Essayist, Reviewer, Novelist
Samples of My Writing:
The 9/11 Sermons and the Scape-goating of Hagar
Islam is spreading across the globe. Like Christian missionaries of old, modern-day adherents of Islam feel compelled to spread what they believe is the true faith. The task, of course, for Christians is to learn how to counteract this trend. We must love our religion enough to want to spread it, understand why Islam seems attractive to many people (Christians and non-Christians) and learn how to show how Christ or Christianity fulfills the heart-cry of these followers of Islam. But in addition to preventing the spread of Islam, we must learn how to convert those who are already followers of Mohammed, primarily the Arab people.
In light of 9/11. the present coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Christian community's commitment to Israel, I feel compelled to share my views of Hagar and Ishmael. Often, these two Biblical personages are not treated with respect. Christians consider Ishmael the symbolic and genetic father of the Arabs and in their sermons, they often treat him as a kind of interloper/mistake who "really should not have been." Equally shameful, they treat Hagar dismissively and with a mentality that seems born from a colonial and imperial mind-set, they think of her as a slave who just doesn't know her place. Well, let us consider this.
Many slaves appear in the Bible. They are generally shown as likeable, helpful and loyal. Some like Onesimus in Paul's letters often symbolize spiritual adoption into God's heritage. But I'd like to talk about two of my slaves: Joseph and Hagar. We know quite a bit about them. -- I feel compelled to highlight some of the most striking comparisons.
Both Joseph and Hagar were owned by people of different nations. Joseph served in a country that needed him but did not respect his culture. The Egyptians could not eat with him because he came from a sheep-herding country. Joseph was isolated from the Egyptians even as he preserved their life and culture.
As for Hagar, she too was alone. An Egyptian woman among Abraham's many herdsmen, Hagar was Sarah's hand-maid and possibly the only other female in Abraham's retinue. She too was cut off from family and friends. She too had to live among people who disrespected her culture. Just as the Egyptians considered Joseph more likely to rape the wife of his master, and just as former white slave-owners assumed that black men wanted to rape white women, so Abraham and Sarah also considered Egyptians morally lacking. Remember when Abraham and Sarah arrived in Pharoah's court? They assumed they were morally superior to the Egyptians and expected to find only evil and godlessness in Pharoah's court. So cynical were they about the spiritual tradition of another people that they even lied to the Pharoah and ended up in a deceitful marriage. (Hagar was still Sarah's slave when this occurred.) Of course it's common for cultures to presume that people of other cultures will behave badly and immorally. And so Moses shows us that both Joseph and Hagar had to endure the extreme class and cultural consciousness of slave-owners who did not understand their culture.
Both Joseph and Hagar had to contend with possible death because of class-consciousness and hierarchy on the part of someone who felt threatened. Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery when Joseph's father, Jacob, made him an embroidered overcoat with a long sleeve. Joseph's brothers were well aware that the ruling class of the surrounding Canaanite nations always wore long embroidered coats with long sleeves. They knew Jacob's favoritism and could only suspect probably rightly-- that Jacob was well on the way to making Joseph head of the clan. They decided to get rid of Jacob and change their father's plans. They sold him into slavery. As for Hagar, she bore a child for her aged master. But mother of the master's first-born son or no, she was still the slave of the head-wife. The Bible is full of co-wives vying with each other through child-birth. But Sarah would not allow a slave's son to be equal to her own son. In Deuteronomy, under Mosaic law, Moses would later write, "The child of the first-born wife even if that wife is hated-- will get the larger inheritance.
Both Joseph and Hagar had difficulties with their female owners...difficulties caused by sex. Joseph's body was young and healthy. Potiphar was the king's chamberlain. In many non-english translations, the word chamberlain is translated clearly as eunuch. The history books of arabic nations are filled with stories about eunuchs who married. We can understand how Potiphar's wife might conceive a lust for Joseph's young vital body. In somewhat the same way, Sarah saw Hagar's body as an object she could choose for her own ends. God had promised Abraham and Sarah, Hagar's owner, a child of Abraham's body. Because Sarah could not conceive children, she decided that Hagar's body was young and healthy and would make an excellent surrogate. We don't know how old Hagar was. Indications are that she must have been young.
Many will say that Sarah was perfectly within her rights to use Hagar's body as she wanted. After all, Sarah owned Hagar and should we burden a person from Bible history with modern sensibilities. But as the history of American slavery and sexual studies will show us, ownership or not, the use of another person's body is a violation of the highest order. The story itself shows us that human interactions and human emotions have never changed. This leads to a battle of wills between Hagar and Sarah. When Hagar became pregnant even though she was a slave-- she did what all other co-wives and concubines did: she gloated. As a slave woman who had pregnancy forced upon her, gloating was a natural response. But Hagar would soon learn that a mere slave should not engage in a battle of wills with a slaveowner. Spite for spite, Hagar was in a bad position. In the middle of the desert, far from her culture and pregnant, she would have to learn submission. Both she and Joseph suffered because their owners wanted to use their bodies.
Both Joseph and Hagar got closer to God and learned obedience through suffering. Both Hagar and Joseph had great ideas of themselves and both had to be taken down a peg. Both slaves had been shown some kind of honor or promotion. Jacob had his dreams. Hagar had her master's son. But their attitudes brought them trouble. Joseph's constant bragging about his dreams didn't help matters. And Hagar's pride made her life more difficult. We don't know how Hagar ended up in her enslaved state. She might have been born in slavery, a child of slaves. Like Joseph, she might have sold into slavery at an early age. Or she might have been enslaved to pay a parent's debt. But when she became pregnant, she became proud. But both Joseph and Hagar had to submit to their enslavement until the time came for their freedom.
Joseph and Hagar were imprisoned and enslaved because God needed them. Joseph had been placed in the king's prison, not a regular prison, probably because Potiphar was a high official. But God was really in charge.
We don't know what the king's prison was like. But we know what goes on inside most prisons. And from the reading Joseph's only way out of prison was by capital punishment, natural death, or a decree from the king. A former prison-mate had promised to mention Joseph to the king. However, when this former prisoner was freed, he immediately forgot about Joseph. There is no doubt that this "forgetting" was God's will. If Joseph had been freed at the wrong time, he might have returned home to Israel and his brothers. All would have been lost. But Joseph would be needed to save Egypt because Egypt would be the cradle from which the new-born nation of Israel would arise.
The same could be said for the slave-girl, Hagar. She was imprisoned by Sarah's vindictiveness and anger and by the surrounding desert.
Both slaves longed for escape. But God did not open the door for them. Both Sarah and Potiphar's wife used the earthly power their class afforded them to "deal harshly with" their slaves. (Moses makes the point of using the same phrase when he described the treatment of the Israelites by the Egyptians.) The implication is that Sarah wasn't merely verbally abusive. Whether it was whippings, starvation or extra labor, she caused emotional and possible physical harm to a pregnant woman slave who was being uppity. Enslaved, pregnant, and at the mercy of a jealous class-conscious slave-owner, Hagar would rather have died in the desert than endure Sarah's harsh treatment. And yet, God delayed freeing her. Just as he delayed freeing Joseph. Their escape plans were squashed by God Himself. Joseph was forgotten in prison. And Hagar had to return to Sarah and submit to her. Both Joseph and Hagar were needed. The future of Egypt and Abraham's descendants depended on them.
Both suffered in order to help their master's nation. Nations were blessed because of them.
Joseph was called out of prison just when he was needed. His guidance helped save Egypt and surrounding nations from starvation. Egypt needed to become a great nation because it was the cradle in which God wanted His people to be reared. Joseph left the prison but stayed in Egypt because another race of people needed him.
Hagar was also needed. As the only woman in a retinue of men, Hagar was needed to attend to the maternal and childcare needs of the slave-owner, Sarah. Sarah was old and had never had any children. Who would take care of her during her pregnancy? Who would cook and clean for her? Who would help her to deliver the baby? And after the child was born, who would have the energy to continuously play with it? Who would be healthy enough and strong enough to race after the child if needed? Certainly not an aged mother. But Hagar would be there.
Sarah had her child or promise. And she had her slave to help her. Hagar would stay with these slaveholders for 13 more years. The final parting of the ways happened when Sarah saw an interaction between Ishmael and Isaac which offended her sense of hierarchy.
Both Joseph and Hagar were saved at last by divine intervention. Joseph was finally freed when his work was ready to begin. Because of God's guidance through dreams, Joseph was finally freed at the right and perfect time.
As for Hagar, God intervened twice on her behalf. In one instance he intervened to make her stay in her prison. In the other instance, he intervened to free her.
Later, God would intervene for Hagar when her work as caretaker of Baby Israel is done. As Joseph's purpose was to help Egypt because it would cradle the new-born Israel, so Hagar helped to cradle Abraham's seed of promise. And when her work was done, she was taken rather abruptly-- from the scene.
You will recall the story. Life was continuing on in its usual pace. No plans had been made for Hagar to leave. But then the day of her freedom came. Thirteen year old Ishmael and toddler Isaac were together and --depending on your Bible translation-- Ishmael was either teasing Isaac or simply playing with him. Whatever the actual incident, the sight of the two brothers bothered Sarah's slaveowner's heart. The son of the slaveowner was forgetting his place. Unforgiving and class-conscious as usual, Sarah jumped at her power and class again. "The son of this slave-woman shall not be heir with my son." She then sent Hagar out into the desert to die.
Some might consider this mere peevishness on Sarah's part. But I have always suspected something more heinous behind it. Surely, Sarah was aware that a child and mother alone in the middle of a desert may not live. Abraham doesn't help Hagar -- certainly, such a great chieftain --a man with many herdsmen-- could've helped Hagar by sending some of his men with Hagar a days journey or two?
Abraham gave Hagar bread. But God gave her water, living water. Moses does something very interesting in this story. In the same chapter where Moses shows Hagar's lack and near death from thirst, we see Abraham getting into a conflict about a well. Hagar's emptiness is contrasted nicely with Abraham's fullness. Hagar is so overwhelmed by this sudden loss of home, place and safety who wouldn't be?-- that she sits in the desert paralyzed with fear. And although there was no natural well or water anywhere, God intervened for her.
And so both former slaves had spiritual tests that freed them. Joseph had to interpret a dream and see God's plan for himself, his family and a nation. Hagar had to see a well and a future for her own child of promise.
Both Joseph and Hagar prospered in the house of their affliction. Joseph became governor of Egypt and his children were given the honor of being half-tribes. As for Hagar, God promised Abraham that he would be the father of ions. Hagar's child, Ishmael, became the father of one of Abraham's many nations. Both began as slaves but later prospered.
Both Joseph and Hagar were triumphant. Joseph learned that "What was meant for evil by his brother was something God meant for good. Hagar learned something similar: she learned that God saw her.
Moses is a masterly writer. Compare Hagar's attitude toward the angel with Sarah's reaction to Abraham's angelic visit. Hagar believed the angel and submitted. Sarah saw the angel and laughed in disbelief. God gives Sarah a revelation of his power. But we don't see Sarah's relationship with God. Hagar was given a revelation of God's love and we see a relationship being born. Perhaps this is understandable. As in the story of Leah and Rachel, one woman is loved but the other is alone and despised. In that story, too, we see Leah's relationship with God while we aren't entirely convinced that Rachel has any kind of relationship with God at all. Hagar was forsaken and needed to see God's love.
From that day on, Hagar called the Creator, "The God who sees me." It's a name for God that is filled with pathos. The God of all the universe knows my sorrows and is acquainted with my grief. God-with-me would see her as she submitted and returned to her enslavement. Her revelation is the kind of deep Truth that is able to teach the small child and the wounded adult about God's love and care of His children. She uses the intimate "thou" form in speaking with God: "Thou God seest me."
Both slaves had come through the furnace as fine gold. Hagar's forgiving heart is shown in the relationship between her son, Ishmael and Isaac. From what we read in the Bible, both boys got along quite well. And when Abraham died, Ishmael had enough respect and love for the old patriarch that he helped bury him when Isaac sent word of the death. Reared by a single mother abandoned and alone, Ishmael shows his mother's glory by showing his respect for his father.
How does this connect to 9/11 and to our missionary cause among the arab people? For centuries, Christians have made a point of saying that Abraham's "mistake" with Sarah has caused many problems. For instance, I have heard many ministers rage at Hagar because she decided that she could watch her son die. Their remakrs are often snide and cruel. "What kind of woman would do something like this?" Or they might say, "Hagar was proud and wouldn't stay in her place." But it seems to me that they dismiss her pain and her life because they feel that's what they are supposed to do. And they have a colonial racist idea about slaves not staying in their place.
Ever since 9/11, Christians have been talking -- on radio, television and in sermons -- about Ishmael and Isaac and the fight over the promised land. And, inevitably, someone says something nasty about Hagar. Preachers shake their heads about Abraham's mistake and Hagar's arrogance and about what a mess this "mistake" has caused for Israel and the world. I've even seen women or black preachers do this, people who presumably should know better because they should understand the dynamics of class, sexual and racial power. The inability to see Hagar as a true child of God also leads to some sermons that come close to anti-Arabic (Both Arabs and Jews are anti-Semitic) This linking of the anti-Arabic sentiment with the Hagar story truly bothers me.
God's promise was to make Abraham a father of many nations. Many nations were promised the land. These leads to my second difficulty with this common position. Ishmael is not the only non-Jewish descendant of Abraham. In the womb, Israel and Esau (children of Isaac, the child of promise) were at enmity. The prophesy of two warring nations were spoken about the descendants of Esau and Jacob, not about Isaac and Ishmael. And later on, the tribes would splinter off, leaving only the tribe of Judah, the ancestor of the modern Jews. Many documentaries explore the possibility that the lost tribes are scattered in Africa, China and India. And well they may be. But the ten lost tribes were also intermingled among the Arab nations and the old nation of Samaria.
Moses, the writer, is remarkably unracist and remarkably honest. As a former slave, he shows his readers the worst of slavery. As the husband of an Ethiopian wife, Moses understood the arrogance and hatefulness of racism. After all, his sister doubted his prophetic work because she didn't like the fact that he had married an Ethiopian wife. He shows how Sarah uses God's promise to treat Hagar badly. And he showed how Leah's children would use a religious symbol of God's covenant to destroy Shechem. As a prophet of God who has been given many great promises, Moses showed how people like Joseph and Sarah-- couldn't handle God's promises. They often believed that their blessedness made them better than others. But Moses knew that all of Abraham's descendants are blessed. After all, after the children of Israel had forgotten about the circumcision, it was Moses wife Zipporah, a descendant of one of Abraham's other children, who reminded him of this particular covenant of blood. So are the Midianites also to be left out of the promise? I know that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. I also know that there are many verses in the Bible that seems to say that God's promise to His friend concerning all Abraham's children is null and void. But what about other prophecies? Did not God say that He would put in the midst of Israel a poor people who would know His name? Does he not speak of Israel capturing the "other nations that are His?" Amos 9:12?
With all the wonderful lessons that can be gleaned from the story of Hagar, I find it disturbing that modern Christians feel uncomfortable with liking Hagar, or with accepting the Arab people as another of Abraham's true descendants. Some Christians actually feel that God truly wants them to dislike Arabs.
We want to make everything easy for ourselves. And truly, our christian ideas of who to root for if we start feeling compassion for Hagar. Christians want clear-cut emotions. But consider this: the Arabs are not descended from Ishmael alone. Esau's descendants and the descendants of Israel who were not of the tribe of Judah might also be among today's Arabs.
