Texts of Terror, Episode 1.2: Hagar’s Miserable Comforters

Read Episode 1.1 here.

Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar were not rainy-day friends. Seeing the stricken Job, they said to him what they thought he ought to hear: that if his situation was not his fault, which it probably was, well, everything happens for a reason. Today we would do well to recognise that some people just don’t have our back. They want to ask whether the teenager had anything to hide when he was choked to death by police. They want to know how short was the dress of the woman who was raped. What stone was thrown by the protester gunned down. What circumstances, even if not the victim’s fault, could make sense of the situation. Or rather, what circumstances were there other than the fault of the one concretely committing the harm. What extenuating, exonerating, mitigating, litigating maneuvers can cover over that a violation has really been committed. Job calls them “miserable comforters” and “worthless physicians”. You can tell them by their reasoning. It is always reasonable. “There must be a reason,” they say. So Job turns the question on them.

Is there no end to your long-winded speeches? What provokes you to continue testifying?…

Job 16:2

So how can you comfort me with empty words?

Job 21:34

job's friends
“Scholars now believe Job’s friends were first-year seminary students” BabylonBee (satire)

Hagar too has many “miserable comforters”, and they exist today in those who deny her even her pain. It might be not so much about covering over her pain, which should cause us pain, but to avoid pain altogether. That repression is very much there, I think, but it might be something else. It’s not Hagar being raped that we can’t acknowledge, it’s who raped her: Abraham, the father of the Abrahamic religions in their many forms. Writer-activist Stanley Fritz wrote last year what it was like to have his childhood idol, Kobe Bryant, arrested for sexual assault:

This was a time before the internet had reached its peak, so information wasn’t as accessible, so with no evidence to support her accusation or his denial, I was immediately on Kobe’s side. That blind loyalty only increased when he held a tearful press conference with his wife admitting to infidelity, but flatly denying the rape accusation.

Even with the evidence, Fritz shows us how our allegiances to what we thought we knew are hard to break:

No matter what was revealed during this very public investigation and trial, I never stopped believing in Kobe and when he gave an apology that reeked of a confession, I still questioned the victim and gave Bryant my undying loyalty.

The same thing was going on 15 years later when he would look back on that loyalty in the shadow of the Bill Cosby trial in 2018: “In the last week, I have seen the same kind of undying loyalty, and aggressive dismissal of the facts from grown men”.

In ministry circles we all know how true this is. The words Catholic Church are synonymous for plenty of people with the words paedophile priests. And it is not just the Roman church either. All churches, seminaries, academic departments, and even church-based leftist revolutions have the propensity to cover the crimes of their leaders. Even in our social justice oriented congregations and among our brightest thinkers we can find this refusal to acknowledge serious crimes committed if they are committed by our shining stars: the Mennonite ethicist John Howard Yoder, the father of mestizo/a theology Virgilio Elizondo, to name just two [the case of l’Arche founder, Jean Vanier, is mentioned at the end of this article]. In all cases, the details have not all come to light. But you’d swear some people would think these men, by their standing, by something inherent within them or proved by their other braveries, could not commit such travesties against the vulnerable. It is hard to tear down false idols.

But what if the accused is the very founding father of the Abrahamic religion, the one who turned from idols to the worship of YHWH. And the founding mother, too, even more so to blame? And what if the skeleton in that family closet was intimately bound up with the true Father and Mother of the faith, Godself? I put that to the test. I brought my last piece on Hagar to the members of the Facebook forum, Christian Biblical Egalitarians, to see how other anti-patriarchal Bible readers would react to my reading of the story of the first Patriarch, Abraham (Avram), is wife Sarah (Sarai), and their slave-servant, Hagar. I felt then that Hagar, like Job, has many “miserable comforters”.

Here I return to Hagar instead of the planned next episode of Lot’s Daughters. I return better equipped because since then I have read a book that has changed everything I thought I knew about the Bible, while confirming a whole lot else I knew instinctively. It is Rev. Dr. Wilda Gafney’s Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne and it lays out the case of Hagar from the perspective of an expert on the Hebrew scriptures like I have never read before. Professionally, Gafney is Associate Professor (Full Professor since the writing of this piece!) of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, Ft. Worth, Texas. Prof. Gafney gained her PhD in Hebrew Bible at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. Rev. Gafney is an ordained Episcopal priest in the historic African Episcopal Church, and has been a member of a Jewish congregation also in Philadelphia. In Gafney’s work, the translations of Hebrew into English are her own. Her approaches emphasise the archaeology and comparative literature of the Ancient Near East, ongoing rabbinic and extra-biblical Jewish literature, as well as meaning for Black and minoritised communities today. Her Womanist Midrash is just such an intimate telling of the Jewish scriptures: the characters are there in all their complexities as if they were siblings, parents, and grandparents, their stories are family stories, passed down, retold, and re-membered into the present and the past.

