Text of Terror
In her book, Texts of Terror,* Phyllis Trible compares the story of Hagar in flight from Sarah (Genesis/Breishit chapter 16) and the later incident — in next week’s portion, Va-yera — of her expulsion, with Ishmael, from Abraham’s household (21:9-21). Trible’s close reading of the text contrasts the first episode’s voluntary flight and hospitable wilderness (where there is water, for instance), with the second’s exile and inhospitable wilderness (leaving mother and child with no water). She also describes how Hagar — “belonging to a narrative that rejects her” — recedes from the tale: the recipient of blessing and revelation, in the first episode, Hagar is un-heard while God responds to Ishmael’s tears in the second.
As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in here. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother and child….
…Hagar is a pivotal figure in biblical theology. She is the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits and the only person who dares to name the deity. Within the historical memories of Israel [i.e., post-Flood], she is the first woman to bear a child….the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of not only special but all mothers in Israel.
…she experiences exodus without liberation, revelation without salvation, wilderness without covenant, wanderings without land, promise without fulfillment, and unmerited exile without return.
…All we who are heirs of Sarah and Abraham, by flesh and spirit, must answer for the terror in Hagar’s story. To neglect the theological challenge she presents is to falsify faith.– p.28
Writing 25 years ago, Trible speaks in her introduction of the need to “uphold forgotten texts and reinterpret familiar ones to shape a remnant theology that challenges the sexism of scripture.” This approach, she explained,
interprets stories of outrage on behalf of their female victims in order to recover a neglected history, to remember a past that the present embodies, and to pray tha these terrors shall not come to pass again. In telling sad stories, a feminist hermeneutic seeks to redeem the time. — p.3
Jacob, wrestling with the angel at the Jabbok (Genesis/Breishit 32:22-32), is the model Trible cited for wrestling a blessing from biblical text:
To tell and hear tales of terror is to wrestle demons in the night, without a compassionate God to save us. In combat we wonder about the names of the demons. Our own names, however, we all too frightfully recognize. The fight itself is solitary and intense. We struggle mightily, only to be wounded. But yet we hold on, seeking a blessing: the heaing of wounds and the restoration of health. If the blessing comes — and we dare not claim assurance — it does not come on our terms. Indeed, as we leave the land of terror, we limp.
Over two and a half decades, Trible’s text has been often referenced, and the story of Hagar has been explored — frequently by women — in essay, fiction and poetry. Alicia Ostriker’s poem, “The Opinion of Hagar,” was published in 1990 in Tikkun, e.g. (and reprinted in Nakedness of the Fathers* in 1994). Carolivia Herron’s fiction-midrash, Chamisa appeared in the 1997 high holiday compilation, Beginning Anew.* R. Michal Shekel discussed Hagar in her dvar Torah in The Women’s Torah Commentary (2000).* More recently, Trible co-edited Hagar, Sarah and their Children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim perspectives (previewed at GoogleBooks).
*For full citations, please see Source Materials.
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