Sarah and Hagar as kin

“Kin” by Mohja Kahf

Sarah, you massaged my sacrum
with a tennis ball when I was in labor.
Like a priestess of the body, you
wiped the newborn Ismail clean
of birthblood and whispered first
holy words into his ear. You are his mother
too. We are kin. No decrees
of man or God can make this truer
than it is, nor can it be cloven.

We did not begin with the husband we shared,
but in Egypt, with divine
intelligence arrowed from eye to eye
across a patio of pagan strangers,
when I was royalty and you were trembling
in the house. You knew exile and I
knew exile. You suffered and I suffered.

Like matter, kinship can be changed
but not destroyed. Cruelty tarnishes,
but cannot dissolve it. We are kin
from bread baked together,
salted, broken, eaten, sacred
as a challah braid at sunset on the Night of Power;
from the battering waters of the sea we crossed;
from the Tree of Life whose branches
we burned to stay alive. Kin
we are from knowledge of the Name;

you had the first letters, I had the last
and, putting them together, we
spelled out the Secret.

“Kin” by Mohja Kahf is from Hagar Poems (University of Arkansas Press, 2016). Reprinted by permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., acting on behalf of the publisher.

Mohja Kahf is a Syrian American poet, novelist, and scholar of Arabic literature, postcolonial studies, and Arab and Arab American feminism. Born in Damascus but moving to the Midwest as a child, she was raised in a devout Muslim household. In her creative work and scholarship, she both respects and interrogates her own faith tradition.

Her second poetry collection, Hagar Poems, gives voice to several female characters from the Qur’an and Islamic history, many of whom are also present in the biblical narrative. Part 1 focuses on Hajar (or Hagar, as she’s called in the Bible) and, to a lesser extent, Sarah, the ancient feuding matriarchs of Islam and Judaism, respectively. The remaining two parts spotlight Zuleikha (Potiphar’s wife); Asiya (Moses’s adoptive mother); Balqis (the queen of Sheba); Maryam (Mary); Khadija, Aisha, and Fatima (wives of Muhammad); Nusaiba (a disciple of Muhammad’s); and Hamamah (an Ethiopian princess-turned-slave known primarily as the mother of Bilal, a Muslim convert). The stories of these women are sometimes transposed into contemporary times. For example, Hajar goes to the moon, sees a therapist, participates in an AIDS march, and is visited by a caseworker responding to a report of domestic violence.

Like a few others in the volume, the poem I’ve selected here explores the relationship between Hagar and Sarah as a metonym for the relationships between modern-day adherents of the two religions they represent, on both personal and political scales (e.g., the Arab-Israeli conflict). But “Kin” is revisionist and aspirational, reimagining a more congenial, mutually supportive, compassionate sisterhood between the two matriarchs, and therefore also a brighter future for their descendants. It might be said that patriarchy made Hagar and Sarah rivals. Both suffered abuse within the system and at different points inflicted it as each gained privilege over the other and vulnerabilities and power dynamics shifted.

According to the biblical story (Gen. 12:10–20), a famine in Canaan drove Abraham and his wife Sarah to seek relief in Egypt. Fearful that his life would be endangered because of Sarah’s beauty (kings were, after all, known to go to extreme measures to get what they want), Abraham presents Sarah to the royal court as his sister, implying that she is sexually available. Pharaoh thus acquires her for his harem and, in gratitude for the giving over of his “sister,” lavishes Abraham with livestock and servants. But as judgment against Pharaoh’s act of (unwitting) adultery, God strikes him and his household with plagues, which is when Pharaoh realizes that he has been deceived. He orders Abraham and Sarah to leave Egypt.

It’s not until Genesis 16:1 that we meet Hagar, identified as “an Egyptian slave” (or, as some translations have it, a handmaid or servant) owned by Sarah. Presumably Sarah acquired—and yes, I use that disgusting term again, because women were treated as possessions in ancient Mesopotamia—Hagar during her time in Egypt.

When Sarah cannot get pregnant, she forces Hagar to have sex with Abraham to bear him an heir. But when Hagar conceives Ishmael, Sarah becomes jealous, and the abuse worsens to the point that Hagar runs away. But God visits Hagar in the wilderness with words of comfort and reassurance. She returns to Abraham’s household and gives birth to Ishmael. Sometime later, Sarah herself miraculously conceives and gives birth to a son, Isaac, after which she casts out Hagar and Ishmael, no longer having need of them. God again comes to Hagar and to her son, both of them weak from thirst and on the verge of death. He reveals to them a well and promises to make of Ishmael a great nation, just as he promised of Isaac. “You are the God who sees me,” Hagar exults (Gen. 16:13).

According to Jewish midrash, before her enslavement to Sarah, Hagar was actually an Egyptian princess—that is, a daughter of Pharaoh’s. When Pharaoh witnessed the miracle that Sarah’s God performed for Sarah’s sake, he gave Hagar to her, saying, “Better that my daughter be a maidservant in this house than a mistress in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1). In other retellings, Pharaoh gives her away reluctantly as penance, not wanting to incur any more of God’s wrath. And in yet another version, leaving Egypt with Sarah is Hagar’s idea, as she wishes to follow the one true God.

Islamic tradition also affirms Hagar’s royal birth, though according to the Qisas Al-Anbiya, she was the daughter of the king of Maghreb, whom Pharaoh killed, thus capturing her. Notably, neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned by name in the Qur’an; they are only briefly alluded to in Surah Ibrahim 14:37, where Abraham says in prayer, “I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House.” Hagar is, however, mentioned amply in the hadith.

In “Kin,” Kahf is interested in what binds Sarah and Hagar—and Jews and Muslims—together. Both women were subjected to gendered oppression, including sexual abuse, and had no recourse against it. Both were, at different times, strangers in a strange land—first Sarah in Egypt, then Hagar in Canaan and later the wilderness of Paran. Both experienced miraculous interventions by God and even heard his voice. Both were mothers. They shared, at least initially, a husband and a home—they baked and broke bread together. Their family lines would diverge, but the two, Kahf writes, were as intertwined as the braids of a challah loaf. “Kin / we are from knowledge of the Name”—both knew and embraced the same God, as would their spiritual descendants.

The poem is written to Sarah from Hagar’s perspective. Hagar looks back with empathy to their first meeting, when “I was royalty” (as rabbinic tradition has it) “and you were trembling / in the house.” Kahf idealistically envisions an intimacy between the two, and a cooperative spirit—for example, Sarah giving Hagar a sacral massage while she’s in labor, afterward welcoming Ishmael into the world with love and devotion.

This picture is not what we get in the sacred texts, where Sarah regards Hagar with bitterness and hostility and mistreats her, and, if Sarah’s complaints can be trusted, Hagar lords it over Sarah when Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham’s first son.

But what if the women had been friends? What if Ishmael and Isaac had been raised together as brothers? How might those strong familial ties and goodwill have impacted subsequent generations and influenced Jewish-Muslim relations in the present day?

(Related post: “Bithiah’s Defiance: Kelley Nikondeha and poet Eleanor Wilner imagine Pharaoh’s daughter”)

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Like Kahf, Indian American Jewish artist Siona Benjamin also explores gender and religious identity through her work, focusing especially on the biblical matriarchs. Also like Kahf, she is interested in the midrashic process by which exegetes, be they scholars or artists, approach the stories of scripture with a spirit of seeking and inquiry, responding with creative interpretations that read between the lines and ponder implications.

Benjamin, Siona_Beloved (Sarah and Hagar)
Siona Benjamin (Indian American, 1960–), Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), 2004. Gouache on paper, 20 × 16 in. From the Finding Home series.

In her painting Beloved (Sarah and Hagar), Sarah wears a kippah on her head and tefillin (small boxes with passages from the Torah curled inside) on her arms, while Hagar wears a hijab and a misbaḥah (string of prayer beads). The two women are wound together in a tight embrace—“reflections of each other,” the artist says. They’re also wounded together, their bodies blown apart, blood dripping like tears from the rifts. To the side is a pair of amputee Israeli soldiers, whose surveillance camera has identified three Palestinian suicide bombers. Integrated into the foliate decoration around the border are guns and grenades.

Benjamin says this painting represents the eventual reuniting of Sarah and Hagar after Hagar’s banishment, an invented outcome but one that expresses hope for reconciliation between Jews and Muslims, and particularly between Israel and Palestine. When we recognize the shared humanity of the “other,” and how they are just as beloved of God, it becomes impossible to view them as the enemy, to be occupied or killed.

Did Sarah and Hagar ever share the kind of closeness Benjamin envisions in Beloved? Probably not. But does that mean the two nations they founded must forever be at war? Let us pray for peace and pursue it.

Instead of finger-pointing or offering political solutions, these two artistic works—one by a Muslim, one by a Jew—serve as prayers of lament and hope. They probe beneath the surface of Sarah and Hagar’s story and imagine future possibilities.

Bithiah’s Defiance: Kelley Nikondeha and poet Eleanor Wilner imagine Pharaoh’s daughter

At the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Hebrews have been in Egypt for several generations, their migration blessed by a previous pharaoh in appreciation of Joseph’s handling of a food crisis. But their peaceful coexistence comes to an end when a new pharaoh comes to power and conscripts the Hebrews into hard labor. In addition to the enslavement, Pharaoh issues an imperial edict that all newborn Hebrew boys are to be killed.

