Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Lekh-lekha 5767/ November 4, 2006

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Limits of Self-Sacrifice


Devorah Ganz


Department of Bible


Parashat Lekh-lekha contains one of the exceptional stories of the Bible.  After some ten years of barrenness, Sarah made her husband Abraham an offer that even in modern terms appears quite audacious. [1]   From the outset, the reason for Abraham and Sarah not having a child is pinned on Sarah:   “Now Sarah was barren, she had no child” (Gen. 11:30), [2] and she herself also attested, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing” (Gen. 16:2).   Therefore Sarah suggested to her husband that he take her maidservant and beget a son through her, and she, Sarah, in a way would “have a son / be built up” [tibbaneh, a pun on ben=son and banah= to build] through her.  This story of a woman without child and the solution to it raises several questions.  In this point, Sarah was not unique in Genesis, as the midrash puts it, “Why were the matriarchs barren?”  Why was it decreed that Sarah in particular, and the matriarchs in general, be barren?  A variety of answers have been given to this question, from the time of the Sages through to the present day. [3]

Here I would like to deal with questions on the human level.  Firstly, what was Sarah’s objective in making this difficult suggestion?   Or to put it differently, how did Sarah expect to have a son / be built up by her maidservant giving birth?   Secondly, what can be learned from a story that presents the mother of the nation in a negative light, as someone who could not face up to the outcome of her own initiative and who behaved improperly towards Hagar? [4]

Legal Background

Some commentators maintain that when she said, “perhaps I shall have a son through her” (Gen. 16:2), Sarah meant that the son who would be born from the marriage of Hagar and Abraham would legally be considered her own.  The mistress sought to use her maidservant as a surrogate mother who would bear Abraham a child for her.   This theory is supported by the Code of Hammurabi, believed to have been legislated in the time of the patriarchs (18th century B.C.E.).  Article 144 of the code of Hammurabi deals with marriage to a Naditu – a priestess who is forbidden to bear children.  If a Naditu gives her husband her maidservant and thus brings children into the world, the husband is not entitled to marry a Sagitu (perhaps a priestess of lesser status).  Article 173 imposes monetary sanctions on a man who divorces a Sagitu who has born him children, or a Naditu who has enabled him to beget children.   These rulings indicate, inter alia, that maidservants were used as surrogate mothers for women who themselves could not bear children.  Sarah’s suggestion may have stemmed from the fact that Abraham’s family had come from a region under the rule of Hammurabi and his law code.   The continuation of the story also seems to be related to this fact, and Article 146 of the Code of Hammurabi seems to foresee the outcome that we witness in the relations between Sarah and Hagar. This article stipulates that if the maidservant of a Naditu who bore children for the husband of the priestess seeks on this account to achieve status equal to that of her mistress, the mistress is not entitled to sell her off, but she is entitled to put the mark of servitude on her, denoting her status.

Nahmanides understood Sarah’s request and Abraham’s compliance as follows:  “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request [to take Hagar]” (Gen. 16:2)-- “Abraham did not intend that a son be born to him from Hagar, all he desired was to do what Sarai wished, so that she could have a son through her and derive satisfaction from the children of her maidservant; or else he thought that the deed would be counted as a merit for them, so that in lieu of it Sarah would have her own child.”  In other words, in the latter interpretation, Sarah hoped that because of this act, the Lord would “remedy” her condition.  If she were to bring her rival into her home and herself behave with restraint, then on account of this self-sacrificing act she would be deserving of a reward from the Holy One, blessed be He, of a son of her own.   Further on in his commentary, out of appreciation for Sarah’s deed, Nahmanides adds, “All of this shows Sarah’s morality and respect for her husband.”

