Are Both Legal
Some people make the assumption that Abraham’s relationship with Hagar did not constitute adultery because the biblical text refers to her as his wife.
And the presentation of Hagar to Abraham even has an official tone, like a wedding ceremony:
“Sara…gave Hagar to her husband Abraham to be his wife.” Genesis 16:3
So, Sara’s suggesting the arrangement in the first place followed by her official presentation of Hagar makes it sound like a genuine marriage.
But was it really?
A superficial reading might imply this but a thorough consideration of the text suggests otherwise.
There are actually several things to consider: adultery, marriage and divorce.
Some suggest that adulterous “do’s and don’ts” were neither defined nor explained to Abraham so we can’t accuse him of adultery. We can’t hold him responsible for information he didn’t have.
But nowhere in the Bible is a technical definition of adultery provided. We have the word and we know the definition but Abraham had the word, and the definition long before we did.
The first biblical mention of the word didn’t occur until the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:14) but it surely was understood long before that. After this it is used no more than 37 times (KJV). Some versions have less.
That means, of course, that our definition of adultery is insinuated from the text and the primary text is found in Genesis chapter two where the first wedding is recorded.
There are a couple of very good reasons to believe Abraham was not ignorant:
- One, adultery is always adultery and the consequences are always painful even when those who commit it are poorly informed.
Adultery in Jesus day was exactly the same as adultery when Adam and Eve were created and ignorance is neither mitigating or prophylactic.
Adultery is like gravity. Falling from the side of a mountain is just as hurtful, whether you have a concept of gravity or not, accidental or not.
The common sense that warns us not to jump from a cliff also warns us not to violate the healthy boundaries of relationships. The fear of jumping in one situation is also present in the other.
Abraham and Sara experienced a lot of relationship pain due to her inability to bear children. Abraham’s lying about their marriage relationship (a veiled expression of rejection) had to be hurtful, but even with this emotional cloud cover it wouldn’t take a brain surgeon to know that the addition of a second woman, even at the insistence of the first, wasn’t the best answer.
Abraham probably wasn’t as conditioned against adultery as we are today but he WAS guarded. If he hadn’t been, he would have surely taken on a second wife long before Hagar? Polygamy for the sake of multiplying family members was common.
And, if marrying another woman was OK in his eyes he wouldn’t have worked so hard to find another husband for Sara?
This wasn’t an easy step for Abraham to take. He obviously had entertained the idea previously but before he could take the plunge there had to be mental justification.
- Two, God gives us the truth and doesn’t waste time talking about the many ways it can be violated or the circumstances in which that may occur.
Marriage, not adultery, is the issue and that is what God emphasized in the first wedding ceremony in the Bible. Eve was created from Adam’s rib and he then referred to her as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” You can’t get closer or more intimate than that.
The word “marriage” was never used in the text but the story does record a scaled down matrimonial procedure much like ours today:
- Eve was made from Adam signifying a connection that is not superficial.
- Eve was made from Adam’s rib signifying equality, not the foot or head which would signify inferiority or superiority.
- Eve and Adam were presented to each other ceremoniously, somewhat like weddings today.
- Eve was referred to as “woman” signifying she was different to Adam and as “wife” signifying a special relationship to him.
- Even before children these two were referred to as “father” and “mother.”
- Marriage is described as self perpetuating. A son leaves parents and cleaves to A wife, not several, and they in turn build another family.
- There is no shame or embarrassment in the relationship.
- The implication was, neither Adam nor Eve could be whole without the other but they were entirely sufficient together.
More observations could be made but suffice it to say that adultery represents any deviation from this picture. Writing a book about all the ways it can occur or its causes would be a never-ending project. The simple truth, “marriage,” is much more concise and living within the boundaries of marriage is the goal. Anything outside that is adultery whether we’re familiar with the word or not.
And remember, God created marriage, man created adultery. We shouldn’t expect God to waste time explaining and exploring our deviations.
There are two sides to marriage: one is personal and the other is technical – legal.
On the personal side is the mystical connection that exists between two people on all levels: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual. These connections can’t be seen with the naked eye but they are definitely hard wired and can’t be easily broken.
Disapproving parents have been known to “force break” the connections their children make only to discover they are resilient and often survive time and distance.
These connections/attractions can’t be controlled, predicted or prevented and often they are difficult to understand. What one person sees in another is sometimes completely invisible to everyone else and it isn’t unusual for the connections to fracture cultural and family expectations. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “The Notebook” are fictional illustrations of what happens in real life more often than we know.
I think Abraham and Sara had this connection and the proof is the fact that their relationship survived a lot of turbulence. They didn’t always understand each other but the connection was always there.
This is more than affection. It is a type of symbiosis that is mutual and individual at the same time. It has the potential to feed the relationship as well as the individual development of each person simultaneously.
No individual can have this connection with more than one other person at a time. A third party destroys the balance.
On the technical side of marriage are the regulations that involve a tit for tat interaction. You do this and I’ll do that. It is practically driven and legally restrained. This type of marriage serves a convenient purpose: child bearing, sexual gratification, financial goals or cultural expectations.
The terms are legally contracted and no personal connection is required. Prince Charles and Lady Diana are modern day examples.
The details of a technical marriage are negotiated, not proposed, and focus mostly on external issues. The laws regulating these marriages are written by man. God honors these laws and expanded on some in an attempt to encourage decency but that is another discussion.
Personal marriages are spontaneous and reflect matters of the heart where God resides.
