Hagar: Scriptural patterns of sexual assault

The Abrahamic covenant is a key part of Mormon doctrine.  We believe that by making and keeping our covenants, we can receive all the blessings that Abraham was promised even if we are not his literal descendants.  For this reason, church discussions about Abraham typically focus on his heroic qualities – his faith, his priesthood and above all his covenants.  The story of Abraham and Sarah conceiving Isaac is one of several heartwarming “miracle fertility” stories that get trotted out to give hope to childless couples.  But Hagar? Well, Hagar is a story that we tend to gloss over as quickly as possible. If Mormons identify themselves closely with Abraham and see him as a hero to be emulated, then the story of Hagar is deeply problematic.  Perhaps if we shifted the way we study this scriptural episode in our classes we could be better prepared as saints to believe the women who come forward and to help them.

The story of Hagar can be found in Genesis 16 and 21.  I won’t quote it in its entirety here, but all my excerpts come from those two chapters. Sarah wants children and is unable to conceive.  Her reasons for wanting the baby reflect the patriarchal culture in which she lived – she suffers because an infertile woman is of little worth.  Perhaps she wanted a baby to cuddle, and surely she wanted an heir.  It is worth remembering that Sarah herself had been the victim of sexual abuse – Abram, fearing for his life, claimed that Sarai was his sister and so she was taken into Pharoah’s house: “And for her sake he dealt well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.” So Sarai knows that she is somewhat expendable to Abram, for all his love of her.

So she takes her Egyptian slave Hagar and tells Abram to have sex with her.  The phrasing in the Bible makes Abram seem fairly blameless – it is all Sarai’s idea and “Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.”

Hagar is already a victim because she is enslaved.  Then, as so many enslaved women have been across the centuries, she is sexually assaulted.  It is useless to claim that perhaps she enjoyed it, or wanted it, or liked Abram. Firstly, the scriptures indicate no such thing, and more importantly,  she did not have the freedom to say no. Consent is meaningless if a person cannot freely refuse sexual advances.

Hagar becomes pregnant and “when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.”  This phrasing is interesting.  Usually we interpret it to mean that she taunted Sarai for being unable to conceive, and perhaps she did.  But perhaps she felt even deeper anger and loathing for an unwanted pregnancy for an assault in which Sarai was deeply complicit.

Abram, ever the brave responsible one, tells Sarai “thy maid is in thine hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee.” And Sarai dealt hardly with her.  Even though Hagar is pregnant with his child, and he freely chose to have sex with her, he gives Sarai the thumbs up to abuse her as harshly as she wants. We can assume that she was very harsh indeed, because Hagar runs away into the desert where her odds of survival are slim.

In the wilderness she meets an angel, who asks her what she is doing.  Then the angel promised her and her posterity great blessings in parallel to those offered to Abraham’s other son-to-be.  And Hagar gave God a name: El Roi – the God who sees me. Problematically, the messenger also orders her to “Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.”

She returns, and has the baby.  Later, Sarah has Isaac and asks Abraham to get rid of Hagar and her son, which he does. Giving them a small amount of provisions they are cast in the desert.  When the provisions are gone, Hagar puts down her baby and walks away so she doesn’t have to see him die.  This time it is God, and not a messenger, who addresses her.  God tells her he has heard the baby’s cries, and will see to their welfare.  He shows her a well so that she can feed her baby, and God stays with them spiritually as Ishmael grew up in the wilderness.

Claxton, Marshall; Hagar and Ishmael at the Well; York Museums Trust;

What lessons might we take from all of this story if we let go of the idea that Abraham and Sarah must be the heroes and examples in all cases?

  • We see that men who are in some or even many contexts great spiritual leaders are nevertheless capable of sexual predation. Public good acts do not somehow justify private evils.  We can also see the ways in which the author subtly excuses Abraham’s acts – all the cruelty he inflicts on Hagar he does at Sarai’s asking.  In this story, a woman was quite literally asking for it, albeit not for him to abuse her.  These patterns are often repeated in ecclesiastical leadership contexts.  When we as a church stubbornly self-identify only with Abraham and Sarah in this story, we set up a doctrinal precedent for abusive leadership.
  • Abusers are often victims of abuse themselves. Sarai had been sexually exploited by Abram to save his own life. Understanding this can hopefully help us break the cycle and address abusers with compassion, but it does not excuse perpetuating the cycle.
  • We see that women can be complicit in the abuse of other women. While instances of savagery like Sarai’s – instigating sexual abuse, planning to steal a child, verbally and physically abusing a victim and ultimately leaving her to die in a desert are thankfully unlikely to appear in our wards, there is nevertheless a warning in this story that we should discuss in our classes.  What Sarai wanted was the perfect image.  She wanted to appear to the world to be a happy mother, father and baby family and she ultimately was willing to allow Hagar to suffer, and to attempt to erase her entirely to get what she wanted.  How do we as church members put the image of our institution ahead of the suffering of individual saints?  Do we put the image of our family, or our bishopric, or our friend ahead of hard truths?

The messenger of the Lord shows us both a positive and a negative example of what to do.

  • On one hand, he tells Hagar to return to the abusive situation and to submit to it.All too often abuse victims who come forward are advised not to abandon their family/job/calling and to stay in vulnerable positions.  The perpetrator is not punished and is instead allowed and thus tacitly encouraged to continue the abuse.  When the Bible says a heavenly messenger says something, it is hard for us to say “nope, bad call.”  But if we replace “heavenly messenger” with “Bishop” or “stake president” we can see more clearly why this advice was cruel.  Perhaps it helped Abram by giving back his unborn son, showing us a classic example of men understanding male interests and sympathizing with them at the expense of women.
  • On the other hand, the messenger affirms that God knows her situation and has a plan for her and promises a better future. This is a more positive response that church leaders, as messengers on behalf of God, could share with women who come forward.

God shows us appropriate ways to respond.

  • When God speaks to Hagar, God does not order her to return to the abusive situation.
  • God affirms that he cares about her and her child. God makes it possible for her to survive and thrive away from the abuse.
  • Above all, God believes Hagar. Hagar gives God a name: El Roi – the God Who Sees Me. Unlike Abram and Sarai, who never speak to her at all but only abouther, God sees Hagar. God believes her.  God doesn’t tell her to go back.
  • The scriptures do not say that God punished Abraham or Sarah in this life for their abuse of Hagar, but then immediate retribution is not necessarily God’s way.God will give Hagar justice.  We on this earth have a responsibility to do as much as we can to make wrongs right.

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13 Responses

  1. Dani Addante says:

    Great article! I grew up thinking that Hagar was the villain and that Sarah was the hero, but it’s true that God does talk to Hagar and helps her. We never talk about this at church. Thanks for shedding more light on this story.

  2. Jason K. says:

    Delores S. Williams does some powerful stuff with the Hagar story in Sisters in the Wilderness. Her work resonates with your perspective here. Thank you!

  3. Trudy says:

    This is a good example of “likening the scriptures to ourselves” by taking the lessons in the story and applying them to current events.

    I’ve often been troubled by Abraham. He’s held up as such an excellent example of righteousness, but I realized a few years back when I delved more deeply into his story that he was a really terrible husband and father. It kind of makes one wonder what to make of the common LDS belief that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home”. It seems like as a culture, we’ve excused his failures in the home because of his other successes.

    • Em says:

      That is a really good point! We do that a lot with church leaders — praise their righteous leadership while ignoring the cost to children and wives.

  4. Tirza says:

    Thank you for this post. You make so many good points!

    “Abusers are often victims of abuse themselves…”
    I recently had a conversation with a psychologist who works with sex offenders. He said it is important to see sexual abuse as a public health issue and recognize that the treatment of abusers is critical to work towards reducing their risk and vulnerability to create more victims. He continued that it does not need to be an either or scenario where you are pro victim or supporting abusers, but that to be supporting victims means being willing to do the work with those who offend to break cycles of abuse.
    I don’t know what the process is within the church for working with perpetrators, but I hope it extends beyond a threat to disfellowship them. So often patterns of abuse or victimization repeat. I would love to see victims and abusers in the church directed to more concrete, professional resources in order to help break these cycles. This would also mean people taking accountability for their abuse, and not expecting the good a person does to make up for instances of offense.

  5. Ziff says:

    Great thoughts, Em. I had never thought about Hagar’s story with anything like this depth. I particularly like this point you make:

    “When we as a church stubbornly self-identify only with Abraham and Sarah in this story, we set up a doctrinal precedent for abusive leadership.”

  6. Chairoscuro says:

    beautiful piece. I wish we could have this discussion at sunday school

  7. To strengthen your argument, be sure you have the facts right. Ishmael is AT the very LEAST 16 years old when he and Hagar leave the second time. I am not justifying Abraham or Sarah’s behavior, but get the story right. Not a baby, a young man.

  8. Sally says:

    This may be a sort of tangent, but my question is genuine, and relevant I hope. I’m at a place right now where I’m unpacking the realization that I’ve been a scripture literalist all my life without even knowing it was a thing, and I’m reprocessing the stories of the OT as oral tradition. The function of stories in orality is comprehensive – all history, wisdom, morals, warnings, imperatives – were wrapped up into stories that were retold and retold countless times, and evolved over time in response to cultural shifts.

    I’m also recently learning about the framework of religious literacy, which asserts that religion is always culturally embedded, always changing, and always internally diverse.

    Viewed through those 2 lenses, it could be argued that the stories in any ancient scripture are imbued *enough* with their contemporary cultural values as to be…problematic. (here’s the question –> ) Is it possible that the horribleness with (not just) with Abram and Sarai (but with all of it) can be chalked up to cultures that were still developing along the path of endeavoring to become like God?

    it’s a theory I’m chewing, anyway.

  9. Sally says:

    …also, I’ve been pondering the stages of faith juxtaposed with adult development stages, a la Thomas Wirthlin McConkie, and Terry O’Fallon and Kim Barta (Mormon Matters podcast #469). The stages of development transcend childhood and continue on into adulthood, why can’t they apply in some way to culture? I don’t know; haven’t thought it out for long. It might be insulting to cultures of centuries and millennia ago to assume that their way of being was developmentally behind today’s way of being. It’s overly simple for one thing. Just thinking out loud.

    But for real, the story of Hagar is troubling. I appreciate you laying out your perspective.

  10. This is such an interesting reading of the scriptures. At church, we often go into the default mode of, “This man was the prophet, so obviously he is the hero of this story.” Starting there causes us to interpret the scriptures in certain ways and ignore prophets’ problematic actions, and since most prophets were male, ignore the female perspective to the story.

  11. StephS says:

    This is also a fascinating conversation when you consider that Islam came through the lineage of Ishmael. There are so many levels and layers of depth to this story of Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar…so deep that it’s created world religions that have lasted millennia. If we can heal the story on this most basic level, in our Sunday school class discussions, where Hagar is no longer villainized and Sarah no longer held on a pedestal, and likewise with Isaac and Ishmael (as its interesting to note that the Qu’ran implies it was Ishmael that Abraham was commended to sacrifice) then we perhaps we can heal the breech between world religions and stop playing the “I’m right and you’re wrong” game.

  1. September 14, 2018

    […] in the first book of the Bible, we have stories of the mistreatment of women. Exponent blogger, EM, illustrates assault with the story of Abram, Sarai and Hagar from Genesis 16 and 21. “Hagar is already a […]

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