Friday, April 18, 2008

"A Wandering Aramean Was My Mother"

Presently, I am reading But She Said: Feminist Practices of Biblical Interpretation by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza. For those unfamiliar with feminist theology, Schussler Fiorenza is a brilliant and prolific New Testament scholar and Christian theologian. Although I do not (and cannot) agree with everything she has to say, I find her writing both challenging and refreshing.

What follows is a poem she uses to introduce a chapter on "Feminist Historical Reconstruction." It is originally titled "A Wandering Aramean Was My Mother," from a book called Women's Prayer Services, edited by Iben Gjerding and Katherine Kinnanon (Twenty-Third Publications, 1987). I found it thoughtful, beautiful, and quite provocative (some of my favorite things). I would appreciate any thoughts my readers have to offer.

A wandering tribeswoman was my mother.
In Egypt, she bore slaves.
Then she called to the God of our mothers
Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah.
Praise God Who Hears, Forever.

A warrior, judge, and harlot was my mother
God called her from time to time
to save and liberate [God's] people
Miriam, Jael, Deborah, Judith, Tamar
Praise God Who Saves, Forever.

A Galilean Jew was my mother.
She bore a wonderful child
to be persecuted, hated, and executed.
Mary, mother of sorrows, mother of us all.
Praise God Who Gives Strength, Forever.

A witness to Christ's resurrection was my mother.
The apostle to the apostles
Rejected, forgotten, proclaimed a whore.
Mary of Magdala, vanguard of women-church
Praise God Who Lives, Forever.

An apostle, prophet, founder, and teacher was my mother
called to the discipleship of equals.
Empowered by the Sophia-God of Jesus
Martha, Phoebe, Junia, Priscilla, Myrta, Nympha, Thecla
Praise God Who Calls, Forever.

A faithful Christian woman was my mother.
A mystic, witch, martyr, heretic, saint, uppity woman
A native American, a black slave, a poor immigrant,
an old hag, a wise woman
May we, with her, in every generation
Praise God Who Images Us All.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The God of Hagar, Part 2

After her surprising encounter with God on the road to Shur, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and gives birth to her child. Abraham names the boy Ishmael, as God instructed, and for the next 13 years Ishmael is the presumed child of promise. It isn't until God appears to Abraham and give him the covenant of circumcision that Abraham is told that Sarah will bear a son and his name will be Isaac.

(Interestingly, while Sarah has the bad reputation for laughing at God, it is Abraham, the father of the faithful, who laughs at God first. Notice 17:17 where the narrator describes Abraham falling on the ground with laughter at the idea that Sarah would give birth. At least Sarah had the presence of mind to "laugh to herself" instead of in God's face [18:12].)

By the time Sarah gives birth to Isaac in Genesis 21, Ishmael is around 16 years old. Hagar hasn't been mentioned for five chapters and seems to have bowed out of the picture for good. But then a problem arises during a feast held to celebrate the weaning of Isaac. Genesis 21:9 says: "But Sarah saw the son mocking--the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham."

The word translated "mocking" in v. 9 is translated this way in almost every English translation of the Bible. I find this exceedingly interesting. In Hebrew the word is a form of the same word translated "laughter" or "laughing" earlier. It is clear that the narrator is playing off the word laughter throughout the story of Isaac's birth: Abraham and Sarah both laugh (17:17; 18:12); Sarah exclaims that God has made her laugh and all will laugh with her (21:6); and Isaac's name means "he laughs" (17:19).

The translation of Ishmael's behavior as "mocking," I think, is indicative of our desire to see Ishmael as a "bad guy" and Sarah's actions toward Hagar and Ishmael as justified. Later rabbis even interpreted mocking to mean "hurting," as if Ishmael was trying to kill the young Isaac. I think this is preposterous. The most natural reading of the word in v. 9 is that Ishmael was "playing" with Isaac or perhaps even "teasing" Isaac. There is no reason to suspect that anything sinister is going on between them, although it is certain that Sarah saw what was going on as a threat.

