By Anathea Portier-Young.
Magdalene is a residential program that helps women who have survived lives of violence and prostitution.
The 2013 Global Slavery Index reports that nearly 30 million women, children, and men are enslaved around the world today. Their slavery has many forms. For millions, especially women and girls, it is prostitution, forced marriage, or other sexual and reproductive exploitation. Others—an estimated 16.4 million—are forced into labor in spheres ranging from domestic work and agriculture to construction and manufacturing. Others are tricked, kidnapped, and/or sold for illegal adoption, forced begging, armed combat, forced crime, and organ harvesting. As globalization continues to increase demand for cheap labor and movement across borders, human trafficking—sale and movement of people for forced labor, including prostitution—has become the “fastest growing international crime.” It nets traffickers billions of dollars in profit each year.
Unfortunately, slavery is hardly new. It is at the heart of Israel’s founding story. The Exodus story showcases Israel’s liberation from forced labor in Egypt. Hagar’s story shows us slavery in a less visible form and closer to “home.” Her exploitation is presented to us not as an outrage but as a matter of fact. Her masters, Abram (renamed Abraham) and Sarai (renamed Sarah), call her not Hagar, but “that slave woman.” In this domestic space, among God’s chosen ones, the vulnerable outsider is exploited for labor, sex, and reproduction. Then, when she is no longer wanted, when her legacy becomes a threat and her child competes for resources, she is expelled into the wilderness. Yet for Hagar and Ishmael, her son, wilderness becomes the place of freedom and future.
The story begins in the household, among a family of promise and privilege. With feasting they celebrate the maturing of Isaac (21:8), the son of Sarah by whom “seed will be proclaimed” for Abraham (21:12).
But it was not so long ago that Sarah (then Sarai) had despaired of bearing a child and instead gave her personal slave to her husband for sex, as a surrogate vagina, womb, and birth canal through which Sarai herself might be “built up” (16:2). Hagar’s wishes were not consulted. But when she conceived her master’s child and imagined she had a new claim to status, Sarai abused her and brought her low (16:4-6). Hagar fled her abuser, but was instructed, even enticed, to return with promises of a future when her child would be free (16:9-10).
Now Sarah has given birth to, raised, and weaned her own child. She sees the child of “Hagar the Egyptian”—the foreigner—playing in her home (21:9). And she realizes that this boy might have some claim to the inheritance she intends for her own son, Isaac (21:10). She commands Abraham, the man with power, to drive them out, as Adam and Eve were driven from the garden, as the Israelites were driven from Egypt, as the people of Canaan would be driven from their land and cut off from their inheritance.
In Sarah’s command she names the child who matters to her—Isaac. She does not name Hagar or Ishmael. She calls Hagar “that slave woman,” establishing distance and object status, marking social class, subordination, ownership, and gender. Ishmael is distanced further still. He is “her son” and “the son of that slave woman” (21:10). He will now be denied access not only to the inheritance of his father but also to basic resources of the household: shelter, food, water, education, support. Mother and child are cast out.
Abraham complies with Sarah’s command, sending them away and providing bread and water to last them a short time. Despite his distress and this modest provision, he does not carry the weight of his action. He places the burden upon Hagar’s shoulder (21:15). She carries the weight of her child and of her inability to provide, and at this moment she wanders in the wilderness. The word for wandering, in Hebrew ta’ah, suggests that she does not know where to go or what to do (21:15). She is lost and at a loss. She has been banished to a place where water is scarce and soil does not yield fruit. When the water runs out, the only future she can see is death.
In this moment of despair, Hagar throws her child beneath the shelter of a bush. She removes herself—the length of a bowshot—and sits, crying, opposite him, waiting for her son to die, desperate not to see (21:16). Each detail in this verse highlights the distance between mother and child. Too far to touch and barely able to see. The distance of an arrow in flight.
It is at this moment of desperation that God appears. God’s messenger declares that God has heard the voice of the boy “in the place where he is” (21:17). The angel empowers Hagar with courage and instructs her to bridge the distance. She must rise, lift the child and hold him tightly with her hand (21:18). Ishmael has a great future. He makes his home in the wilderness of Paran—a place known elsewhere in scripture as the mountain from which God’s glory shines forth (Deuteronomy 33:2; Habakkuk 3:3). He becomes skilled with the bow, able to traverse distance to secure a livelihood even in the wilderness (Gen. 21:20). And Hagar reconnects with her own people to build a new family network for her son (21:21).
Who are most vulnerable to slavery and trafficking? Those with less power in a society, especially women and children. Those lacking education or job opportunities. Those living in poverty and debt. Minorities and outsiders who do not speak the language, who face discrimination in the workplace and legal system, and who have limited or no access to financial and medical assistance. Migrants who are cut off from their networks of support, who are eager for opportunity, who have limited protections, who do not know the geographical, legal, and social terrain. Risks are greatest in contexts characterized by crisis, transition, instability, and corruption. Understanding who is at risk can help us to prevent slavery.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael also highlights the needs of those who have escaped conditions of slavery. Basic needs—food, clean water, health care, shelter, and safety—are paramount. But there is more. Healing the whole person requires attention to psychological and emotional domains. Education, skills, and opportunities for meaningful work and livelihood make it possible to reclaim self and build a future. Education in parenting skills can restore trust in self and teach paths to healthy relationship for parents and children alike. Ishmael’s experience highlights childhood traumas of abandonment, abuse, and neglect that can have lasting impact. His story directs us to confront and redress these traumas as well so that all children may flourish.
Bible Study Questions:
- How does Hagar exercise agency in the story? What similarities do you see with forms of agency exercised by survivors of modern slavery, including prostitution?
- Although modern understandings of human rights owe a great deal to biblical tradition, there is a great gulf between the universal rights we affirm today and those espoused in Jewish and Christian scripture. How can we engage these sacred traditions responsibly in light of these differences?
- Genesis 21 focuses our attention on the relationship between parent and child in the aftermath of slavery and marginalization. This relationship is often neglected in studies of trafficking, yet it is vitally important to the future of all. In what ways can civic and faith communities help to foster and strengthen these relationships?
For Further Reading:
Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid’s Tale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1986.
Alison Brisk and Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, ed. From Human Trafficking to Human Rights: Reframing Contemporary Slavery. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Melissa Farley, ed. Prostitution, Trafficking, and Traumatic Stress. Haworth Press, 2003.
Anathea Portier-Young is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Duke Divinity School. Her book, Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism, won the 2013 Manfred Lautenschlaeger Award for Theological Promise. Her courses include Gender, Ethnicity, and Violence in the Old Testament, Biblical Bodies, and Domestic Violence and the Bible. She holds a BA in Classics from Yale, an MA in Biblical Languages from the Graduate Theological Union, and a PhD in Religion from Duke University.
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