Hagar the Survivor: the Story of Hagar through A Feminist/Trauma-Informed Lens
You do nothing like the other gods / and so I know you are my God / and my son’s God and my sons son’s.I do not understand the stars / uncountable in number; / nor do I understand you. – From Abraham: With Laughter by Madeline L’Engle
Hagar’s story in Genesis 16:1-15 and Genesis 21:9-21 is a narrative that progresses from slavery to freedom, with three significant stages, each propelled forward by suffering, that lead Hagar eventually into freedom, integration of her experience, and exercise of her own agency over her body. The three phases I notice in Hagar’s story are oppression, trauma, and, in the latter part of her narrative, evidence of psychological integration of her suffering signified by eyes open to God, obedience in returning to slavery, and the subsequent physical and emotional freedom to leave and grieve. The fragmentation present in this story make it challenging to observe Hagar’s character development. However, this fragmented structure is also key to understanding that fragmentation is an inherent part of all narratives of trauma. The work of integrating and understanding narrative- that of Hagar, or the people of Israel, or my own story- is, I believe, inherently the work of living well and worshiping well in a world where, like for Hagar, the work of integrating trauma into a cohesive narrative is an intersection where we often find ourselves face to face with God.
This reading of the story of Hagar was more challenging than I anticipated. Since last reading this narrative, I’ve had significant training in how to compassionately hear painful stories, so this reading revealed to me an enormous amount of pain in the story of Hagar. I found myself strongly identifying with Hagar as she entered, not by her own volition, a painfully triangulated relationship with Sarai and Abram where, again not by her own choice, she was impregnated by Abram. Even considering the ancient, patriarchal context and Hagar’s status as a slave, and Frymer-Kensky’s explanation of the normality of this practice in ancient slave contexts it is difficult for me to call this narrative anything other than one of abuse of a slave girl.1
The first phase of Hagar’s story is one of oppression by persons of privilege. Genesis 16 opens with a single sentence narrating the story of Sarai, Abram’s wife: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar.”2 This brief sentence contains a world of context. We learn that Sarai has spent decades experiencing the heartbreak, shattered hope, and shame of infertility, and we also learn that she is a woman who is served. Sarai, the wife of a patriarch, lives with privilege. As I read the story of Hagar with critical eyes, informed by Trible’s feminist literary criticism and my own journey of learning to name trauma and privilege, I began to see Sarai as a woman with a heart hardened by her own pain and with eyes blinded by her own privilege. Frymer-Kensky adds, “We like to believe that the experience of suffering makes us more sympathetic to the suffering of others. It does not.”3 I began to see Hagar as the emblem of oppression- a woman whose labor, voice, and body were taken from her without consent. Thirdly, I began to deeply wrestle with Abram. I cannot deny that through these readings I came to identify Abram as a rapist- a man who, at his wife’s urging, proceeded to take a young woman (whom the text never indicates gave consent) and force her to bear a child. Both Abram’s failure to lift his voice to advocate for Hagar and God’s blessing of Abraham without reprimand for his treatment of Hagar are troubling.
When Sarai says to Abram “Please go in to my maid, perhaps I will obtain children through her”4 she is saying: “Where God has failed to provide, I will make provision.” This striving is also evidence of Sarai’s worldview from a position of privilege. It was interesting to discover through reading Frymer-Kensky’s chapter that previous generations of readers seemed to sympathize with Sarai, and found within the text reason to fault Hagar and justify Sarai’s treatment of her.5 I wondered if this corresponds with the fact that in previous generations power and privilege were often celebrated as proof of God’s blessing. Abraham’s failure to speak is a failure to use his privilege as a male in a patriarchal culture to protect this oppressed young woman. Instead, he perpetuates his wife’s privileged position. As Trible explains, “Inequality, opposition, and distance breed violence.”6
Trauma marks movement into the second phase of Hagar’s narrative. In her oppressed state her body is passed like unnamed property from Sarai to Abraham. Though Frymer-Kensky explains this would technically elevate her position in the household, Sarai manipulates Abraham in such a way that she maintains privilege and control over Hagar’s body.7 Frymer-Kensky explained that the treatment of Hagar by Sarai and Abraham was in many ways culturally normative and widespread.8 I felt she implied their behavior was thus acceptable, and I strongly disagree. This narrative records the experience of a woman being impregnated, without consent, by a much older male. The lack of consent and the gap in age and status are hallmarks indicating this story is a story of sexual violation. Frymer-Kensky‘s comparison of Hagar the rape victim to a modern day surrogate was infuriating.9
Oppression and sexual violation are traumatizing, and Hagar’s narrative reveals the experience was no less traumatic for her. I wonder if the transition in Hagar’s view of her mistress reflected in Genesis 16:4 comes less from Hagar’s elevation in status and more from the worldview-transforming experience of trauma, inherent in the conception and gestation of a child fathered via sexual violation. Trauma is a lens through which the fragmentation of Hagar’s story begins to makes sense. When trauma survivors begin to tell their stories, gaps, time order confusion, and lack of context are all common and can be confusing to the listener. I believe the fragmented narrative of Hagar may be in line with the traumatic nature of the story.