wil gafney
The Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney

The responses to my first attempt to name Hagar and what was done to her was met with a consistent refrain: that the ancient world was a different world, and that rape is a modern construct, and that rape is too strong a word to use for the social set-up of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah and their mutual using of Hagar. Like it wasn’t so bad. So I wondered what Wilda Gafney might say when I opened her book on “Women of the Torah and the Throne”. I only glanced in the direction of Womanist interpretation in the last piece because the first “episode” of my ‘texts of terror’ (named after Phyllis Trible’s work) was meant to be punchy, brief, an introduction. Here I turn to Professor Gafney to help see what we really can say about Hagar that does justice to what we know of ANE social arrangements, but does justice for her, the woman Hagar, the person Hagar, who deserves a say in the Abraham-Sarah story that subsumes her life to their plans.

Hagar’s first proper mention in Womanist Midrash is a midrash by Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai, of the 2nd Century C.E., where Hagar is the daughter of the Pharaoh who took Sarai without any challenge from Abram who gave her to save his own hide. Hagar is given along with the cattle that will make Abram a rich man. This first mention is accompanied by a footnote that addresses the concerns of the detractors from my first post: “Giving a sexually exploited woman [Sarai] another woman [Hagar] to exploit sexually is “biblical” justice. I am not reading this as a historical or ethical claim but am acknowledging its Iron Age morality” (Gafney, p. 33).

Whether or not Hagar was indeed the pharaoh’s daughter is not the point. Other rabbinic sources bring attention to what they see as Sarai’s and Abram’s sin towards Hagar. In the B’reshith Rabba (c. 500s) there are speculations as to why the “righteous” Sarai treated Hagar so badly, and Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman in the 13th century accuses Abraham and Sarah for their sin against Hagar (see Elaine James’s discussion in the Women’s Bible Commentary, pp. 51-55). From three very different eras (the Second, Sixth, and Thirteenth centuries, C.E.) midrashic interpretation could admit the questioning of the religion’s founding figure(s). The conclusions are diverse but the one stable feature of these traditions was the ability to call out the sins and sore points that polite company would rather not acknowledge. The stable feature of biblical man-woman relationship does not leave so much room for the kinds of interpretations I found in the Christian Biblical Egalitarians facebook group, interpretations that were given as correctives to my own biased reading on behalf of the raped Hagar.

This is the picture that one bible scholar sees when he says “The picture which the Torah offers of the place of women in the family seems to have been generally stable over a very long period of time, into and past the New Testament era”? L. William Countryman’s landmark 1988 study on Dirt, Greed, and Sex shows that stability to be precisely the fact of women as the property of men. And he makes reference to Hagar as well.

“The ideal for a woman was to be a wife, but many found themselves in various grades of slavery, while even those who had achieved the status of wife might lose it through divorce of widowhood. The slave-woman was subject not only to the patriarch, but to a whole internal family hierarchy, including the patriarch’s wife. The consequences could be devastating, as one sees in the case of Hagar” (Countryman, p. 152).

Countryman, the (former) Sherman E. Johnson Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, goes on to show the Torah “indications of the various grades of sexual property. The lowest grade [being] he slave-woman”. A slave could not be killed like animal property though the master may just send them packing, even if he had taken the slave as a wife, and “Since she had no family to return to, this sort of expulsion would be disastrous for her. Such a woman, with no native country left and without any natal family to protect her interests, was in fact only step removed from any other sort of slave. The gesture of constituting her as a “wife” can only have been in the interest of procuring legitimate heirs, as when Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham for the same purpose” (153).

In the twenty pages that constitute his chapter on “Women and Children as Property in the Ancient Mediterranean World”, Countryman includes more that sixty  references from the Torah on the various legal aspects of property laws, i.e. “marriage” laws. Reading his book, as I did in tandem with Gafney’s, I felt as I did when I responded to the comments on my original piece . . . .  that those saying I had missed some background aspects had missed what is in plain view. And then I remembered that besides being told to look closer at the ancient world customs behind the text that I was also advised to look with a more literary eye, a la Robert Alter’s “The Art of Biblical Narrative.” And then I remembered I have the Class of 1937 Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley Alter’s translation “The Book of Genesis” and I wondered what he would make of Hagar. So I turned to his Chapter 16 and sure enough found not only a translation but several footnotes worth of Hagar’s abuse.