In her excellent new book Defiant: What the Women of Exodus Teach Us about Freedom, practical theologian and community developer Kelley Nikondeha talks about the exodus of the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt as a series of small rescue operations, starting with the midwives who refuse to carry out Pharaoh’s death order. Then there’s Jochebed, Moses’s birth mother, who relinquishes her son in order to save him, placing him in a basket on the Nile: Nikondeha imagines her navigating the basket across the river and placing it strategically in a thicket of reeds to be discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter, whose pensive nature and possible sympathies she had been observing for the past three months.

Defiant book cover

Pharaoh’s daughter is unnamed in the biblical narrative, but Jewish tradition gives her the Hebrew name Bithiah, “daughter of Yahweh” (Leviticus Rabbah 1:3), identifying her with the woman in 1 Chronicles 4:18. In this verse she is called a Judahite (i.e., a Jew), which Megillah 13a says is because she repudiated the gods of her people—that when “she came down to bathe at the river” (Exodus 2:5), it was to cleanse herself of idolatry; essentially, to perform a ritual conversion to Judaism, as her loyalties will bear out. When she discovers the baby, she knows he’s Hebrew, and presumably out of compassion, she decides to raise him as her own. She hires Jochebed as a wet-nurse (it’s unclear whether she knows Jochebed is Moses’s birth mother) and, once the child is weaned two to three years later, receives him into the palace. She names him Moses, Egyptian for “son” but also sounding like the Hebrew word mashah, “to draw out” (of the water).

Scripture gives us no information about Moses’s upbringing and very little about his adoptive mother, so questions are unavoidable. Did Moses look different from the Egyptians? Did Pharaoh know Moses was Hebrew but overlook it to indulge his daughter, or did Bithiah have to hide Moses from him and others at court? When did Moses find out he was Hebrew? (The biblical narrative skips from Bithiah naming Moses as a toddler to “One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people . . . . ,” meaning the Hebrews, and he clearly knew at that point. No more mention of Bithiah.) Had Bithiah told Moses about his heritage, or did she hide it from him? Maybe his biological sister, Miriam, encountered him one day and told him? Did Moses ever know his birth mother? And what ever happened to Bithiah—if Pharaoh disapproved of her making a Hebrew part of the royal family, was she exiled (as a popular rabbinical interpretation suggests), or even killed? Was she married, and did she have any other children? Did she follow Moses out of Egypt? (Jewish tradition supposes yes.) The Bible leaves room for multiple interpretations, and stories have developed in different directions to try to fill in the gaps.

I love Nikondeha’s speculative retelling of the Exodus story. (Her book, Defiant, integrates exegesis, meditation, and imagination, as she believes, as do I, that biblical study is enriched by the practice of envisioning fully fleshed narratives, including character backstories and relationships.) Nikondeha sees Bithiah as an Egyptian princess who has slowly awakened to her father’s tyranny—she sees a dead baby in the water one day, she hears the Hebrew mothers’ laments across the river. She wants to stand against the injustice but is unsure where to start, feeling overwhelmed and powerless. And then she meets Moses. The Hebrew women had initiated a strategy for liberation, and Bithiah commits then and there to become an ally, to partner with them in their freedom work. To fight the evils of empire, but secretly from within.

Nikondeha imagines that during Moses’s breastfeeding years Bithiah developed a relationship with Jochebed, which was doubtless fraught at first, but Jochebed eventually opened up, and Bithiah learned to listen. During clandestine meetings in the palace gardens and even twice in the slaves’ quarters, Jochebed taught Bithiah about Hebrew history and culture, and Bithiah bore witness to Hebrew rage, which further catalyzed her to resist her father. The two women were part of what Nikondeha calls the Nile network, a resistance movement that crossed ethnic and socioeconomic lines, operating in the shadows.

Nikondeha, who is a light-skinned American, writes not only as an adopted child but also as the adoptive mother of a Burundian son. (Her husband is Burundian.) This gives her special insight into Moses’s transcultural adoption story and Bithiah’s mindset. She describes Bithiah’s thoughts after saying goodbye to Jochebed for the last time, once Moses is weaned:

She knew relaying his full identity to him was her responsibility now. Continuing his connection to his Hebrew heritage would be her yoke to carry. Also on her shoulders: the subversive work of educating her son to see injustice from the inside and imagine something different. She would raise him in Pharaoh’s house but not indoctrinate him with the imperial values that produced endless quotas, death edicts, and dead boys washed up on the river’s shore. . . .

I feel a kinship with Bithiah, not only in her position of privilege that needed to be disarmed but also in her determination to make sure Moses knew he was as Hebrew as he was Egyptian. She didn’t erase his Hebrew heritage; she didn’t ignore it. She marked him with a name that said “you are both” and set him out on that journey of discovery. It is what I aim to do with my own son. I doubt either of us do it perfectly, and Lord knows we need help from our sisters to deepen our understanding. I think that in my own way, I, like Bithiah, set foot on a journey as a novice peacemaker that continues as I learn to navigate two cultures, various animosities, and what it means to oppose discrimination for the sake of peace for my son. . . .

