Bible Studies on the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace
“Hagar’s Journey/Pilgrimage” (Genesis 21:8-21)
by Jennifer P. Martin*
8 The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. 9 But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, 10 and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” 11 The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring[a]will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” 14 Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes.16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she[b] began to sob. 17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for himfrom Egypt.
The Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace reaches out to persons who are mired in the wilderness of injustice and lack of peace. The PJP speaks words of comfort in such situations and to engender, with the people, actions which will form the foundation both of peace and of justice. This is as God would expect the church to be.
Hagar, a Caribbean Woman
The story of Hagar is reflected in the story of the Caribbean, and the PJP has elements of both stories. In many parts of the world the lives of women and men have historically and culturally been organized in ways which made the societal inequality of women a reality. Although some changes have been made, levels of inequality between women and men still exist in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Ultimately, injustice is a consequence of these patterns of living and where there is no justice there can be no peace. As the Caribbean seeks to journey toward peace and justice in the matter of human reproductive rights, responsibilities and practices, the PJP can effectively play a supportive role.
This portion of Hagar’s journey jumps off the page with its powerful and sharp points. It contains all the elements for a very dramatic picture book with a strong underlying message:
The lesson for God’s Caribbean people and especially oppressed women who find themselves in charge of families or households is that God is our provider. God reminds us afresh that we should keep our eyes on God and not on the bounty of our oppressors. This lesson is well known and well understood by many. However, though it can be seen that some live a life which is surrounded by a strong belief of the all encompassing grace and kindness of God, too many are wandering around in the proverbial desert of Paran as Hagar had been doing before God opened her eyes and she saw the water that restored Ishmael.
It would be a wonderful tribute to our belief in God if more persons grow in their belief that God offers protection on all sides even though the desert experience continues to be ongoing, frequent and harsh for too many Caribbean women and their offspring. A task of the church in this context is to acknowledge aspects of the past which seem to have a stranglehold on the present. These periods of remembering are very important, as Emancipation lectures and exhibitions demonstrate. Standing alongside the remembering of Hagar’s early wandering with her son is the ending of passage when she has gone and found a wife for Ishmael. Life and church in the Caribbean constantly call for learning from our history, reflecting on our present secure in the knowledge that God is with us always.
Gender relations, compounded by race relations which were formed and cemented into Caribbean slave societies up to and beyond Emancipation in 1834, have travelled into the postcolonial period. The church has been integral to life in the Caribbean from the time of Christopher Columbus’ voyages of exploitation into this part of the world. Despite the untold difficulty of plantation life, some oppressed people and their descendants have found and held on to the God of Hagar. Without their faith in God they would not have survived.
Though not wishing to make rank generalizations, it is true that many sexual relations are governed by the patriarchal and economic power wielded by males. Some females often feel that they have to bow to the sexual wishes of men regardless of the outcome, reproductive or otherwise. It would seem that their eyes are closed to other options.
The lofty estate of Christian marriage does not provide women protection from sexual abuse which they would expect in a situation of lawful, monogamous marriage. Christian marriage also does not guarantee sexual fidelity. Even if a married woman produces children within the marriage, there is no guarantee that the husband will not ‘get’ children elsewhere. To be barren is to be labeled as a ‘mule’ and to sometimes come under great ridicule. Sarah’s predicament and the motivation to put herself in the place of God are understandable; though risky from the outset. Married women sometimes find themselves cornered into taking actions for their own survival, as they may seek to rationalize, which place less privileged women in harm’s way. Powerful women sometimes leverage their power to cause economic disadvantage to their rivals and any children who arise from sexual relations with the shared husband/man. Despite the seeming cultural acceptance in Jamaica of some men having multiple sexual partners including a wife and some women having their children, the practice of monogamous marriage is held in high esteem even if it is an undesirable ideal. In Hagar’s world a form of polygamy existed. Sarah was the wife. Hagar was the secondary wife.
Over the centuries euphemisms have been created to name the inferior wives in a situation of domestic power relations. In Jamaica, pure monogamy has never truly and deeply been part of the culture although there are pockets and vestiges of it. In the modern era the wife is sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘wifey’ and the other woman as ‘matey’. Growing out of our history, quilted patterns of marital and familial relations, some containing elements of great tumult, lack of peace and generational angst have evolved in Jamaica over the centuries. Cries for economic justice can sometimes be traced to the products of sexual liaisons which were sometimes not deemed to have been legal. The story of Hagar is understandable in the Jamaican setting.
The PJP finds easy resonance in this story and vice versa. God has made all peoples in God’s image, and God’s desire is for all to experience fullness of life. As the story of Hagar unfolds the workings of God’s plans through selected agents becomes manifest. The journey motif is palpable and in an almost haunting manner the impression is given that at this stage there would be neither rest nor refreshment for the weary Hagar and her seemingly hapless son. Death was imminent; or so she thought (vs.17).
Yet the message from this portion of the story is that God is with the downtrodden and the oppressed. God had plans to make a nation out of Ishmael. Our reading takes us to the exciting point of Ishmael’s mother Hagar having found a wife from among the Egyptians for her now grown up son. This portends the beginnings of a new nation. The PJP in its role as the voice of the World Council of Churches can draw from this story a strengthened resolve, under God to keep calling out and supporting actions through member churches and people of good will to lead to an enlarged experience of peace and justice for all people.