“Now Sarai Abram’s wife had born him no children, and she had an Egyptian slavegirl named Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, pray, the Lord has kept me from bearing children. Pray, come to bed with my slavegirl. Perhaps I shall be built up through her.”


Slavegirl. Hebrew shifhah. The tradition of English versions that render this as “maid” or “handmaiden” imposes a misleading sense of European gentility on the sociology of the story. The point is that Hagar belongs to Sarai as property, and the ensuing complications of their relationship build on that fundamental fact.”


“And Abram said to Sarai, “Look, your slavegirl is in your hands. Do to her whatever you think is right.” And Sarai harassed her and she fled from her.”


“And the Lord’s messenger said to her, “Look, you have conceived and will bear a son and you will call his name Ishmael, for the Lord has heeded your suffering.”


your suffering. The noun derives from the same root as the verb of harassment (or. abuse, harsh handling, humiliation) used for Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar.”


“And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, laughing. And she said to Abraham, “Drive out this slavegirl and her son, for the slavegirl’s son shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac.” And the thing seemed evil in Abraham’s eyes because of his son.”


laughing. Hebrew metsaheq. The same verb that meant “mocking” or “joking” in Lot’s encounter with his sons-in-law and that elsewhere in the Patriarchal narratives refers to sexual dalliance. It also means “to play.” […] Some medieval Hebrew exegetes, trying to find a justification for Sarah’s harsh response, construe the verb as a reference to homosexual advances, though that seems far-fetched. Mocking laughter would surely suffice to trigger her outrage. Given the fact, moreover, that she is concerned lest Ishmael encroach on her son’s inheritance, and given the inscription of her son’s name in this crucial verb, we may also be invited to construe it as “Isaac-ing-it” — that is, Sarah sees Ishmael presuming to play the role of Isaac, child of laughter, presuming to be the legitimate heir.”


Drive out this slavegirl. In language that nicely catches the indignation of the legitimate wife, Sarah refers to neither Hagar nor Ishmael by name, but instead insists on the designation of low social status.”

At this point you can imagine my indignation. Recall what I had been told.

Jean said:

“I find this interpretation thought-provoking but extreme. It doesn’t take the socio-historical context of the ANE into account”


“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”

Lyn said:

Womanist theologians “don’t take into account the socio-historical context of the ANE.”


“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.”

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.”


“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.”

Joseph said:

“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.”

So I was missing the context? But it seems like Countryman’s in depth study and Alter’s respected translation saw Hagar in exactly the same way. I had also been reading an oldy-but-a-goody, Roland de Vaux’s Ancient Israel: It’s Life and Institutions, translated from the French to English in 1961. Vaux was editor-in-chief on the archaeological digs and publishing of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and for a period he was the head of the École Biblique in Jerusalem. His chapter on slavery in the 570 page small print of Les Institutions de l’Ancien Testament confirms all of my assumed context for calling Hagar a slave and saying that a master’s sex with a slave is by definition rape. And these experts are not by any means Womanists!


So I figured with my old-white-men boxes checked for the egalitarians I would crack on with the reading of another expert, the Reverend Doctor Wilda Gafney, on Hagar, in her Womanist Midrash. Like I said before, her work would confirm my thoughts about Hagar except that it would go so much further. Every woman I had ever read about in the Bible was now finally speaking rather than spoken for, or heard instead of unheard and misread and silenced by me and other males, in and after the text that they appear. Gafney knows how to make the Bible come alive! She calls her book a “Reintroduction”, and it’s just that. It’s like just when you thought you knew someone, they go and do the unexpected. The characters are no longer just set pieces, their fates are not sealed.

But what about Hagar. The first thing Gafney says that I didn’t know is that Hagar means “foreigner thing”. The root is g-w-r and identified with foreigners and sojourners. A strange name. “I very much doubt that her Egyptian parents gave her such a name”, says Gafney. It is a fair guess that her new Hebrew owners call her that depersonalised name.

Secondly, Gafney confirms what Lyn from the BCE Facebook group says about Hagar’s changed status. “[S]he gives her, l’isshah, “as a woman/wife,” using the same term, isshah, for Sarai’s own relationship” and not as pilegishiym nashot which means ‘secondary woman’ or ‘secondary wife’. “Sarai and Hagar are cowives”, says Gafney, but “there is a hierarchy between them”.

