>“Where do babies come from?”
According to popular culture, parents live in perpetual fear of their children asking this question. It seems likely that the unease over giving an adequate answer was part of the reason why parents in Victorian England would tell their children: “the stork delivers them.” I guess if you’re not going to tell them the truth, it’s as believable as anything else. The image of the stork delivering babies is very prominent in popular culture; I am especially fond of the stork who delivered the baby elephant, Dumbo, to his mother in the famous Disney film.
However, despite our unease, we all know that it takes a man and a woman to make a baby. And ultimately parents need to have a frank conversation with their children, teaching them the truth about where babies come from. This knowledge makes Sarai’s absence from Genesis 15 very striking, as God and Abram discuss his lack of an heir.
When the Torah first introduced us to Abram and Sarai we were told ‘Sarai was barren, she had no children’ (Genesis 11:30). This fact has therefore been in the background throughout Abram’s story. When God said to Abram: ‘unto your seed will I give this land’ (Genesis 12:7) we were that there was no child to inherit the promise. Similarly, when God promised ‘and I will make your seed as the dust of the earth’ (Genesis 13:16) we know there is no seed. Only in Genesis 15 does Abram finally raise the issue of childlessness with God; ‘”My Lord Adonai, what will you give me, seeing I am childless and the steward of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said: “behold to me you have given no seed”’ (Genesis 15:2-3).
There is no mention of Sarai or her barrenness in this discussion. Abram specifically does not say: “we are childless” or “to us you have given no seed.” He ignores the fact that Sarai also had no children to love, care for and nurture. It is as though God, not the stork, will deliver a baby to Abram, with no need for Sarai to be involved.
The promise which Abram receives therefore speaks only to him. When God declares: ‘none but your very own issue shall be your heir’ (Genesis 15:4) Sarai is not mentioned; she is given no similar pledge that she will become a mother. It is little surprise that following this deal, struck between God and Abram, Sarai comes and offers Abram her maidservant Hagar (Genesis 16:1-3), so that there will be the chance for Abram to have an heir.
One cannot begin to imagine how Sarai must have felt; unable to provide Abram with a son, she invites another woman to share her husband’s bed so that he may have an heir. After the encounter between God and Abram it is little surprise that our Patriarch voices no opposition and simply ‘listened to the voice of Sarai’ (Genesis 16:2). The stork will not bring them a child, instead Hagar will provide Abram with the heir he has yearned for, his firstborn son Ishmael.
Abram neglected to consider the feelings of his wife Sarai, as he pursued his dream of having a son. The repercussions of this act come later in the narrative, when Sarah (by this time her name has changed) gives birth to her son Isaac, and very soon after demands that Abraham (his name was also changed) expel his firstborn son Ishmael and Hagar, the mother of his firstborn (Genesis 21). Sarah does not worry about Abraham’s feelings, and the relationship between father and son is irreparably broken – the next time they are mentioned together is when Ishmael, together with Isaac, bury their father (Genesis 25:9).