Each time I read this story, I am so struck by the depth and the breadth of the conflict between Hagar and Sarah. While there are many issues at play (I think we could write a whole week just on their conflict!), here, I’d like to focus on one thing: power. The desire for power is a part of human nature. We like to feel like we are in control! Why might this be? A recent study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that our desire for power comes not from a desire to control others, but from a desire to control ourselves and our own destiny – from our desire for freedom and autonomy. We see the struggle for power play out clearly between Sarah and Hagar. Both are striving to have some control over their lives in a patriarchal society where men rule and a woman’s worth is derived from childbearing. Sarah seeks to “build herself up” using Hagar’s womb… but then something unexpected happens – Hagar turns out to be an actual person with feelings and emotions! She likes her new status as a wife, rather than a slave. Suddenly, Sarah perceives Hagar as a threat. In her mind, if Hagar increases, Sarah decreases. There is no way for them both to win.
As a result, Sarah lashes out. She, who four chapters earlier, had been oppressed herself and given to Pharaoh, turns against her slave and “afflicts” with Hagar. This raises a concerning aspect of human behavior: our own experience of suffering doesn’t always make us more empathetic. If we aren’t careful, our past feelings of powerlessness can lead us into fear – fear of losing our power again. We can react by asserting our own dominance and authority. The abused can become the abuser and the cycle of violence continues.
This story plays out this danger to the extreme, but sometimes it is more difficult to see in our own lives. We try to build ourselves up by tearing others down in small ways – letting a coworker fail so we look better, passing a rumor about someone along, making a sarcastic comment here or there, etc. While it’s easy to fall into this pattern of behavior, this story invites us to behave differently by sharing a different truth: we are stronger together. Rather than allowing their struggle for power to separate them, Sarah and Hagar could have used their shared situation to draw close to one another, to empathize and feel compassion and solidarity. My prayer this week is that I have the strength to take the road they didn’t – that when my own sense of power is threatened, I look for allies rather than enemies, connection rather than separation.