Texts of Terror, Episode 1: Sarah’s Slave, Abraham’s Survivor


“Texts of Terror” was the name Feminist Old Testament scholar, Phyllis Trible (b. 1932), gave to the passages in which women were the object of terrifying violence in many parts of the Bible. We start with a well-known, hardly-known story within the Book of Genesis: specifically within the accounts of the revered founding father of the faiths named after him, the Abrahamic religions; Jewish, Christian, and Muslim.

I say this part of the Abraham story is well-known because Christianity and Islam alone make up over 50% of the world population combined and owe their spiritual origins to the patriarch and his progeny. His story is still preached within synagogues, churches, and mosques for its motifs and dilemmas and paradigms for the faithful.

And I say hardly-known not because the origins of this originating story are murky and mixed within the pre-history of Israel, nor because the Jews claim Isaac as Abraham’s promised son and the Muslims claim that position for his other son, Ishmael. I say hardly-known because Isaac and Ishmael were step-brothers of a scandalous conception. Whichever was the promised one, one of them was a product of a rape.

In all our interpretations, most of us heirs of Abraham have missed this foundational crime. This aspect of the story is hardly heard among today’s believers.

The story that is found in the Hebrew Bible, or Christian ‘Old Testament’, does not say that Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, was raped. And it would be surprising if any child in Sunday school were asked what they thought of Hagar’s perspective. In the well-known version, Hagar is little more than a plot device in Abraham’s and Sarah’s story of faith and doubt.

Abraham doubts that God really will provide him with a son. Sarah’s barrenness leads her to offer her maidservant as a surrogate. In jealousy she later banishes Hagar and the child, Ishmael. In wonder, she finally accepts the miracle that she has become pregnant. It turns out they never needed doubt the Lord who promises the impossible and comes through.

That’s how the story goes. The message is didactic: trust in God, don’t use one’s own strategies to get to the promised land. It is as if Hagar did not really exist except as a diversion for the protagonists.

But who was Sarah to offer her maidservant? And what are you as a ‘maidservant’ if in your service you can expect to be offered up to your mistress’s husband for sex? Are we not talking about slavery and about sexual-slavery? Could Hagar have refused? Did she have the power to say no? For roughly 2,500 years of interpretation within the temple and synagogue, the church, and even the mosque (where it is Hagar’s son venerated, not Sarah’s) we missed these basic questions. We took a pious moral message from the story (trust in God) while ignoring the glaring injustice done to the woman whose life is just a sidetrack, for Abraham, for Sarah, and for us. Hagar was raped.

Whether her being an Egyptian may or may not have brought in a racial element at the time, but it does today. Abraham was a Chaldean but slavery was and was not racialised in the era that the story supposedly took place. A Chaldean would as likely become enslaved by an Egyptian, or way more likely considering Egypt was already a serious empire.

As far as race goes, we know that the descendants of Isaac would would later look at the Ishmaelites with some mild contempt and conceit: something like cousins, but one’s a bastard. The tension is still felt in the Abrahamic people today. Jews and Muslims may each consider themselves the chosen heir of Abraham, and see the other as a mere off-shoot of the truth heritage. Like the supposed Curse of Ham, used to explain the origin of dark-skinned African people, used to justify their oppression, so too does the debate over the children of Abraham function in poisonous ethno-religious violence.

And yet, in all this, Hagar is ignored. That she is a person, that she is a person in her own right, is revealed in the response of God when she cries in the desert to which she has been banished. Her child, too, will become a great nation. The promises of God will be carried on through the child born of rape as well.

And Still. Hagar was given by her owner to her owner’s husband. She was fucked. She fell pregnant. She served her purpose and was done away with. We can not take away another piety about God blessing those hard done by. Any moralising that moves too swiftly past the ugly truth is one more cover up of what happened to Hagar.

Sarah probably hardly knew any better, or at least no different. She was likely bought in marriage, too. So Hagar was given to her owner’s owner. We notice that there is a hierarchy at work in what we unironically have come to call the Patriarchal Narratives.

Did you know, Abraham had even tried to sell Sarah to the king, Abimelech, at one point… just to save his own hide? This was the culture where women are purchased, used, dispensed with. Male children were what they were to produce, whether by rape or by consent. Their value was based on their wombs. Commodities.

