Every once in a while, I’m reminded of forgotten characters from the dusty corners of the biblical narrative, characters we tend not to read or think about much during worship. One which recently caught my eye is Hagar, thanks to womanist (African-American or black, woman-centred) theologian Delores S. Williams’s book, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk. In case your memory needs refreshing, Hagar was Sarah’s Egyptian slave-girl who was mistreated by Abraham and Sarah. Her story is found in Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:9-21, and Williams brilliantly interprets the story of this north-African slave woman in light of the experience of African-American women during and after slavery.
Like the history of slavery in the U.S., the story is unsettling and ends without any real resolution, and yet Hagar retains a certain dignity, as Williams reveals. In the first part of Hagar’s story in Genesis 16, Sarai (who hasn’t yet become Sarah) hands her over to Abram so they can try to have a child through her, since their own efforts haven’t yielded any children. In other words, Hagar is presumably raped and forcibly impregnated by Abram, forced to act as a surrogate mother for her masters as many black slave women were in the U.S. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Hagar begins to resent Sarai, though we’re not told exactly why (p. 16, 18). And in response, perhaps out of jealousy, Sarai mistreats the pregnant Hagar so much that she runs away into the wilderness.
For Williams, the wilderness is a profound and ambiguous metaphor in the history of her people. On the one hand, it’s a place of danger and perhaps even death, but on the other, it’s a place of escape and freedom, and, relatedly, often a place where people could go to meet God (113) (This is true of Jesus’ wilderness experiences too, by the way – he was tempted there, but also went there to pray and meet God). This double significance is clearly reflected in Hagar’s story: she flees, alone and pregnant, into the wilderness, and her and her unborn child’s chances of survival look grim. But God is with her in her situation of suffering, and gives her instructions and a promise: she is to return to her mistress (because otherwise she won’t survive) and God will make her descendants “too numerous to be counted” (note that it’s the same promise given to Abram!) (20-22). Hagar’s response here is one of the most striking aspects of her story. Hagar gives a name to God, making her “the only person in the Bible to whom is attributed the power of naming God” (emphasis mine). She names God “El Roi” which connotes God seeing, a name perhaps drawn from her own Egyptian culture (the god Ra, whose eye is the sun) and from her experience of God seeing her in her time of great need (23-25).
So Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, but not permanently. By the time we meet Hagar again in chapter 21, Abraham and Sarah have been renamed by God, and have also had their own child, Isaac. But Sarah again resents Hagar and asks Abraham to send Hagar and her child Ishmael away (as in the picture, found here). So Hagar is sent into the hostile wilderness with her son and very few provisions; the two have nowhere to go, and once the food and water run out, she places Ishmael under some bushes and sits a distance away so she won’t have to watch her child die. Once again, Hagar finds herself in a desperate situation, one which she and her child may not survive. But God is again with Hagar in her distress, provides a way for them to survive, and renews the promise made to Hagar. We are told that God is with Ishmael as he grows up. Though their economic and social situation is far from certain, Hagar is now free, no longer subject to Sarah’s mistreatment, so, accompanied only by God, she establishes a household for herself and her son, eventually choosing an Egyptian wife for him (31-32). As Williams notes, “Both the Genesis 16 and 21 narratives reveal the faith, hope, and struggle with which an African slave woman worked through issues of survival, surrogacy, motherhood, rape, homelessness, and economic and sexual oppression” (33). Elsewhere, she sets up an even more specific parallel, comparing the first Hagar narrative to the experience of black women during slavery and the second narrative to the experience of black women after slavery has been abolished but living and working conditions still haven’t improved much for them (118).
So what does Williams’s interpretation have to teach us? For one thing, it provides a different narrative than the one we’re used to within Christianity. Instead of exemplifying sacrifice, Hagar’s story is primarily about survival ; God helps Hagar and Ishmael survive the hostility by which they are surrounded. It’s also one of those unexpected stories (like the stories of Ruth, Rahab, Tamar, and others) in which God shows concern for a foreign woman of questionable sexual/social status. In Hagar’s case, a former slave, abuse survivor, and single mother is given the same promise as Abraham, the great patriarch! But the narrative doesn’t paint Hagar simply as a victim; it also shows her dignity, resourcefulness, and profound faith, the only biblical person to name the divine. So I think the story of Hagar is worth a second look, and more appreciation than we usually give it. Though we often think of Abraham and Sarah as heroes of the faith, it’s time we remembered and recognized the third hero in that narrative and counted Hagar among the early matriarchs of biblical history.