Hagar, Sarah, and their Children

Bassam Chedid

Another subtitle should be added to this book, thus reading: Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Feminist Perspective. The seven women writers--Jewish, Christian and Muslim seek to focus on Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac. In the preface, the editors make it clear that their approach is exclusively feminist, moving away from traditional interpretations to more contemporary appropriations of the Biblical narrative. By charging the traditional interpretation as "deficiency befits the patriarchal milieus," the writers seek to fill this assumed gap by reconstructing the Biblical narratives in the light of modern day feminist theology.

The book falls into three parts (7 chapters). Two chapters (part one) discuss Hagar and Sarah in Genesis and Galatians. Three Chapters (part two) trace the story of Hagar and Sarah in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. Finally, two chapters (part three) focus on the contemporary context by rethinking the relationship between Judaism, Christianity and Islam in connection with Hagar, Sarah and their children. This in their assessment provides us with a new vision for interfaith relations.

While this reviewer has a numerous reservations about this book, I welcome its subject since there is a paucity of substantive scholarship about Hagar and her largely misunderstood son Ishmael. It is helpful however, to look a little closer,very briefly, at each chapter and provide a comment or two.

In their introductory chapter, the editors give a readable and helpful survey of the subject matter in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by tracing their scriptural, historical and traditional developments with some description on the similarities and differences. Main foci include the Biblical story of the family of Abraham.

One of the liabilities in this chapter, however, is that certain defects could not go unnoticed. For example, while the editors were sympathetic with the Quranic depiction of the story of Abraham, they, on the other hand charge the New Testament (renamed as "The Second Testament") as promoting disunity and disparity within the family of Abraham, because it maintains that the "true" descendants of Abraham must embrace Jesus Christ. It is unfortunate to read such comments by the editors who forget, either intentionally or unintentionally, that it is this same New Testament that says of true believers: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:29).

As well in this chapter, Muhammad is depicted as a tolerant prophet toward Jews and Christians. This shows the writer's lack of historical reading. One of the most known treatments of the Jews by Muhammad is the massacre of Banu-Kuraida. When the Jews of the tribe of Kuraida opposed Islam, this provoked Muhammad's wrath. Islamic sources such as History of Islam by Hassan Ibrahim Hassan (Cairo, 1996) tells us that the forces of Muhammad were able to "encircle the tribe of Banu-Kuraida for over twenty five days until they surrendered. Consequently, the men of Banu-Kuraida were brought out in groups and their necks were struck."

Another defect is found in their incomplete narration which becomes more than a little frustrating for the reader. The writer claims that Islamic tolerance is praised during their rule in Spain. How this can be true if Spain was conquered by the rules of Jihad where the Christians and Jews were forced to pay "Jizya" (heavy taxes), governed by Islamic Shariah and legislation, and forced to convert to Islam or submit as minority "dhimmi" (protected under treaty of submission)?

Another vexing tendency is the author's inclination to give only half of the true picture. Thomas Aquinas is quoted as approving the philosophy of Averroes, the twelfth century Muslim philosopher. It is true that his work was cited many times by Aquinas. However, contrary to Averroes, Aquinas argues repeatedly the crucial point: that there are truths needed for salvation that philosophical reasoning could by no means achieve. God only reveals these salvific revelations. Furthermore, in his "De Aeternitate Mundi" he attacked Averroes views on intellect and principles of knowledge.

In chapter two, titled: Ominous Beginning for a Promise of Blessing, Phyllis Trible surveys Genesis 12-17 by focusing on five human characters and one divine (i.e. God). She examines, or more correctly, questions a number of themes including: God's Call of Abraham, the divisions in Abraham's house and the banishment of Hagar, the plight of Sarah and analysis of the five main characters.

Trible is careful at every juncture to describe the dynamics of the relationships among the characters in correlation to God. She paints a skilful-yet by no means complete portrait of each personality, while at the same time questioning the Biblical narrative and God who is behind it. Relying on her own personal analysis of the immediate text without seeing the big picture, she fails to see and to appreciate the historical events in connection with the coming of the "Redeemer", thus missing the whole point of the biblical message.

The heading of chapter three, Twists and Turns in Paul's Allegory (Galatians 4:21-31), written by Letty Russel, reveals unequivocally her theological assumptions. In concluding her essay she makes the following indictment in connection with Paul's allegory: "Perhaps in studying the dangerous words of what many women would call a 'text of terror', we can discern a call to keep seeking beyond the enmity--enmity began in the Genesis story of Hagar and Sarah, magnified in Galatians, and set loose as power for division in the present age." Furthermore, in her attempt to disqualify Paul's allegory, Russel accuses him of advocating a "Dangerous Rhetoric." His rhetoric, she says, "reinforces the customs of sexual abuse of female slaves as a negative metaphor for slavery to the law. It interprets motherhood as only serving to establish paternity, and uses women's biological role to define the boundaries of Christian community.. his rhetoric has not only fueled anti-Jewish and anti-Islamic rhetoric but has also given theological justification for racial and gender discrimination"

