A comparison of Hagar and Joseph
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The 9/11 sermons and the scape-goating of Hagar
Islam is spreading across the globe. Like Christian
missionaries of old, modern-day adherents of Islam feel compelled
to spread what they believe is the true faith. The task, of
course, for Christians is to learn how to counteract this trend.
We must love our religion enough to want to spread it, understand
why Islam seems attractive to many people (Christians and
non-Christians) and learn how to show how Christ or Christianity
fulfills the heart-cry of these followers of Islam. But in
addition to preventing the spread of Islam, we must learn how to
convert those who are already followers of Mohammed, primarily
the Arab people.
In light of 9/11. the present coverage of the Israeli-Arab
conflict and the Christian community's commitment to Israel, I
feel compelled to share my views of Hagar and Ishmael. Often,
these two Biblical personages are not treated with respect.
Christians consider Ishmael the symbolic and genetic father of
the Arabs and in their sermons, they often treat him as a kind of
interloper/mistake who "really should not have been." Equally
shameful, they treat Hagar dismissively and with a mentality
that seems born from a colonial and imperial mind-set, they think
of her as a slave who just doesn't know her place. Well, let us
Many slaves appear in the Bible. They are generally shown as
likeable, helpful and loyal. Some like Onesimus in Paul's
letters often symbolize spiritual adoption into God's heritage.
But I'd like to talk about two of my slaves: Joseph and Hagar.
We know quite a bit about them. -- I feel compelled to highlight
some of the most striking comparisons.
Both Joseph and Hagar were owned by people of different
nations. Joseph served in a country that needed him but did not
respect his culture. The Egyptians could not eat with him
because he came from a sheep-herding country. Joseph was
isolated from the Egyptians even as he preserved their life and
As for Hagar, she too was alone. An Egyptian woman among
Abraham's many herdsmen, Hagar was Sarah's hand-maid and possibly
the only other female in Abraham's retinue. She too was cut off
from family and friends. She too had to live among people who
disrespected her culture. Just as the Egyptians considered
Joseph more likely to rape the wife of his master, and just as
former white slave-owners assumed that black men wanted to rape
white women, so Abraham and Sarah also considered Egyptians
morally lacking. Remember when Abraham and Sarah arrived in
Pharoah's court? They assumed they were morally superior to the
Egyptians and expected to find only evil and godlessness in
Pharoah's court. So cynical were they about the spiritual
tradition of another people that they even lied to the Pharoah
and ended up in a deceitful marriage. (Hagar was still Sarah's
slave when this occurred.) Of course it's common for cultures to
presume that people of other cultures will behave badly and
immorally. And so Moses shows us that both Joseph and Hagar had
to endure the extreme class and cultural consciousness of
slave-owners who did not understand their culture.
Both Joseph and Hagar had to contend with possible death
because of class-consciousness and hierarchy on the part of
someone who felt threatened. Joseph's brothers sold him into
slavery when Joseph's father, Jacob, made him an embroidered
overcoat with a long sleeve. Joseph's brothers were well aware
that the ruling class of the surrounding Canaanite nations always
wore long embroidered coats with long sleeves. They knew Jacob's
favoritism and could only suspect probably rightly-- that Jacob
was well on the way to making Joseph head of the clan. They
decided to get rid of Jacob and change their father's plans.
They sold him into slavery. As for Hagar, she bore a child for
her aged master. But mother of the master's first-born son or
no, she was still the slave of the head-wife. The Bible is full
of co-wives vying with each other through child-birth. But Sarah
would not allow a slave's son to be equal to her own son. In
Deuteronomy, under Mosaic law, Moses would later write, "The
child of the first-born wife even if that wife is hated-- will
get the larger inheritance.
Both Joseph and Hagar had difficulties with their female
owners...difficulties caused by sex. Joseph's body was young
and healthy. Potiphar was the king's chamberlain. In many
non-english translations, the word chamberlain is translated
clearly as eunuch. The history books of arabic nations are
filled with stories about eunuchs who married. We can understand
how Potiphar's wife might conceive a lust for Joseph's young
vital body. In somewhat the same way, Sarah saw Hagar's body as
an object she could choose for her own ends. God had promised
Abraham and Sarah, Hagar's owner, a child of Abraham's body.
Because Sarah could not conceive children, she decided that
Hagar's body was young and healthy and would make an excellent
surrogate. We don't know how old Hagar was. Indications are
that she must have been young.
