The article of the month

IS THAT IN THE BIBLE? by Father Anthony Giambrone, O.P.

Forbidden Fruit and the Fruit of Faith

One of the Bible stories that can be found hanging on art gallery walls is Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham from Genesis 16. One 17th-century version painted by Matthias Stom, and now displayed in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, captures the human drama with striking success. The nervous fright on the pretty young Hagar’s round face as she is ushered over in obedience to her mistress contrasts markedly with the gentle contentment of the wizened Sarai, who hands over the hesitant girl to her aged husband with calm ­assurance. Abram, sitting upon the bed with his sunken and sagging chest uncovered, stares at the maid with a fixed and already exhausted gaze. It does not take especial prudishness to wonder about the propriety of the scene.

At a historical level, commentators on this passage have observed the relevance of documents discovered in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Nuzi, dating from around 1500–1400 b.c., a community in precisely the same Hurrian milieu as Haran, where Abram sojourned. These records illustrate the unexceptional character of Sarai’s action in that far away time and place, where having an heir was so incredibly important and it was regular practice for sonless wives to give their husbands a servant for this purpose. The famous Babylonian Code of Hammurabi paints a similar picture.

But if the accepted social norms would have thus colored Sarai’s act in its historical context, where this couple was just behaving like all the others, the story in Genesis does not present a scene where all is well. The ethics demanded in the founding of Abram’s family are not the norms of human innovation and social convention, but radical belief in God’s radical promise. Something more is therefore transpiring when Hagar is handed to Abram by Sarai. The respectable but aged couple is making a great mistake, from which they must learn.

A hint of this is hidden in the Hebrew, where Abram is said literally to “listen to the voice” of Sarai (cf. Gn 16:2)—a phrase that only occurs elsewhere in Gn 3:17, speaking of Adam and Eve. The “taking” and “giving” language then applied to Hagar further recalls the key sequence in Gn 3:6. Hagar is taken and handed to Abram like the forbidden fruit that should not be tasted. Abram, moreover, should have known this, for when the Lord revealed in the preceding chapter that he would give him a son as heir, through whom all nations of the world would be blessed, the promise was made not to a healthy young married couple. And no instructions were given to exclude Sarai from the plan.

The point of the promise to these specific chosen parents is to build a family by the force of faith in supernatural power. Thus, Abram will later still be required to prove his faith as regards Isaac, his divinely given son and heir. And like old Zechariah’s doubt before the birth of John, this “fall” of Sarai and Abram ultimately serves to highlight the Blessed Virgin’s greater faith in a greater wonder: Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus (Lk 1:31).


Father Anthony Giambrone, o.p., is a Dominican priest of the Province of Saint Joseph and professor of the New Testament at the École biblique de Jérusalem.