There are reasons to feel sorry for Sarah too. There has been much to gain from reading her story of doubt and belief. She’s a complex character within the story being told. But we read in this story layers of oppression, and Hagar and Sarah might be looked at through Womanist–not just Feminist–eyes. They are both oppressed as women, but their oppression is not the same, and it is Sarah who oppresses Hagar, not the other way around.

In more recent centuries, Sarah might be a white plantation wife, Hagar the black house-slave, or just white women in relation to black women in the still-present dynamics of gendered and raced oppression. So, indeed we must think of Hagar as a Black woman in the same sense that the recently passed, James Cone, founder of Black Liberation Theology, compared the cross of Jesus to the lynching tree, and the One who hangs on it to the Black person in America.

Biblical interpretation has always done this kind of dialogue-work between the today and the back-then. This is a basis of how faith communities engage with the Scriptures as a conversation partner for their own lives. But it has been women who noticed Hagar’s suffering as a woman. And it has been Black women who noticed Hagar’s suffering as a slave. I mentioned 2,500+ years of Hagar being ignored, but in African-American sources Hagar has been noticed for 300+ years (as in, when the first African-American congregations took a hold of these stories in defiance of white interpretations). It was in the White, Western churches that Hagar was buried completely in the desert that Sarah banished her.

It is those who have been oppressed who notice oppression in the Scriptures. It is those fighting for real-life freedom who liberate the text from its bondage. The “Gospel” of the Bible, the Spirit behind the Word: these are the domain of those at the margins of the society, as well as at the margins of the faith community, and not those at the center. In re-membering so, we pay tribute to Hagar, our mother, and our mother, Hagar, lives on through us, just as was promised. “Though you have gone through all this, you too will become a great nation.”

Written by Alexander Jordan Holmes-Brown

Phyllis Trible edited a whole book dedicated to Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children, with Letty M. Russell co-editing. It is Womanist theologian, Delores S. Williams, who takes up the topic of “Hagar in African-American Biblical Appropriation”.

Williams’ major work, in fact, is the magnificent Sisters in the Wilderness, published in 1993.

Below are some of the comment I received over Facebook, critiquing this reading of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham, or taking the reading further by providing contextual insights. I respond to them in turn. To read them as they appeared originally, see: https://goo.gl/2W1Xg1

From Jean: I take it the above author is Williams excerpted from a book edited by Trible? Personally, I find this interpretation thought-provoking but extreme. It doesn’t take the socio-historical context of the ANE into account but seems to interpret the text from the standpoint of modern democratic feminst ideals and judging the authors/narrators who lived thousands of years ago in an ancient patriarchal culture with standards and values that they do not share with modern Christian readers.

I am open to reading Christian womanist theologians since they do open up new avenues for reading biblical texts, but in this case I disagree with her reading of Hagar’s story… she makes certain conclusions about Hagar’s treatment, but there are other equally valid conclusions to be made because the biblical narrators present characters whose speech and actions are ambiguous (see Robert Alter’s book “The Art of Biblical Narrative” or Gunn & Fewell “Narrative in the Hebrew Bible”).

Using narrative criticism, I don’t think the biblical narrator presents Hagar being raped, but I do think there are clues in the passage that show the narrator thinks Hagar has been most unjustly treated and that he is sympathetic to what she has gone through – after all her story was recorded as Scripture, she is named, she is positively portrayed as a proactive woman with deep emotions, and most significantly she is seen by and speaks with the angel of the LORD (not many women in Scripture could make that claim). Also, the boy Ishmael while not the child of promise is not considered a mistake because God has plans to bless him and make him into a great nation. The characters in these stories are flawed and complex and our assessments of them will always vary because the situations are ambiguous.

AJHB: Dear Jean,

Thanks for the thoughtful response. I am the author of the post. It is not an excerpt from Williams, although I owe a great debt to Womanist and Feminist theologians and biblical scholars like her and Trible.

I’m glad you found the re-reading of Hagar to be thought-provoking, and extreme. Extreme is certainly how my emotional response to the story colours my reading — even if I’d like to take the text in an objective way.

I thought I made it clear that my reading is openly biased and that I hinted at the texts ambiguity and lack of clarity of the power dynamics of Hagar’s pregnancy. I was wanting to read between the lines and ask, how might Hagar have experienced being given by her mistress to Abraham for sex. I infer that precisely what was normal back then is rape.