Moses followed the liberation trajectory set by the mothers in his life—Jochebed and Bithiah but also all the other women who mothered him with liberative verve. (100, 104, 113)

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As I read the “Bithiah” and “Mothers All” chapters of Defiant, I thought of the poem “Epitaph” by Eleanor Wilner. From the collection Maya (1979), it appears in Before Our Eyes: New and Selected Poems, 1975–2017 by Eleanor Wilner (2019) and is published here by permission of Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1979 by Eleanor Wilner. (Listen to the poet read the poem.)

The Egyptian Woman by Max Beckmann
Max Beckmann (German, 1884–1950), The Egyptian Woman, 1942. Oil on canvas, 60 × 30 cm. Private collection.

“Epitaph” by Eleanor Wilner

Though only a girl,
the first born of the Pharaoh,
I was the first to die. Young then, we were bored already, rouged pink as oleanders on the palace grounds, petted by the eunuchs, overfed from gem-encrusted bowls, barren with wealth, until the hours of the afternoon seemed to outlast even my grandmother’s mummy, a perfect little dried apricot in a golden skin. We would paint to pass the time, with delicate brushes dipped in char on clay, or on our own blank lids. So it was that day we found him wailing in the reeds, he seemed a miracle to us, plucked from the lotus by the ibis’ beak, the squalling seed of the sacred Nile. He was permitted as a toy; while I pretended play I honed him like a sword. For him, I was polished and as perfect as a pebble in a stutterer’s mouth. While the slaves’ fans beat incessantly as insect wings, I taught him how to hate this painted Pharaoh’s tomb this palace built of brick and dung, and gilded like a poet’s tongue; these painted eyes.

The epigraph of the poem is the epitaph of Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah. It could mean she died in the tenth plague God unleashed on Egypt: the death of every Egyptian firstborn. While Exodus 4:23 and 13:15 seem to suggest it was only the firstborn sons who were killed, some rabbis have said that firstborn daughters were also among the victims—but that Bithiah was spared (Exodus Rabbah 18:3). The day before Passover each year, it’s customary in Jewish families for the firstborn to fast to commemorate the salvation of the Israelite firstborns; in most traditions the fast is obligatory for males only, but in some communities it is observed by female firstborns as well. Anyway, if all firstborns, regardless of gender and without exception, were struck by the plague, Bithiah, if she was Pharaoh’s firstborn and wasn’t already deceased, would have fallen.

But I don’t read the epitaph this way. I take it to mean that Bithiah rejected her despotic father and chose Israel over Egypt, which was itself a kind of death. She was “the first to die” because she “died” decades before the plagues swept through. She died to the expectations she had had for her life and, if we assume she left Egypt with Moses and the rest, forsook all the comforts and privileges that came with being a pharaoh’s daughter. One Jewish exegetical tradition commends her heroism and has God saying, “Because she caused salvation to come to Israel and brought them forth to life, behold, I will prolong her life. . . . I have made a covenant with your fathers and they followed in the path of their fathers. This woman, however, who has forsaken her royal status and attached herself to you [Israel], shall I not reward her?” (Kallah Rabbati 3:25).

“Epitaph” is written in Bithiah’s voice. She describes her boredom with pampered palace life, the emptiness of wealth (and, as her family’s was amassed through abuse of power, its foulness), and her growing revulsion for all that her father stands for. For the time being she still looks and acts the part of princess, but underneath the surface she seethes. When a Hebrew baby shows up on the riverbank, separated from his mother in a desperate attempt to protect him from Pharaoh’s genocide, Bithiah resolves to take him in and raise him—but not as allegiant to Pharaoh. “While I pretended play / I honed him like a sword,” she says, teaching him about his origin and exposing him to the hideousness of slavery while instilling in him values of compassion and bravery. She sharpened his perception of the world and of his own identity and calling.

“I was polished and as perfect / as a pebble in the stutterer’s mouth”—a reference to Exodus 4:10, where Moses expresses reticence about being God’s mouthpiece, telling him, “I am not eloquent . . . I am slow of speech and of tongue.” (The Greek orator Demosthenes was said to have treated his speech impediment by talking with pebbles in his mouth.) By raising Moses to hate oppression, Bithiah planted seeds of rebellion in him that germinated during his time in Midian, sprouted in his conversations with God, and came into full bloom in his dramatic confrontations with the next Pharaoh.

Bithiah leveraged her privilege to save not only Moses but all of Israel. Ashamed of the exploitative practices and murders perpetrated by her father, she joined the Hebrew resistance, ultimately foiling the house of Pharaoh by helping to free Israel.


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