Scholarship To Inform the Discussion



Thoughts of a Feather Flock Together…


So Let Us Learn from our Differences and Open our Wings to Fly Toward a More Just World



Postcolonial Feminist Biblical Interpretation of Hagar and Mary from Global South Theologians

Liberating Theophany: Hagar Gives God a Name

The figure of Hagar, a poor Egyptian slave woman, complicates the salvation history of the Hebrew Bible to such an extent that adherents of the three Abrahamic religions continue to grapple with the implications of her legacy to this day.  Traditional biblical scholarship tends to represent her merely in the guise of a minor irritant who refuses to submit to the will of Sarah and is, therefore, cast from the stage as the history of the people of the covenant march triumphantly towards scriptural immortality following the ark of their God.  Yet, Global South biblical scholar Elsa Tamez uses a postcolonial feminist critique of Genesis chapters 16 and 21 to resurrect a fuller picture of Hagar as a human being and as one who interacts with God personally.

The precarious nature of the application of the legal rights to women is evident throughout the Hagar narrative in the Bible.  In accordance with Hebrew law regarding slaves who were not Hebrew, Hagar’s slavery would last her entire lifetime unless her owners granted her freedom.[1] The legal framework of the story derives from the Hammurabi Code, an ancient legal code which included some provisional legal rights to concubines and their children.  However, these rights were heavily dependent upon the legal recognition of the male figure in question and did not extend to protection of individual freedom or determination for the concubine herself.[2]   Hagar continually stands up for her rights and for those of her son both during her pregnancy and after his birth.  The story of Hagar mirrors the postcolonial critique of the West in that, “The Marginalized demand as first-born sons to be included in the history of salvation.  They break the order of things.  They complicate history.”[3]  It is this very complication that is of paramount importance for rethinking the norms of universality in our world today.  Eventually, Hagar loses the struggle to be recognized in her full humanity and is driven out of the house of Abraham.  Like so many others in social positions of oppression and servitude, “she is taken in as an object and thrown out as an object.”[4]

The crux of the story lies in understanding that the human objectification of ‘the other’ is neither condoned nor replicated by God in the narrative.  Twice Hagar goes to the dessert, the liminal space beyond the structures of society’s norms, once as a revolt and once as a refugee.  Each time God meets Hagar, saves her, and blesses her.  She, a foreign pagan slave, is the only woman in the Old Testament to have an experience of theophany.  Her otherness is precisely the reason for her inclusion in the manifestation of the divine, “because [God] wished to point out that the oppressed are also God’s children, co-creators of history.”[5]

In an incredible reversal of the objectification she has borne, Hagar gives God a name “The One who sees me” in Genesis 16.  God not only accepts her definition of divine personhood, but also gives her son a name, Ishmael – meaning “God hears,” as a promise that God will always hear the cries of the oppressed.[6]  The marginalized ‘other’ defines the nature of God in terms of the manner in which God interacts with her.  The foiled circumstances of human naming God and God naming human in the midst of theophany is an unprecedented covenant of the recognition of intrinsic worth one with the other.    

 Magnificat Discipleship: Mary Gives God a Son

            Hagar’s interactions with God follow the form of annunciation; as such they parallel another unprecedented event, the narrative of Mary’s Annunciation and Magnificat in Luke 1:26-38 and 46-55.  Postcolonial feminist theologians decry the traditional reading of a domesticated Mary known only by her virginity and submission.  They argue instead that Mary is a “co-operator” with God in the narrative who makes a free choice to participate in redemptive history as a “co-redemptrix” when she says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”[1]  This interpretation of Mary stresses her agency and role as a disciple par excellence.  Sister Teresa Okure from Nigeria lauds Mary as the mother of the church and interprets the Annunciation narrative as God respectfully asking for Mary’s consent to be the mother of Jesus.[2]

Korean feminist theologian, Chung Hyun Kyung writes, “Mary’s servanthood is ‘to God, not to patriarchy.’  This servanthood is a radical discipleship of discernment, risk, and resistance for liberation, not a passive obedience to the powerful.”[3]  Her words in the Magnificat cry out on behalf of the oppressed, naming God as liberator.  Elizabeth, her audience at this auspicious moment, represents Mary’s solidarity with the sisterhood of women.


[1]Tamez, Elsa. “The Woman Who Complicated the History of Salvation.” New Eyes for Reading: Biblical and Theological Reflections by Women from the Third World. Ed. Pobee, John S., and Bärbel von Wartenberg-Potter. US ed. Oak Park, IL: Meyer Stone Books, 1987. 8.

[2] Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro. “Interpreting Old Testament. Polygamy.” The Will to Arise: Women,Tradition, and the Church in Africa. Ed. Oduyoye, Mercy Amba, and Musimbi R. A. Kanyoro. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1992. 92. and Tamez, 10.

[3] Tamez, 9.

[4] Tamez, 10.

[5] Tamez, 13.

[6] Tamez, 15-16.

[1]Chung, Hyun Kyung. Struggle to Be the Sun Again: Introducing Asian Women’s Theology. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1990. 83. and Luke 1:36.

[2] Okure, Teresa. “Women in the Bible.” Ecumenical Association of Third, World Theologians. With Passion and Compassion: Third World Women Doing Theology: Reflections from the Women’s Commission of the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Eds. Virginia Fabella and Mercy Amba Oduyoye. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988. 53-54.

[3] Chung, 82.