The story of Sarah and Hagar is what got me started on my journey to come to terms with the LDS theology of plural marriage. It seemed to fly in the face of everything I thought the Church had been teaching me about the worth of women. It made me feel angry, hurt and dejected.
I recently revisted their story with "eyes to see" and "ears to hear" one of the messages of their lives filled with metaphor. They are, after all, both integral members of the family of Abraham, after whom the covenant was named. What did they have to say to the female portion of the Lord's covenant people?
Sarah. Her name means "Princess" or female "ruler." She appears to be Abraham's match in every way, and she is his wife of the covenant.
Hagar. She begins the story as Sarah's maidservant. I have seen her name interpreted as "wanderer," "hath no home," and "stranger." The record repeatedly refers to her as an Egyptian.
The first curious thing about the story of Sarah and Hagar is how the language seems to parallel Eve's experiences.* Eve "took of the fruit" and "gave...unto her husband...and he did eat." (Genesis 3) Compare that with "Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian...and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife." (Genesis 16) Even more striking is the descriptor of the fruit as "the forbidden fruit." Hagar is referred to as Sarah's "maid the Egyptian." We know from the Book of Abraham 1:23 that "Egypt" in Chaldean "signifies that which is forbidden." Our first parallel, then, is between the forbidden fruit of the Garden of Eden and Hagar. That is certainly a symbol we can relate to! Hagar seems to represent all that is forbidden, to us in this day, as something of which should not be partaken in the marriage relationship. Men, in our day, are to have one wife only. Hagar would have been forbidden even to Abraham had the Lord not commanded him to take her as a wife.
The next similarity is that as Eve's eyes "were opened." So had "God opened her [Hagar's] eyes" to the glory of the Lord (Genesis 21). It seems Hagar, instead of being likened to the forbidden fruit, is now likened unto Mother Eve. Eve was told by the Lord, "I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception" and "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children." Hagar was told by the Lord, "Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands...I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude." He seemed to anticipate Hagar's sorrow and affliction, but she was to be humble just as Eve was to humbly submit to the sorrows and conditions of this world.
Adam and Eve were both then "sent forth" and "driven out" of the Garden of Eden, both figuratively and literally, into the wilderness, just as Sarah commanded Abraham: "Cast out this bondwoman [Hagar] and her son." Abraham "sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness." The author of Genesis seems to be making a point of linking Hagar to Eve, the mother of us all. But let us observe that Sarah, too, stood for a symbol of Eve when she offered Hagar (the forbidden fruit) to Abraham. I think it is significant that both of these two women, even though the conditions under which they entered marriage were different, are compared to Mother Eve.
If you have been following this series of blog posts, you will remember that we have alluded to two types of women we will find among the righteous at the closing scene of this earth: women like Sarah, who are paired with their covenant husband, and women like Hagar who have no home - who are "wanderers" because their covenant husband has been lost somewhere along the way. Hagars, then, represent the the yins without a yang with whom to permanently lodge their being (If you missed that discussion, refer back to What Mosiah Saw or even Picking Up the Pieces).
Why did the Lord "restrain" Sarah from bearing children, I WONDER? Why didn't the Lord, with whom nothing is impossible, see fit to open her womb from the beginning? Why was eternal marriage with Sarah, alone, not enough for the Abrahamic covenant? Was it because Sarah and Abraham needed to offer Hagar, hitherto disconnected from any familial relations that we know of up to this point, a place as a wife and mother? Is it significant that Sarah's womb was not opened until after she offered Hagar a place in their family? Is it significant that the Lord God of Israel did not finalize the "Abrahamic covenant" with Abraham until after this marital arrangement had been entered? (Remember, at this point in the story their names were still Sarai and Abram - they had not entered into the covenant with the Lord as of yet).
Having children, in this story, could be likened to eternal posterity, "a continuation of the lives," that we know of as Eternal Life. For a woman, that is synonymous with an eternal identity as a mother whose womb, obviously, is opened. It is the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. One of the lessons Sarah potentially teaches women is that we must be willing to offer the Hagars of the hereafter an eternal place as a wife and mother - a permanent home for the "wanderer" to reside. Then we, too, will qualify to have our wombs open in the eternities.
Hagar was a servant to Sarah before being given a place in the family of Abraham, just as women without husbands in the eternities are ministering servants unless provided a place in a family headed by a righteous husband. Hagar the "stranger," as her name implies, is a "stranger," or outsider, to the yin-yang relationship of Sarah and Abraham. But (I never thought I'd hear myself say this) thanks to God's command to Abraham, a place was afforded her in the family. She was to be a mother, just as Eve was a mother. And even though Hagar represents a "stranger" to their marriage covenant, I think it is also significant and consoling that Abraham and Sarah had known her for ten years before she was made a member of their family; ten years of close and personal association. Sarah must have had great regard for Hagar to have offered her such a prospect.
Rachel. She was the intended wife of Jacob. He loved her and she loved him. But, because of the wishes of the father and the customs of the land, Leah was given to Jacob first. But once Rachel and Leah were both married to Jacob, there comes another interesting case of barrenness. Rachel discovers she can have no children. Into the plot enters the curious account of the mandrakes and the deal that was made between sisters. Leah is in possession of mandrakes, the cure for Rachel's childlessness. What does she want in return? For Rachel to share her husband. Rachel agrees to the deal, Jacob spends the night with Leah, who again conceives, and from that time forth Rachel's womb is now also opened. What if, according to the possible meaning behind this story, we sisters hold the key to one another's position in the next life as eternal mothers? Symbolically, Rachel held the key to Leah's wifehood and Leah held the key to Rachel's motherhood. Could it not be so with us?
One of the interesting parts of Rachel and Leah's story is that Jacob paid a price for both of them, but for one he paid the required years of labor before the marriage and for the other he paid the price after the marriage. But note that for each of them it was the full price. He worked seven years for each - the number seven hinting at completeness. He paid the full and complete price for each. This makes me think of what might happen in a broader context. Let's think of a happily married couple in mortality. That husband pays the price for his beloved first wife in mortality by the time spent, service rendered, etc. on behalf of her and their marriage. But say that this couple offers a place in their home in the hereafter to a woman that is worthy of wifehood and motherhood but has no husband. Jacob's experience indicates that this woman will not be cheated of the time spent and service rendered, etc. on behalf of herself and their new relationship. Her worth and her price will, undoubtedly, be paid in full.
We sisters hold the key to eternal happiness for one another is the message I take away from both Sarah, Hagar, Leah and Rachel. Yes, they endured real, mortal tribulation associated with plural marriage that cannot be trivialized. It was a trial for them all. It was a true test. But, in the end, they passed the test! And they point the way to how we can surmount the same test when and if the need arises. They point our minds to the answer to the test.
What say ye?
* These parallels were brought to the author's attention by an article called "Hagar in LDS Scripture and Thought" by Andrew C. Smith, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scriptures (2014) pg. 126-130. Some of the original ideas were drawn by him from "Ominous Beginnings for a Promise of Blessing" by Phyllis Trible in the book "Hagar, Sarah and Their Children, pg. 33-69