Honest Bible study is required. Christians should not have scapegoats and sacred cows when they read the Bible. Consider that the Israelites who first heard this story were former slaves freed from cruel slave-masters. They did not fully know the creation story or the story of their ancestors until Moses told them. We don't know how they reacted when Moses told them the story of Hagar and Sarah. Perhaps they identified with Sarah because she was the mother of the nation. Perhaps they identified with Hagar. They knew slave-owners who had "dealt harshly" with them. Perhaps they were perplexed and unable to take side. After all, Hagar was Egyptian and a slave. And Sarah was an ancestor but a slave-owner. Did they walk over to Moses and say, "We don't know who to love in this story. We like and dislike both these women. Tell us who to like." If they did, I hope Moses answered, "God's people are not in every tribe and nation. Man looks at the appearance and at cultural and genetic heritage but God looks on the heart. And only God alone can judge."
The dismissing of Ishmael and Hagar does injustice to God's love and God's grace. After all, God is a redeemer who redeems our mistakes. If Adam and Eve, had not sinned, we would not have discovered the wonderful love of Jesus Christ our gracious savior. Surely, God blessed the world through Hagar and Ishmael as well. But the scapegoating of Hagar and Ishmael also does injustice to the Bible and its writers. How can sermons class prejudice, race prejudice and culture prejudice do justice to the missionary cause of Christ? How can we save people if we are always telling ourselves that these people were spiritual "mistakes"? Who are we to speak this way and to behave as if certain people should simply not have been?
Verses: Genesis 39: 1 - 19
Summary of the story: After Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers, he is taken into the household of a rich nobleman. The nobleman's wife develops a longing for Joseph and tempts him. Joseph escapes her and the woman claims he tried to rape her. Joseph is put in jail.
In her own words.
One day, my husband brought home a young slave he'd bought from nomadic traders. I noticed his hands first: they were bruised, being bound for so long. My husband was one of the king's chamberlains, a eunuch. A very high and trustworthy position. He had a great house. Many slaves are needed. We had them. Slaves were born in our house and brought from afar. They all had their respective duties. We had musicians, cooks, craftsmen, herdsmen, gardeners, weavers, managers. As I've said, the house was a great house. My husband had many responsibilities and pleasures, not that he was ever around to enjoy the pleasures his great position afforded him. He was always busy elsewhere. There was always some political intrigue, assassination threat, rumor of war, military exercise. And so it was easy enough that a competent and honorable person like Joseph would end up guarding Potiphar's home while Potiphar, himself, was guarding the king's home.
Joseph's rise to prominence in our household happened slowly. He was efficient, wise, humble, and good-humored. He was, perhaps, a little too sure of himself. He had, a subtle arrogance that a slave, after all, should not have. My husband suspected that he was the eldest son of some great chief, a boy who had been told that the world and the sun and moon were his. But the Hebrew was respectful towards us and that is what mattes. He soon became chief steward of my husband's property. All activities and arrangements were in his hands. Social functions, governmental meetings, everything. Day by day, in the entire house, all arrangements were made by him or by me. We planned events together. We talked. It was as if he and I were the true householders because my husband was never at home and the responsibilities for the upkeep of the house was in Joseph's hands. Sometimes when I rose from my bed in the mornings, my husband would have already gone. Sometimes he had not come home. But Joseph was always there. And I looked forward to our daily conversations. Generally I don't lust after slaves, and Egyptians have nothing to do with sheepherders (they are anathema to us), but after awhile I realized that when I went to bed, I imagined Joseph's young body near mine, sweet words dropping from his lips, telling me how much he loved and wanted me. Joseph had something about him: a depth of suffering, strength and silence in his handsome face, such spirituality, too, such wisdom in one so young. There is something about spirituality, wisdom, beauty and a kind heart. I am not excusing myself; I am merely saying what I've discovered to be true. Sex and spirituality go together: one kind of admiration mixes dangerously with another. It was as if I suddenly found myself again.
I would compliment Joseph daily, flirt coyly, hint until he looked up with a nervous blush. And sometimes, I would ignore him completely --no mere pretension, this, after all he was no more than a mere servant... a foreign one at that. And I was married. But even pretending was hard to do. My heart would flutter when he approached, a smile would break over my face when anyone mentioned his name. I praised him excessively.
