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

Men Can Stop Rape (http://www.mencanstoprape.org/)

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.

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Reprinted with Permission by Marc Opek (http://opek-one.deviantart.com)

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/ 

BatteredWomen.com:  http://batteredwomen.com/@page_id=300.htm.

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 .

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Categories: Activism, Bible, Community, Ethics, Gender and Power, Gender and Sexuality, General, Human Rights, Men and Feminism, Power relations, Rape Culture, Scripture, Sexual Ethics, Sexual Violence, Social Justice, Violence Against Women, Women's Agency, Women's Suffering

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15 replies

  1. Just yesterday I saw 2 episodes of Who Do You Think You Are in which black men learned that their ancestry can be traced to the rape of black slave women by white owners or their sons. A few years ago I saw a program in Greece which alleged that the first orphanages in Syros were founded a hundred or more years ago for the children of poor Greek girls and women forced to have sex with the their employers. The women gave up their children and continued to work in the household. The Biblical story is different because it also implicates Sarah. However, the general pattern that servants can be raped or “seduced” (as if their choice could be free) is as old as time and continuing up to the present day. Thanks for raising your voice for women whose cries have not been heard for far too long.

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  2. Over the past decade, I’ve edited numerous books by women who have suffered many kinds of abuse, but mostly sexual abuse. Every time I read one of these stories, it breaks my heart. I’m not generally in favor of violence, but when I hear about battery, rape, or other abuse, I wonder if it might be good to lock the men who commit those crimes in a room with the family members who love the victim. And give the family members weapons. Sigh. As long as we have stories that praise those who rape–like too many of our favorite heroes and gods in Greek and Roman mythology, like Lot in the OT (who wanted to hand his virgin daughters over to the men of Sodom), like more stories than I can even remember, I guess we’ll have to find other ways to helping the victims. Secure houses where raped, abused, and battered women can hide is a start . So is publicizing their cause. Thanks for this blog.

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  3. I still have a hard time comprehending why are justice system is to lenient on rape cases and sexual abuse with women, children and jail inmates. Of course there are those who do time in jail or prison for these crimes, but its so few and in between compared to the number of cases that go unreported and never go to trial. Yesterday I viewed the ACLU website as I was searching for something else, but came across a case the ACLU has filed and taking to court against Sheriff Baca, and the other cops who allowed an inmate who was male to be intentionally raped and beaten (because it is considered part of a cops training when their a rookie) this happens in the men central jail on a regular basis it seems and goes unreported.

    The majority of people incarcerated are non-violent offenders, jail and prison is a business where the majority of sexual abuse takes place, just because people get popped for stealing or a using a cell phone, doesn’t extend for more time to be locked up and to be sodomized by male officers. What does this say about law enforcement?

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  4. Like Ms. Ardinger, I’ve often had the thought after reading about the victimization of women that someone needs to hand them or their female family members a large machete and set them loose — I know, not very zen.
    I appreciate this article because Hagar’s story so clearly demonstrates the damage of patriarchy. I find it ironic that every time I was told this story in church or Sunday school that both Hagar and Sarai were elevated and praised – Sarai for ‘enduring’ her husband’s infidelity and Hagar for doing God’s will and procreating for her master. The brutality Hagar suffered was always glossed over, as patriarchal religious belief place women under the hand/foot of both a male God and male family members.

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    • Many of these stories are glossed over, unfortunately. Even texts that appear in the Pastoral Epistles are damning for women – calling for subservience, obedience, seen not heard, etc. There are stories in the 19th century where women would speak in church and physically punished and jailed for such an action. There is so much abuse that exists in the name of the Bible. I think as scholars, we have a long way to go to educate those. I think that is another reason why Religion courses should be mandated at every university (I would push for a women’s studies course as well). It permeates every aspect of our society and every vocation we engage in. It also will start planting seeds of knowledge and hopefully with that empowerment and compassion.

