Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Hagar's Story, cont'd...

This is a story tainted by layers of sexual and economic exploitation, racism, patriarchy, youth oppression, classism…it’s even a story that flows into centuries of history of interfaith conflict.

We cannot, of course, read this ancient text fairly if we place on it all of our cultural baggage around modern concepts of race relations, white privilege, chattel slavery, or our cultural ideal of monogamy. This story is 3,000 years old, from a time when these sorts of family arrangements were the norm for a wealthier family. For barren women like Sarah, using a concubine to conceive children was important for the family to retain its land and property. A woman’s social status was directly connected to her husband and the number of children she bore him…particularly male children. And although this story is about an Egyptian who is serving her prosperous Hebrew masters, slavery was a common practice in many ancient cultures and not linked to a racial divide in the same way that American slavery was; we also remember that soon their fates are reversed and it is the Israelites who are slaves in Egypt.

But still, cultural differences aside, it’s hard to listen to it without finding it terribly offensive. Why are these stories in our sacred scriptures? Is there anything redeeming about them? Phyllis Trible in her book Texts of Terror struggles with some of the most difficult, painful stories in the Old Testament where women are victimized. She says, “If art imitates life, scripture likewise reflects [life] in both holiness and horror. Reflections themselves neither mandate nor manufacture change; yet by enabling insight, they may inspire repentance. In other words, sad stories may yield new beginnings.”

I looked hard for a way to make sense of this story, to explain it away or to make it more palatable as a story I can claim in my bible, and from my faith tradition. But Trible warns, “Sad stories do not have happy endings.” Not all the biblical stories are redeeming, and what makes them so painful to hear is not just that we can’t always understand what God is doing in them, but that they are also very real stories about us, and in them we see reflections of the sometimes terrible ways we treat each other.

Dr. Weems writes, “The story of the Egyptian slave and her Hebrew mistress is hauntingly reminiscent of the disturbing accounts of black slavewomen and white mistresses during slavery. Over and over again we have heard tales about the wanton and brutal rape of black women by their white slavemasters, compounded by punitive beatings by resentful while wives who penalized the raped slavewomen for their husbands’ lust and savagery.”

Sarah—as a woman so dependant on her husband and on her infertile womb—doesn’t really have much power in this story either. But she uses what power she does have to exploit another woman in hopes that her status will be elevated. But her plan backfires. Once Hagar is pregnant, the text says Hagar regards Sarah “to be of no account.” Hagar gains a bit of influence for a small moment as Abraham’s second wife, and hurts Sarah back by disregarding her role. So Sarah complains to Abraham and Abraham allows Sarah to “do to her as you please.” According to the text, Sarah “treats Hagar harshly”…which means that she physically abuses her to the point that Hagar if forced to flee into the desert wilderness—where she will likely die—in order to escape her mistress.

This is the cycle of oppression. As Natalie often says when she witnesses cruelty, “It takes hurt to give hurt.” In reality both of these women are victims of their patriarchal culture. There doesn’t seem to be enough blessing to go around, and so they both step on each other in the race to climb the ladder out of privilege...

Dr. Weems writes that while she is the great-granddaughter of a slave, as an educated and employed woman she is “painfully aware” of her potential to exploit other women when she steps across the floor recently mopped by the black janitor at the office building where she is late for an executive meeting. “And I am reminded of my privileges,” she writes, “when, while sitting at a desk in my hotel putting the final touches on a speech for an organization of Christian women, the Latina maid tiptoes in to replace my soiled linens and make my bed.”

She goes on to say: “None of us is safe from the ravages of a society which makes room for only a chosen few and keeps at bay the vast majority. For those of us who are educated and employed there is always the potential to be a Sarai: and, lamentably, there are far too many opportunities in a capitalist society for her to surface. Yet most of us are just a paycheck away from Hagar.”

So---we can learn some really painful and hard, but necessary lessons from the story of Sarai and Hagar. Phyllis Trible says “All we who are heirs of Sarah and Abraham, by flesh and spirit, must answer for the terror in Hagar’s story. To neglect the theological challenge she presents is to falsify faith.”
by Cindy Guertin, who knows of which she speaks


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