Many will say that Sarah was perfectly within her rights to
use Hagar's body as she wanted. After all, Sarah owned Hagar and
should we burden a person from Bible history with modern
sensibilities. But as the history of American slavery and sexual
studies will show us, ownership or not, the use of another
person's body is a violation of the highest order. The story
itself shows us that human interactions and human emotions have
never changed. This leads to a battle of wills between Hagar and
Sarah. When Hagar became pregnant even though she was a slave--
she did what all other co-wives and concubines did: she gloated.
As a slave woman who had pregnancy forced upon her, gloating was
a natural response. But Hagar would soon learn that a mere
slave should not engage in a battle of wills with a slaveowner.
Spite for spite, Hagar was in a bad position. In the middle of
the desert, far from her culture and pregnant, she would have to
learn submission. Both she and Joseph suffered because their
owners wanted to use their bodies.
Both Joseph and Hagar got closer to God and learned
obedience through suffering. Both Hagar and Joseph had great
ideas of themselves and both had to be taken down a peg. Both
slaves had been shown some kind of honor or promotion. Jacob had
his dreams. Hagar had her master's son. But their attitudes
brought them trouble. Joseph's constant bragging about his dreams
didn't help matters. And Hagar's pride made her life more
difficult. We don't know how Hagar ended up in her enslaved
state. She might have been born in slavery, a child of slaves.
Like Joseph, she might have sold into slavery at an early age.
Or she might have been enslaved to pay a parent's debt. But when
she became pregnant, she became proud. But both Joseph and Hagar
had to submit to their enslavement until the time came for their
Joseph and Hagar were imprisoned and enslaved because God
needed them. Joseph had been placed in the king's prison, not a
regular prison, probably because Potiphar was a high official.
But God was really in charge.
We don't know what the king's prison was like. But we know
what goes on inside most prisons. And from the reading Joseph's
only way out of prison was by capital punishment, natural death,
or a decree from the king. A former prison-mate had promised to
mention Joseph to the king. However, when this former prisoner
was freed, he immediately forgot about Joseph. There is no doubt
that this "forgetting" was God's will. If Joseph had been freed
at the wrong time, he might have returned home to Israel and his
brothers. All would have been lost. But Joseph would be needed
to save Egypt because Egypt would be the cradle from which the
new-born nation of Israel would arise.
The same could be said for the slave-girl, Hagar. She was
imprisoned by Sarah's vindictiveness and anger and by the
Both slaves longed for escape. But God did not open the
door for them. Both Sarah and Potiphar's wife used the earthly
power their class afforded them to "deal harshly with" their
slaves. (Moses makes the point of using the same phrase when he
described the treatment of the Israelites by the Egyptians.) The
implication is that Sarah wasn't merely verbally abusive. Whether
it was whippings, starvation or extra labor, she caused emotional
and possible physical harm to a pregnant woman slave who was
being uppity. Enslaved, pregnant, and at the mercy of a jealous
class-conscious slave-owner, Hagar would rather have died in the
desert than endure Sarah's harsh treatment. And yet, God delayed
freeing her. Just as he delayed freeing Joseph. Their escape
plans were squashed by God Himself. Joseph was forgotten in
prison. And Hagar had to return to Sarah and submit to her. Both
Joseph and Hagar were needed. The future of Egypt and Abraham's
descendants depended on them.
Both suffered in order to help their master's nation.
Nations were blessed because of them.
Joseph was called out of prison just when he was needed.
His guidance helped save Egypt and surrounding nations from
starvation. Egypt needed to become a great nation because it was
the cradle in which God wanted His people to be reared. Joseph
left the prison but stayed in Egypt because another race of
people needed him.
Hagar was also needed. As the only woman in a retinue of
men, Hagar was needed to attend to the maternal and childcare
needs of the slave-owner, Sarah. Sarah was old and had never had
any children. Who would take care of her during her pregnancy?
Who would cook and clean for her? Who would help her to deliver
the baby? And after the child was born, who would have the
energy to continuously play with it? Who would be healthy enough
and strong enough to race after the child if needed? Certainly
not an aged mother. But Hagar would be there.
Sarah had her child or promise. And she had her slave to
help her. Hagar would stay with these slaveholders for 13 more
years. The final parting of the ways happened when Sarah saw an
interaction between Ishmael and Isaac which offended her sense of
Both Joseph and Hagar were saved at last by divine
intervention. Joseph was finally freed when his work was ready
to begin. Because of God's guidance through dreams, Joseph was
finally freed at the right and perfect time.
As for Hagar, God intervened twice on her behalf. In one
instance he intervened to make her stay in her prison. In the
other instance, he intervened to free her.
Later, God would intervene for Hagar when her work as
caretaker of Baby Israel is done. As Joseph's purpose was to help
Egypt because it would cradle the new-born Israel, so Hagar
helped to cradle Abraham's seed of promise. And when her work
was done, she was taken rather abruptly-- from the scene.
You will recall the story. Life was continuing on in its
usual pace. No plans had been made for Hagar to leave. But then
the day of her freedom came. Thirteen year old Ishmael and
toddler Isaac were together and --depending on your Bible
translation-- Ishmael was either teasing Isaac or simply playing
with him. Whatever the actual incident, the sight of the two
brothers bothered Sarah's slaveowner's heart. The son of the
slaveowner was forgetting his place. Unforgiving and
class-conscious as usual, Sarah jumped at her power and class
again. "The son of this slave-woman shall not be heir with my
son." She then sent Hagar out into the desert to die.
Some might consider this mere peevishness on Sarah's part.
But I have always suspected something more heinous behind it.
Surely, Sarah was aware that a child and mother alone in the
middle of a desert may not live. Abraham doesn't help Hagar --
certainly, such a great chieftain --a man with many herdsmen--
could've helped Hagar by sending some of his men with Hagar a
days journey or two?
Abraham gave Hagar bread. But God gave her water, living
water. Moses does something very interesting in this story. In
the same chapter where Moses shows Hagar's lack and near death
from thirst, we see Abraham getting into a conflict about a well.
Hagar's emptiness is contrasted nicely with Abraham's fullness.
Hagar is so overwhelmed by this sudden loss of home, place and
safety who wouldn't be?-- that she sits in the desert paralyzed
with fear. And although there was no natural well or water
anywhere, God intervened for her.
And so both former slaves had spiritual tests that freed
them. Joseph had to interpret a dream and see God's plan for
himself, his family and a nation. Hagar had to see a well and a
future for her own child of promise.
Both Joseph and Hagar prospered in the house of their
affliction. Joseph became governor of Egypt and his children were
given the honor of being half-tribes. As for Hagar, God promised
Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Hagar's
child, Ishmael, became the father of one of Abraham's many
nations. Both began as slaves but later prospered.
Both Joseph and Hagar were triumphant. Joseph learned that
"What was meant for evil by his brother was something God meant
for good. Hagar learned something similar: she learned that God
Moses is a masterly writer. Compare Hagar's attitude toward
the angel with Sarah's reaction to Abraham's angelic visit.
Hagar believed the angel and submitted. Sarah saw the angel and
laughed in disbelief. God gives Sarah a revelation of his power.
But we don't see Sarah's relationship with God. Hagar was given
a revelation of God's love and we see a relationship being born.
Perhaps this is understandable. As in the story of Leah and
Rachel, one woman is loved but the other is alone and despised.
In that story, too, we see Leah's relationship with God while we
aren't entirely convinced that Rachel has any kind of
relationship with God at all. Hagar was forsaken and needed to
see God's love.
From that day on, Hagar called the Creator, "The God who
sees me." It's a name for God that is filled with pathos. The God
of all the universe knows my sorrows and is acquainted with my
grief. God-with-me would see her as she submitted and returned
to her enslavement. Her revelation is the kind of deep Truth
that is able to teach the small child and the wounded adult about
God's love and care of His children. She uses the intimate "thou"
form in speaking with God: "Thou God seest me."
Both slaves had come through the furnace as fine gold.
Hagar's forgiving heart is shown in the relationship between her
son, Ishmael and Isaac. From what we read in the Bible, both
boys got along quite well. And when Abraham died, Ishmael had
enough respect and love for the old patriarch that he helped bury
him when Isaac sent word of the death. Reared by a single mother
abandoned and alone, Ishmael shows his mother's glory by showing
his respect for his father.
How does this connect to 9/11 and to our missionary cause
among the arab people? For centuries, Christians have made a
point of saying that Abraham's "mistake" with Sarah has caused
many problems. For instance, I have heard many ministers rage at
Hagar because she decided that she could watch her son die.
Their remakrs are often snide and cruel. "What kind of woman
would do something like this?" Or they might say, "Hagar was
proud and wouldn't stay in her place." But it seems to me that
they dismiss her pain and her life because they feel that's what
they are supposed to do. And they have a colonial racist idea
about slaves not staying in their place.
Ever since 9/11, Christians have been talking -- on radio,
television and in sermons -- about Ishmael and Isaac and the
fight over the promised land. And, inevitably, someone says
something nasty about Hagar. Preachers shake their heads about
Abraham's mistake and Hagar's arrogance and about what a mess
this "mistake" has caused for Israel and the world. I've even
seen women or black preachers do this, people who presumably
should know better because they should understand the dynamics of
class, sexual and racial power. The inability to see Hagar as a
true child of God also leads to some sermons that come close to
anti-Arabic (Both Arabs and Jews are anti-Semitic) This linking
of the anti-Arabic sentiment with the Hagar story truly bothers
God's promise was to make Abraham a father of many nations.
Many nations were promised the land. These leads to my second
difficulty with this common position. Ishmael is not the only
non-Jewish descendant of Abraham. In the womb, Israel and Esau
(children of Isaac, the child of promise) were at enmity. The
prophesy of two warring nations were spoken about the descendants
of Esau and Jacob, not about Isaac and Ishmael. And later on, the
tribes would splinter off, leaving only the tribe of Judah, the
ancestor of the modern Jews. Many documentaries explore the
possibility that the lost tribes are scattered in Africa, China
and India. And well they may be. But the ten lost tribes were
also intermingled among the Arab nations and the old nation of
Moses, the writer, is remarkably unracist and remarkably
honest. As a former slave, he shows his readers the worst of
slavery. As the husband of an Ethiopian wife, Moses understood
the arrogance and hatefulness of racism. After all, his sister
doubted his prophetic work because she didn't like the fact that
he had married an Ethiopian wife. He shows how Sarah uses God's
promise to treat Hagar badly. And he showed how Leah's children
would use a religious symbol of God's covenant to destroy
Shechem. As a prophet of God who has been given many great
promises, Moses showed how people like Joseph and Sarah--
couldn't handle God's promises. They often believed that their
blessedness made them better than others. But Moses knew that
all of Abraham's descendants are blessed. After all, after the
children of Israel had forgotten about the circumcision, it was
Moses wife Zipporah, a descendant of one of Abraham's other
children, who reminded him of this particular covenant of blood.
So are the Midianites also to be left out of the promise? I know
that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance. I also
know that there are many verses in the Bible that seems to say
that God's promise to His friend concerning all Abraham's
children is null and void. But what about other prophecies? Did
not God say that He would put in the midst of Israel a poor
people who would know His name? Does he not speak of Israel
capturing the "other nations that are His?" Amos 9:12?
With all the wonderful lessons that can be gleaned from the
story of Hagar, I find it disturbing that modern Christians feel
uncomfortable with liking Hagar, or with accepting the Arab
people as another of Abraham's true descendants. Some Christians
actually feel that God truly wants them to dislike Arabs.
We want to make everything easy for ourselves. And truly,
our christian ideas of who to root for if we start feeling
compassion for Hagar. Christians want clear-cut emotions. But
consider this: the Arabs are not descended from Ishmael alone.
Esau's descendants and the descendants of Israel who were not of
the tribe of Judah might also be among today's Arabs.
Honest Bible study is required. Christians should not have
scapegoats and sacred cows when they read the Bible. Consider
that the Israelites who first heard this story were former slaves
freed from cruel slave-masters. They did not fully know the
creation story or the story of their ancestors until Moses told
them. We don't know how they reacted when Moses told them the
story of Hagar and Sarah. Perhaps they identified with Sarah
because she was the mother of the nation. Perhaps they
identified with Hagar. They knew slave-owners who had "dealt
harshly" with them. Perhaps they were perplexed and unable to
take side. After all, Hagar was Egyptian and a slave. And Sarah
was an ancestor but a slave-owner. Did they walk over to Moses
and say, "We don't know who to love in this story. We like and
dislike both these women. Tell us who to like." If they did, I
hope Moses answered, "God's people are not in every tribe and
nation. Man looks at the appearance and at cultural and genetic
heritage but God looks on the heart. And only God alone can
The dismissing of Ishmael and Hagar does injustice to God's
love and God's grace. After all, God is a redeemer who redeems
our mistakes. If Adam and Eve, had not sinned, we would not have
discovered the wonderful love of Jesus Christ our gracious
savior. Surely, God blessed the world through Hagar and Ishmael
as well. But the scapegoating of Hagar and Ishmael also does
injustice to the Bible and its writers. How can sermons class
prejudice, race prejudice and culture prejudice do justice to the
missionary cause of Christ? How can we save people if we are
always telling ourselves that these people were spiritual
"mistakes"? Who are we to speak this way and to behave as if
certain people should simply not have been?
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