The funny thing in all this is that I hardly had a chance. Joseph was a spiritual man. Not that we Egyptians aren't spiritual. We have many Gods whom we worship and adore. But he spoke as if he spoke to his God everyday. He spoke as if this One God cared about the small and great matters of his daily life. Always, always, he could not come to my bed because His All-Seeing God ruled over all and that God would know and would not approve. This religiosity of his was charming at first. It was the reason I liked him so much. But at times, it was too much.
I'd joke with him. "You have a great God, Joseph," I'd say. "To treat someone who loves him so harshly. Our Gods have made Egypt great. But what has your God done? Sold you into slavery."
And he'd say some silly cliche about his God's will. Whenever I asked him to come to bed with me, he would say, "How could I do this in God's sight?" As if his God were right there seeing every interaction between us. As if his God were all our valley gods and hill gods and sea gods and wind gods all combined.
Sometimes the rejection would work its way into me. My husband was a good hard-working man who had provided everything for me, except himself. And there I was, the wife of the king's highest military man, begging a Hebrew slave to love me, committing myself to him more and more and deeper and deeper and dropping my defenses and my guard. In the time I knew him, I had proceeded from subtle compliments to non-committal flirtations to passionate and forced pleading. And always, I gave my husband hints: I begged him to take some time off, go with me on a long trip. I spoke of being lonely without him, of needing company. He said, "Soon, soon. Just another project, my love.."
I pleaded with both men, day after day. I pleaded with my husband to stay and with Joseph to come to my bed. I, who had power over him, sat there begging for a mere slave to love me. Funny thing, though: Joseph never said he did not love me. I have that to hold on to...even now. Perhaps he did love me. Perhaps he pitied me for my husband's absence. Perhaps he saw that the emptiness of my wealthy life did not fulfill me. Perhaps he wanted me as much as I wanted him.
And one morning, as I listened to my husband read the day's itinerary --planned and arranged, by Joseph of course-- I realized that during that particular day all the men in the house would be out in the city on errands. I was so afraid of what I might do, I could hardly breathe. I begged Potiphar not to leave me home alone. He said Joseph would be at home to take care of me and to keep me company. He called Joseph into the dining room and told Joseph to take care of me. And then he left.
All morning I sat alone at one end of the house and then I decided: I would get Joseph to give in to his love for me as much as I had given in to my love for him. I bathed and perfumed myself in cinnamon, cassia, acacia. I put on my costliest and most beautiful apparel -- the ones that never failed to elicit compliments-- and I called him into my bed chamber.
When he arrived at the door, I begged him to sleep with me. I pleaded and begged. But he rejected me. I held on to his cloak, pulled him over to my bed. This son of shepherders ran out of my house. Ran out! Me, the wife of the great captain of the guards. The shame that went through me just then. I have never felt such shame. It was as if I was dirt under someone's feet. Never had I felt so old, so needy, so evil. My mind couldn't contain the hurt. I wept and wept and the tears streamed down my face. And then I realized that I was holding his cloak. And instantly I knew what to do. He would not have spoken against me to my husband, of course. He was a smart kid. But I wanted revenge for the hurt he had inflicted on me and for the shame I felt. I've never been good at handling shame. All I could feel was that he was pitying this older woman who had wanted him so much.
I sat on my bed with the clothes beside me and waited for my husband to come home. I don't know where Joseph was at this time. When my husband came home, I told him Joseph tried to rape me. I showed him Joseph's garment as evidence; my husband believed me. After all Joseph was a foreigner and you know how foreigners are...always wanting our women.
They put Joseph in the king's prison where all the king's prisoners were kept. His assault on me was considered a crime against Pharoah himself. Sometimes I would think of Joseph languishing in the prison, waiting and wondering if he would be reprieved or executed. I felt guilty, yes. Sometimes. But not enough to recant. It would've required too much on my part. All the same: he later came out and ended up serving the king. I've seen him in the royal court. Life certainly has funny ways of working itself out.