It is also interesting that the narrator is careful to point out that "the son" in v. 9 is "the one Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham." Here the emphasis is on Hagar's foreigner status again, along with the foreign status of her son as a result. Moreover, the phraseology is exceedingly sad when you consider that for 16 years Ishmael has been considered the firstborn son of Abraham and Sarah. Remember, Sarah had Hagar give birth to Abraham's seed as a surrogate mother, so any child born to her would be Sarah's. Presumably, Sarah and Abraham have been raising Ishmael as their own child. Ishmael has become a young man under Abraham's care, even being circumcised into the covenant relationship with God. Now, however, Sarah sees Ishmael as a serious threat to Isaac and, in effect, turns against her adopted child.

Seeing the carrying on between Ishmael and Isaac, Sarah says to Abraham: "Drive out this slave with her son, for the son of this slave will not be a co-heir with my son Isaac!" Can you hear the infuriated Sarah spit out these words? Notice the emphasis on the fact that Ishmael is "her son" and Hagar is "this slave." In fact, Sarah never calls Hagar by her name. Not once in chapters 16 and 21 does Sarah refer to Hagar as anything but "my slave" or "this slave."

At this point, I think Sarah's motivation becomes crystal clear: Seeing the young man with the baby boy, Sarah realized that even though Isaac is the child of promise, Ishmael will always be the oldest. In the ancient near east, the oldest son was the most important and I don't think she could stand the thought of Ishmael as Abraham's oldest son and a co-heir with Isaac.

Abraham's affection for Ishmael is apparent in his response to Sarah's fury. Verse 11 says, "Now this was a very difficult thing for Abraham because of his son." In Abraham's mind, Ishmael was "his son," not some foreign interloper. Sarah's demand that Abraham "drive out" the pair was essentially abandonment, something that would likely lead to their death. He knows the severity of this action and he is deeply troubled by the thought.

Thankfully, God intervenes again into the family troubles of Abraham. He instructs Abraham not to be worried, but to go ahead and do whatever Sarah says. Indeed, Isaac will be the one through whom Abraham's seed is traced and God promises to make a "great nation" out of Ishmael as well. This promise from God assures Abraham that at least Ishmael will not die and he submits to the will of Sarah.

Certainly it is a great thing that Abraham has confidence in God's preservation of Ishmael, but that makes the following situation no less perilous for Hagar and her teenage son. Rising early in the morning, Abraham takes bread and a waterskin and puts them on Hagar's shoulder. I doubt that the bread and waterskin were significant enough to last more than a few days, especially between an adult woman and a teenage boy. The narrator sums up the distressing scene in minimal language: "he sent her and the boy away."

Can you imagine the sorrow and despair of Hagar and Ishmael in this moment? A father sending away his oldest son. A woman being cast off by the only family she's ever known. A mother and son being sent into almost certain death in the wilderness. The reader knows God's promise, but Ishmael and Hagar have no such assurance.

Hagar leads out the narration from this point forward and it says that she "left and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba." Who knows how long this wandering lasted, but very soon after their departure, the resources run out. When the water is gone, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush. (This phraseology has given the false impression to many that the boy was a baby, but the chronology of Genesis is such that it is certain Ishmael was a teenager.)

Hagar leaves her son in the shade and finds a place to sit nearby. But, she is far enough away so that she cannot see him. Hagar knows that without water they are going to die in a few days and she cannot bear to watch it happen. The despair in Hagar's thoughts in palpable: "I can't bear to watch the boy die!" The scene is terrifying in the extreme. With no recourse for help, Hagar weeps loudly.

(There is a textual variant in the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which says that it is the boy who weeps loudly. The translators probably made this change because the next verse says that God hears the voice of the boy, not the voice of Hagar. Either way, though, the point is the same: both Hagar and Ishmael are in despair, near death.)

In the final surprise of Hagar's story, the angel of God appears to Hagar from heaven once again. His words reiterate God's provision for Ishmael and even play off the meaning of his name "God hears." The angel says, "God has heard the voice of the boy from the place where he is." Once again, God hears the cries of the outsider and the outcast. He instructs Hagar: "Get up, help the boy up, and sustain him, for I will make him a great nation."

One wonders what Hagar can do to "sustain" the dehydrated boy, but the next verse answers this dilemma. God opens Hagar's eyes and she "sees" a "well of water." Notice that "The God Who Sees" (16:13) now allows Hagar to "see" and what she sees is the source of their physical salvation. Hagar goes, fills their waterskin, and gives Ishmael the needed refreshment.

The narrative seems to stop abruptly at this point. It is as if once Hagar encountered the Lord again and Ishmael was given into God's care that there is no need to detail the rest of what happens. The reader is given a summary of Ishmael's life: "God was with the boy, and he grew; he settled in the wilderness and became an archer. He settled in the Wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt" (21:20-21).

I observe a source both for sadness and joy in this bare description of Ishmael's growth into manhood. It seems that from the time Abraham expelled Hagar and Ishmael that he never saw either of them again. The woman who bore Abraham's first son is never mentioned again and Abraham mourns and weeps only for Sarah when she dies. Hagar vanishes into the pages of history.

Moreover, Ishmael never sees his father again and it is his mother who must get a wife for him (an act typically reserved for the father [see Genesis 21]). At his death, Isaac and Ishmael come together to bury their father (25:9), a fact often overlooked by those who want to see contentiousness between the two brothers, but the man who brought him into the covenant with God never encounters Ishmael again. It seems that father-less families are not only the problem of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Even with the sadness in this story, though, there are reasons for joy as well. Notice that the narrator says, "God was with the boy." We live in an age of tremendous hatred for the presumed descendents of Ishmael. Many would like to think that because Isaac was the child of promise that Ishmael was ignored by God. But, nothing could be further from the truth. God was with Ishmael. This is the same way the Bible speaks of God being with Joseph. God blessed Ishmael intentionally and he had twelve sons in a way parallel to Jacob, lived a long life, and upon his death "was gathered to his people" in the same way Abraham was.

Apparently, the promise to Hagar that Ishmael would live in opposition to all his brothers (16:12) had more to do with geography than behavior, for Genesis 25:18 points out that Ishmael's family settled "from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt as you go toward Asshur." Ishmael, being part Egyptian, literally lived in opposition to all his brothers (25:19).

Moreover, I take great joy in the fact that the God who found the frightened, pregnant Hagar in Genesis 16 and offered her a promise of innumerable descendents is the same God who finds the dehydrated, dying Ishmael in Genesis 21 and reiterates his plan to make him a great nation. What looked like a serious blunder in the life of Sarah and Abraham, something that was indeed a source of serious suffering and trial for Hagar the slave woman, God turns into a way to further bless the world with the descendents of Abraham. The God of Hagar is a God of wondrous generosity and care for outsiders. Many surprises, twists, and turns cannot thwart God's plan to bless the nations and the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael are included in God's providence.

So, to go back to where I started, that's why I wish I could name my first daughter Hagar. She's one of my favorite women in the history of God's people. I know that Ronnie won't go for it, though. Perhaps I can convince Brad and Angelina that no greater namesake exists for their next adopted daughter than Hagar, the mistreated, abandoned Egyptian slave woman who became the matriarch of the descendents of Ishmael. We'll see...

(The sculpture pictured above is called "Farewell to Ishmael," by George Segal [1924-2000], 1987. Abraham is embracing Ishmael, while Hagar steels herself for the journey and Sarah watches from the shadows.)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The God of Hagar, Part 1

The next few posts will be a slightly altered repeat of a series I presented on the life of Hagar in June 2007. This week, I have been preparing for a message on the life of Hagar for our high school students, so I have been revisiting and rediscovering my love for her story, found in Gen 16 and 21. I present these posts to my readers again, with hope that they will prove fruitful and edifying, even if its the second time around.
I want to name my first daughter Hagar. I won't, of course. Its not socially acceptable to name your child something so "foreign." Only members of Hollywood can get away with odd names like that. But, I wish I could give my daughter Hagar as her namesake because I find her story captivating in a number of ways.

I have been studying the story of Hagar for almost a month now with the ladies in my Sunday School class. Her tale is intertwined with the lives of Abraham and Sarah, which is why, so often, she receives little attention in our typical studies of Genesis. Its hard to compete with the father and mother of the faithful, whose descendents are now as numerous as the stars in the sky. But, Hagar has her own story, one that speaks of God's love for the outsider, his provision for the marginalized, and his generosity as the God of all nations.

Hagar first appears in Genesis 16. If you read the passage closely, you'll notice that Hagar is repeatedly described by the narrator as "the Egyptian" and/or "the slave woman" (some translations use "maid" or "maidservant," but I think we all realize what that really means). With the repetition, the narrator is purposefully emphasizing her foreign-ness, her status as an outsider to the family of Abraham, which hailed from Uz. No doubt, her darker skin and distinct language set her apart from Abraham's nomadic, Aramean family. (In Genesis 16, Abraham and Sarah are still known as Abram and Sarai. For the sake of clarity, I will call them Abraham and Sarah throughout.)

We should note that Hagar enters the scene by no choice of her own. In the first half of Genesis 16, Hagar is an object, a vessel, a baby-making machine to be used by Abraham to produce offspring. Truth be told, it turns out that she's a good one, for seemingly after one encounter, Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham's child, certainly to the mortification of Sarah, who's barrenness is a humiliating burden to bear.

Often, Sarah is shouldered with weight of "faithlessness" or "disobedience" or "meddling" or any number of negative traits because of her proposal to Abraham in Genesis 16. I would note, however, by this point, the only information either partner has from God is that the child will be from Abraham's own seed. They do not know until the following chapter that Sarah will provide the womb for the child as well. So, when Sarah offers Hagar as a surrogate mother for the child of promise, she is not acting inappropriately for her context (especially since she thinks that the Lord himself has closed her womb [v. 2a]). She is doing what would have been logical at the time, for the use of slaves as surrogate mothers was not uncommon. This is reinforced by the fact that in the ancient mind, women contributed nothing to the development of the baby except the womb. That is, women were the vessels that held and incubated the man's seed. In Sarah's mind, she was trading a bad vessel for a potentially good one. No harm, no foul.

Of course, the reality of what Sarah does to her slave woman is exceedingly foul if we are honest. A foreign woman, in a strange land, serving a wealthy Aramean woman, is taken by that woman and given to her husband for the sole purpose of sex. Hagar has no voice in the matter, of course. No one asks her if she would like to be the womb that bears the child of promise. She is simply "taken" and "given," in the way one would "take" and "give" a garment or a skin of water. In brisk Hebrew style, the narrator informs us that Abraham "came to" or "went into" Hagar and "she became pregnant" (v. 4). What takes up only a few words in Hebrew was surely a frightening night for this Egyptian slave woman in the bed of her mistress' husband.

When Hagar immediately conceives, presumably after only one night with Abraham, her response is to "look down on her mistress." This is the natural result of polygamous practices, no doubt, particularly in an ancient near eastern culture where childbearing determines your status of blessedness by the gods. Naturally, Sarah is appalled at the disdain of her slave woman and is now powerless to do anything because she is the vessel of Abraham's child. So, she goes directly to her husband and upbraids him for her humiliation.

Ever the strong, dominant patriarch, Abraham tells Sarah, in effect, "Hagar is your problem. Do whatever you want." (Do I have to note how sad it is that Abraham would turn over the woman bearing his child to his angry, vengeful first wife?) Given freedom to do what she wishes, Sarah so humiliates and mistreats Hagar that she runs away. We should note that the Hebrew word translated "mistreat" (v. 6b) is the same word translated "rape" elsewhere. I am not suggesting Sarah raped Hagar, of course, but that the kind of humiliation she imposed upon Hagar was such that the narrator chose the same word to describe both experiences.

By this time, you are probably wondering, why on earth would you find this story captivating? Hagar's life is exceedingly sad and pitiful, even by the most optimistic reading of Genesis 16. I affirm this, but find my reason to love Hagar's tale in v. 7: "The Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur."

Don't miss the wonder of this statement. The way the narrator words this verse is significant. The Lord "found her," which implies that he was looking for her. That is to say, while no one else was looking for her, while Sarah was glad to be rid of her and Abraham uncaringly ignorant of her plight, the Lord was looking for Hagar. And, he finds her, presumably while she refreshes herself with water from a spring on the way to Shur. It seems that Hagar was on her way back to Egypt, seeking to return home, empty-handed, pregnant, and alone.