Desire for a Child

However, it is difficult to know if Sarah was acquainted with the practices of the ancient Near East as expressed in Hammurabi, or if she was thinking about the Jewish idea of reward and punishment when she acted as she did. From a straightforward reading of the text, it seems to me that all Sarah expressed in the words, “Perhaps I shall have a son through her,” was her desperate longing for a son.  She wanted to do something that would change her terribly distressing condition.  In her search for a solution she made Abraham an offer that had the power to change her current situation.  In the first interpretation of Nahmanides, Abraham apparently understood Sarah’s distress and longing: perhaps all Sarah sought was “satisfaction,” to hear the laughing of a child in her home, the atmosphere of pleasure and joy that only a child could put into her life.  Perhaps this is what Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman had in mind when he explained, “Ibbaneh [=shall be built up], a verb in the nif’al (passive) form.   The family is the home and the sons are the bricks of which the edifice is built; hence also the word ben [=son] derives from the word banah [=to build].”   In other words, Sarah wanted to feel “built up,” not so sorely lacking; she wanted to receive something that would fill the emptiness caused by being barren and would fill her house with “family.”   Perhaps our matriarch Sarah did not think through her plan of action to the end but only sought a way out of her distress.  Nor do we know what Sarah was cognizant of regarding the Lord’s promise to Abraham that he would have offspring and would inherit the land; therefore we cannot interpret her act as being aimed at achieving this end, providing Abraham with a son who would continue his line.

The Torah seeks to emphasize that Sarah, like all the other barren women in Scripture, did not give up hope and tried to change her situation in one way or another; she did not throw up her hands and think that perhaps a miracle would occur.  None of the barren women quietly accepted their inability to be like Eve, mother of all living things; the barren women all looked for a solution, each in her own way, according to her personality.

How Sarah Differed

Unlike the other women, however, Sarah’s act, done on her own initiative and not in response to the request of a husband who desired a son, was an act of self-sacrifice.  A woman who suggests to her husband that he marry another in addition to her in order to obtain any objective, no matter how important, must overcome many emotional obstacles.  First, jealousy; secondly, having to see another woman succeeding in something she so dearly desires but cannot obtain. [5]   These are natural, very human feelings, that are difficult to cope with.  Here lies great potential friction between maidservant and mistress, and indeed Sarah was not able face up to the conditions that she herself created; she was not able to persist in her act of self-sacrifice even though, as we said above, the suggestion that Abraham marry her maidservant was not beyond the accepted norms of the times.

The Torah apparently tells us the story of Hagar and Sarah in order to teach us, among other things, about the limits of human self-sacrifice.  Human beings are limited in their capacity for self-sacrifice for the sake of an objective or belief, no matter how lofty it may be.  “Apparently it is difficult to persist in living at lofty heights … for stretching oneself beyond human stature and taking on missions beyond one’s strength … has the inherent danger of plummeting down.” [6]

When the Lord says in this week’s reading, “Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says” (Gen. 21:12), and when he calls out to Abraham in the binding of Isaac, “Do not raise your hand against the boy” (Gen. 22:12), He is trying to show us that the human ability for self-sacrifice is limited by virtue of the very fact of our being human.

[1] The modern concept of surrogate mother in no way entails that the father marry the surrogate mother.

[2] So, too, with the other stories of barrenness, it is not ascribed to the man but only to the woman, even though the Torah recognizes the possibility that the man could be sterile, as it says in Deuteronomy 7:14:   “There shall be no sterile male or female among you.”

[3] Cf. Genesis Rabbah, ch. 48, par. 8; Yaira Amit, “Ve-lamah nit’akru ha-imahot,” Korot mi-Bereshit, p. 135, and many others.

[4] Cf. Nahmanides and Radak on Gen. 16:6:  “Then Sarai treated her harshly.”

[5] Nahmanides interprets the command, “love your fellow as yourself,” saying, “one should rejoice when much good falls to one’s friend … and not put limits on his love.”  This is surely an exceptional emotional capability.  Likewise, we should add that the Torah recognizes the anguish felt by a person who suspects that someone else will take over something that belongs to him, and therefore under such circumstances the Torah enables people to turn back from battle, as detailed in Deut. 20:7-8.

[6] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Genesis (Hebrew), pp.110-111.