The dystopian world of the Handmaid’s Tale makes much of the character of Bilha, who, in Genesis 30 is used by Jacob’s wife Rachel as a surrogate mother to bear children on Rachel’s ‘knees’, so that she can compete with her sister Leah. While Bilha does bear Jacob two sons, she is not the obvious choice for a handmaid prototype because she is only one in a series of women forced into this role. Readers of the Old Testament will know she has a predecessor; Hagar.
If Hagar is the first handmaid, why did Margaret Atwood not have her misguided commanders pick on her as their model? Probably because Hagar’s destiny is so much more inspiring. In fact, if Hagar is so ignored by commentators despite her prominent place in the Abraham story, that is probably why. Hagar is a survivor of trafficking, sexual exploitation, and domestic violence, but she is also the founder of a ‘great nation’, the recipient of a divine promise, and the head of a household which not only survives, but is blessed. Hagar’s story begins badly, but she ends in a place of freedom and prosperity which would not suit the rulers of Gilead at all.
The stories we call the Abraham cycle begin at the end of Genesis eleven, and run until he dies in chapter twenty-five. Abraham is hardly alone; other characters’ stories unfold alongside his. So why do we not talk about the ‘Sarah cycle’? Or the ‘Lot cycle’? Or the ‘Abimelech cycle’? While it is true that the narrative focuses on Abraham, and his conversations with God do not involve anyone else, he is far from the most compelling person described. His wife Sarah often seems more in touch with God, and Abraham’s treatment of her is, to say the least, odd. What kind of husband forces his wife into another man’s harem …. twice? Abraham is not the central character for reasons of morality or holiness. He is simply the highest-status person shown, and traditions of interpretation have tended to side with the most powerful character in any story, and try to explain away any inconvenient bad behaviour.
The New Testament falls in with this, declaring ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’. While this does echo Genesis fifteen verse six, it begs some important questions, including whether Abraham is the only person who qualifies as righteous. Frankly, he doesn’t lead the field. God speaks to Abimelech in chapter twenty and he acts as instructed, so Abimelech is righteous. Hagar is told that she will be the mother of a great nation, and to return to Sarah. She goes back. Proof of her righteousness. However, Abraham needs four iterations of the promise for the penny to drop compared to Hagar’s once, and her obedience costs her rather more than Abraham’s does him.
If religious reasons do not explain Hagar’s disappearance from retellings, what about culture? Hagar’s destiny is to head a successful single-parent household, and found a twelve-tribe nation. There have been centuries of ideological capital invested in the idea that a family must have a parent of each sex and at least one child, and Hagar and Ishamael simply do not fit that ‘traditional family’ template. Perhaps we have been more comfortable ignoring them.
Our ‘traditional’ nuclear family has very little representation in the Bible, and the Old Testament abounds in non-standard households. For example, there is Jacob with his two wives and two ‘handmaids’, various single mothers (code-word ‘widow’), there are Elisha and Gehazi, Naomi and Ruth … and Boaz. Hagar and Ishmael are hardly alone. Their family is probably the most successful variant household, and maybe the Biblical writers were uncomfortable with it too. In Genesis 21 verse 21, Hagar gets Ishmael a wife from Egypt. It would make more sense to tell us this in chapter 25, along with the family tree, but putting in this detail just as they get established reassures the reader that Hagar’s household is not to be some deviant arrangement which marginalises men. Far from it. She will pick herself up, and immediately set up a home just like the one she’s escaped from. The lapse in patriarchy has not even lasted a verse. (Assuming you accept this version!)
Abraham is no role model, and no version of his story can make it safe. We have a husband pimping out his wife, a trafficked surrogate mother, cowardice, intimidation, abandonment, and almost murder. Lot’s side of the family is even less inspiring. Hagar’s story is by far the most uplifting, and the one we never hear.
None of this necessarily makes Hagar bed-time reading, but if asked, I prefer to say I am working on the story of Hagar, with its celebration of triumph after trauma, and the possibility of different types of family, than to trot out that I am studying the Abraham cycle, and all its patriarchal, oppressive baggage. Frankly, I’d rather talk about the Hagar cycle.
 Genesis 30:1-4
 Genesis 30:4-8
 Hagar (Genesis 16:1-3), Bilha (Genesis 30:3), Zilpah (Genesis 30: 9), Peninah (1 Samuel 1:1-6) is in a similar, but not identical situation.
 Genesis 16:1
 Genesis 16:1-4
 Genesis 16:6
 Genesis 25:10-18
 Genesis 16:10-12
 Genesis 12:11-20, and Genesis 20:1-3
 Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6
 Genesis 20:1-16
 Genesis 16:7-10
 Genesis 12:7, 12:1-3, 13:14-18, 15:1-6
 See Genesis chapter 19
Illustration: The Handmaid’s Tale – begonnen, Jaap Noordzij via flickr, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) URL: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jaapnoordzij/16854874305