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Just a Sister AwayUnderstanding the Timeless Connection Between Women of Today and Women the Bible
By Renita J. Weems
Warner BooksCopyright © 2005 Renita J. Weems
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA MISTRESS, A MAID, AND NO MERCY
(HAGAR AND SARAH)
Read: Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:1-21
FOR BLACK WOMEN, the story of Hagar in the Old Testament book of Genesis is a haunting one. It is a story of exploitation and persecution suffered by an Egyptian slave woman at the hands of her Hebrew mistress. Even if it is not our individual story, it is a story we have read in our mothers' eyes those afternoons when we greeted them at the front door after hard days of work as domestics. And if not our mothers' story, then it is certainly most of our grandmothers' story.
For black women, Hagar's story is peculiarly familiar. It is as if we know it by heart.
The easiest thing in the world would be to make a case out of, and concentrate on, the ethnic differences that separate Hagar and Sarai-differences that today would manifest themselves between an African woman and a Hebrew woman, a woman of color and a white woman, a Third World woman and a First World woman. But it would not be totally fair to make the Old Testament story of Hagar and Sarai carry all the weight of the history of race relationship in the modernworld. Yet the similarities between the biblical story and the reality of the relationship across racial lines among women today are undeniable. Like our own situation, the story of the Egyptian Hagar and the Hebrew Sarai encompasses more than ethnic prejudice. Theirs is a story of ethnic prejudice exacerbated by economic and sexual exploitation. Theirs is a story of conflict, women betraying women, mothers conspiring against mothers. Theirs is a story of social rivalry.
Hence, the similarity of our stories, as black and white women in America, to the story of Hagar and Sarai warrants taking the enormous risk of opening up the deep festering wounds between us and beginning to explore our possibilities for divine healing.
The biblical story opens with the spotlight on Abram's barren wife, Sarai (16:1). The first thing we come to know about Sarai, other than her status as Abram's wife, is the stark fact of her barrenness. In ancient times a woman's self-worth and social status pivoted around her family-namely, the reputation of her husband and, more important, the number of children she bore, preferably males. Therefore, the first verse of the chapter is especially significant; in the one line Sarai's honor rises and falls: "Now, Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children" (16:1).
As the wife of Abram, who was a socially prominent and successful herdsman, Sarai was a wealthy woman in her community. As wife of the nation's patriarch, she was a woman of immense social and economic standing. But Sarai was barren. And in the culture in which Sarai lived, a woman's womb controlled her destiny.
In a world lacking the technological skills that we in the Western world take for granted; in a world where entire families, communities, and nations could be wiped out by famine, drought, plague, and pestilence without warning; in a world where the average life span of men was forty years and women, thirty years; in such a world, the ability to reproduce and replenish the population was held in high esteem. Thus, despite her marriage to Abram and all social and economic privileges that came with such a union, Sarai's barrenness made her a woman to be scorned.
As is the case with most wealthy women, Sarai possessed a handmaiden. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, attended to the personal and domestic needs of her Hebrew mistress. While her mistress was old and had no hope of ever conceiving a child, Hagar was young and fertile. But Hagar was poor. In fact, she was worse than poor: she was a slave. And because she was a slave, Hagar was powerless. The difference between the two women, therefore, went beyond their ethnic identities, beyond their reproductive capabilities. Their disparities were centered in their contrasting economic positions. And economic differences have, on more than one occasion, thwarted coalition and frustrated friendship among women.
With the scant information contained in the first verse alone, we have all the clues we need to know that this story will probably end in sadness.
Sarai, the barren but wealthy mistress, appealed to her husband, Abram, to go in and have intercourse with her fertile but poor handmaiden, Hagar. The child born to that union would become Sarai's.
Sarai had social standing, as Abram's wife, but she had no respect. She had material abundance, but she was not comforted. She was beautiful, but she was barren, childless, less than a woman in the eyes of her Hebrew community. That which Sarai craved most, her husband's money could not buy her. Only her slave's womb could give it to her. And according to custom, because Hagar was Sarai's property (through Abram, of course), any children Hagar bore would legally belong to Sarai, Sarai set out to obtain her slave.
Notice: The slave Hagar was never asked her opinion.
Without so much as a murmur of protest, Abram complied. Hagar conceived.
To our modern way of thinking, Sarai's act of giving Hagar to her husband, Abram, as a concubine is nothing less than reprehensible. We are offended not only because of our moral and legal customs concerning monogamy and fidelity, we are also offended because of the seeming presumptuousness of it all. The nerve of Sarai exploiting Hagar's body, manipulating Abram, speaking of God!
