Abraham's Surrogacy

Christians and Jews believe that the first five books of the Bible were written by a man called Moses, who lived in the 15th century BC. Most are willing to accept that the literary style of those books may have been smoothed out by later editors - most notably the scribe Ezra, who collected and compiled the records we know as the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles and may have had influence on other books of the Bible.

However secular scholars have long claimed that in fact Ezra was responsible for writing large chunks of Moses' output, which were created wholesale - though incorporating a few unreliable earlier traditions - in the 5th century BC. This claim makes it easier to dismiss the reliability and historicity of the books of Moses.

Those who accept the traditional dating for the books of Moses point to what they claim are accurate reflections of society at the time of Abraham, which would not have been known to later authors. For example, the story of Abraham and Hagar is reflected in the laws of the city state of Nuzi.

For those unfamiliar with the story, here it is in a nutshell. Abraham had been promised by God that he would become the father of a great multitude of descendants, but he was now 86 years old and still childless. His wife was ten years younger and, as the King James Version coyly puts it, "it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women".

It was at this point that Sarah came up with the solution - surrogacy! She had an attractive Egyptian slave girl named Hagar and she persuaded Abraham to sleep with Hagar, with the idea that any children Hagar produced would, legally, be hers. SCripture simply says that "Abraham hearkened to the voice of Sarah", but I'm guessing that there was not too much arm-twisting involved.

Hagar duly became pregnant and then, naturally but unfortunately, began to put on airs. Sarah took steps to put this uppity slave girl in her place, Hagar ran away but then came back in time for the birth. Sarah appears to have refused to accept the resulting son - Ishmael - leaving him to his mother, but she continued to make life difficult for Hagar until the slave girl finally departed for good.

By that time God had fulfilled His promise and Sarah had conceived and given birth to Isaac, but it seems that her treatment of Hagar and her son had annoyed Abraham sufficiently that he spent less time with Sarah and considerable time with Hagar! Genesis 21:14 says that Hagar went to the wilderness of Beersheba (Ishmael himself, when he was old enough, went off to the wilderness of Paran, which is in northern Arabia) and Genesis 22:19 remarks that Abraham settled in Beersheba. Genesis 23:2 tells us that Sarah died in Hebron "and Abraham came to mourn for Sarah", which pretty clearly implies that the two were living apart.

The significance of the story is that the Nuzi tablets more or less exactly mirror the story as told in the Bible.

Yurghan Tepe is a site in north-east Iraq, about nine miles west of Kirkuk, which was excavated in 1925 under the auspices of the American School of Oriental Research in Baghdad, in cooperation with Harvard Univerity and the Univeristy Museum of Pennsylvania. Excavations continued for six years and more than 4,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered, most of which are divided between the Oriental Institute of Chicago and the Harvard Semitic Museum, though a few found their way to the British Museum. These show that the ancient name of the site was Nuzi and that it was inhabited mainly by Hurrians, who also controlled the city of Haran.

The tablets give us insights into the daily life of the inhabitants of Nuzi around 1500 BC, so that we know more about their customs and habits than for just about any other city of the time. For example, many more tablets were found at Mari, but most of them deal with the royal family and with politics rather than with ordinary people.

What is more, the customs of Nuzi appear to be mirrored in many of the things done by Abraham and his descentants. For example, in Genesis 15:2, 3 Abraham mentions that he is childless and his heir is his steward, a certain Eliezer of Damascus. The Nuzi tablets reveal a culture in which a childless couple could adopt someone, who then became their legal heir with the duty of carrying on the childless man's name.

Even more interesting is the story of Abraham's grandson - too long to recount here but it makes interesting reading - who married a girl from Haran and subsequently found it expedient to leave his father-in-law secretly and in haste. Unknown to him, his wife made off with her father's teraphim or household idols, and Laban, the father-in-law, set off in pursuit as soon as he discovered their loss. Despite thoroughly searching Jacob's possessions, Laban didn't find his missing gods - Rebecca seems to have been a girl who could think on her feet! - but why was he so concerned about a few idols when he could easily make more out of a handful of clay?

The answer is to be found in the Nuzi tablets, which tell us that if a man wanted to make his son-in-law his heir, he would hand over the household teraphim to him. After the man's death, anyone who turned up in court with the teraphim would be regarded as the rightful heir. No wonder Laban, no doubt egged on by his own sons, was so desperate to recover the missing terraphim!

Then there was the fact that both Abraham and Isaac got into trouble by telling outsiders that their wives were their sisters. In both cases the outsider - pharaoh of Egypt in Abraham's case and the Philistine chieftan Abimelech - rather forcefully sought to ally himself with Abraham or Isaac and their private armys by kidnapping and marrying the woman in question.

The Nuzi tablets reveal that a man who wanted to honour his wife could legally elevate her to the position of sister, a status which gave her all sorts of protections and benefits. The impression we get from the bald account in the Bible is that Abraham and Isaac told porkies in order to save their skins, but it may simply have been a case of cultural misunderstanding, similar to the many Muslim immigrants who see Western girls going about without a male protector and leap to the conclusion that they are of easy virtue.

Abraham and Isaac may well have told their interlocutors that their wives were their sisters as a means of emphasising how highly they valued and honoured their wives, but were misunderstood to mean that the women were not wives but sisters!

So we return to the story of Sarah and Abraham. In Nuzi it was a regular part of marriage contracts to specify that if the wife proved to be barren, she was to supply her husband with a surrogate in the form of a slave girl. However the legal code stipulates that if the wife subsequently becomes pregnant, her child takes precedence over the surrogate child - but under no circumstances is the child or its mother to be expelled from the household.

An analysis of the various Nuzi marriage contracts throws up some interesting facts. For example, if a brother arranges his sister's marriage, he must consult with her and obtain her consent to the proposed match. On the other hand, if a father arranges his daughter's marriage there is no question of consent being sought. We find this carried out exactly in the Biblical story, for Laban obtains his sister's consent, but high-handedly disposes of his daughters as he sees fit!

In contracts drawn up by the bride's family, there is always a stipulation that if the bride proves fruitful the husband may not take another wife - and conversely, if she is barren, he may. There are only two contracts where the husband may not take a second wife under any circumstances and in both cases the husband already had children by a previous marriage.

There is a curious incident in the story of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham which is almost by-the-way in the Biblical account but which confirms that Hurrian customs are behind the events recorded. When Hagar first became haughty Sarah complained to her husband that "I was despised in her eyes". Remembering that Abraham had slept with the woman and later showed great affection for her, his initial reply seems extraordinarily heartless: "Behold, thy maid in is thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee."

In fact, one of the marriage contracts from Nuzi shows that Abraham was standing strictly on his wife's legal rights. He probably foresaw nothing worse than a bit of hair-pulling or face-slapping. It was only after Sarah became really vindictive and Hagar was forced to flee for her life, that Abraham's response changed and he stood up for Hagar.

Tablet HSS 567: If Kelim-ninu bears, Shennima shall not take another wife. But if Kelim-ninu does not bear, Kelim-ninu shal take a woman of the Lullu as wife for Shennima. I kelim-ninu bears children and Shennima takes another wife, he shall take his personal belongings and leave. ... Regarding the concubine's offspring, Kelim-ninu herself shall have authority over them.

As I say, the Nuzi tablets have often been considered as strong evidence that the story of Abraham must be placed within a particular culture - that of Haran - and a particular time. To a certain extent this is confirmed by the similar provisions of the code of Hamurabi, who was probably contemporary with Abraham.

146. If a man take a wife and she give this man a maid-servant as wife and she bear him children, and then this maid assume equality with the wife: because she has borne him children her master shall not sell her for money, but he may keep her as a slave, reckoning her among the maid-servants.

Assyrian marriage contract
The recently discovered Assyrian marriage contract, believed to be the first mention in history of infertility and surrogacy.

The recent discovery was made by archaeologists from several Turkish universities in Kayseri. It is a cuneiform tablet dating to the Old Assyrian Empire and contains similar provisions to those discussed here. If, within two years of the marriage, the wife has not produced a child, she can present her husband with a female slave to act as surrogate mother. The major difference is that once the surrogate has fulfilled her purpose by producing a male child, she is to be set free.

In fact that may not be as generous a gesture as it might seem to us today. A woman on her own, without a husband or other protector, would be at a tremendous economic as well as personal disadvantage. As she was no longer a virgin, her prospects for a good marriage were slim and the result would probably be a life of poverty and exploitation. It seems to be more a way of avoiding unnecessary expense for the husband and competition or hostility for the wife, than of rewarding a cooperative slave.

On the whole, Hagar could have been a good deal worse off.

time with Hagar I am grateful to a Muslim friend of mine for pointing this out to me. I was at first dubious, as it is completely at variance with the picture of happy domesticity usually assumed for Abraham and Sarah, but reading between the lines does make my friend's contention at least plausible, if not probable. Return

© Kendall K. Down 2017