heir would come through Sarai. Up until this point there has been no indication that the heir has anything to do with Sarai. We only know that it must be through Abram.
Based on the information given, Sarai arrived at the logical conclusion that, since she couldn’t have children herself, they must have to come through someone else. I would say that the decision to give Hagar to Abraham as a wife was not a result of lacking faith; instead it was driven by faith.
Now we start getting into problems when Hagar conceives. When this happens Hagar becomes very prideful. She despised Sarai. Now, imagine that one moment you are a servant girl, and the next you are the mother of the heir to everything. For me it is easy to see why Hagar would be prideful. However, this was not a good thing, Sarai tells Abram of Hagar’s attitude. Sarai realized that perhaps Hagar was not the best choice to have given to be Abram’s wife. Some people look at verse 5 of Chapter 16 and think this is proof that Sarai knew giving Hagar to Abraham was the wrong thing. But again, looking at the evidence; Sarai had no indication that the heir and other seed would come through her. All she knew was that Abram must have seed. If Sarai thought that giving Abram a second wife was wrong, she only could have thought that condemning Abram to having no children was a better option. This a clearly absurd. Sarai’s statement of her “wrong” must have been about her regretted giving the prideful Hagar, as opposed to some other woman, to Abram.
After this, Abram tells Sarai that she should take care of it because Sarai is still Hagar’s mistress. Sarai then dealt hardly with Hagar, and Hagar flees. People using the story of Sarai and Hagar to show how bad polygamy is point to this incident and say, “See look how toxic polygamy is.” But what is going on here has little to do with polygyny and more to do with Hagar’s pride. Meaning, there is nothing inherent in polygyny that caused Hagar’s reaction. Her reaction came because of her perceived status change in becoming the mother of the heir.
While in the wilderness an angel comes to Hagar. The angel tells Hagar to go back and submit herself to Sarai, after all Sarai was Hagar’s mistress. The angel also blesses Hagar’s child. Something interesting to note here is that the Angel doesn’t say that Ishmael will be the heir, but also doesn’t say he won’t be either. So still no one in this account has any reason to think that Ishmael is not the heir. My personal thought is that it was Hagar’s despising of Sarai that may have lost it for Ishmael.
Hagar returns and Ishmael is born. Thirteen years later and Chapter 17 starts. That’s over thirteen years for the Lord to say that Sarai would have a son, but He didn’t. It is safe to assume that Abram, Sarai, Hagar, Ishmael, and everyone else believed that Ishmael was the heir. It is here when the Lord comes and changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. Also in verse 22 is the first mention of Sarah being the one to bear the heir. This reaffirms that, unlike what detractors claim, Sarai’s actions in promoting polygyny were done with faith, not without it.
In verse 22, the Lord says that it will be Sarah who will bear the heir of Abraham. Abraham goes on to rejoice. But he doesn’t rejoice because it will be Sarah who will bear the heir, as some suppose; but that two people as old as they are will have a son. Immediately after this though, Abraham prays for Ishmael. The Lord then confirms that it is Isaac who will be the heir.
Later in Chapter 18 three angels as men came to visit Abraham. They confirm to him that Sarah will bear a son. Sarah overhears this and laughs. She has a hard time believing that a she and Abraham, in their old age, could have a son together. If there was any part of the story where it could be said that Sarah lacked faith it would be here. But after a short discussion with the angel Sarah accepts what will happen.
Lastly in Chapter 21 Isaac is born. At the great feast in celebration of Isaac’s weaning, Ishmael mocks him. Here we see that Ishmael perhaps has inherited his mother’s prideful tendencies. It is also possible that Ishmael is hurt due to the fact that he knows he used to be the heir but now Isaac is. But Ishmael’s mockings of Sarah’s son are too much for her. She tells Abraham to cast out Ishmael and Hagar. With Hagar still being the servant of Sarah the Lord, in verse 10 recognized that she had the right to do that. Abraham was upset because of this, but the Lord comforted him. He then sent Hagar and Ishamel away with provisions. While there in the wilderness the Lord provided for Hagar and Ishmael.
Opponents of polygyny like to point to the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as an example of why polygyny is bad. They say that Sarai lacked faith in giving Hagar to Abram. They also point to Sarah and Hagar’s relationship and say that polygamy is toxic and a stumbling block. However, I have shown that by looking at the actual text, neither of these views are correct. When Sarai gave Hagar to her husband she had no indication from the Lord that she would literally bear Abram’s heir. Thus she cannot be viewed as lacking faith. The first conflict was between Hagar and Sarai was because of how Hagar treated Sarai, rather than anything inherent in polygyny. The second most influential of the two conflicts had nothing to do with Hagar at all. It was a conflict between Sarah and Ishmael. Again, nothing to do with polygyny. It is clear that this story is not anti-polygyny at all; and that those who use it as such have no basis for their argument. Instead they rely on weak recollection of the story and excessive summarization rather than the actual text.
*It is my assumption that this would be a common belief that divine power closed the wombs of women. Whether Sarai’s barrenness was the Lord’s doing or not, the Lord had given them no indication either way.