Yet we must lay aside our cultural biases long enough to consider that Sarai was not the only woman in scripture to convince her husband to get children with another woman. Rachel, too, persuaded her husband, Jacob, to enter into sexual relations with her maid, Bilhah (30:1-24). Not only was concubinage an acceptable custom in this part of the world, it wasn't unusual for a husband to go to a concubine with his wife's blessing. At least for barren women, concubinage functioned in a critical way to provide a (male) heir for the patriarch's land and property holdings. After a patriarch's death, his wives and unmarried daughters automatically became the responsibility of his son to care for.
Providing an heir for her husband's immense property, however, was not Sarai's sole concern. Sarai (as did Rachel, no doubt) had her own reasons for offering her slave to Abram. "Perhaps I will be esteemed through her," she says in 16:2. Through her slave's womb, Sarai sought esteem and honor for herself. However, the tables turned on Sarai: "But when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress's honor was lowered in her eyes" (16:4).
Instead of esteem, Sarai met with contempt in Hagar's eyes. Instead of respect, Sarai was ridiculed. And by her maid, no less!
Whether Hagar's contempt for Sarai was real or imagined on Sarai's part, we can only guess. (After all, the story is told more from Sarai's point of view than Hagar's.) But one thing is certain: Hagar's elevation as Abram's pregnant concubine must have served only to point up Sarai's downfall as the wife who couldn't bear him any children.
As the woman carrying the child of the patriarch of Israel and a respected landowner, the status of the pregnant slave woman in the house of her mistress and master required renegotiation. Before, Hagar had been a defenseless slave. Now, as the pregnant concubine of the prosperous but old Abram, Hagar was protected. She ceased to be Sarai's slave and became Abram's wife.
Perhaps the pregnancy awakened something in the slave woman, something that previously lay dormant.
Perhaps it was Hagar's sense of self-worth.
Perhaps it was her sense of purpose and direction.
Or perhaps, it was the prospect of being loved unconditionally by her child. (Pregnancy has had that effect on more than one woman.)
Whatever the reason, Hagar could no longer see Sarai and her relationship to her mistress in the same way as before, for Hagar was able to give Abram something his wife, Sarai, could not. Consequently, Hagar transformed before her mistress's eyes. Her attitude about herself changed as well. The child growing inside her was proof that she was more than a slave: she was a woman.
Resentful and enraged, Sarai renounced her part in the whole humiliating affair (16:5). She blamed Abram. He, in turn, renounced his authority, role, and interest in the irksome situation and sent Hagar back into the hands of Sarai to be done with as she saw fit. Thus, as quickly as Hagar had been elevated to the position of wife in her mistress's house, she was reduced back to the position of the slave. She, who had been to Abram as a wife through a transfer of power, once again became property-again, without her permission.
Once Sarai's authority over the pregnant slave woman was restored, the barren wife set out to punish the slave woman for humiliating her; she retaliated against Hagar. We can only imagine the tensions that erupted between the two women: Sarai's sense of jealousy and humiliation and Hagar's feeling of betrayal and resentment. As the chief wife in the compound, however, Sarai was the woman with the power, the power to insult her Egyptian handmaiden and to inflict pain on her.
If as a North American black woman I appear, to some, to be reading too much of my own people's brutal history into the biblical story, let it be pointed out that whatever the nature of the punishment Sarai imposed, it was evidently harsh enough to convince the slave woman to run away. What would make an Egyptian slave woman, thousands of miles away from home, choose the harsh, unknown dangers of the wilderness over her pallet in her mistress's tent?
The story of the Egyptian slave and her Hebrew mistress is hauntingly reminiscent of the disturbing accounts of the black slave woman and the white mistress during slavery. Over and over again we have heard tales about the wanton and brutal rape of black women by their white slave masters, compounded by punitive beatings by resentful white wives who penalized the raped slave women for their husbands' lust and savagery.
