Hagar: A Portrait of a Victim of Domestic Violence and Rape
This week Twitter has been a flurry with information for victims of domestic violence and rape. This ranges from the U.S. redefinition of rape to include men to Nigeria’s first anti-rape toll free hotline for women. There is even a male movement to stand against rape. This problem is an ongoing issue, one that shows no sign of diminishing or going away. According to Amnesty International, one in three women worldwide have been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused and their abuser is normally someone they know. As I contemplate this very difficult issue, I am reminded of the Biblical Hagar in Genesis 16. The story of Hagar and Sarai is abundant
in ethical situations that draw in the reader and presents complex issues that can be very troublesome. If you take the text hermeneutically, through an ideological examination in its English translation, we have an Egyptian woman, who is also referred to as slave or concubine, forced to engage into sex with her owner’s husband for producing an heir. Here the abuser is a woman with a docile and obedient husband portrayed by Abram. What can we glean from such a story for today’s battered women? Hope or horrific defeat?
Admittedly there is a glimmer of hope appears, but then is crushed away. Final victory or freedom does not appear until Genesis 21, or the “couplet.” If the couplet did not exist, what message does Genesis 16 send? Unfortunately a story that can resonate with so many victims of abuse – victims who muster the courage to leave their abuser only to return for the sake of her children. Hagar’s situation is even more damnable – her deity, her protector, the sanctuary that she managed to reach, sends her back.
BatteredWomen.org provides a list of characteristics of battered women. The story of Hagar contains many of these elements. Jenny Diski raised in her book Only Human, that Sarai is the abuser – she plays God, attempts and manipulates Hagar to force an heir for Abram. Hamchand Gossai states in his book Power and Marginality in the Abraham Narrative, by forcing Hagar to have sexual intercourse with Abram, Sarai asserts ownership over Hagar’s womb. Hagar had no choice. She was powerless. She had to obey Sarai and engage in a sexual act with Abram to provide him an heir. Hagar was obedient, subservient, and due to high mortality rates- engaged in an act that could kill her.
Gossai states that the challenge of power becomes a very important part of the narrative; “Sarai’s quest to retaliate against Hagar affirms her jealously of a power which Hagar owns, and she is unable to attain.” Hagar also endured violence from Sarai because according to Diski “the world swelled with the life that she had willed into being, and mocked her for being unable to indulge in her achievement with any of her sense but that of sight.”
This rage and jealously is further compounded by Hagar’s appearance in Abram’s bedroom after she conceived. In ancient history, there is another dimension to this story that would provoke rage – once a concubine or second wife is with child, she is not to occupy her master’s bed again. Not only could Sarai be acting out of jealousy, her acts could be one of rage because Hagar’s presence in Abram’s bedchamber could be viewed as an attempt to trump her authority and position as primary wife.
Sarai’s wrath focused with great brutality against Hagar. The oppression was so severe and heinous that it caused Hagar to flee into the wilderness in the dark of the night – a night filled with wild animals, no source of food or water, no light, and traveling men or nomads ready to rape and kill her in the desert. One could only imagine that the oppression that Hagar suffered was so brutal, that she felt she had no choice. The choice to flee, knowing the dangers she faced, was something more tolerable then staying and enduring the brutality of Sarai. Facing death was more bearable then the abuse that she was enduring.
When she flees, she finds a well and encounters a deity (or messenger of her deity) and the reader breaths a sigh of relief – her deity would protect her and save her, Hagar would be fine, she would survive. Many of us are taught to trust in God, to have faith that the God will protect us. Here Hagar’s deity does something contrary to what anyone of us would expect – she is sent back! Back into the dangerous dark wilderness, back to the brutal and oppressive environment for the sake and welfare of her son. How many women return to their abusers for the sake of their children? How many return for protection, food, or shelter? What kind of message can someone who is living or has lived through domestic violence take away from this story? What kind of God does this or allows this to happen?
Charlotte Gordon asks the question in her book The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths, is God’s cruelty of sending Hagar back in an interpretation that “a woman’s suffering is less important than a man’s destiny?” Abram’s progeny and the possibility of not knowing his child is more important then Hagar’s abuse that she undergoes at the hands of Sarai. Gossai points out that Hagar is never consulted or spoken to by Sarai cannot “cry out against the double injustice of concubinage of slavery” and domestic violence; “she is without voice, unable to speak a language of power and domination, and has no advocate.” She is even abandoned by her deity or her God – The oppressed is left voiceless. Gossai really sums up this issue best:
“Clearly the issue of Hagar’s silence has far-reaching implications…The irony is that the poor and powerless, arguably more than any other disenfranchised group need a voice, and they are the ones who are made voiceless thus adding to their state of marginalization…One cannot read of Hagar’s situation and not think of those who live among us, who are oppressed and voiceless.”
Who will advocate on their behalf? If we do not speak on their behalf or give a voice to the voiceless, we are not neutral. Rather our neutrality or inaction, according to Gossai, is a pronouncement of hostility. I wonder, if we choose to ignore the oppressed and voiceless, are we accessories to that crime? Or do we just continue to walk away and pretend that these things do not happen and stay in our comfort zone?
If you find yourself or know of someone in an abusive situation, here is advice from Women Helping Battered Women: http://www.whbw.org/get-help-now/
Domestic hotlines in Europe: http://www.hotpeachpages.net/europe/europe1.html
The Pixel Project also provides international phone numbers for victims and ways to help: http://www.thepixelproject.net/
Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of Religion, Women, and Sexuality. She also has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Professor at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf .