Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Crimes of Sara Dybbuk

It seems extraordinary to me that Hagar, the mother of Ishmael, looms so large in Genesis yet figures so dimly in Judaeo-Christian tradition. She seems like a thoroughly understandable and sympathetic picaresque.

Oddly enough, Hagar is even a woman by a well, and like Abraham, she herself receives God's promise that her descendents (i.e., the Arabs) will be innumerable! What's going on here? Jesus meeting with the woman at the well in the New Testament must have really resonated with the precursing Arabs (the "other sheep" of John 10:16?) in Samaria. But Ishmael's descendents drop out of the Bible more or less altogether and do not reappear at length until the Qu'ran1.

It sounds like at least three oral traditions have blazed away through the generations like grass fires, then merged again later — one with Isaac and one with Ishmael, two names for the same person, on the same altar; and another far older story about the true matriarch, Hagar! You can see the dim outlines of something believable in the smoky gloom of those old campfires — the barren and jealous Sara demanding that Abraham kill, not just banish, Hagar's son, whose name is either Isaac or Ishmael depending on which benighted band of country cousins tells the story.

By this mischievously irresponsible and non-miraculous retelling, the crimes of Sara really mount up.

She loathes her husband2, she's mean-spirited, she's frigid or at least she buys off Abraham's advances by putting an Egyptian slavegirl in his bed, she steals her husband's paramour's baby and calls him He-Will-Laugh, when the kid grows up enough to say "You're not my mother, Princess! Forsaken is my mother, and my name is God-Listens!" she henpecks her husband into sacrificing the brat like a sheep, when that doesn't work, she drives the real mother out of camp "and take your insolent whelp with you!"

About the only thing Sara manages to accomplish is inspiring her husband to pay for her tomb, which at her death he does — whole-heartedly, elaborately, with panache, spending 10 times what the place is worth, excessively piling rock on whitewashed rock, binding her screeching dybbuk to the earth forever. Or at least 4,500 years whichever comes first.

(But, but... What about Isaac's son, Jacob? Jeez, what have you people got, a birth certificate? Even in a span so short as 233 years, my relatives can splice other people's ancestors into their own family histories and become Daughters of the American Revolution, like nobody in your family is related to Charlemagne. To sum up, nice story, but what part of Genesis is historical?)

1Acccording to the Qu'ran, Abraham visits Ishmael in Medina and together they build the Kaabah. It's not recorded anywhere that Abraham said, "Oy, my son, behind every successful man is a woman with nothing to wear."

2Probably because of that "brother-sister" charade with Pharoah. She was young, she was beautiful, she was loved by a real man — until Abraham gave the game away and spoiled a done deal!

I'm astounded that in 64 years, I never once heard of Hagar before now! This has got to be one of the best underdog stories of all time, and it seems to have been a favorite with artists from Dore to Rembrandt to Marc Chagall. The closest I ever got to this story arc was Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael." Who is that? And how did I grow up so ignorant?

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