Hagar as Woman, Slave and Wife

It is useful to discuss what is going on with Christopher Rollston at Emmanuel Christian Seminary from the perspective of academic freedom. But it is also important to pay attention to the matter that sparked it all: Biblical studies, and what Chris referred to as the “marginalization of women” in the Bible.

That terminology doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion.

In my class on the Bible here at Butler University, we have discussed issues related to slavery and women in the Bible. The case of Hagar is an interesting one to consider. She became Abraham’s wife, but did she have any say in the matter? She had been up until that point a slave, and in essence the change of her label to “wife” meant little in practice in terms of her status. But even that change in her status, with the implication that her mistress’s husband will now begin having sex with her, is not in her control. This is a transfer of property. Here’s a sample of what Genesis 16 says:

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

Hagar has no choice in whether to be a slave. She has no choice in whether to become the wife of Abram. She has no recourse other than to flee when she is mistreated by her owner.  And while the story shows God caring for her and showing her kindness, even God is depicted as addressing her as a slave, and it is Sarah, not God, who proposes sending Hagar away, in a manner that indicates it is a dismissal rather than a “release.” Hagar’s situation then becomes even more perilous, and it is regarded as quite literally a miracle that she and her son survive (see Genesis 21).

Is “marginalization” a strong enough word for the values the Bible assumes with respect to at least some women, and perhaps most or all all?

It is not somehow unchristian to acknowledge honestly what is plainly there in the Bible. It might be unchristian not to be honest about such things. And Christians have long found the inspiration within the Bible itself – its call to us to do to others what we would want done to us – to overturn slavery, address the marginalization of women, and do much else. This is not an either/or situation. We can recognize the Bible as reflecting human values that we cannot embrace, and as calling us to a higher standard of morality than some of its own stories reflect or its own authors managed to embrace in their time. But I think Harold Kushner’s excellent statement on this point puts it better than I have:

We are always entitled to call the Torah to witness against itself, that is, to apply its own moral standards to some of its passages. We do it no disservice when we let it teach us the highest moral principles, standards so high that the Torah itself – the work of human hands and minds and the product of its own age – sometimes fails to live up to them. We show no disrespect in reading the Bible critically in this manner, providing we do it to separate the valid from the inaccurate, the permanent from the transient, not to refute the Bible’s claims upon us. (Harold S. Kushner,When Children ask about God. New York: Schocken Books, 1989, p.134).

Elsewhere in the blogosphere and around the web: Mark Goodacre chimes in again on the subject; Jim Davila suggests that Chris’ treatment of the topic is uncontroversial and that Emmanuel should release a statement; Jim West has an article in The Bible and Interpretation in which he addresses the subject with help from Martin Luther. UPDATE: Tom Verenna replied to T. M. Law.


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