This painting, Sarah Leading Abraham to Hagar by seventeenth century painter Matthias Stom is displayed in the Gimaldegalerie in Berlin. Even a quick look at the figures portrayed by the artist even briefly, conveys something unseemly, even odious. All too evident is the purpose of the intrusion of the elderly woman ushering the very young girl into the bedchambers.
I learned of this painting in a most intriguing meditation by Dominican priest, Fr. Anthony Giambrone called Forbidden Fruit and the Fruit of Faith.
Far from being aroused, Abraham is withdrawing from the ‘gift’ being offered. His bare aged and sunken chest perversely contrasts with the youth and innocence of young Hagar. There is no salacious male appetite shown here. Instead, Abraham’s reaction approaches revulsion.
So does ours; what we see is unnatural.
Abraham’s exhausted countenance and Hagar’s nervous anxiety portend the forbidden nature of what Sarah is commanding.
We know don’t we? It is apparent that the wrinkled, aged woman is ‘gifting’ her husband with her servant, young, and ostensibly fertile. She is far too old to produce an heir for her husband’s tribe therefore she brings him her servant Hagar to lie with him.
In Sarah’s culture, this was fairly common practice. Barren women like her would encourage their husbands to have intercourse with a servant so that an heir could be produced for the tribe.
Remember the promise to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis made by the “three visitors”?
The Lord appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.
He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, a not pass your servant by. Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.”
“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”
So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs b of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”
Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree.
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already very old, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Sarah did not believe what seemed impossible. In fact, she laughed…then lied! Of course the promise sounded absurd. Just as absurd as did the message from an angel to a young virgin named Mary.
Our sympathies align with Sarah. Of course, because we think like men not God. Is the story real or allegory? Could an elderly woman far past menopause truly conceive a child? Are these Bible stories fantasy?
We who read these stories as mirrors are caught up by Father Giambrone’s brief and provocative piece on the painting Sarah Leading Abraham to Hagar. The priest writes that although the couple is performing an act which is socially and culturally acceptable, there is more required here than convention.
Instead, there is “radical belief in God’s radical promise” required. The very respectable aged couple is making a grave mistake. One with far reaching consequences throughout the ages.
In the Hebrew, author Giambrone writes that Abram is said literally to “listen to the voice” of Sarah. A phrase that appeared only one other place in the Hebrew Bible. In Eden, when Adam “listened to the voice” of Eve. Abraham, like Adam knows that what he is about to do is offensive to his God.
But he does it anyway.
We too live in a culture, in a country ‘under God’, where more and more forbidden fruits are being legislated under the tired rubric of rights or individual freedoms.
How can we be shocked and surprised at the consequences?
Whose voice do we listen to?