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Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Hagar in the Wilderness

Hagar in the Wilderness was sculpted in 1868 in Rome by Edmonia Lewis, a woman of African and Native American heritage. What did it mean to her to sculpt the figure of the mother of Ishmael with white features, flowing hair, calmly folded hands. It was probably necessary to make a sale, but surely she did not picture Hagar this way in her imagination. Hagar loomed large in the literature of abolitionists of the time. Were all Biblical characters – even the darkest servants of Egypt – Europeans in the “civilized Western” mind? Were all women important only as they were related to men?
Hagar was the mother of Ishmael - the son that Abram feared he would never have; the son that Sarai was willing to allow, until she had her own miraculous child. Hagar was Sarai’s handmaiden, property, her slave. Sarai gave Hagar to Abram as a gift, his concubine or even a second wife. Second wives were nothing new. Certainly they knew enough not to make the first wife angry. Not so for Hagar. Did she think that her beauty and sexuality, once initiated, would make her Sarai’s superior in Abram’s eyes? As a slave of Egypt, did Hagar believe she had earned her freedom? With the new security of her position, did she begin to delight in her own beauty and dance with a lighter step, or smile from mischievous eyes? Did she truly despise Sarai? Or was that just what Sarai believed?
Oh, the jealousy of women. In what desert, in what foreign lonely country would I hand a beautiful young woman to my husband? In what fevered mind might I consider the gift , if pleasing to him, pleasing to me? What woman can welcome her husband’s second wife into her circle? And in how many homes are the sons of other wives loved by their step-mothers, as if the boys are their own?
Hagar ran into the desert twice to escape the angry Sarai. The first time she was sent back by God to obey her mistress -  with the promise of His protection. The second time, Hagar was fleeing with her son Ishmael, and God saved her and the son who would sire 12 princes. The Bible records their names, but what became of Hagar?
In one of many stories of Islamic pre-history, Hagar lived until she was 90. She was known for her great beauty and remained the beloved of Abraham, who visited her daily in Mecca on the winged horse al-Burāq (Lindsay). Ishmael was the forebear of Muhammad, so she is clearly of greater importance to the people of Islam than to the descendants of Isaac, and the writer of the Bible.
But what is the importance of these ancient women of the Bible today? Isn’t theirs the same story in every time? There is one man and two women. He doesn’t have to take a stand for either one. He just turns them loose on each other. Abram loves both his sons – Ishmael and Isaac are both his gifts from God. But the women are vessels. Like the empty jar at Hagar’s feet in the wilderness, they fall away from the scene.
It is up to us to live a new story and create a new history for women of the future. Will we tell a story about men and their sons and their spiteful, bitter wives? Or will we tell a story about wives and mothers who bring their sons back from the wilderness? Hagar and Sarai mothered many princes, tribes and nations. God chose them as well. 

                                                    -          Frederick Goodall (unsigned)

Lindsay, James E. "Sarah And Hagar In Ibn 'Asākir's History Of Damascus." Medieval Encounters 14.1 (2008): 1-14. Academic Search Premier. Web. 1 Jan. 2014.


  1. Very interesting--never knew much about her, but always wondered about the difficulties involved in a polygamous marriage--and of course, will always think of "The Handmaid's Tale" whenever I hear of one of these slave/concubines. (Shudder)