A major problem encountered by feminist scholars seeking to 'redeem' the Hebrew scriptures from both their undeniable internal patriarchal bias, and the way in which they have been used as tools of continuing patriarchy, is the apparent lack of acknowledgement within the texts themselves of the oppression of women in the societies they are depicting. Unlike the liberation theologians, feminist scholars have no tirades against the mistreatment of women upon which to draw in their dissection of the worst excesses of patriarchy in the texts.
However, the voices of women are not entirely unheard in the Hebrew Bible, and neither is their common plight as victims. The story of Hagar, a curious pair of narrative sections set within the life of Abraham, offers a surprising resource from which it may be possible to draw themes with much broader use in constructing a feminist perspective on the Hebrew scriptures.Hagar's first appearance in the Abrahamic narrative is at the beginning of chapter 16, where God's elaborate declaration of his covenantal promise to Abram is immediately followed by a jarring reminder that his only wife, Sarai, is childless . Perhaps uncomfortably aware of this dissonance, Sarai offers this Egyptian slave-girl as a surrogate mother to give birth in her stead, an apparently common practice in ancient civilisations1.Hagar conceives a child with Abram, and having become pregnant, we are told, she now 'looked with contempt on her mistress' (Gen 16:4, NRSV). This sudden shift in their relationship angers Sarai, and she accuses Abram of having wronged her; he responds by telling her to do with Hagar as she pleases.
Sarai then mistreats Hagar to the extent that she flees the camp (Gen 16:5-6). Hagar's introduction is somewhat ironic in the light of the dire prediction in 15:13 of the slavery of Abram's descendents in Egypt.It is interesting to note the similarity of the name 'Hagar' to the Hebrew ger- used in 15:13- with the article; Abram's descendents will be strangers amongst the Egyptians, but it is an Egyptian who is the stranger here, and who is the mistreated slave2. There is also a level of irony in Sarai's plan to 'build herself up'- that is, build a nation or dynasty- through Hagar; in fact the child of Hagar and Abram's union will become a threat to Sarai's eventual descendants, and indeed she begins to perceive this as soon as Hagar conceives.Trible notes how this episode begins to build the narrative tension between the characters early on; verse three sees Abram 'encircled' by the two women in the pattern of repetition, and shows the unequal balance of power in Sarai's 'taking' and 'giving' of Hagar, and her control over Abram, as his reported action in verse four repeats the words of her command in verse two. This suddenly shifts at the end of verse four, when Hagar's perception of Sarai is changed by her pregnancy; Trible suggests a translation of 'her mistress was slight/lowered in [Hagar's] eyes'.
This does not suggest necessarily a relationship of strife, but the possibility of the two now being on equal footing, as co-wives, rather than as mistress and slave, owner and property. However, Sarai refuses this restructuring of power, and coerces Abram to restate that it is 'the good in [Sarai's] eyes' that is most important3. The opportunity for Hagar to gain some of the status which Sarai has, some form of acceptance amongst strangers and liberation from her slavery, is destroyed by Sarai, and the cuckolded Abram.However, it ought to be noted that the author's view of Sarai is not necessarily quite as harsh as Trible seems to believe; Jeansonne notes that the phrase 'May YHWH judge between you and me' (16:5) when used elsewhere usually denotes the innocence of the one invoking it4 Hagar is then found by 'the angel of the Lord', by a spring in the wilderness.
He asks where she is going, and on hearing that she has run away, commands her to return to Sarai (Gen 16:7-9).However, she is assured that her child will remain under God's protection; indeed, he is to become a father of a great multitude, and the narrative seems at great pains to make clear that Hagar has attracted God's specific, personal attention. After this incident, we are briefly informed of the birth and naming of Ishmael, after Hagar has returned to Sarai and Abram. This passage contains a number of intriguing literary themes, which are repeated and played upon in the later narrative concerning Hagar, particularly those of water, and of seeing and hearing.Wells and water are key to numerous scenes in the narrative; this can be interpreted in something of a practical sense, as the events are set in an area where water would have been an important resource, but they often seem to appear in stories concerning women, sex and fertility- for example, the conflicts over Abraham and Isaac's respective wives with Abimelech in 20-21 and 26, and the meetings with Rebekah and Rachel at wells in 24 and 29.
Here Hagar is promised at a spring- in the region that will later be barren of water for the wandering Israelites (Ex 15:22) - that abundant descendants will 'spring forth' from the pregnancy that is causing her woe. It is intriguing to note here also that Hagar is the first woman to be spoken to by God at all since his rebuke of Eve, and the first woman to be addressed by God by name in the entire Bible. In the wilderness Hagar also is free to speak, and does so for the first time.However both the address of the malach of YHWH and Hagar's reply are still bound up in her primary identification as the property of Sarai- she answers the 'where have you come from' of verse eight with the name of her mistress rather than a place. This theme of continuing servitude despite escape is brought to fulfilment in the command for Hagar to return to Sarai's harsh treatment of her (a detail bizarrely glossed by the NRSV); there is no reprieve, the same 'nh root referring to Hagar's suffering in both verses 6 and 95.However, this terrible command is balanced by the acclamation that follows; in spite of Hagar's suffering she will become the mother of a multitude that 'cannot be counted'.
This language is very close to that used when God makes the covenant with Abram in chapter 12, and to the recent restatement of it in chapter 15 that precipitated Hagar's entry into the narrative. This promise also subverts Sarai's intention to build herself up by using Hagar; instead it is Hagar who will be built up.Hagar's response to this is unique in the entire Hebrew Bible- she names YHWH, as 'God who sees', and the narrator considers this seeing of Hagar by YHWH to be significant enough to warrant naming the spring concerned to mark the event. The description of Hagar's return can be interpreted in two wildly different ways- Trible focuses on the silencing of Hagar's voice as she returns to her suffering, and views Abram's naming of Ishmael as a suppression of Hagar's power and significance in his name6.
However, as Jeansonne points out, this may equally demonstrate Abram abiding by Hagar's naming instructions7; indeed it is interesting that Sarai is absent from the episode, and Abram seems to silently obey Hagar just as he did Sarai at the beginning of the chapter. Hagar and her son do not reappear until Genesis 21, apart from a brief account of Ishmael's circumcision. In the interim chapters, God speaks again with Abram and, along with renaming him and his wife, promises that the heir to the covenant will not be Ishmael, but a son born to the now post-menopausal Sarah.He is born at the beginning of chapter 21, to much celebration and joy, and a feast is held to celebrate his weaning (Gen 21:8).
However, this occasion of the celebration of Isaac is also when Sarah's dislike of Hagar and Ishmael is re-displayed, and she demands that Abraham have them sent from the camp, though this time her concern is Isaac's inheritance, rather than her own relationship with Hagar. After worried consultation with God, Abraham assents, and sends Hagar back into the wilderness with Ishmael. As predicted in 16:12, Ishmael here begins to come into conflict with his kin. However, either way this passage shows an even greater gap being put between Sarah and Hagar; now that Sarah has borne an heir of her own, she has no reason to continue to support Hagar, and has her forcibly cast out.Previously the power was balanced in Sarah's favour, now it is almost totally hers. This is compounded by God's support for her, which is based again on the fact that she has now given Abraham the promised heir.
God even repeats the language of her command in verse 10 when he addresses Abraham in verse 12; Hagar is not named, nor is she referred to as Abraham's wife, she has become simply 'the slave woman'. Ishmael too is disconnected from Abraham, referred to as 'the boy'. Hagar and her son are depersonalised and totally undermined; verse 13 even sees an apparent undermining of God's promise to her in chapter 16.She ends the episode not by running away, as before, but by being cast out without a voice8. After the water they are sent with runs out, Hagar despairs, and leaves Ishmael somewhere out of her sight to die.
However, she is once again visited by 'the angel of the Lord', who repeats the previous assurances, and shows her a well to draw water to keep herself and her son alive. The story ends with a brief summary of Ishmael's later life, growing up to become an archer in the wilderness and marrying a woman from his mother's land. Once again, however, Hagar's sojourning in the wilderness offers her an opportunity for freedom.Trible notes that the end of verse 14 sees Hagar become the subject of active verbs for the first time, after a passage in which her fate is controlled by seemingly everyone except her. This time she does not find herself at a spring of water, but is afflicted by its lack, to the point of expecting her own imminent death, and even using the same depersonalising terms as Sarah and the narrator to distance herself from the fate of her son- he is simply 'the child'.
Verse 16 sees her reach her lowest point, lifting up her voice (presumably to God) in utter despair. This terrible plight again calls for the entrance of God into the story.Though Hagar's son has remained nameless throughout this story, we are subtly reminded of his name, as yishma elohim- God hears the cry of 'God-hears'. Again Hagar is addressed by name, but this time she is not given a chance to speak; instead the malach speaks on with apparent primary concern for the welfare of the boy. Trible interprets this focus on Ishmael as a continued suppression of Hagar's personhood in the midst of depersonalising exile9, a not entirely illegitimate conclusion, but not the only one; the plight of her son is the primary cause of Hagar's grief, and it is that God addresses in addressing her.
Equally it may be that the author is simply milking the implied play between God's hearing and the unmentioned name Ishmael. The brief summary of the continued life of Hagar and her son again elicits wildly different interpretations. Trible sees in the focus on God's being with Ishmael a sidelining of Hagar once again, and in his Egyptian wife a cementing of the cursed destiny of his descendants as enemies of God's people10.However, Jeansonne notes that Hagar is the only woman in the Bible who chooses her son's wife, and in choosing a woman from her own land she is empowering her own identity in the future of her descendants. Ishmael's long life and twelve sons (25:12-18) call to mind the life of Jacob11.
It is clear that Hagar is in both sections of narrative a victim; she is Sarai's possession to be given and taken, a lowly stranger to be abused, unable even to find status through bearing the firstborn son of the patriarch, and driven out into despair and exile.This use and abuse mirrors the lot of women throughout history, downtrodden beneath the desires of men and other women who scramble for any scrap of status within the patriarchy. However, Hagar is not left alone to suffer; she is heard by God, and given a promise equal to that given to Israel's 'founding father'. I would suggest that in this story feminist scholars may find the seed of YHWH's care for women that may be used to unlock passages that seem irredeemably steeped in patriarchal attitudes.