By Dr. Rose Wu
Let me now draw your attention to the slave woman Hagar in Genesis 16. In these texts, Hagar is introduced as the solution to a problem confronting a wealthy slave-holding family composed of Sarah and Abraham. Sarah was not able to bear children. She was distressed and often wondered how she could increase her standing in the community and keep the wealth she and her husband had acquired in their family; for in her world of the ancient Near East, a barren woman lost status.
Consequently, Sarah said to Abraham, “Listen now! Since Yahweh has kept me from having children, go to my slave-girl. Perhaps I shall get children through her.” And subsequently, Abraham had intercourse with Hagar, and she became pregnant. We have to understand that it was quite common in the Mediterranean region for wives to give their slaves as concubines to their husbands so that they might have descendants.
Under these circumstances, Hagar was a person facing triple oppressions. Firstly, Hagar, as a slave-girl, would have been under the complete control of her owner, Sarah. Secondly, Hagar, as a virgin woman, had no choice in matters of forced motherhood, but the law provided options for her wealthy slave-holders, like Sarah, who were barren.1) Thirdly, Hagar, as a foreign slave, was exposed to all forms of discrimination without any protection.
Here is a scenario familiar to many migrant domestic workers today―the brutal or cruel treatment they receive from their First World female employers, long working hours and unjust wages. Some of them are also sexually abused or raped by their owners and have borne children who their masters seldom claim.
Hagar, however, resisted the brutalities of slavery by running away. She no longer feels herself to be a slave without the right to make decisions. She was not interested in trying to win Sarah’s goodwill by suffering abuse in silence. Hagar preferred to die in the desert. Hagar becomes the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from oppressive power structures. Like Hagar, many migrant domestic workers have had to flee their employers due to the abuse they have endured at the hands of their employers. Instead of being passive, they too take the risk rather than endure more brutal treatment. What was God’s response to Hagar’s predicament? Were her pain and God’s response to it congruent with migrant domestic women’s predicament and their suffering?
Among many feminist theologians’ interpretations, I find Delores S. Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk the most inspiring. Exploring the themes implicit in Hagar’s story―poverty and slavery, ethnicity and sexual exploitation, exile and encounter with God―Williams suggests that God’s response to Hagar’s story in the Hebrew testament is not liberation. Rather, God participates in the survival of Hagar and her child on two occasions. 2)
When she was a runaway slave, the angel of Yahweh met her in the wilderness and invited her to speak and told her to resubmit herself to her oppressor Sarah, that is, to return to bondage. Many feminists cannot help but question this response given to Hagar by the angel of Yahweh. Nevertheless, the angel of Yahweh makes a promise to Hagar similar to the promise Yahweh makes to Abraham in Genesis 15:2–6: “I shall make your descendants too numerous to be counted.”(Genesis 16:10) Here Hagar was given hope, not only for the survival of her generation, but also hope for the possibility of future freedom for her seed.
Then, when Hagar and her child were finally cast out of the home of their oppressors and were not given proper resources for survival, God opened Hagar’s eyes, and she saw a well so she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. (Genesis 21:18–19) God gave her new vision to see survival resources where she had seen none previously. Finally, in Hagar’s story, there is the suggestion that God will be instrumental in the development of Ishmael’s and Hagar’s quality of life. (Genesis 21:20).
Williams concluded that the female-centered tradition of African-American Biblical appropriation could be named the survival/quality-of-life tradition of African-American Biblical appropriation. 3) Today many migrant domestic workers, like Hagar, have to leave home and go to a foreign land to make a living for herself and her family. They suffer from poverty, economic exploitation, racism, sexual abuse, homelessness, isolation and also a radical encounter with God. They believe God is involved, not only in their struggle for survival, but that God also supports their struggle for a better quality of life.
Rereading the story of Hagar and reflecting upon and analyzing migrant domestic workers’ lives have taught me that Asian feminist scholarship in theology needs to do more than borrow the vocabulary of First World feminism to describe Third World women’s suffering and liberation. We must search deeply into the hidden and multiple layers of oppression of our sisters who are struggling to survive in this globalized and violent world.
We have been silent about race- and class-privileged women who have been oppressing the poor and outcast women. We have been silent about privileged, middle class men and women working together to maintain supremacy and privilege. When this is clearly seen and anticipated, perhaps First World feminists will become more conscious of the ways in which their lifestyle and work perpetuates the oppressive culture of neo-liberalism and economic globalization.
Though differences exist in cultural contexts, social locations and experiences, First World feminists and Third World feminists hold in common a belief that we must work together to overcome globalized violence in transnational labor. Women are not solely victims and objects of the development agenda, however, for it is argued that women’s unique perspectives on the global economy have enriched the groundwork for defining alternatives to economic globalization and have therefore much to contribute to the Church and the world’s vision of building just and sustainable communities.
1) Gerhald von Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972), 186.
2) Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 4.
3) Ibid., 6.