Next, Gafney points out the use of the verb ‘-n-h, often translated/downplayed as Sarai ‘dealing harshly’ with Hagar. God brought Israel out of Egypt for their harsh dealings: it was slavery. Shechem raping Dinah and Amnon raping Tamar are given the same word. Strange that Chris N Mindi would comment, “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.” Perhaps they do not read Biblical Hebrew. Neither do I. This is why we turn to experts like Dr. Gafney.

Now, Gafney doesn’t just chastise Sarai for her abuse of Hagar. The book is about Women of the Torah and the Throne, and each of her studies are given their space without rash moralising. She beautifully says, “When the number and complexities of Sarah’s lives are measured (23:1 uses the plural), she is woman and wife, mother and matriarch, female patriarch and flawed person, blessed and beloved.”

Not only is Gafney sensitive to Sarah, she makes a point of the complexity of our present-day readings:

In her complexity she can be iconic for contemporary religious readers who may not find themselves on a single side a a contrived privilege-peril binary scale. Women of color who are imperiled in the United States and the wider Western world because of race and ethnicity can also exercise privilege if they are Christian and/or cisgender and/or heterosexual. Women who exercise white privilege can be imperiled through Muslim identity or sexual minority status. Male privilege–even white male privilege–can be eclipsed in part by sexual orientation or broader gender nonconformity.

And there’s more to be acknowledged about how we read today, and how others read, from contexts that we may not ever have had to read from. So for Hagar, Gafney asks:

Who and where were her parents? How did she come to be enslaved? Was she born into servitude? These question have particular resonance in the Americas for readers and hearers of African descent, whose ancestors were enslaved and whose foremothers were regularly subjected to the theft of their bodies, inside and out.

Gafney spends significant time on the details of Hagar’s story, details you can find in her book, Womanist Midrash. But some things about Hagar are really indisputable in the text, unless we don’t know about how these things work. They are the indisputable things of life. A step sideways to an interview Prof. Gafney did for Pete Enns’ and Jared Byas’ podcast, ‘The Bible for Normal People’, shows us just how ubiquitous this rape/slavery familial setting is in the Patriarchal narratives weaving from our first couple down through their descendants. Here is the transcript, discussing the grandchildren’s generation of Isaac’s son Jacob (and Rachel, his second wife, plus the “handmaid” Bilhah gifted by Rachel’s father Laban):

Wil Gafney: [00:25:37] So, I’m going to start with Bilhah. Zilpah’s story is very similar, but I’m going to start with Bilhah in Genesis Chapter 30, verse 3. I’m going to read my translation and then we’re going to immediately need to talk about one translation choice. Rachel said, “Look my womb slave Bilhah. Come in her and she will give birth on my knees that I may also build babies through her.”

Pete Enns: [00:26:04] Hmm. What is the term? Womb slave?

Wil Gafney: [00:26:06] Yes.

Pete Enns: [00:26:06] Okay.

Wil Gafney: [00:26:07] I use that to translate the Hebrew words amah and shivhah. Both of those words are often translated as “maidservant.” The differences between the two are non-existent because biblical authors use them interchangeably and sometimes in the same narrative. But we need to not translate them as servants. I, as a busy professional woman, have someone who cleans my home. I don’t get to impregnate her with the man of my choice and own that child as my own. The fact that in this American context translations which have been produced by predominantly white men are not naming slavery as slavery is a problem and it shouldn’t take a womanist reading, reading from the positionality of African-American women who are the descendants of slaves, to point out this isn’t Bilhah’s job as a servant. This is trafficking of human persons. Forced pregnancy.

Jared Byas: [00:27:07] So I think there’s probably going to be a lot more good stuff around that but can you maybe name why do you think, you know, you said it shouldn’t take a womanist interpretation? What is it about the white men, probably, who translated these texts over the centuries that they would have missed naming it that?

Wil Gafney: [00:27:25] It’s interesting. Sometimes Hagar is referred to as Sarah’s slave. So I’m certainly not claiming that no predominately male or predominately white male translation does that. But the practice of slavery in the biblical text, once we got past the generation of people who used it to normalize their own enslaving practices, once we got beyond that interpretation, in my experience, that has been glossed over as just the way it was back then. But given that we have not finished dealing with our own legacy of slavery in this country, that gloss sort of participates in our not dealing with slavery in this country and its legacy. Or what it means that slavery was absolutely normalized in the biblical text. And if we’re honest, it’s not a misreading of the text in every case to say that the text endorses slavery and that sometimes God endorses slavery. And I think people have not been willing to do that deep wrestling ….