The outside child
The status of the ‘outside’ child in Jamaica had long concerned the church and the wider community as a matter that require political intervention. The church in the Caribbean held the view that children born out of wedlock were illegitimate and the product of sin. They do not qualify to be baptized in the Christian church. Such children were traditionally christened in the Vestry but never in the church in the presence of the congregation. This practice stood in contradiction of the all embracing love of God which the church extols.
The government of 1976, through passing the Status of Children’s Act, declared into law that all children are equal in status provided that evidence of parenthood is provided. The change in law, even if it has not had the effect of revolutionizing some attitudes to children born to secondary wives, or mateys, has meant since then, that the ‘other children’ are equal in status. This is a lesson in the love that God has for us all and in the love that God showers upon us so liberally.
Sexual Access to Enslaved African Women: Power over sexual relations of male and female enslaved Africans
A central pillar of slavery in the Caribbean was that African people were not accorded the status of human beings. They owned nothing; not even their bodies. There were sustained attempts by the planters to get enslaved persons buy into the lie that they were non- persons. The women were particularly and insidiously used as sexual pawns in the system in holding power over the enslaved. An avenue of this labyrinth led to the convincing of some enslaved women that it would be to their benefit to bear children for the masters of the plantations. Some women bought into practice because they were hopeful of a better future for the children. Enslaved African men were sometimes instructed to ‘breed’ the enslaved women for the economic benefit of the planters. Hagar would have understood the plight of Africans in the days of slavery.
Sexual Access to Oppressed Women in the current age
Most Caribbean women are aware that they have the right to fight to protect their bodies from being the site of unwanted sexual relations. Still many do not find themselves in a position to defend their most treasured possession, their body. There are also some who decide to have full control over their reproductive lives in ways which would not find favour with the church. This point finds necessary inclusion because in this region the secular and the Christian ‘worlds’ sometimes rub shoulders uncomfortably yet remain part of our shared lives.
In the resources is a reference to a play called ‘Woman Tongue’ which comprises a number of monologues presented by an all woman cast. Each is memorable in its own right but in keeping with this study, a woman who had morphed into a prostitute after serial sexual abuse from childhood into early adulthood. Her telling comment was that she had now started to control her own body and that she was now putting a value and a price on herself because she no longer belonged to anyone else. When looked at closely the situation is tragic.
Running for Her Life: Confidently Accessing God’s Protection
Hagar’s running away is reflected in the desperate journeys which are undertaken by some contemporary Caribbean women who find themselves overtaken by circumstances which they feel that they are not able to conquer. Taken at face value, the story of the Caribbean could intimate that persons may not have much faith in the God of Hagar. On the contrary, for many the depth of their faith is incredible, they like Hagar are convinced, based upon their life experience that God is with them. They claim God as their personal saviour, protector and provider.
Questions for Discussion
Ideas for Action
Passage: Genesis 21: 8-21
These are ideas that could be used to generate discussions which could lead to actions addressing situations of oppression in your context.
Altink, Henrice. “Forbidden Fruit: Pro-Slavery Attitudes Towards Enslaved Women’s Sexuality and Interracial Sex.” The Journal of Caribbean History 39.2: 201-235. http://www.uwipress.com/sites/default/files/JournalofCaribbeanHistory%2039_2_with%20cover.pdf
Sexual Assualt in the 18th Century in Sexual Crime: A Reference Handbook (pp. 3–7) https://books.google.com.jm/books?id=frpErXzWm_kC&pg=PA6&dq=Thomas+Thistlewood+and+sexual+relations+with+female+slaves&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjIt-X5xpnOAhXDbB4KHZ3jAJ0Q6AEIITAB#v=onepage&q=Thomas%20Thistlewood%20and%20sexual%20relations%20with%20female%20slaves&f=false
Sheerattan-Bisnauth, Patricia (ed). Righting Her-Story: Caribbean Women encounter the Bible Story. https://books.google.com.jm/books?id=g1wMMwEACAAJ&dq=Righting+Her-Story:+Caribbean+Women+Encounter+the+Bible+Story&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjk6pi7y5nOAhWJFx4KHdyjDJoQ6AEIHDAA
The Boy, the Dress and the Dagger (pp. 94–99) https://books.google.com.jm/books?id=ytI7DAAAQBAJ&pg=PA98&dq=sexual+access:+enslaved+women+in+the+caribbean&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiiw43-w5nOAhVHqh4KHZHpCX84ChDoAQhMMAk#v=onepage&q=sexual%20access%3A%20enslaved%20women%20in%20the%20caribbean&f=false
Woman Tongue (Stage Play) http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/entertainment/20160713/woman-tongue-returns-one-weekend-only; http://jamaica-gleaner.com/article/entertainment/20160415/woman-tongue-opens-april-28
“By the Rivers of Babylon,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tAb5rYRXvs
“Great is thy Faithfulness,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cACqcURyvJA
“How Great Thou Art,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cc0QVWzCv9k
“Jah is My Keeper,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O5HIOZILqWk
“No Woman No Cry,” http://www.lyricsfreak.com/b/bob+marley/no+woman+no+cry_20021714.html
“Talking Blues,” http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bobmarley/talkinblues.html
“Tears are a Language God Understands,” http://www.cherylbryne.com/cs23.html
“Jamaica Sting Operation – Human Trafficking, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYocb8h3LVY
* Jennifer P. Martin, from the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, serves on the WCC Commission for World Mission and Evangelism and the international reference group for the Pilgrimage of Justice and Peace.