The painting above illustrates an Old Testament story about the founding of a nation of twelve tribes with a homeland in the Near East. This origins myth involves the foremother meeting with an angelic being, and receiving a mission: to return to a difficult situation and trust that she will bear a son with a great destiny. As you can see, she takes this mission on, demonstrating great faith. You may think you know who she is, or you may be mystified because retellings of the tales of Israel’s origins tend not to include this one … or not told quite like this.
The woman is a survivor of trafficking and of sexual exploitation. She has decided to leave, after being put in an impossible position, and mistreated after falling pregnant. Her abusers are an elderly couple living as expatriates, and this slave has become embroiled in their dysfunctional relationship. Eventually, she will be disowned and abandoned along with her child. Her name? Hagar the Egyptian. The child, Ishmael, is Abraham’s eldest son, the one he thought would be his heir until God decided otherwise. After their expulsion, Hagar and Ishmael will be saved by divine intervention, and go on to found a tribal homeland east of Egypt.
Modern readers find it difficult to square the heroic status of Abraham, the founding father, with his treatment of Hagar and Ishmael. So, they are categorised as foreigners, outsiders, or explained away. In art, Hagar is almost universally represented as distraught, lost, on the verge of death. Portrayals of Sarah gifting her to Abraham range from titillating, ‘rapey’ scenes, to tragic emphasis on her emotional vulnerability. Hagar needs rescuing, these artworks say. She is incapable of taking care of herself. Her child is doomed. The painting shown here is unique, as far as I can tell, in imagining Hagar as a dignified young woman, accepting this difficult vocation, receiving a special grace. It is rare to see Hagar’s annunciation represented at all; usually she is accompanied by her son, defined as a mother rather than a person in her own right. Here, we even see her with her belongings. She had packed, and was clearly on her way to somewhere.
Two elements of the story may be responsible for traditional, weak portrayals of Hagar. Firstly, she becomes the female head of a successful household, contradicting a cultural expectation of male headship. Secondly, she begins as a slave, which puts her at odds with centuries of traditional ‘dominant’, or ‘with-the-grain’ readings. Like it or not, there is an unspoken expectation in Western culture that someone like Hagar is destined be the underdog.
Female-headed households are an anomaly in the Old Testament, where women outside male control are mostly either ‘widows’ or ‘prostitutes’. They are not the equal of men, or of respectable wives. A single mother who thrives and is blessed while single does not fit this pattern; there is even a rabbinic tradition that Abraham’s second wife, who he marries after Sarah’s death, is in fact Hagar. Some see this as a romantic twist. Others, as returning to an abuser. Either way, the tradition shows that there have always been readers who see male headship of the family as essential.
Female-headed households are still characterised as ‘broken’, or dysfunctional today – if not openly, then implicitly in public policy areas like taxation, typically designed to favour married households. Such policy orientations are justified by the same biases as influence the Hagar tradition. For example, those most likely to marry in Western society are the wealthy, while those at the bottom of the pay scale, who deal with the consequences of poverty, do so far less often. This association of instability and financial hardship with unmarried status is often cited in favour of government policies encouraging people to get married. Marriage does not miraculously make people wealthy, but a tradition of God-ordained wedlock colours interpretation of the data.
A long tradition of dominant readings identifies with characters at the top of the hierarchy, such as Abraham, siding with their interests. It is impossible to say whether viewing Abraham as an exemplary role-model originates with the story that God chose him, or from the dominant reading tradition generally, but generations of readers have overlooked his awful behaviour to every other character: not just Hagar, but his wife (who he traffics twice) and his son Isaac (who he nearly kills in cold blood). There are psychological reasons for this. We look to religious texts to reassure us that we are destined for greatness. We want to see ourselves as powerful, and so traditional ‘with-the-grain’ readings support Abraham rather than Hagar. After all, God called him. She should have been more obedient. This bias is also at work when we rationalise injustice in the present. To think of a victim of any crime being like me implies that what happened to them could happen to me as well. An uncomfortable thought. It is easier to blame the victim, or accept that they are somehow inferior. This bias operates subconsciously, whether we think we accept it or not.
Ignoring Hagar’s story deprives us of a resource for exploring difficult themes, such as recovery from trauma, and the place of outsiders. In accepting the misrepresentation of this biblical character, and the traditional retellings of so many others, we rehearse the biases at work in these versions. We practice marginalising, stereotyping, and blaming the victims of injustice. We become expert in accepting the status quo, assuming those in power are right, those who lose out are at fault, and their suffering is inevitable. Critical reading is a skill we badly need. It can be pointed out in religious tradition, but the same dynamics are at work in our media around the clock, and we should be prepared to question the official version of events. It may be playing to our biases.
Illustration credit: ‘Hagar meeting the Angel’ c.1650, by Ferdinand Bol [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons.