Does God Condone Abuse?
There are many difficult and painful stories of sexual abuse in the Bible. One such story comes from Genesis 16 with Sarai and Abram’s exploitation of Hagar, their Egyptian servant. The dynamics of abuse are obvious: Hagar is treated as a baby-making machine, an object to be used for another’s desire and agenda; Sarai and Abram never refer to Hagar by name (but the angel of the Lord does); they (implicitly) justify and rationalize their actions based on prevailing cultural custom; Abram completely ignores his duty to intervene and prevent further abuse; and when they are done using Hagar, Sarai “dealt harshly with her”, the same word used in the book of Exodus for the Egyptian’s abusive affliction of the Israelites (1:11, 3:7, 3:17, 4:31).
That God’s people – for such were Abram and Sarai – stoop to such dehumanizing behavior is shocking. Yet we see this throughout Scripture, which thankfully explains the reason: “every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”, and “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Genesis 6:5; 8:21). What is more shocking, perhaps, is that when the angel of the Lord graciously meets Hagar in the wilderness, he immediately commands her to return to Sarai “and submit to her” (Genesis 16:9). This is a question that a male perspective might easily overlook. Indeed, in reading ancient commentators such as Josephus and Augustine, Hagar is often given unsympathetic attention. While one of those was not a Christian, and one of them was a profound Christian, we can see unfortunate traces of the curse upon Eve from Genesis 3:16 that “he [the man] shall rule over you.” Let us then be wary of incomplete readings of Scripture and consider what is meant and not meant by God commanding Hagar to submit to Sarai.
We can use the rule of faith – scripture interpreting scripture – and argue that because God is good, everything he does is good (Psalm 119:68), and therefore Genesis 16:9 cannot mean that God condones Hagar returning to an abusive situation. But before turning to other books of the Bible, it would be better for us to look for an explanation in this story itself. I see the following observations as pointing to a biblical and theological rationale for seeing God’s command to Hagar to submit to Sarai as an act, not of oppression, but of grace.
First, the entire encounter between Hagar and the angel of the Lord (whom Hagar later identifies as none other than God himself) is one of grace. Although Hagar suffered abuse, she was herself a sinner and culpable for her prideful contempt of Sarai (16:4). However, God does not rebuke or correct Hagar. I don’t take this to mean Hagar had done no wrong, but rather that God overlooked her sin in mercy. (It also doesn’t mean that Hagar deserved the abuse, something one unfortunately finds in the history of interpretation of this story).
Second, God gives Hagar’s son a name, Ishmael, which will continually remind her (as well as Abram and Sarai) of God’s gracious intervention: “God hears”, and listens to the cry of the afflicted. This is especially significant in light of the fact that Hagar, as far as the text indicates, did not pray for God’s help. The gracious intervention of God is entirely sovereign.
Third, God’s promise to Hagar of a prosperous family line through Ishmael is fundamentally rooted in God’s covenant promises to Abram back in Genesis 12. Although Ishmael is not the child of promise, and is even later used allegorically by the apostle Paul as representative of fleshly, unredeemed Israel (Galatians 4:21-31), nevertheless God graciously honors Hagar and her offspring on account of his commitment to bless the offspring of Abraham.
Fourth, the words of Hagar herself in 16:13 show that she had a real encounter with the living God and was really changed through it. We know nothing of her relation to the God of Abram prior to this episode, but now it is clear that she believes in Him, believes Him to be true and good, and believes Him to be worthy of her obedience.
Fifth, Hagar’s faith is further evidenced in her relating her experience and God’s promise to Abram. For although God commanded Hagar to name Ishmael, Abram is actually the one to assign his name (Genesis 16:15). This implies that Hagar believed the promise, and in believing had hope in God’s goodness, and so shared her hope with Abram.
Sixth, the fact that Abram appropriated the promise related through Hagar and obeyed God in naming Ishmael shows that Abram learned the lesson first given to Hagar: God hears and sees those in need. The inference (and inference is always required of attentive readers of Hebrew narrative) is that Abram changed his perception and treatment of Hagar. In his eyes she was no longer an object, no longer a nameless face to be ignored and passed over. Rather, she was one who, like Abram himself, had received a transforming revelation from Yahweh, “God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth” (Genesis 14:19, 22). I believe this points to a change in Abram’s family dynamics. Although far from perfect (especially in light of Genesis 21, see below), it is possible, and I believe probable, that Abram finally started acting like the man he should have from the start: showing honor and respect to Hagar as a woman made in the image of God and as a recipient of divine revelation.
Seventh and finally, we can look to the only other Hagar episode in Genesis 21 and see that God always intended to take care of Hagar. Although God does command Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away, he does not allow Abraham to “drive her out” as demanded by Sarah. Instead, Abraham sends her with provisions, and then when Hagar is at the edge of despair, God once again steps in and saves her and her son (Genesis 21:15-21).
Do these points resolve all of the tension? I admit they do not. At the end of the day, Hagar was still a “slave woman”, as God himself says (Genesis 21:12). The Bible is a very complex book, and as we seek to rightly handle word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), this involves learning to submit to the wisdom of God and accepting tensions that seems like contradictions. We need look no further than Genesis for this reality: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20). If my explanation of Hagar does not satisfy you – and you may have good reason to disagree – then I encourage you to rest in the paradoxical echo of Joseph’s confession on the lips of Jesus. Spoken in the midst of a death which infallibly demonstrated the evil of human rebellion, Jesus yet professes the goodness of God: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).