As for reading today’s values into the text, that, I believe is the responsibility of the reader who wants to be more than purely descriptive. For example, the killing of all men, women, and children in Canaan (not that it really happened) was wrong, then and now, whatever the Biblical justifications for it, whatever the supposed commands of the Lord, whatever the extenuating circumstances, whatever the value system of the perpetrators. I think this is pretty basic and wonder why many wish to give a kind of detached “well that was how things were back then” approach… I think such an approach is ideologically suspect as my own admittedly suspicious reading.

From Lyn: An excellent response Jean I too have found womanist theologians thought-provoking. But that said I find them often hard to read as Jean has noted because they don’t take into account the socio-historical context of the ANE. There are some glaring problems here in the above excert. For starters Hagar is not raped. When Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham she is changing her status from ‘slave’ to ‘wife.’ This is in similar fashion to a father giving his free born daughter to her future husband. That is why Sarah is jealous in the end. Sarah was not bought as a wife because she is a free born woman- and as such she is ‘given’ freely. She could object to her father about the match. Now this is interesting because Sarah wasn’t bought since she was Abraham’s half sister. This means that the above analysis is hugely flawed. Certainly one should be very careful to read from an ancient text to the situation of negro slaves in the US before the civil war. The situations are not directly comparable.

And as Jean said the narratives are ambiguous and they are that way for a reason. They are meant to be used by being inhabited and discussed. You’re meant to take the varying perspectives of the different characters and see things from their point of view. It’s meant to engage you in other centred-ness so that you grow spiritually and in character. You know “waking a mile another ‘person’s’ moccasins.”

AJHB: Dear Lyn,

Thank you for the insightful comment. I notice that we both make inferences. For example you infer the case of “free-born” women being given by their fathers to husbands who they can object. I wonder where in ANE literature you find examples of being able to object?

And how you define free-born? Obviously you mean a woman who is not a slave — and I make this distinction between Sarah’s position and Hagar’s — but do you contend that a daughter given by her father is free to choose and does not become something like the property of her father and then her husband?

Now, you are right to say that Hagar’s status changes from slave to wife. You are reading Gen. 16:3. “So after living ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai gave her Egyptian slave to Abram as a second wife.”

It is only three verses later that Hagar’s true status is foregrounded: Gen. 16:6 ” But Abram said to Sarai, “She is your slave. You can do anything you want to her.” So Sarai was cruel to Hagar, and Hagar ran away.”

Again in Gen. 21:9, when Sarah even sees Ishmael playing, she despises it and says “Get rid of that slave woman and her son!” The verse even contains an editors note reminding the reader that Hagar is the Egyptian slave.

Her being expelled without enough sustenance to keep her son from nearly starving and needing divine intervention shows up how much status she rose to have… really very little. Even Abraham being sad at losing his son Ishmael shows little concern for the slave-wife, Hagar.

If that provides enough textual material to at least give my reading some credence, even if you still have some reservations, let us now address what your rightly pointed out as a glaring piece of missing information…

I never mentioned that Sarah, who I said was probably sold to Abraham herself, was, in fact, his half-sister!

Well, along with what I have been saying about wives being pretty much property and slaves being even more useable and dispensable, here I am clear that I am indeed reading things from a feminist perspective. That men would give their “free-born” daughters to other men, at a price, or for political-social arrangements, is precisely the opposite of freedom. And while I make it clear that I am reading behind the lines, there is nothing there for you to infer that Sarah being Abraham’s sister means that she was not sold as a commodity and purchased as one. There is certainly nothing to suggest that their proximity before hand meant that it was some sort of natural marriage in our modern terms, some romance that became sealed in covenant. Here I am urging you to read the ANE more closely.

And we don’t need to look that far into extra-biblical sources to find out that:

“A man might decide to sell his daughter as a slave. If this happens, the rules for making her free are not the same as the rules for making the men slaves free. If the master who chose her for himself is not pleased with her, then he can sell the woman back to her father. If the master broke his promise to marry her, he loses the right to sell her to other people. If the master promised to let the slave woman marry his son, he must treat her like a daughter, not like a slave.” (Ex. 21:7-9)

So you have a man selling his daughter “as a slave”. The purchaser, the master, has “promise[d] to marry her”. If he doesn’t make her a wife, he cannot sell her to anyone but back to the father, implying that if he does marry her, he could sell her. And we cannot be sentimental about the last line on “treating her like a daughter” if the first line says “a man might decide to sell his daughter”.