Just the way it was back then. Like Job’s miserable comforters we are tempted to say to those suffering injustice that it is just the way it is. The redactors of the Book of Job were so keen on the idea that they make his misery into a plot, where there is a deal with the devil at the start, and a happy restitution at the end, a reason for all the unhappiness along the way. Centuries and millennia of interpretation and rarely anyone noticed what René Girard made so apparent by actually listening to Job when the rest of us skipped over his long complaint: that Job’s misfortunes are inflicted upon him by the community, by human beings, and not as part of some divine plot. What would happen if we actually listened to what the texts clearly reveal, even if by accident? It should not be only the realm of Womanist and Feminist readers to know that to become pregnant without consent is to bare children by rape. It should not be too much to ask that we view suspiciously a record of such an event that never mentions consent or choice in the matter. It should not take detective work. It is not a stretch of the imagination or an act of leftist propaganda to suggest that the power differentials make sex with one’s slave always a violation, along with the slavery itself, even if the sacred text in question justifies and normalises both. And it is telling that the white egalitarians of CBE could not help by balk at a reading that was shared enthusiastically by CBE-Voices of Color.

At the same time it is precisely reading between the lines that is what we are called to do in Womanist Midrash. That is what midrash does. That is what Gafney does. Part of it is detective work. As regularly as Gafney is noting who is there speaking in the story, she is noting who is silent/silenced in the text. For every family genealogy there is a great witness of those whose names are never mentioned, or only mentioned and passed over. What lives did they live? What did they want to say? What would they have done if they could? What did they do in private? Beyond our reading of them in the texts that don’t remember them well? What was done to them? Those are basic hermeneutical tools of compassion and empathy. Job could’ve done with some empathy. His horror was compounded by the response he was given (read verses 19:13-20). The memory of mother Hagar, and all those enslaved and raped, do not, particularly now, need our glib response masked as an appeal to context. What was her context? That is what concerns me for this task: Hajar alone, not the familial needs or social mores of those who used her.

P.s. two new bits of context:

Since this was half-written and never published in June, 2018 (I finished up with mention of the podcast interview just now), two tragic things have happened. Kobe Bryant and Gianna Bryant died in a helicopter crash, on Jan 26, 2020, along with six family friends and the pilot. His death, and the death of his daughter, and the sheer tragedy of a family left behind after that, elicited both an outpouring of grief as well as the rehashing of debates about Bryant’s conduct off court. It is notable that the truth of him being a family man, a sporting giant, an icon, a human being, and all the other complexities of his life could be held next to the flaws and failures and fucked-up-ness of what he meant for those on the other side of the 2003 rape case, namely the one unnamed woman who matters most in it.

Also since this was written and never completed in June, 2018 (now returned to because the inspiration struck me for different reasons), is the horrible news of allegations and investigations into the beloved Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche. Another hero in the struggle to live a more liberating Christian faith, a more loving and humane world, a more imaginative and communal togetherness. It is one more reminder of the flaw of venerating flawed humans. And it is something more than that. Australian feminist theologian Dr. Janice McRandal wrote on her Facebook this:

janice mcrandal on vanier

Posted by Janice Louise on February 22: “Sad, angering, disappointing. But we gotta face up to the reality that many of the men we admire are sexual predators. We cover over it because we love and value them more than we love and value those they abuse.”

Writing for American Magazine, Colleen Dulle, reflects on being a long admirer of Vanier, lauding him as “revered spiritual master and prophetic voice”. Thinking on Vanier’s own mentor, whose scandals were exposed earlier, she said: 

I think of the women who had to endure the trauma of hearing a man who had sexually manipulated them be called a “living saint” when he was alive and as the world eulogized him. Although none of the women’s allegations were public until this morning, perhaps if those of us praising him had thought more critically about Vanier’s relationship with Father Philippe, we would at least have been more hesitant to canonize Vanier in our popular imagination.

Do we value Abraham over Sarah, Sarah over Hagar? Do we value our traditional reading over those hurt by the tradition? Do we value civility over indignation? Can we call a rape a rape, even when the Bible seems okay with it? Job would not listen to the rationalizers of his hurt. He would call us miserable comforters and he’d be right. So would Hajar if we dared to hear her.

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