Believe Out Loud Fridays is a new series of spiritual reflections—pieces that connect our identities and lived experiences with sacred texts and spiritual guidance. In this week’s reflection, Union Theological Seminary students and BOL interns Kimberley Gordy and Sulkiro Song draw on Scripture and ritual to embrace the moments of “wilderness” many of us experience during the holiday season.
Womanism: Womanism focuses on Black feminist liberation as well as inclusivity for all humanity. Alice Walker coined a four-part definition in 1983 that has remained the standard, which can be read here. Womanism is one of many contemporary methods used to engage Biblical texts, other forms of literature and reflect on the world. Other examples of Biblical interpretation through a particular lens include ecological, Queer, post-modern, liberationist and feminist readings.
Hagar & Sarah: Womanist and feminist readings of the Genesis story of Hagar and Sarah view both women as victims of patriarchal oppression due to their shared social location as women. In Genesis 12, we see the precarity of Sarah’s situation, when Abraham hands her off to the pharaoh who desires her for her beauty. Abraham gains protection and wealth from this exchange. Pharaoh returns Sarah back to Abraham when he learns that she is Abraham’s wife.
Sarah also lacks social power as a barren woman. She wields what power she has as the matriarch of the household over her personal slave, Hagar. She hands over Hagar to Abraham so that Hagar will produce a child for Sarah (Genesis 16:4). Hagar’s pregnancy brings the two women to an awareness of the shift in the social dynamic. The foreign slave woman has been elevated as Abraham’s second wife carrying his child. Perhaps Hagar also came to “despise” Sarah (Genesis 16:5) because Sarah had used Hagar’s body as a tool for her own social elevation.
Later interpretations narrate Hagar as the one abusing Sarah, but the Genesis account simply says that Hagar “despised” Sarah. In order to appease Sarah, Abraham demotes Hagar back as Sarah’s slave so that Sarah can deal with Hagar as she sees fit. Sarah uses the power she gains again over Hagar to oppress her (Genesis 16:6). This narrative of Sarah and Hagar is nuanced. As women, both lack social power. However, Sarah abuses the power she holds as a free woman to oppress the enslaved woman.
Wilderness: The wilderness is a dominant setting for communion with God through a Womanist lens of interpretation. Delores Williams seminal work elaborates on this (see below).
Manna/Mana: Manna/Mana was bread that fell from the heavens for the Israelite refugees in the desert in the Exodus story. God provided bread in the morning and quail at night to ensure that the Israelite received their daily sustenance out in the wilderness. For six days, everyone collected the exact same serving portion of manna. Those who collected little and those who collected extra found themselves with the same amount as others. God instructed the people to gather twice the amount on the 6th day so that they could rest on the 7th. Manna/Mana sounds like the question “What is it?” in Hebrew which the Israelites asked when the Israelites first saw the fallen Manna (Exodus 16).
Abraham & Sarah: For the purpose of simplification, we are using Abraham and Sarah’s post-covenant names. God gives Sarai and Abram new names as Sarah and Abraham in Genesis 17.
- Biblical Sources: Genesis 16, 21; Exodus 16.
- Burnside, Dyllón (Guest) and Moore, Darnell (Host). “Intimacy” Being Seen. Podcast audio, November 16, 2020. https://www.beingseenpodcast.com/episode-7-intimacy.
- Contributor, Guest. Hagar and Intersectionality by Marilyn Batchelor. Claremont: Newstex, 2020. http://ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.cul.columbia.edu/blogs,-podcasts,-websites/hagar-intersectionality-marilyn-batchelor/docview/2402710801/se-2?accountid=10226.
- Simopoulos, Nicole. “Who Was Hagar? Mistress, Divorcee, Exile, or Exploited Worker: An Analysis of Contemporary Grassroots Readings of Genesis 16 by Caucasian, Latina, and Black South African Women,” in Reading Otherwise: Socially Engaged Biblical Scholars Reading with Their Local Communities. Society of Biblical Literature, 2007.
- Trible, Phyllis, and Letty M. Russell. “Ominous Beginnings from for a Promise of Blessing.” In Hagar, Sarah, and Their Children: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives, 33–69. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
- Icons on votive candles: Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002), Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), Sharmus Outlaw (1966-2016), Ma Rainey (1886-1936), Kiyoshi Kuromiya (1943-2000), Gritty.
- Williams, Delores. Sisters in the Wilderness. New York: Orbis Books, 2013.
- Links to Sulkiro’s reflection Church Beyond Walls here; and Kimberley’s reflection Physical Movement Is A Form of Self-Love here.
Image credits: The Gender Spectrum Collection: Stock Photos Beyond the Binary
Sound credits: Scott Holmes Music – “This is Christmas”