Hagar good model or continued oppression

Many Womanist Theologians have raised up Hagar, a non-Jewish slave woman as the example for their connection to the Bible. Hagar a slave woman is a connection for Black Women based on physical character, geographical character, and experiential character. The story and experiences of Hagar give Womanist Theologians “a biblically based Christian Model”[1] for their theology. But is this a good model? In this paper I will show the reasons behind Hagar being an example, but then hopefully show that this link is a way to continue oppression and not fully incorporate Black Women into the body of Christ.

Hagar is a person who is a great model for Black Women. In Genesis 16, Hagar is introduced as an Egyptian slave woman who belongs to Abram’s wife Sarai. Sarai is unable to conceive and so she gives Hagar to Abram so that the child they produce would be Sarai’s. This is indicative of the way female slaves were used by masters for producing a good crop of slave labor. However, in the story of Hagar and Sarai, Hagar looked on in contempt of Sarai when she could get pregnant, and Sarai couldn’t. Sarai asked Abram to do something, and Abram responded that Hagar is Sarai’s slave, so Sarai delt harshly with Hagar, and Hagar ran away. While Hagar is in the wilderness, she encounters a messenger of the Lord. She is instructed by this messenger to return and submit to Sarai. The Lord informs Hagar she should submit to slavery. Hagar was given to her master’s master and raped and then beaten by her master and when she escapes meets God in the wilderness, only to be told to return to submit to her master. Which she does and bears a son for Abram and Sarai. However later in Genesis 21 when Sarah has had Isaac, Sarah tells Abraham to cast Hagar out because Ishmael should not be the heir as the first born, when that will be Isaac. Abraham is distressed by this request because he dearly loves his child, but God tells Abraham to concede to Sarah and that Ishmael will be protected. Ishmael was the first born of Abraham, but Sarah did not want him to be the heir to Abraham’s estate.

Hagar was the mother of Ishmael and while God promised to protect Ishmael and make a great nation out of him, God did not treat Hagar with the respect that should be looked for when dealing with humanity. However, there are clear links to the plight of Black Women as seen in the brief synopsis of the story above. Hagar was an Egyptian, from Africa, this is a geographical character link. Hagar was probably of a different, darker color skin than Sarah, this is a physical character link. Hagar suffered under the hand of her master’s and God; this is an experiential character.

These are clear understandings why Black women see Hagar as their connection to the Biblical encounter. Renita Weems wrote that African American Women “are all Hagar’s daughter.”[2] Delores S. Williams wrote, “In black consciousness, God’s response of survival and quality of life to Hagar is God’s response of survival and quality of life to African American women.” “Hagar’s and Ishmael’s life-situation was like that of black female slaves and their children.”[3] Hagar is the perfect link to the lives Black Women were or are experiencing. The link seems to flow flawlessly and is easy for any person to see and understand. But does this connection eradicate the suffering that continues and move us to full incorporation of all peoples into the body of Christ?

Paul tells the Galatians in chapter 4:

24These things are an allegory: the women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, which gives birth to slave children; this is Hagar. 25Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and she corresponds to the present-day Jerusalem, because the city is in slavery with her children. 26But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27It’s written: Rejoice, barren woman, you who have not given birth. Break out with a shout, you who have not suffered labor pains; because the woman who has been deserted will have many more children than the woman who has a husband. 28Brothers and sisters, you are children of the promise like Isaac. 29But just as it was then, so it is now also: the one who was conceived the normal way harassed the one who was conceived by the Spirit. 30But what does the scripture say? Throw out the slave woman and her son, because the slave woman’s son won’t share the inheritance with the free woman’s son. 31Therefore, brothers and sisters, we aren’t the slave woman’s children, but we are the free woman’s children.

Black women, by identifying with Hagar and their children with Ishmael, are associating, according to Paul, with slave woman and therefore constantly holding themselves in bondage. This bondage is not liberating and not connected with the story of God. This is in no way to say that Black Women are responsible for the place they are in or the suffering they endure. Ishmael and Hagar according to the stories in Genesis and the interpretation of Paul are not a part of the free children of God. These are people without the promise. Paul continued to tell the Galatians (5:1) “Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again.” As children of the promise, we should not submit to slavery, yet God told Hagar to submit to her masters and Black Women are identifying with Hagar so are they submitting to slavery. Do modern African American Women see themselves as children of slavery?

The writer of Ephesians reminds us (2:19) “So now you are no longer strangers and aliens. Rather, you are fellow citizens with God’s people, and you belong to God’s household.” We are not a part of the slave household but freed to be a child of God. And the writer goes on (3:6) “This plan is that the Gentiles would be coheirs and parts of the same body, and that they would share with the Jews in the promises of God in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” We are called to associate ourselves with the freed children of God. All are accepted and included.

Womanist Theologians associating themselves and all African American women with Hagar and Ishmael are they associating themselves and all Black Women with slavery, bondage, and oppression in the way that they have been historically treated, or still being treated? They are identifying with a Biblical example for their cause based on characteristics that should be secondary, but unfortunately, historically and currently are still not! The physical characteristic of darker skin, the geographical characteristic of being from Africa, or the experiential characteristic of suffering. These are all things that hold true for both Black Women and Hagar and are reasons for a connection, but when we flesh out this as the example we see that there are issues that do not make it the best example for a Christian Theology. As we see in Paul’s understanding above, linking yourself with Hager is removing yourself from the promise, and being a child of God. The story of Hagar and Ishmael ends in Genesis 21:21. Hagar and Ishmael disappear, yes God promises to protect Ishmael and make a great nation out of him but we hear nothing more about them in the Hebrew Scripture. The story thereafter is about Isaac. The rest of the Hebrew Bible isn’t about Hagar and Ishmael, so if you are associating with them what is your story?

Womanist Theologians might look for a person to associate with or use as an example based on spiritual characteristics rather than ones that make an easy link. Being a Child of God is the link that grounds all of us in the body of Christ. Could this be Sarah? I believe it would take a lot of finessing to make that happen. Or it could be the hope found in Christ. As Paul says to the Corinthians in his second letter (2 Cor 5:17), “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” Our past doesn’t define us so the attributes that define us from our past should have no influence on our future. I believe that our pasts still do affect us here. But in the reality of God our pasts do not matter. That is not to say they do not have an impact on our lives here. I live in privilege because I am a white male, and that is all because of my past. God has made all things new and is always tearing down the divisions we construct to keep people from being members of the Body of Christ they are. We are called to tear down those berries. We are called to dismiss and refute these barriers. Yes, Black Women have a clear connection with Hagar, yet this connection might not be the best defining portion of who they are. Black Women, along with all people, are children of God, heirs to the kingdom and a part of the promise. They are not seen by God as children of slavery, or those who are cast out. Their current life and future are within the body of Christ as children of God. While Hagar is a simple example and forced to give a Biblical connection, I think the Body of Christ can do better. I do not know who that connection is, but it needs to be one that is a child of God according to the scripture and included in the promised people, so their story is all of our story. Womanist Theologians are children of God and helping us move toward the full inclusion that God always intended. I hope we can work together to make this story all of our story.

[1] Dwight N. Hopkins, “Introducing Black Theology of Liberation”(NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 146.

[2] Renita Weems, “Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s relationships in the Bible”(San Diego: LuraMedia Press, 1988.), 17

[3] Delores S. Williams, “Sister in the Wildness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk” (NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 6, 193

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