Women who have told their #MeToo stories in Christianity Today, The Washington Post and The Christian Century reveal the way church leadership can be a hiding place for abusers. The #ChurchToo hashtag on Twitter last month provided a place for women to speak out about abuse in the church. This month, a group of 150 prominent church leaders are promoting #SilenceIsNotSpiritual to take a global stand for women everywhere.
The question regarding how we change church culture echoes in the minds and Twitter feeds of Christian women and sympathetic men. Listening anew to the women of the Bible is one place to begin.
Christians often have male-centered ways of reading the Bible that ignore women’s voices. For example, we read the stories about Abraham, Sarah and Hagar and only see or talk about Abraham. So I’d like to take a closer look at Sarah’s and Hagar’s experiences. The first glance at them is to see their importance in the big picture of the Biblical story. The second view of them is through the 21st century lens of #MeToo.
Sarah, Mother of Israel
El Shaddai appears in Genesis as the one who fulfills Her promises of bearing children. Yet, El Shaddai could not (or would not) create the Israelite nation without Sarah. Hence, when Yahweh appears to Abraham as three men seeking hospitality, they ask first where Sarah is (18:9). They reveal their mission, to announce the elderly Sarah’s pregnancy by the power of Yahweh, stating with one voice, “I will surely return to you at this time next year and Sarah your wife will have a son” (18:10).
Adam Kirsch, author of The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature, writes that the Exodus is “the founding miracle, without which nothing else makes sense” (p. 12). Though this is true in a way, this statement overlooks the Bible’s women. Going further back, it is actually the incarnation of the Jewish people within the ancient womb of Sarah that is the founding miracle, without which neither Judaism nor Christianity would exist. And for Christians, it establishes the pattern for Elizabeth’s and Mary’s miraculous conceptions of John and Jesus.
Scholar Craig Keener shares my observation that Sarai also foreshadows the oppressed Israelites in Egypt. Both they and Sarai sought refuge from famine in Egypt and found themselves enslaved/captured, and mistreated. God sent illnesses to Pharaoh to free Sarai and then later sent plagues to free her progeny.
Lastly, in reading with #MeToo glasses, I saw that Sarai experienced abuse, first by Abram and then by Pharaoh.
Taking Off Patriarchal Lenses to See Better
Though Abram/Abraham is known for his faith in God, which was attributed to him as righteousness, his actual moral rectitude was often lacking. That was true in Genesis 12, when Abram and Sarai arrived in Egypt seeking food. Abram let fear drive him past his love for Sarai.
All he could think of was danger, that he would be killed by the Pharaoh and they would take Sarai because she was beautiful. So he set up a situation in which he, but not she, would stay safe. He told her to pretend to be his sister. Because of that, “she was taken into [Pharaoh’s] palace” (Gen. 12:15). Abram, however, “was treated well for her sake,” and that’s when he began to acquire the great riches mentioned in Genesis 13:2–he’d “become very wealthy in livestock and in silver and gold.”
I think we’ve all thought Abram was a lout in this situation. But perhaps we’ve not realized that Sarai speaks from the pages of the Bible to the 21st century, saying “Me too.” The Pharaoh of Egypt power-raped Sarai. She was a married woman in a strange place, forced into sex with the ruler of that country. Does that sound like an unfamiliar reading of Sarai’s situation? It is, but I think it reflects her experience best.
We usually read stories like Sarai’s with patriarchal, sexist lenses. Like with Bathsheba and David, we tend to assume that every woman, married or single, welcomes the overtures of a powerful male. That they will even throw themselves at such men. And so we look at these power-rapes as unsurprising and minor affronts, nothing to speak of, nothing to expose. The Great Man can do no wrong to a woman of lesser status, especially if she does not already “belong” to another man. Or even if she does, like Sarai.
But is that what God thinks? No. And it’s evident in God’s efforts in both the first and second parts of Sarai’s #metoo story.
“Not again” says El Shaddai to Abraham
The first time Abram tried to pass Sarai off as his sister, God sent diseases to Pharaoh and his household to get his attention. It worked, but too late. That’s a part of what we struggle with as we try to heal from abuse–God’s seeming impotence when we face evil. But this story does show us God’s heart: She wants us safe, even though She is self-limited by the choices of humans.
According to the writers of Genesis 20, Abraham tried the “this is my sister” trick once more when they moved to a place called Gerar. Abimelech, who ruled Gerar, sent for Sarah to become part of his harem. (In Gen. 17:15-16, El Shaddai gave Sarai a new name, Sarah, because “kings would come from her.” This was a reversal of power where the kings depended on her, coming in the form of helpless babies, rather than powerfully pursuing her to use her as an object). For Sarah, Abraham’s and Abimelech’s choices meant power-rape was coming.
This time, we see both God’s heart and Her power. Yahweh sends a dream to Abimelech, and says, “You will die because of this woman you took. She is married” (20:3). Abimelech “had not yet slept with Sarah” (20:4).
It’s Not All About You, Abe
The conversation that Abimelech initiates with Yahweh during this dream is about Abimelech’s clear conscience. The one that Abimelech later pursues with Abraham is about Abraham’s guilt and his defense of his actions. This dynamic continues to occur in the church, where men believe that sexual sin mars their moral purity, but don’t think much about how it affects the women and children.
For example, see any number of posts about theologian Karl Barth living with both his wife and lover in the same house for 39 years. The various male writers discuss the inevitability of personal sin. They talk about how we shouldn’t throw out a Great Man’s theology because of it. But rarely do they name sexism, narcissism or the Great Man syndrome as factors in such “personal sins” or think from the perspective of the Great Man’s victims.
Nonetheless, we can be sure that El Shaddai’s mother-heart was about protecting Sarah, and not so much about scavenging the men’s moral purity.
El Shaddai, the Breasted One, reveals this new name in Genesis 17:1, right after still-Sarai arranges for heirs through Hagar. El Shaddai’s revelation seems like Her attempt to help Sarai and Abram trust Her more, instead of trying to make God fulfill Her promises on their more immediate terms. And I think it is also God’s way of identifying with Her image reflected in women, including rejected women like Hagar.
Craig Keener points out that Sarai likely acquired Hagar during her own victimization in Egypt. And this is one sad truth about feeling powerless due to sexism, racism or abuse. Sometimes, like Sarah, “hurt people hurt people” to feel in control. Sarah would act like both the Pharaoh in Egypt and her husband by 1) seeing Hagar as property and not as a valuable person and 2) giving her to Abram to be used sexually for Sarai and Abram’s own purposes.
Abram goes along with Sarai’s decision to give Hagar to him as a concubine to produce children (16:4), despite God having just promised him many descendants in three different stunning visions (15:1-5; 15:12-16; 15:17-20). Abram’s initial belief in El Shaddai was credited to him as righteousness (Gen. 15:6), but that belief proved rather shallow and short-lived when it came down to the offer of Hagar by his wife in the next chapter.
Hagar’s El Roi
Yahweh protects and blesses Hagar, however. After Sarai mistreats pregnant Hagar out of jealousy, the angel of Yahweh follows her when she runs away in the desert. The angel blesses her with a promise of fruitfulness almost identical to the way God spoke to Abram (15:5; 16:10).
Hagar and the unborn Ishmael are no second-string, no mistake, no off-casts. In fact, Hagar feels that God sees her own situation and needs in such an intimate way that she feels free to re-name God as El Roi, meaning “You are the God who sees me” (16:13). No more of the invisibility that comes with having been born in another country and being a slave. No more of the powerlessness that comes of being given to a man you never chose, to be used sexually and pro-creatively. Hagar was to become the mother of many, like Sarah (17:16; 21:13, 18).
Yet Sarah has Abraham send her away again. Ishmael is older now and playing with the newly weaned Isaac. Observing this, Sarah says, “..that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (Gen. 21:10). On the contrary, Sarah had to share everything with Hagar now: her husband’s care and Yahweh’s promise of great fruitfulness. She was not the only mother of nations.
And, one more time, the angel of Yahweh saves Ishmael and Hagar in the desert when Abraham sends them away. This time it is Hagar who sees, as a well of water appears suddenly to quench her son’s thirst.
Like Sarah, Hagar also comes to represent the Exodus journey of their descendants. Yahweh’s rescue of Ishmael and Hagar in the desert would extend to the people of Israel, when the newly freed, frightened Israelites would wander, thirsty, and miraculously find bitter water sweetened (Ex. 15:25, 26).
The God Who Sees You
All this is not to say God loved Sarah less than Hagar. El Shaddai saw them both: saw the abuse they endured; loved them both; blessed them both with children and ancestors. It’s just that God saw Hagar and loved her when no one else did.
Hannah’s and Mary’s songs remind us that it is the poor and powerless, the victims of racism, sexism and abuse, that God most loves to lift up. Hannah, in I Samuel 2, sings,
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the beggar from the ash heap, to set them among princes and make them inherit the throne of glory.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Hagar’s life speaks this truth first.
She Sees You, Too
Both Sarah and Hagar experienced abuse, but even in the pages of a patriarchal time, it is clear that God cared for them and wanted to heal them of their traumatic experiences. She is truly The One Who Sees Us, and hears our whispered “me too.”