The Lord speaks to Hagar in full knowledge of her situation, calling her "Hagar, slave of Sarai" and inquiring where it is she is going. Hagar, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that God is speaking to her, replies that she is running from her mistress. The Lord's answer to Hagar is that she must return to Sarah and submit to her hand.

Now, I must pause and recognize that the Lord's response to Hagar has been much abused as a source of support for some awful pastoral instruction. I have heard of a number of women told by their pastors to return to their abusive spouses because of God's instruction to Hagar in 16:9. Unfortunately such pastoral counselors participate in sloppy hermeneutics (not to mention horrific pastoral care), for there are a vast number of differences between the situation in Genesis 16 and the situation of abused women today. For the sake of space, though, I will refrain from making the case for these distinctions and simply state that Genesis 16 doesn't apply to the situation of abused women today.

I prefer to think that God sending Hagar back to Sarah had more to do with Hagar's survival and the survival of her child. A pregnant woman traveling to Egypt alone probably didn't have much chance of success, facing possible starvation, injury, or even further enslavement. So, in effect, God compels Hagar to "choose life." Although she would suffer under Sarah's wrath, by returning to her mistress, Hagar was ensuring a future for herself and her child.

The rest of God's interactions with Hagar present two delightful surprises. First, God promises Hagar that he will "greatly multiply" her "seed," so much so that "they will be too many to count" (v. 10). This sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it? Hagar is given a promise of innumerable offspring in a manner parallel, though not identical, to that of Abraham. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, will have offspring too numerous to count. (Do we have to note how odd it is that Hagar, a woman, is said to have "seed"?)

Moreover, her son will be a tremendously strong and stubborn man, who will distinguish himself from his surrounding brothers with fierce independence. (We should note that the word often translated "wild ass" in v. 12, can also mean "wild stallion." Perhaps our preference for seeing the descendents of Ishmael as "wild asses" has informed our translation of this flexible Hebrew word.) Hagar's son is to be named Ishmael, a beautiful testimony of God's favor upon her, for it means "God hears."

The second surprise comes in v. 13, where Hagar literally "names" God. She is the only person in the entire Hebrew scripture who names God. She calls the Lord, "The God Who Sees." Does the innocence of this act touch you in the way it does me? Yahweh, the God who covenanted with Abraham, condescends to allow himself to be named by this Egyptian slave woman, whose knowledge of him is exceedingly limited. Indeed, all she knew of this God is that he is a God who sees and hears her. What an incredible revelation of God's generosity and love, that this marginalized and abused woman finds favor with the Lord of the Universe and is able to name him in childlike faith. I think Hagar is saying, "I know nothing else of this God except that he has seen me. When no one else saw me, this God saw me."

Now, strengthened with the promise of innumerable offspring and having encountered the God who sees her, Hagar returns to Sarah and gives birth to Abraham's son. Interestingly, v. 15 says that Abraham gave the name Ishmael to the baby, presumably at the insistence of Hagar who told her story upon returning to Abraham's tent. Hagar's son and Abraham's first son, forever represents in his name the truth that God is a God who hears the cries of the afflicted and marginalized. Hagar met the God who sees her at a spring in the wilderness and the world was radically changed because of it.

(The image is a painting by French artist, James Tissot, "Hagar and the Angel in the Desert" (1896-1900), watercolor on paper, The Jewish Museum at New York.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Select photos from London

My dear readers, I have been quite drained since returning from London and unable to muster up the energy to write any meaningful blogs. So, rather than posting drivel, I refrained from posting at all. I thought I would share some pictures with you, however, from our London trip. We had a wonderful time and love our friends, Joel and Gabby, even more than we did before. Please enjoy these snippets of our vacation. I will post more from our time in Oxford tomorrow.

The Tower Bridge.

The Tower of London complex.

St. Paul's Cathedral dome.

View of St. Paul's from the top of the dome.

Sunset through the trees in Green Park.

Westminster Abbey through the trees of Green Park.

View of Big Ben through the streets.