Discover more from Once A Week
Does God Authorize Abuse?
Some Notes on Hagar’s Experience in Genesis 16
CW: This is a bonus Thesis 96 post, something I wrote a few years back in my teaching series through Genesis. In light of some recent online discussion about the nature of David’s sexual encounter with Bathsheba (appropriately termed rape/sexual assault) as well as confusion over biblical accountability for abusive husbands, I thought I’d share this study of Genesis 16. Careful reading of Scripture helps us avoid harmful interpretations.
There are many difficult and painful stories of sexual abuse in the Bible. One such story comes from Genesis 16 with Sarai and Abram’s exploitation of Hagar, their Egyptian servant. It is a story that deserves careful reading to guard us from dangerous conclusions. To quickly avoid that, we can use the rule of faith – scripture interpreting scripture – and argue that because God is good, everything he does is good (Psalm 119:68), and therefore Genesis 16:9 cannot mean that God condones Hagar returning to an abusive situation. But before turning to other books of the Bible, it would be better for us to look for an explanation in this story itself.
First, the dynamics of abuse are obvious:
Hagar is treated as a baby-making machine, an object to be used for another’s desire and agenda;
Sarai and Abram never refer to Hagar by name (but the angel of the Lord does);
they (implicitly) justify and rationalize their actions based on prevailing cultural custom;
Abram completely ignores his duty to intervene and prevent further abuse; and
when they are done using Hagar, Sarai “dealt harshly with her”, the same word used in the book of Exodus for the Egyptian’s abusive affliction of the Israelites (1:11, 3:7, 3:17, 4:31).
That God’s people – for such were Abram and Sarai – stoop to such dehumanizing behavior is shocking. Yet we see this throughout Scripture, which thankfully explains the reason: “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”, and “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 6:5; 8:21).
What is more shocking, perhaps, is that when the angel of the Lord graciously meets Hagar in the wilderness, he immediately commands her to return to Sarai “and submit to her” (Genesis 16:9). This is a question that a male perspective might easily overlook. Indeed, in reading ancient commentators such as Josephus or Augustine, Hagar is often given unsympathetic attention. While one of those was not a Christian, and one of them was a profound Christian, we can see unfortunate traces of the curse for sin from Genesis 3:16 that “he [the man] shall rule over you.” Let us then be wary of incomplete readings of Scripture and consider what is meant and not meant by God commanding Hagar to submit to Sarai.
I see the following observations as pointing to a biblical and theological rationale for understanding God’s command to Hagar to submit to Sarai as an act, not of oppression, but of grace.
First, the entire encounter between Hagar and the angel of the Lord (whom Hagar later identifies as none other than God himself) is one of grace. Although Hagar suffered abuse, she was herself a sinner and culpable for her prideful contempt of Sarai (16:4). However, God does not rebuke or correct Hagar. I don’t take this to mean Hagar had done no wrong. It also doesn’t mean that Hagar deserved the abuse, something one unfortunately finds in the history of interpretation of this story.1 Rather, God overlooked her sin in mercy.
Second, God gives Hagar’s son a name, Ishmael, which will continually remind her (as well as Abram and Sarai) of God’s gracious intervention: “God hears”, and listens to the cry of the afflicted. This is especially significant in light of the fact that Hagar, as far as the text indicates, did not pray for God’s help. The gracious intervention of God is entirely sovereign.
Third, God’s promise to Hagar of a prosperous family line through Ishmael is fundamentally rooted in God’s covenant promises to Abram back in Genesis 12. Although Ishmael is not the child of promise, and is even later used allegorically by the apostle Paul as representative of fleshly, unredeemed Israel (Galatians 4:21-31), nevertheless God graciously honors Hagar and her offspring on account of his commitment to bless the offspring of Abraham.
Fourth, the words of Hagar herself in 16:13 show that she had a real encounter with the living God and was radically changed through it. We know nothing of her relation to the God of Abram prior to this episode, but now it is clear that she believes in Him, believes Him to be true and good, and believes Him to be worthy of her obedience.
Fifth, Hagar’s faith is further evidenced in her relating her experience and God’s promise to Abram. For although God commanded Hagar to name Ishmael, Abram is actually the one to assign his name (Genesis 16:15). This implies that Hagar believed the promise and, in believing, had hope in God’s goodness, and so shared her hope with Abram.
Sixth, the fact that Abram appropriated the promise related through Hagar and obeyed God in naming Ishmael shows that Abram learned the lesson first given to Hagar: God hears and sees those in need. The inference — and inference is always required of attentive readers of Hebrew narrative — is that Abram changed his perception and treatment of Hagar. In his eyes she was no longer an object, no longer a nameless face to be ignored and passed over. Rather, she was one who, like Abram himself, had received a transforming revelation from YHWH. I believe this points to a change in Abram’s family dynamics. Although far from perfect (especially in light of Genesis 21, see below), it is possible, and I believe probable, that Abram finally started acting like the man he should have from the start: showing honor and respect to Hagar as a woman made in the image of God and as a recipient of divine revelation.
Seventh and finally, we can look to the only other Hagar episode in Genesis 21 and see that God always intended to take care of Hagar. Although God does command Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, he does not allow Abraham to “drive her out” as demanded by Sarah. Instead, Abraham sends her with provisions, and then when Hagar is at the edge of despair, God once again steps in and saves her and her son (Genesis 21:15-21).
Do these points resolve all of the tension? I admit they do not. But in light of errant teaching in the church on the supposed right of husbands to abuse their wives, we need to be Christians who rightly handle word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
Rightly handled, we see in God’s Word that submission and abuse do not go together. God never authorizes abuse.
Thanks for reading this extra edition of Thesis 96! Click the button below to share this with a friend, and stay tuned for Theology & Therapy this Friday.
Once A Week is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
For example, Chrysostom: “ "Sarah maltreated her," the text goes on, "and she fled from her presence." That is to say, probably because she punished her insolence, the maidservant took to flight. That is the way with servants, after all: whenever they are not permitted to have their own way but rather their efforts at independence are thwarted, immediately they throw off the yoke of their masters and take to flight.” (Homily 38.16)