Liberation Through Service: The Story of Hagar As A Paradox

PLAIN, Gloria Mardelle
January 2002
Theological Research Exchange Network (TREN): Theses & Dissertat;2002, p1
Seeking equality with men in society, women frequently have found Scripture used against them by their opponents claiming a divine mandate for restricting women's activities. In order to render the Bible inaccessible to those who would use it to hinder women in their emancipator struggle, feminist exegetes advocate the implementation of an interpretive theory based on a feminist critical consciousness. Only those biblical texts or translations of biblical texts which treat women as fully equal and fully human with men are to be considered as God's Word to women. Imposing a feminist critical framework on the Hagar narratives in Gen. 16 and 21:8–21, feminists view Hagar's story largely as a negative symbol for women in their quest for equality. Such an evaluation of Hagar's story is inaccurate, however, the product of a dubious hermeneutical tool. A careful examination of Hagar's story—using methodology feminists commonly refer to as ‘traditional biblical scholarship’ and dismiss therefore as inadequate to the demands of modem biblical exegesis--shows that Hagar's story both challenges the status quo and affirm women. Hagar's story thus constitutes ‘liberating Word’ for women, i.e., Scripture which assists women in their emancipatory struggle. A literary-critical approach to the Hagar material reveals Hagar's story to be a momage, or composite, created by the biblical narrator from multiple literary conventions, figures, and patterns found elsewhere in biblical literature and the literature of the ancient world. Applying the most common literary convention in biblical narrative, the type-scene, to a highly unconventional character, Hagar, the biblical narrator portrays the Egyptian maidservant as the ‘mother-of-a-hero’ who herself performs a rescue, acting as God's instrument to save the life of the ‘hero,’ her son Ishmael. Hagar is cast by the biblical storyteller as a ‘woman-at-the-well, ’ God's fictive future betrothed, who transforms her world from a place of death into a place of life. In the process, Hagar herself undergoes a transformation from passive child-bearer to active agent in Ishmael's rebirth and marriage. Using figures which occur elsewhere in Scripture, the biblical narrator depicts Hagar as a suffering servant. Personally paying the price for the actions of others, degraded, and rejected, the less-than-innocent Egyptian maidservant supersedes her mistress to become a woman of initiative. In the hands of the biblical narrator Hagar assumes the roles of prophet and priest, performing a prophetic sign-action by returning to submit willingly to Sarah's authority, and officiating as priest at her son's symbolic resurrection. Making use of an exodus pattern to tell Hagar's story, the biblical narrator pictures Hagar as the counterpart of Israel's greatest liberator: Moses. Hagar, like Moses, is called to serve as God's vital instrument in providing water to His people on their wilderness journey. Hagar, a drawer of water, demonstrates that woman's work is the work of salvation. Ultimately, Hagar's story is a story of personal transformation which reveals the paradox that lies at the heart of God's people: liberation is achieved through obedience to God's will.


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