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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1059: You will have “nobody in the wide world to look to but God”

Day 1059: Wednesday, February 8, 2023

You will have “nobody in the wide world to look to but God”

Reading the Bible with Black Women

In the biblical story of Hagar, womanist theologian Delores Williams (1937–2022) finds affirmation and support for the experiences of Black women.

Hagar, the Egyptian slave and handmaid who lives with Abraham and Sarah, is one of the Abrahamic traditions’ primary women. She is the mother of Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael, and, through him, the matriarch of multiple Arab tribes, revered by Islam and acknowledged by Hebrew and Christian traditions (Gen 25:13-15). More strikingly, Gen 16:7-14 portrays her as a woman who knows the Hebrew God personally.

In Gen 16, Hagar becomes an important component in Abraham and Sarah’s desperate need for a child.

She is Abraham’s concubine (a common family arrangement in the ancient Near East) and yet they fail to see Hagar as a whole person, never calling her by name. She is an object to be used as a surrogate for the child Sarah is unable to conceive. Sarah treats her “harshly” (Gen 16:6) and Hagar flees from this abuse to the wilderness.

An angel of God calls Hagar by name in direct opposition to her previous experiences (Gen 16:8). The verse continues, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” The questions aren’t just about her situation at that moment. They reflect her past and her future. Hagar answers truthfully but not completely. She states where she has come from but does not say where she is going. By focusing only on the past, Hagar confesses that she envisions no future.

The angel’s command to “return and submit” (Gen 16:9) reverses Hagar’s flight. To some this command is insensitive and oppressive. The verses that follow, however, display God’s focus on Hagar’s future. She won’t return defenseless or with the same status. She will return with strong promises received directly and personally from God.

Hagar, not a man, husband, or patriarch, also receives a covenant blessing (Gen 16:10).

She is one of four people to hear the covenant directly from God. Unlike Abraham’s more general promises in Gen 12 and Gen 15, the promise to Hagar has details supplied in Gen 16:11— the first full birth annunciation. To further solidify this event, the angel also tells Hagar, “Behold, you are pregnant.” Statements like this usually refer to future pregnancies, not a present condition. Here, scholars often shift the focus of their commentaries from Hagar to her son. However, the meaning of the name Ishmael (“God hears”) forces the focus back to Hagar—“God has heard of your afflictions”—meaning Hagar’s situation. Gen 16:12 describes Ishmael as a “wild ass of a man,” the connotation being that he’ll live an unfettered life worthy of his defiant mother.

The dialogue that began with a command to return and submit concludes with the disclosure of the identity of Ishmael, whose name acknowledges the cruelty Hagar has endured and provides a prophecy for mother and son that is anything but meek and dutiful.

Gen 16:13 is an extraordinary moment in Scripture. The narrator introduces Hagar’s words with a striking expression afforded no one else: Hagar calls the name of the Lord who spoke to her. By literally calling God “He sees me” (El roi), Hagar testifies to her personal experience. There is no standard translation for the remaining section of Gen 16:13. Though the text is difficult, it must be stressed that the sentence references a mutual seeing for both God and Hagar.

The effect of claiming to have been seen by God is Hagar’s way of asserting her personhood and a relationship with God that even Sarah doesn’t have.

When Hagar is removed physically from those who control every aspect of her life, a personal identity and relationship materializes. As a socially marginalized woman, her most intimate relationship, it turns out, is with God.

Although many themes in African-American women’s history correspond with many themes in Hagar’s story in the Bible, nothing links the … women together more securely than their religious experiences in the wilderness [see Genesis 21]…. Many African-American slave women have left behind autobiographies telling how they would slip away to the wilderness or to “the hay-stacks, where the presence of the Lord overshadowed” them. [1] Some of them governed their lives according to their mothers’ counsel that they would have “nobody in the wide world to look to but God” [2]—as Hagar in the final stages of her story had only God to look to….

For many black Christian women today, “wilderness” or “wilderness experience” is a symbolic term used to represent a near-destruction situation in which God gives personal direction to the believer and thereby helps her make a way out of what she thought was no way.

I recently encountered black women’s symbolic sense of wilderness when I lectured at Howard Divinity School in 1992. Arriving earlier than my lecture was scheduled, I went to one of the workshops attended almost exclusively by black female ministers…. [One] woman began to tell about her experience in her last parish…. Her ministry was about to be destroyed, she said. But she, alone, “took her situation to God as she fasted and prayed.” Finally God “came to her,” giving her direction. This was a positive turning point and her ministry survived to become one of the most outstanding in the district. Other women around the table in the workshop began to share what they termed their wilderness experiences in ministry.

Williams points to the similarities of suffering and faith that Black women share with Hagar:

In the biblical story Hagar’s wilderness experience happened in a desolate and lonely wilderness where she—pregnant, fleeing from the brutality of her slave owner, Sarai, and without protection—had religious experiences that helped her and her child survive when survival seemed doomed.

For both Hagar and the African-American women, the wilderness experience meant standing utterly alone, in the midst of serious trouble, with only God’s support to rely upon.

As a result of these hard-time experiences and the encounters with God, Hagar and many African-American women manifested a risk-taking faith.… Many African-American women (slave and free) have taken serious risks in the black community’s liberation struggle. For example, in the midst of the violence and brutality that accompanied slavery in America, Harriet Tubman, with a price on her head, dared to liberate over three hundred slaves.… She is said to have relied solely upon God for help and strength; she had no one else to look to.

Thus we can speak of Hagar and many African-American women as sisters in the wilderness struggling for life, and by the help of their God coming to terms with situations that have destructive potential.

[1] Elizabeth, Memoir of Old Elizabeth, a Coloured Woman (Philadelphia: Collins, 1863), 7. See Six Women’s Slave Narratives, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).

[2] Elizabeth, Memoir, 4.

Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993, 2013), 96–97.

Announcement: Tomorrow afternoon in Sonoma: Justice for Workers

We would like as many people as possible to participate in the Vigil for Justice Thursday, February 9th, 5:30 pm - 6:30 pm to support workers at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn who are organizing to join UNITE HERE Local 2.

About Parking:

1) Please don't park in the Fairmont employee parking lot across from the Barking Dog/Sonoma Eats restaurant at Boyes Blvd/Highway 12 (18133 Highway 12).

2) A block north of the Fairmont, there is a public parking lot next to Parsons Hardware (which is also overflow parking for El Molino Central restaurant).

3) South of the Fairmont, about two blocks there is a large public parking lot across from La Michoacana Natural Ice Cream (18495 Highway 12 and Thomsen)

4) We highly recommend the above two public parking lots. There is a parking lot immediately across from the Fairmont next to the post office

but our experience is that even at night, there is limited parking as this lot is used by community members and those dining at local restaurants.

We will gather on the sidewalk on either side of the Fairmont 100 Boyes Blvd entrance. You will be provided candles and asked to sign-in so we can contact participants for future actions.

Please post and forward as appropriate.

Marty Bennett



Non-Violence Calendar of 64 Days

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