(If you are interested in comparative look at slavery conventions in the ANE, see https://goo.gl/K8NzPR * which also deals with some of the difference and ambiguities of slavery and other “servile conditions”)

I appreciate your “walking a mile” ideal at the end, which is precisely what I have done with Hagar, intentionally and I had hoped without pretense to an objective view of things, while noting certain ambiguities and making clear that Hagar is not a “Negro slave” but can be read in light of modern slavery in order to walk a mile, just as Jesus is not literally a Black person lynched in Arkansas — he was a 1st Century Jew in Roman-occupied Palestine — but ought be identified, in fact is identified, with all those who are hung on trees, scapegoated, oppressed, and destroyed with religious zeal. I had thought this analogy-making was pretty clear, so apologies if not.

* [This is a link to Raymond Westbrook’s article, “Slave and Master in Ancient Near Eastern Law” in the Chicago-Kent Law Review, 1995: Vol. 70, Iss. 4]

From Chris n Mindi: This isn’t a fair interpretation of early patriarchy and instead excels toward an extreme point of view absent of then cultural norms. Using offensive language also detracts from any kind of value. Tamar was raped by her brother Amnon (2 Samuel 13), Dinah was raped by Shechem (Genesis 34:2) but Hagar was not taken by force. Even then in ancient culture were definitions for rape. We must be extraordinarily cautious about applying our modern standards against ancient practice where a cultural handmaiden serves as a surrogate which was not unusual. Trible’s writing has been described as “disturbing” and at other times theologically far-fetched. Even Jephthah’s daughter was a willing victim (Judges 11:30-40) despite the forgetfulness that such a sacrifice was prohibited. The Babylonian Talmud clearly resolves the issue of the vowed sacrifice being improper (b. Taanit 1:1, II.9.D), the Mishnah immediately questions the validity of making an offering without knowing what that would be (m. Ta’an. 4:2 C) and all point to the Levitical absolution of making “difficult” vows by paying a sum into the temple coffer; that is, buying your way out of a vow that cannot be upheld (cf Leviticus 27.2). Certainly culture has changed and such behaviors once acceptable aren’t so today. The message thus should not be to paint our Christian faith as a graphically horrific religion to run away from. Instead, there ought to demonstrate God’s mercy and grace, despite our depravity and idiotic choices of knocking up the handmaiden rather than trusting God when he says he’ll provide an heir.

Response by Camo: Yes ancients did have their own conceptions of rape but that doesn’t mean that we can’t apply our own tools and definitions from today to get a better understanding of the text. For example, you use the term “early patriarchy,” one that isn’t found in the texts but is helpful for illuminating them.

While some might be reluctant to call Hagar’s experience with Abraham rape, neither should they be quick to call it consensual, which assumes two parties with a relatively equal relationship of power and status. We do know that Hagar isn’t of the same status and power as Abraham, and I think it’s therefore legitimate to ask the question of rape, even if the Bible doesn’t–c.f. the conversation about David and Bathsheeba.

AJHB: Thanks Chris or Mindi, I wont give you an essay like I have in response to the comments above, as Camo has so succinctly said exactly what I would want to say but probably fail to. So, thanks Camo, as well.

From Joseph: Is this exegesis, or eisegesis? Because this interpretation seems to be more along the lines of eisegesis since, as Jean, Lyn, and Chris N Mindi stated in detail, it portrays Sarah’s “giving” of Hagar to Abraham as rape when it clearly was not, and it ignores cultural context.

AJHB: “When it clearly was not”… Interesting non-comment Joseph. Good one!

From Julie: I’ve recently taught this passage and in studying for that I learned things I did not previously know. In Mesopotamia, archeology has found several marriage contracts from the time period of Abraham. These stipulate that if the wife cannot bear children she was *required* to give a female servant to her husband to bear a child. Note that it was not the husband who would go looking for a female slave to do this, but it was the wife’s responsibility to do this. Since the text makes it clear that it was well known that Sarah was “barren” even before they left Ur, she should have provided Abraham a servant long before she actually did so.

Hagar was probably given to Sarah as a servant when she joined Pharoah’s harem. When Sarah was released to Abraham along with lots of gifts to placate Abraham and his God, apparently Hagar was part of that package. If that is the case, then it is a good decade or more before Sarah finally gives Hagar to Abraham to have a child. Thus, Hagar was well acquainted with both Sarah and Abraham, and she probably expected to be given to Abraham long before she actually was. It seems to me that Sarah really did not want to give any servant to Abraham. It also seems to me that Abraham probably wasn’t real keen on the idea either, since it was his right according to the contract to pressure her to do so. Hagar’s feelings were not considered, that is true. But this was probably not a big surprise to her. The most surprising part of this to her was probably, “NOW you’re going to do this?”