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  5. There is much work to be done if we are ever to truly address the issues of domestic violence and rape. What is most disturbing/damaging/appalling; is the way in which victims are further victimized even after the fact, and how society’s failure to have developed an appropriate manner in which to cope with a run-away rape culture only further reinforces the devaluation of women.

    How did it come to be common practice that when a woman/girl who has been kidnapped, beaten, tortured, and raped; conjures up the courage to testify against her perpetrator; does so only to be brutally interrogated/blamed/discredited by a defense lawyer? How is this acceptable? How are people ok with this? Why hasn’t the system been ripped apart shred by shred after millions of guilty pigs with evidence galore against them have walked free…. with a fervent insistance that the judicial system actually develop some sense of humility and decency. It is disgusting to say the least. Our judicial system, and the ways in which society has come to habitually conduct rape cases is an absolute outrage and a failure. I could write a book about the social abuse regarding domestic violence but that’s another topic.

    And what kind of message does this give to the 17 year girl who sits on the stand violated, humiliated, traumatized and abandoned… The message that the current judicial system gives to rape victims is that they are not worthy, and that no one cares. This needs to change.

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    • Think of countries that have no recourse for victims at all. While our system is not perfect, there are many advocates out there trying to make a difference and help the victim to adjust or reintegrate or cope (I cannot say that you ever completely heal). The history of women raped is certainly a long one and in international (and historical) circles, it is a way to make her unmarryable. For the married woman raped, imagine being accused of adultery and stoned to death.

      We have a long way to go. Advocacy and activism is necessary and can perpetuate change.

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      • This is true. On a global perspective, we are fortunate, and I certainly did not mean to discount the work of advocates who I know work very hard. Thank you for reminding me to think globally.

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  6. Delores Williams said one of the reasons she is not a liberation theologian is because God did not liberate Hagar. From the perspective of Hagar, God is not a liberator of the oppressed.

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  7. I have read many Womanist Theologians who find redemption through Hagar by her strength and her will to survive. Admittedly that is a different slant then liberation. However there are so many liberation theologians, in my opinion, that could say the same thing or even become defeated or depressed by the oppression that continues through the god they are trying redeem. I am thinking specifically of the Palestinian liberation theologian and the liberation theologian that came after Romero in El Salvador. I also believe that as a Feminist Theologian (as well as Womanist and Mujerista), we are doing liberation theology as well – being liberated from an oppressive patriarchal god and trying to fight against that oppression that is based upon that notion.

    Hagar is a sad story, however in my studies it is interesting to know that looking at the original Hebrew and the historical aspects that surround this story, a different portrait emerges. That is why I prefaced my article that I was using the English vernacular and an ideological post-colonial hermeneutic as opposed to deconstructing the pericope through more traditional tools of exegesis. There is a message that anyone reading the text, especially from their own experience, can see this as pretty damning. So this was written with the hope of bringing attention to this as well as bringing attention to the issue of domestic violence and rape, which is an international problem.

    It is interesting, I think, that if you look at Hagar through the Islamic tradition, she is a hero – revered, and many women name their daughters after her. Ishmael is the great-grandfather of Muhammad, and also a prophet.

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  8. Rape has been around for as long as humans have. So far the efforts to stop rape have sort of worked. In the United States if a man rapes a woman he will be a convicted felon. One problem with our justice system is in order to convict someone of rape the victim must testify in court. The victim has to relive the horror of the incident in front of strangers and face cross-examination from the defense. Also some defense attorneys will ask the victim how many other men she has slept with and conclude she was not raped. Another problem with rape in the United States is many incidents of rape are unreported.

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  9. many women are stuck in relationships that are abusive sexually, physically, and mentally. it is a very tough situation for these women and they often feel helpless. it is nice to see that in this article it mentions hotlines for women and men standing up against rape. many times when a woman is raped, society tries to blame the victim and justify that it was because of the way she was dressed or acting that she was just ” asking” to be raped but we need to stand up and make it known that rape and abuse is completely unacceptable under any terms.

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