The third phase of Hagar’s narrative, comprising the majority of the text of her story, is the story of trauma and oppression propelling Hagar towards a spiritual breakthrough, obedience to the will of God revealed by the angel and to eventual freedom10. Hagar’s breakthrough comes when she is seen in her pain by the angel.11 Interestingly, I see several parallels in how the angel meets Hagar in her post-traumatic state and how we at The Seattle School are trained to meet people in the painful places in their stories: Addressing Hagar, the angel asks “Where have you come from and where are you going?”12 This question markedly reflects the Genesis 3:9 question: “Where are you?” Which can be considered the core question with which each of us enter into really knowing another person’s story.13 The second correlation I see is around what Hagar reflects in verse 16:13 regarding being seen. In the counseling program at The Seattle School, we talk often about how psychologically damaging it is when another person refuses to meet your gaze. In the wilderness, Hagar names that she has been seen by God. It is in this experience of being inquired of kindly and being seen and accepted that gives Hagar, and so many other trauma survivors, the strength and resolve to take the next step towards recovery. Though some of the angel’s words to Hagar are difficult for me (for example, the promise to make through her many descendants of the man who impregnated her without consent and the instructions to return to his household) the fact that Hagar’s response is to affirm that she experiences herself being seen by God indicates she felt that these words were encouraging to her. In this place she is “the first woman to hear an annunciation” and has indeed been met by God in a unique way.14
Trible points out that “the annunciation has three basic elements: the prediction of the birth of a male child, the naming of the child, and the future life of the child.”15 In this I see unique promises not only for the child but for Hagar. To be told the child’s name indicates the child will have a name, in contrast to Hagar, whose body has been passed from owner to owner without a name. To be told the child will be male indicates that he is not likely to bear the sexual subjugation that her gender entreated on her own life. Thirdly, when the angel describes the child’s future, the angel is giving a gift to Hagar- the promise that in a time of high infant mortality rates, this child will survive. Though Hagar returns to slavery and endures even worse treatment, it is temporary. Though she finds herself in the wilderness again, it is temporary. It is not without consequence that Hagar weeps openly in this second desert.16 The freedom to grieve is a privilege. In the wilderness, Hagar has that privilege.
In conclusion, the story of Hagar, though difficult to read through modern eyes, is a story that calls me to face my own privilege, challenges me to confront my own trauma, reassures me that I too will be met in the desert in which I run to in the aftermath of trauma, and through being seen by God I too can be strong enough to endure until the day that I am set free, injustice is overturned, and the consequences of my trauma become a thing of goodness. As for Abraham, I find myself unsettled and left with more questions than answers. My heart cries for judgement on him and Sarah for their treatment of Hagar and for a revocation of the promise made to Abraham. I can only sit with my discomfort, appreciate that God doesn’t change his covenants based on the behavior of humans, and echo Madeline L’Engle’s words, “I do not understand the stars / uncountable in number; / nor do I understand you.”17
Allender, D. “Obstacles for Kingdom Calling.” Lecture delivered for Allender Center Lay Counseling Certificate Weekend #4. The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, Seattle, WA. 2016
Barker, Kenneth L., Donald W. Burdick, and Kenneth Boa. Zondervan NASB Study Bible. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan Pub. House. 1999.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Simone. “Hagar, My Other, My Self.” in Reading the Women of the Bible, 225-237. New York: Schocken Books. 2002.
L’Engle, Madeleine. “Abraham: With Laughter.” In A Cry like a Bell. Wheaton, Ill: H. Shaw Publishers. 1987.
Trible, Phyllis. “Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection.” in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, 9-35. Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1984.
CHICAGO STYLE FOOTNOTES:
1 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Simone. “Hagar, My Other, My Self.” in Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 2002.) 227.
2 Genesis 16:1 (NASB).
3 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Simone. “Hagar, My Other, My Self.” in Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 2002.) 232.
4 Genesis 16:2 (NASB)
6 Trible, Phyllis. “Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection.” in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives ( Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1984.) 13.
7 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva Simone. “Hagar, My Other, My Self.” in Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 2002.) 227.
8 Ibid., 231.
9 Ibid., 231.
10 Genesis 16:9 (NASB)
11 Genesis 16:7-13 (NASB)
12 Genesis 16:8 (NASB)
13 Dan Allender, “Obstacles for Kingdom Calling.” Lecture delivered for Allender Center Lay Counseling Certificate Weekend #4. (The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, Seattle, WA, 2016)
14 Trible, Phyllis. “Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection.” in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives ( Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1984.) 28.
15 Trible, Phyllis. “Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection.” in Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives ( Philadelphia: Fortress Press. 1984.) 16.
16 Genesis 21:6 (NASB)
17 L’Engle, Madeleine. “Abraham: With Laughter.” In A Cry Like a Bell. (Wheaton, Ill: H. Shaw Publishers, 1987)