This radical feminist critique of Paul's allegory by using Hagar and Sarah to advance feminist ethics is regrettable and deplorable for a simple reason. An attentive reading of the allegory reveals that Russel has missed the whole point by twisting the scripture to say something that it does not. His allegory was illustrative of a lofty and noble spiritual fact. He uses facts from Jewish history in an allegorical technique to contrast Ishmael being born of the flesh (Hagar), and Isaac being born according to a miraculous promise (Sarah). These two women and their children are only symbolic of two covenants: Covenant of Law and the new covenant of promise. Paul exhorts the Galatians believers both men and women to stand firm in the freedom that comes through Christ, and not allow themselves to be hampered again with the yoke of the law. This is the true reading of the passage within its context; this is the true liberation theology of equality of men and women before God through Christ.

With minor reservations, Chapter four by two Jewish writers are much more refreshing. It certainly conforms to a good scholarship and intellectual honesty. Adele Reinhartz and Miriam-Simma Walfish give a helpful and insightful review of the development of the story of Hagar, Sarah and their children beginning with postbiblical period to our own time. This includes the great Historian Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, the Rabbinic literature which include a number of good theological themes, Medieval Jewish commentaries and ending with the implications of the relationship between Hagar and Sarah to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Chapter five labeled Interpretive Fate amid the Church Fathers by Elizabeth Clark, examines patristic exegesis from the second through the sixth centuries. From the outset, the writer laments the fact that none of their interpretations are informed by the perspective of feminist or critical race theory. The church fathers she claims, were unable to see Hagar as a symbol of oppression, exploitation, rejection and slavery.

Certainly, this historical sketch is helpful. However, while the reader finds himself (and herself, to be politically correct), rejoicing at the absence of contentious polemics while reading the previous chapter, we find ourselves again facing a twist of narration by the introduction of personal interpretive synthesis which does little justice to the church fathers. Indeed, the church fathers were mainly theologians and apologists concerned in their own day and context more with the defense of the ultimate truth, rather than some narrow feminist exegesis.

Chapter six is written by Riffat Hassam, who is described as a pioneer of feminist theology in the context of the Islamic tradition. She reviews the major themes connected with Hagar and her family in Islam. In order to promote Islam in a good light, Riffat quotes lengthy passages from the Quran and Hadith to show how Islam deems Hagar as matriarch of monotheism and Abraham as man of faith. Both were promoted as models of piety, not only for Muslims but universally.

In her attempt to show the linkage between Judaism and Islam, the writer surprisingly introduces a controversial subject, namely the question of change of prayer direction from facing Jerusalem to Mecca. Why would Allah commands Muhammad to face Jerusalem at first, then later when the Jews would oppose his new found faith the command is altered in favor of Mecca? Riffat attempts to give an answer by quoting a lengthy passage from the Quran. The reader however, is left without a cogent defense.

In connection with Ishmael, the traditional Islamic narratives describing Allah's covenant with Abraham and the sacrifice of his son (assumed Ishmael) are incompatible with the biblical account. Islam insists that Ishmael was the recipient of Allah's promises. The Bible, however, gives special significance to Isaac in the context of God=s historical redemptive plan. Isaac was the beneficiary of God=s covenant with his father, Abraham. The promise was given that through Abraham=s child of the promise--Isaac (Gal. 4:22-23) and from his descendants the Messiah would come, and all the nations of the earth would be blessed. But the Quranic account leaves no place for God's redemptive promises, which are first given in Genesis 3:15 and progressively move toward the perfect sacrifice on the cross.

In Riffat's conclusion, she calls on the Muslim daughters of Hagar and all women to venture out and speaks against injustice and inequality. Certainly this is a refreshing call for Muslim women who have been for centuries denied their basic human rights.

Over all, I must say however, that contrary to all the assumptions advanced in this book, the Bible describes man and women as equal in the eyes of the Lord. The first chapter of the Bible declares both as being created in the image of God. Jointly they were given the mission of being fruitful and having dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:27-28). In marriage, both become one flesh, an expression of union, and fidelity (Gen. 2:23-24). The Decalogue gives honor to both father and mother (Exod. 20:12). Contrary to the ethos of his day the Lord Jesus Christ gave women place of honor. The Scriptures tell us that in Christ there is no difference between male and female (Gal 3:28).While the role of spiritual leadership was given to the husbands, they are commanded: ALove your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her@ (Eph. 5:25). In contrast with all other faiths past and present, there is no doubt that the Bible has been and still is the genesis of the women's elevation.

The reader should be very cautious while reading this book. The writers clearly confuse the Gospel with feminist ethics. This book contains some of the Gospel, but unfortunately, it is another Gospel.


Edited by Phillis Trible and Letty M. Russell - Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006
Review by Bassam Chedid, founder and president of the Children of Abraham Ministry and editor of Al-Kawkab magazine.