According to the marriage contracts, the husband did not make the slave his wife. He only had intercourse with her until she became pregnant and no more. She was the *wife’s* servant, not the husband’s. When Hagar became pregnant, she began to feel superior to Sarah. It is significant that there is no mention of friction between Hagar and Sarah until this.

This does not mean that cultural practice was OK. According to our modern sensibilities, it was not. God meets us where we are in order to bring us up to where he wants us to be. That modern sensibilities of even non-believers find this practice abhorant shows that God’s plan of redemption is actually working.

The way God interacts with Hagar both when she’s pregnant and later when she has been turned out with her son shows that he does care about her and Ishmael too. Hagar even names God — something no other human being does in all of Scripture (!) — and God accepts her name for him. He blesses her and her son greatly, and I believe that though she likely did not enjoy being taken by Abraham, she expected it and was probably happy with the outcome by the end of her life.

Response by Joseph: I’ve never heard of the ancient marriage contracts before, so thanks for mentioning that!

In regards to humans giving names to God, I think Hagar was the first one in Scripture who did it, but I don’t think she was the only one. For example, Abraham gives God the name “The LORD Will Provide” in Genesis 22 after God provided the ram in the bush.

Response by Julie: I got that info from John H Walton in The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis.

Response by Wendy: Dr Katherine Bushnell also brings this out in God’s Word To Women – it is from the Law of Hammurabi, the codes of the civilization that Abraham and family came from.

Response by Julie:  Incidentally, Walton also says that we cannot use the Hagar story to teach about “getting ahead of God” and/or “taking matters into our own hands without trusting God.” The text itself does not ever fault Abraham or Sarah for “trying to help God out,” and he points out that those who say that Ishmael’s birth caused a lot of problems (for example: the Arab-Israeli mess we have today) that God would rather have not happened are wrong. For 13 years God allowed everyone involved to believe that Ishmael was the promised son. Abraham loved him and doted on him, and Sarah probably also rejoiced. According to the culture, Ishmael was legally her son. Of course everyone knew his bio mother was Hagar, but legally, he was Sarah’s son. That’s how that worked back then. Sarah only came out against him after she had Isaac, and then did not take action against Ishmael until Isaac was weaned — that is, old enough that people could be reasonably sure he was going to survive into adulthood (had survived the infant stage when illnesses were so deadly).

The fact is, that Sarah obviously had not wanted to provide a maidservant to her husband, or she would have done so years before. Only after God specified that the heir was to be from Abraham’s body (and not adopted) and she knew she had gone through menopause did she give Hagar to Abraham. She didn’t want to do it. Abraham probably didn’t want to do it. Hagar probably didn’t want to do it. All three of them were being obedient to what they thought was “right” at the time. I think that’s why God blessed all three of them. For some, like Hagar, the blessings may have taken awhile, but they came. She and Ishmael actually did really well after they were cast out. He became wealthy and his 12 sons became tribal chiefs.

Emotional healing had also taken place. I cannot imagine how terrible it must have been to have been treated like the Son of the Promise for 13 to 15 years only to be cast out later. But 70 or so years later we see Ishmael return to help Isaac bury Abraham. Since bodies had to be buried within 24 hours or so because of the heat, he had to have receive word that Abraham’s death was pending for him to get there in time. There is no mention of contention between Isaac and Ishmael. I see great healing must have taken place. I imagine Hagar made her peace with the situation too.

AJHB: This is by far my favourite response, Julie. Thank you. Your reading of this story is compelling and takes into account many of the bits that are tricky for us to understand today. You also don’t try to defend or make obsolete the difficulties with a cliche of “well it was written at a certain time”, rather you look at the certain time in order to probe even more deeply into the dynamics of the story, the plot, the people, the real relationships, and what God might be up to in the midst of it. Thank you!

These comments were from the Facebook group, Biblical Christian Egalitarians. Interestingly, the off-shoot group, CBE-Voices of Color reshared my post saying: “This is so worthy of being shared and discussed.”

CBE - Voices of Colour

What do you think of the appraisals from Jean, Lyn, Chris n Mindi, Joseph, and Julie? What about Camo? Let me know in the comments.

Read what I found when I was digging through the ANE sources I was suggested by my detractors in Texts of Terror, Episode 1.2: Hagar’s Miserable Comforters

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