This essay by Ruth Baker won the 2023 Priscilla & Aquila Centre Women’s Writing Award in the 800-1000-word category (award: $1000) and is reproduced with permission.
When I was growing up, there were several women whose grace and power I aspired to emulate: Wonder Woman, the million-dollar woman and Charlie’s Angels. This was the 1970s, and for the first time on TV, I could access powerful, independent women any night of the week. In those days, it was important for girls to see their potential writ large in the absence of seeing ourselves on screen as doctors, lawyers and businesswomen.
Representation is a worthy thing. But Third-wave feminism from the 1990s became about equality and empowerment, evolving from Second-wave feminism, which was about liberation. Representation morphed into iconophilia—not just setting up icons, but loving them.
Icons elevate whole stories and motivations. Emotions and thought processes are projected onto them. They become figureheads for things that are deeply personal to us. The feminist movement has done many great things to support women who cannot help themselves. But in the drive to elevate female status, it has also unnecessarily painted many unconnected things with a feminist hue. The Bible is no exception.1
As biblical women are swept up into feminist iconophilia, exegesis is discarded and motivations and thought processes are projected onto them to align with our personal viewpoints.2 God’s communication is drained of its power, impacting our ability to think theologically about God’s plan and our relationship with him. We are made less like salt of the earth and more like the earth itself. If swept up in the celebrity of iconophilia, we can transmit eisegetical views3 and make others less salty too.
In more formal biblical scholarship, commentaries with a feminist viewpoint put a spin on biblical stories, which obscures—and even obfuscates—biblical truth. Hagar is described as a victim of God’s hostility, and stories such as Hagar’s “display and indict the patriarchal biases of the Bible and its interpreters”.4 Commentators draw attention to Hagar’s triumph, despite her circumstances. God promises blessing to Hagar via her seed, which is a promise that only men receive.5 She chooses a wife for her son Ishmael, an action that is usually the role of the father.6 Professor of Religion Tammi J Schneider makes the distinction that Hagar is not sent away by Abraham, but emancipated.7 This approach places Hagar at the head of a blessed matriarchal clan. She is a rebuke to the patriarchs as she triumphs personally. Using the language of emancipation also casts her in this role as a resistance fighter—a feminist icon and poster child for freedom against oppression.
In real terms, we should not have to interpret Hagar’s story as Paul did it for us in Galatians 4:21-31—albeit figuratively, as Paul says himself. The children of Hagar and Sarah represent those born to slavery under the law (which was partial and provisional) and those born to freedom in Christ Jesus (which is complete and perfect).
Paul is mirroring the Genesis story: Sarah gives Hagar to Abraham to bear a child, which was not the plan God had for the chosen line. Ishmael is, in essence, partial and provisional. He provides Abraham with a son, but only until Sarah’s son Isaac is born. God, via his angel, does bless Hagar through her son, but not with a place where they will live under God’s rule and blessing.8 Again, there are points of comparison, but Hagar’s is the paler version.9
Furthermore, Ishmael was the father of 12 sons, who were 12 tribal rulers in their lands on the Arabian Peninsula between Havilah and Shur near the Egyptian border and who lived in hostility to all the tribes around them (Gen 25:12-18). Twelve sons; twelve tribes; living close to, but not in, God’s promised land:10 Hagar was indeed blessed with many descendants, but that is where the blessing ended.
Schneider argues that Paul’s portrayal leaves no room for Hagar (or the Jews she represents) to be freed other than by faith in Jesus. She likens Hagar’s emancipation to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. This seems to argue that Paul’s view of Hagar is reductive, and excludes the elements of her story that make her a powerful heroine of her own story.11
Undoubtedly Hagar was a real person in real circumstances within her cultural context. The rules of behaviour that governed daily life were the antithesis to ours. These rules and norms seem oppressive and wicked to us—and they may well have been—but we cannot argue that from our view of culturally accepted norms. For example, the taking of a slave as a concubine for the purposes of siring children was known in the ancient world,12 and far from the claim that God is hostile to Hagar, he walks with her in her trials and blesses her through Ishmael, even though hers is not the chosen line.
The problem with iconophilia is that icons are human-made and they represent something that we overlay on them, not necessarily what they communicate. At best, this is a normal human yearning to be validated; at worst, it is our insatiable desire to love icons, being a learned behaviour from the world around us, that becomes our instinct. Either way, we become deaf to what God is saying. Hagar’s story is real, human and emotional, and God is with her throughout as he works events to fulfill his purposes. His purposes were not to provide a figurative tale to enable Paul’s exhortation of the Galatians, although the events do provide a powerful image that illustrates law, faith and election. God’s purposes in the events surrounding Hagar are focused on the coming of his Son who would save the world.
We need to replace interpretation with exegesis, lest it become eisegesis and we read our own experience and hopes into Scripture. We must be guided by Scripture and not iconophilia. Scripture speaks truth. It may not always be pretty or palatable, but it is where God communicates with us. It is essential that we approach his word humbly and openly, otherwise we are reading our own words, rather than God’s.
Except as otherwise noted, Bible quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.
1 The Bible provides stories of “strong, independent, multifaceted and courageous women of the Bible are often left out, misconstrued or forgotten. There are women who took charge of their fate and lives in a society where that was near impossible. These women were the original feminists.” (Charlene Haparimwi, “Women in the Bible were the Original Feminists”, 14 April 2016. https://medium.com/the-coffeelicious/women-in-the-bible-were-the-original-feminists-ddd9e11c2468.)
2 For example, we are told, “Eve is the only one in the Garden of Eden story that actually questions the status quo—or questions anything at all. She also shows no sign of seeing herself as anything other than equal to Adam and as having every right to make her own choices, whatever they may be.” (Emma Cuerto, “9 Of The Most Feminist Women Of The Bible”, 28 October 2015. https://www.bustle.com/articles/118025-9-of-the-most-feminist-women-of-the-bible.)
3 That is, interpreting the Bible by reading into it our own experience and ideas, instead of reading the Bible exegetically or drawing out of Scripture what is there.
4 John L Thompson, “Hagar, Victim or Villain? Three Sixteenth Century Views”, The Catholic Bible Quarterly, Vol. 59, No. 2 (April 1997): 215. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43722938.
5 Tammi J Schneider, Mothers of Promise: Women in the Book of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 115.
6 Ibid 113.
7 Ibid 116, drawing on Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of their Stories (New York: Schocken, 2004).
8 In Genesis 15:5, God speaks directly to Abram and says, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them … So shall your offspringbe.” In Genesis 16:10, the angel of the Lord (rather than the Lord himself) tells Hagar, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” God promises Abram innumerable descendants and a land where God will live with them; Hagar is promised descendants only. So while similar, these blessings are not the same and should not be treated as a mirror image matriarchy under God’s blessing.
9 Abraham himself cries to the Lord, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!”—to which God replies, “Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son …” (Gen 17:18-19). Ishmael is not the chosen line, just as Jacob was chosen over Esau and Judah was chosen over all of his brothers.
10 There are mentions of Ishmaelite sons and Hagrites elsewhere in Scripture —negatively (in 1 Chronicles 5, which details the Israelite victory over them) , and positively (in 1 Chronicles: David’s sister Abigail was married to an Ishmaelite (1 Chron 2:17) and mentioned among David’s overseers (1 Chron 27:30). However, there is no other record of what became of this tribe. (John H Walton, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Genesis, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009; epub Jan 2016 (Kindle Version), ] Location location 3910). The use of the term “Hagrite” could denote a clan nomenclature, based on Hagar, or a sub-set of the Ishmaelite clan based on the fact that the Hagrites are mentioned alongside Jetur, Naphish and Nodab in 1 Chronicles 5:18-20, rather than as a clan that encompasses those tribal leaders.
11 Schneider, Mothers of Promise, 116.
12 John H Walton, Genesis: The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 446, and John H Walton Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Genesis, location 3418-3428.