There are also the pitiful stories of slave women who willingly conceded to their slave masters' sexual advances: first, as a way of protecting their husbands, children, and loved ones from being beaten; second, as a way to keep themselves and those close to them from being sold away; or, third, as the only way of elevating their social rank in order to protect themselves from vicious overseers and mistresses. The painful memory of black and white women under slavery and the web of cruelty that characterized their relations continue to stalk the relationship between black and white women in America. One hundred fifty years outside of slavery is not long enough to abolish the memories and attitudes that slavery has left on our psyches. Unless a miracle occurs, it is sad to say that it will probably take another 150 years to erase the pain and antagonism bred from 250 years of the cruelest brutality one race could inflict upon another-brutality and servitude imposed particularly in the name of God. For complex reasons of their own, memories of slave and slave mistress relations have proven especially hard for black and white women in America to erase from their cultural psyches.
Resentment and distrust linger. For black women in America, there remains the fear that white women, if given the slightest opportunity, will betray their trust and exploit their vulnerability as radically and sexually oppressed women. And with good cause. In many instances, modern history, too, has borne out these suspicions.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, suffragettes, who began their social activism as ardent opponents of slavery and racial prejudice, eventually used racism to secure their right to vote. They pandered to the racist attitudes of white southerners who ardently opposed black enfranchisement, and they extolled the supremacy of white women over black men (and black women).
More recently, white women within the feminist and Christian circles continue to speak as though theirs is the universal experience. In doing so, they betray their persistent belief in their superiority and sovereignty over women of other races.
An odious memory comes to mind, one that, I admit, continues to grieve me. I was invited by a group of white Christian women to join them in planning an upcoming national symposium. Because their stated objective was to see that that symposium, unlike previous ones, was multiethnic, they were eager to solicit the input of black women to their otherwise all-white board. At first when asked, I flatly declined. Admittedly, I am immediately suspicious of requests for my services primarily because I am black, and, when I can help it, I try to avoid being the only black in otherwise all-white settings. Both, as I see it, portend danger. However, after much persuasion and insistence that this group's intentions were sincere, I consented.
At the first meeting, everyone was very enthusiastic and solicitous of the other black woman and me. In fact, our suggestion for the theme of the conference was accepted unanimously. The next time the group convened, however, it was a closed session-without either of us having been invited. The group met and never bothered to tell either of its black Christian sisters. For days I walked around hurt and enraged. Again and again, I berated myself for betraying my instinct and allowing myself to be used once again by white women. Every time I saw the announcements for the upcoming symposium with the title I had suggested, I wanted to scream.
But, as I said before, the story of Hagar and Sarai is about more than ethnic prejudice. It is not fair to make the Genesis story carry all the weight of race relations between black women and white women in North America.
In the first place, owning slaves was not unique to ancient Hebrew culture. It was a common practice throughout the ancient world. Later, in the book of Exodus, we discover that the hands of power reversed: Hebrew women became slaves in the hands of Egyptian women. (It would become the responsibility of an Egyptian princess to come to the rescue of a Hebrew slave woman.) In other words, no race or culture has a monopoly on evil. At some point in its history, virtually every culture has, if not instituted slavery, profited from the bartering of human flesh.
In the second place, the story of Hagar and Sarai is about the economic stratification of women as much as it is about the ethnic discrimination of one woman against another. Translated into today's language, Hagar was a domestic; Sarai was her employer.
Certainly there is nothing inherently ignoble about being a maid, or anything inherently honorable about being an employer of a maid. Neither needs to apologize or boast. Circumstances and lifestyles have a lot to say about the choices we make. Women who have been in the position to do so have sought to help the other women in maintaining the physical upkeep of their households. Women who have had to do so have long hired themselves out for the one line of work many have known since childhood. The problem is with the attitudes that too often accompany the choices.
Within a capitalistic society such as our own, disparate economic relationships among women can distort perspectives of reality. Among the "haves" it breeds a false sense of superiority. Among the "have-nots" it breeds an irrepressible sense of inferiority. Wherever human worth and dignity are measured by purchasing power, there is always the problem of class prejudice.
In the instance of Hagar and Sarai, the owner took advantage of her economic leverage over the Egyptian slave woman. She exploited the slave woman's body for her own personal ambitions. But in trying to provide a son for her husband and secure respect herself, Sarai almost lost a slave. And that would never do.
When she saw that her scheme had backfired, Sarai tried to save face and regain her (false sense of) superiority over Hagar. She tried to humiliate the slave woman and thereby remind Hagar that it was she, Sarai, who had power-not Hagar. In doing so, Sarai grasped desperately for the little power her husband had restored to her hands, even if that power extended only to a slave.
Excerpted from Just a Sister Away by Renita J. Weems Copyright ©2005 by Renita J. Weems. Excerpted by permission.
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