“The Form of a Slave”: The Unflinching Eye of Rev. Dr. Wilda C Gafney

This past June, my first wave of posts celebrating Black theological voices used Diana L. Hayes to introduce readers to Womanist theology. We saw then how Womanist theology centers the experiences of women of colour in its reading of Scripture and its understanding of God, and is therefore inherently intersectional and generous. But, of course, there is much diversity in the experiences of women of colour. If Hayes’ reflections centre the experiences of contemporary Black women who juggle responsibilities and worry for the safety of their children in a world that does not value their lives, the theologian I’d like to celebrate today, Rev. Dr. Wilda C. (‘Wil’) Gafney, attempts to give voice to the countless women of colour today and throughout history who have been abused, used, and enslaved. Like Hayes, she seeks to use her experiences as a Black woman to reframe theology away from its often WEIRD assumptions; but she is also reminiscent of someone like the Black Liberationist theologian James Cone in that she demands that we see, really see, our Scriptures and stories and histories for what they are, especially the parts we’d rather not see. Whereas Verna Dozier was concerned about seeing Scripture in the biggest picture possible, Dr. Gafney insists that the devil is in the details, and we do ourselves a disservice if we don’t spend time in the uncomfortable details of our story.

Dr. Gafney is currently Professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is an author, a speaker, and teacher, as well as a priest of the Episcopal Church. I would argue she is one of the most important and powerful expositors of the Bible today; and once you’ve read the Bible with her, you will never read it the same way again. Today I’d like to listen to her thought through her reflections on the biblical character of Hagar.* (I’ve included links, where available, to her writing and talks. I encourage you to read them or listen to them in full for yourselves!)

In a talk introducing her Womanist approach to reading Scripture, Gafney begins by asking the following question:

In saying God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, what is not being said is that God is the God of Hagar, Sarah, Keturah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpaa. And if you don’t know all of these names, or they don’t roll off your tongue without checking, why is that? (“A Willingness to Be Disturbed”).

The women in this list — some primary wives, some secondary wives, some enslaved — are the Matriarchs of the biblical story, and yet their stories are virtually unknown to most of us who have inherited and ‘believe in’ these narratives. Not only does this erase the experiences of women, but it also allows us to skip over the messy, disturbing, details of their stories. If we pay attention, we will see that this first family of our faith is founded upon slavery, polygamy, rape and forced surrogacy, and even incest (according to Genesis 20.12, Abraham and Sarah are half-siblings). Gafney summarizes the need to pay attention to these details:

[I]f you just tell the patriarchal fairy tale—God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—you don’t deal with any of the real, complex, human stuff in the text, stuff that is still going on, stuff that is enabled, inspired by, and attributed to the text.

Sometimes the problem in biblical interpretation is not the interpretation. Sometimes it’s the text. The more complete truth should disturb us and drive us to a deeper and more honest encounter with the Scriptures (“A Willingness to Be Disturbed”).

If God is truly God, then God is also the God of not only the patriarchs, and not only of the official matriarchs like Sarah and Rebecca, but also the God of the enslaved women who became matriarchs through being used and abused by their masters. The question before us is this: Is God the God of Hagar, Keturah, Bilhah and Zilpaa?

And so, let’s think about Hagar, through Dr. Gafney’s eyes and ears.

Hagar is a slave in the household of Abram and Sarai (later renamed Abraham and Sarah). We know nothing of her origins, aside from her Egyptian heritage; as Gafney points out, we don’t even know her name: Hagar means simply, “the alien” — hardly something you would name your daughter (Womanist Midrash, 40). Frustrated with her own inability to bear a child, Sarai offers Hagar’s body to her husband so that he might have an heir through her. But when her plan succeeds, Sarai resents Hagar and abuses her to the extent that Hagar flees the household, fearing for her life and that of her unborn child. Though Hagar eventually returns to the household, after her own son is born Sarah has Hagar cast out once and for all. This is a truly horrific episode in our Scriptures. And it’s a story Womanist theologians take to heart:

Womanists read Hagar through our own histories, including 400 years of chattel slavery in the Atlantic basin, in which our foremothers were also raped to produce children and subject to the same kinds of physical and sexual violence that Sarah meted out to Hagar (“A Willingness to Be Disturbed”).

In a recent sermon, Gafney added:

Hagar is the Mother saint of Womanism and, long before our elder sister invented the word, the enslaved and formerly enslaved and newly free Africans in America identified themselves with Hagar as Aunt Hagar or by calling themselves Hagar’s children. Some of us still do (“Jesus and Hagar”).

One of the fascinating and surprising things about Hagar’s story is that it is told in our Scriptures. Whereas the other secondary wives and enslaved women among the matriarchs are mentioned only in passing, and even Sarah and Rebecca are side characters in the stories of their husbands and sons, Hagar’s story is her own story, and it’s a story the authors and editors of Genesis thought worthy of preserving for us.

When Hagar flees Sarai’s abuse, alone and friendless in a foreign land, God finds her. After telling her to return to Abram’s household, God blesses Hagar, making with her what amounts to a covenant of her own, apart from the covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah:

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude…
Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
    you shall call him Ishmael,     
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction (Genesis 16.10f).

Hagar responds in a way unique in all the Scriptures. She claims this God as her own and — alone in all the Scriptures — names God: “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are The-God-Who-Sees-Me.'”

Years later, when Hagar is cast out of the household and Ishmael is disinherited through Sarah’s scheming, God again appears to Hagar to bless her and renew the covenant: “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him” (21.18). Ishmael is not, in the Jewish and Christian tellings of the story, the child of promise. But this does not mean Hagar and Ishmael are thereby excluded from God’s story. Hagar matters. Her enslavement and the abuse she suffers at the hands of Abraham and Sarah do nothing to change that. Hagar matters to God and God sees her.

Reflecting on this, Gafney writes:

I feel seen. Beyond the joke and behind the meme lies the fundamental need to be seen, known, regarded, recognized as fully human, to have our needs acknowledged, even if not met. I have seen God. And I have been seen by the God who sees all. That is Hagar’s testimony (“Jesus and Hagar”).

But all is not right in the story. God may see and bless Hagar, but God still commands her to return into Abram and Sarah’s household:

Hagar’s liberation was going to take more time. That is also one of the uncomfortable truths of this passage. One can stand in the presence of the Majesty of God, be fully seen and fully known and simultaneously be entrapped and entangled by the tentacles of evil extending from corrupt powers and institutions. Just ask the Africans enslaved in America crying out for 400 years just as the Israelites cried out during their enslavement for another 400 years. Ask those of us crying out Black Lives Matter even as the bodies continue to drop along with the news coverage. Yet God is there and here seeing and seen, knowing and known. (“Jesus and Hagar”)

We might wonder why, when so many stories of people in similar circumstances to Hagar are not told in our Scriptures, Hagar’s is preserved. Gafney points out some intriguing ideas in the parallels between Hagar and the foundational events of Jewish and Christian salvation history, the Exodus and the Incarnation.

Sarah oppresses the enslaved Egyptian Hagar, “the alien,” in the same way Egypt oppressed Sarah’s enslaved descendants, the Hebrews, whose name also likely means “aliens” or “outsiders.” Ultimately, God frees and blesses Hagar with a covenant, just as God ultimately frees and blesses the Hebrews with a covenant of their own. It’s telling that the Law they receive after they are emancipated offers protections for foreigners living among them, as well as for slaves — for people like Hagar:

In the midst of her enslavement Hagar saw God. God came to see her and see about her and be seen by her. Ironically that would become the testimony of the people who enslaved her, the Israelites; during their enslavement, God came to see about them. That is who God is. The God who is present with her people in enslavement, in exile, under subjugation and, under occupation. … God remains the God Who Sees Us and Sees About Us, the God Who Dwells With Us, even in bondage, even in exile (“Jesus and Hagar”).

This is, she continues, the heart of the Christian message of the Incarnation:

Is your god big enough to be God? Does your God love enough to be God? Would your God exchange divinity for humanity, infinity for mortality? Would your God answer the prayer of a runaway enslaved woman, personally, in the flesh or at least in the appearance of flesh? …

[T]o be enslaved is to be fundamentally vulnerable, dehumanized and sexualized, without legal status, valued as property but not as person. Who would choose such a life? Jesus.

After reflecting on the hymn of Philippians 2, she continues:

Jesus chose, not just humanity, but a human form that others would look upon and see as property, as subhuman, as available for the working out of their whims, wishes and wickedness. Jesus chose the form of a slave. The form of those the Romans called barbarians and viewed as in need of civilizing. The form of Hagar. … The form of those enslaved in exploitative labor contacts here and around the world. The form of the incarcerated rented out and sometimes handed over for free to perform labor and fight fires and handle the bodies of those who have died from COVID.

Jesus came to liberate us from among us in a position of solidarity. He, the Messiah, did not have a messiah complex. He was no white savior or missions tourist. He was Hagar’s Child by choice.

She concludes her reflection a way that is a fitting summary of the approach, concerns and conclusions of womanist theology; and so in the spirit of this project — to listen and not to speak — this post will end with Gafney’s words:

Hagar and Mary teach us that God is concerned with those who are at the bottom of all the hierarchies, women, the enslaved, foreigners and, as is so often the case, persons in more than one category­ — Hagar was all of these. They teach us that God sees us, hears us, knows us, loves us. And, they teach that our way with God will not be easy. There will be pain and sorrow ahead and, the way will sometimes lead us on paths we do not wish to travel. But they also teach us that we will not walk alone. God, having walked with us as one of us, walks with us still, from this Advent to the next, when enslavement and oppression will be no more, when all the children and kindred of God will walk together in the saving, healing, liberating love of God, seen, heard, known. Amen.


* Works cited:

“A Willingness to be Disturbed,” a talk given at the Evolving Faith Conference in 2018, available to stream from the Evolving Faith Podcast at https://evolvingfaith.com/all-podcast-episodes/episode-6-wil-gafney.

“Jesus and Hagar: The Form of a Slave.” The Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD., accessed January 25, 2021. Available from: https://www.wilgafney.com/2020/11/29/jesus-and-hagar-the-form-of-a-slave

Womanist Midrash. Louisville, Kentucy: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

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