Hagar may have been Abraham’s wife in the “legal” sense but there was no real personal connection and the relationship was nothing more than a sophisticated, legalized form of adultery based on cultural traditions not generated by God.
In fact, we have reason to believe Abraham never slept with Hagar after the birth of Ishmael, possibly after his conception. Not only was friction generated immediately following but no additional children were sired later.
Adultery can be committed many different ways. In Abraham’s case it was by polygamy. That isn’t the worst form of adultery but adultery it is. The law that allowed Hagar to be called Abraham’s wife was man made not God made. Adultery and polygamy are wrong for the same reason.
Therefore adultery would be defined as taking any marital attention, on any level, promised to a first person and giving it to a second person, even if the first person agrees and the second person is legally and culturally recognized.
In Abraham’s case he gave affection to Hagar which he previously promised to Sara. His relationship to Hagar was legally right but personally wrong. It was adultery.
Sara was offended and insulted that Abraham was foolish enough to entertain the suggestion. All she wanted was understanding and reassurance. She got neither.
A full discussion on why Abraham was vulnerable to this suggestion can be found here.
Abraham did catch on but only after Ishmael’s conception when the fireworks started. The friction between Sara and Hagar was the kind normally associated with adultery. In this instance Abraham acted stupidly but with the help of his proper wife he got smart quickly, after it was too late.
Note: Ladies don’t expect your husband to read between the lines. Generally, men don’t have enough emotional literacy to do that well. He’ll appreciate it more if you are gently direct.
This is a sticky subject and one that is supercharged emotionally.
Divorce, like technical marriage, is a legal issue and is often treated as the anti-grail of Christian home making. Several religious groups (no names mentioned) never allow divorce under any circumstances and those that do, discuss it only in very hushed tones, treating it with shame.
Modern day attitudes toward divorce are very similar to the Pharisees attitude toward the Sabbath. No discussion or deviation is allowed.
Divorce is clearly allowed in the Bible but disdained by all the religious and disallowed by some. The same groups who shame divorce will often allow, even insist on marriages between people who fit the cultural, religious, technical formulas but have no basis for real connection and then frown on a divorce when the relationship goes badly wrong.
What we do comes perilously close to worshiping marriage rather than using it for the benefit and health of mankind. We sacrifice personal relationships on the altar of technicalities.
The truth is, God said and did nothing to endorse Abraham’s so-called “marriage” to Hagar but He definitely endorsed the inevitable “divorce.” When Sara insisted Hagar be cast out, God agreed. Abraham wasn’t even required to provide her with material support. If God had not intervened, Hagar and Ishmael would have died. Ishmael, however, according to God’s promise, did become a large and influential nation.
This situation can’t be soft soaped. It was not just a gentle separation it was a complete disavowal of Hagar and Ishmael. There were no conjugal visits later and when Sara died Abraham married Keturah, he didn’t reunite with Hagar.
All of that is to say, God doesn’t spend a lot of time describing, defining and categorizing distortions. He also doesn’t get tangled up in the legal wrangling which results from our mistakes.
He gives us the truth and assumes we are intelligent enough to see the simplicity of it even though we tend to knowingly stray from it. It takes very few words to describe a basic truth but there is no end to possible distortions or excuses when we fail.
He also assumes we have enough sense to know when things like divorce are necessary to make situations tolerable. God didn’t hesitate to disband the arrangement between Hagar and Abraham and we shouldn’t be afraid to consider it when necessary, without condescension and judgment.
Abraham would have been emotionally retarded to think bedding Hagar could be dignified with terms like “wife” or “marriage” and the same thing could be said of people who think marriages and the people in them can only be served well by disallowing divorce.
Many couples work very hard planning their wedding, buying how-to books and consulting professionals. The same should be true when planning a divorce. Both require diligent, intelligent planning. Don’t let pain or sadness keep you from doing the smart thing. Learn from your past and plan your future.
And DIVORCE 101: A WOMAN’S GUIDE TO DIVORCE is a book that can help you do that. Tracy, the author, having gone through divorce without suitable resources decided to put what she learned in writing. She’s experienced the feelings, personally considered the issues, had the meetings, organized the details and made the decisions and that experience is shared in her book. It is mostly practical but contains great emotional insight and support as well. Divorce 101 is a compilation of all the pertinent information you will need in planning your divorce.
If you prefer a digital copy, Tracy’s book can be downloaded here and the download comes with several free bonuses to help you get through your divorce wisely.
Tracy also put together a website, WomansDivorce.com, which provides helpful articles from a wide range of professionals – and variety of perspectives – relating to every stage of divorce. The site also has a blog in which many ladies share their experiences.
If you are a young woman, only a few years into marriage and facing inevitable divorce…AND you need a friend, this book is for you. Reviewers have painted it as food and solace for the hurting soul:
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The book doesn’t claim to take the place of therapy and doesn’t encourage divorce but provides real support for those who find it unavoidable.
If your marriage is failing and you don’t feel loved but you aren’t quite ready for divorce court yet, your problem might be more solvable than you think. In The Five Love Languages Dr. Chapman departs from academic definitions of love, which are mostly intellectual and therefore cold, and discusses a love he refers to as “emotional.” This is the romantic love often portrayed in novels and movies and rooted in our psychological makeup.
He explains that even two good partners can easily fall out of love if they don’t learn how to love each other properly, in the right”language.” The adjustments are not difficult and languages are easy to understand. Many call his approach miraculous. Get the book. It’s a small price to pay to save a marriage.