In 1985, Canadian author Margaret Atwood penned the dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Recently adapted into a TV series on Hulu, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in near-future New England, following the overthrow of the United States Government and the formation of a Christian fundamentalist theocracy. The novel focuses particularly on the social status of the women in the newly-formed society, known as the Republic of Gilead, a society based upon Old Testament-inspired social and religious fanaticism. In the Republic of Gilead, human rights are severely limited and women’s rights are so curtailed they are forbidden even to read.
The main character is a woman whose name, prior to the revolution, was June, but who is now called “Offred”—literally, “Of Fred,” because Fred is the name of the man who now owns her. Offred is a Handmaid, a special caste of women who are subjugated by the ruling class for reproductive purposes in an era of declining births due to sterility caused by pollution and sexually transmitted diseases. Offred had been separated from her child, taken from her husband, indoctrinated through torture into accepting her new role in the new society, and given to the family of a Commander in the new theocracy. Her job—her role in society—is to bear children on behalf of the ruling men and their barren wives. Every month, during what was called “the ceremony,” Handmaids are raped by the husband while the wife watches and holds her down. Handmaids are taught that this is a high and noble calling, and it is considered a great blessing from God if she then becomes pregnant, though the child will belong to the husband and wife, not to the Handmaid, and after serving for a few months as the child’s wet nurse, she will be separated from her child and moved along to another family to begin the horrifying process all over again.
It is a horrifying scenario, and while I have not yet read the book, I can tell you that the TV series is difficult to watch. While it may be difficult to imagine the United States falling into fundamentalist Christian theocracy, it’s no stretch at all to understand how an author might be inspired by the religious rhetoric of men intent on curtailing the personal agency of women where reproduction is concerned.
Hagar is a slave woman, and the handmaid of Sarah. An Egyptian by birth, Hagar is a triply marginalized person in Abraham’s society—a culture in which men are commanders, the enslavement of foreigners is commonplace, and women are used by other women in order to overcome infertility problems and fulfill their dreams of progeny. The authors of Genesis pass no judgment upon Abraham and Sarah for their decision to use their enslaved handmaid Hagar to solve their infertility problem. In fact, everywhere in scripture, even as late as the New Testament book of Hebrews, Abraham is praised for his surpassing righteousness. This is one of the earliest scriptural examples of why reading the Bible as if it were “God’s little instruction book” for life is deeply problematic. Ancient tribal social conventions are no basis for a modern society. To believe otherwise is to argue that humanity has learned nothing—that civilization has not meaningfully advanced—in some 5,000 years.
There is potential here for a crisis of faith, and that should be addressed. In 2014, Peter Enns, the Abram S. Clemends Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University in St. Davids Pennsylvania (and who has also taught courses at both Harvard University, and the Princeton and Fuller Theological Seminaries), published a book titled The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It. In the first chapter, Enns states the problem:
“Many Christians have been taught that the Bible is Truth downloaded from heaven, God’s rulebook, a heavenly instruction manual—follow the directions and our pops a true believer; deviate from the script and God will come crashing down on you with full force.
“If anyone challenges this view, the faithful are taught to ‘defend the Bible’ against these anti-God attacks. Problem solved.
“That is, until you actually read the Bible. Then you see that this rulebook view of the Bible is like a knockoff Chanel handbag—fine as long as it’s kept at a distance, away from curious and probing eyes.
“What I discovered… is that this view of the Bible does not come from the Bible but from an anxiety over protecting the Bible and so regulating the faith of those who read it.
“Why do I say this? The Bible tells me so.”
As a preacher, it is challenging to read and proclaim God’s Word when the lectionary gives us the Biblical equivalent of The Handmaid’s Tale. The concept of Biblical inerrancy—a brand-new idea in the life of the Church, historically speaking—causes the Bible itself to become a stumbling block to faith, not a source of it. It is necessary, then, for us to read Hagar’s story not as an instruction manual for how to treat foreigners, how to own and use slaves, or how to treat women, but as a word about God’s care for those marginalized by Abraham’s undiagnosed moral failings.
Hagar’s child—Ishmael—grows up as Abraham’s pride and joy, elevating Hagar’s status in their camp, and driving Sarah to deep bitterness. This, too, is a theme explored in The Handmaid’s Tale, where Serena Joy, the wife of Offred’s Commander, is, in turns, resentfully abusive of Offred and protective of her because of the hope that she represents for Serena Joy’s family. In time, Sarah’s bitterness becomes too much for her to bear, and she orders Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael from the camp.
We might give Abraham partial credit for being distressed by this, but his distress is not enough to overrule his angry wife. In consolation to Abraham (around whom this whole saga really turns, the women being only minor characters), God promises that Ishmael, too, will become a great nation.
The point of view then turns to Hagar herself who, having been driven from her home, wanders into the inhospitable Middle Eastern wilderness where she is forced to leave her son to die of dehydration and exposure. Sitting down some distance way, she cries out in grief. God, hearing her son crying, says to her, “Don’t be afraid. God has heard your son’s cries. Go and get him; I will make of him a great nation.” (I’m troubled, I must confess, by the fact that God does not respond to her despondency, but rather to the cries of her son. Again, the author’s choice of words reveals much about a culture in which it is apparently presumed that even God doesn’t care about the feelings of a slave woman.) God opened her eyes and she saw a well where she could refill her water flask and give Ishmael a drink. God’s presence remained with the boy, who grew up in the desert and became an expert archer, eventually marrying an Egyptian woman.
Given the cultural difficulties of this story, what word from God might be found here? God does nothing to intervene in Ishmael’s and Hagar’s being cast out into the wilderness. God doesn’t even seem to regard her emotional suffering as worthy of his consideration. But what consolation does exist here may be found in the character of God’s own actions: God keeps God’s covenant with Abraham by acknowledging that while the covenant whereby all the nations of the world would be blessed through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) would be fulfilled through the offspring of Isaac, not Ishmael, Ishmael would nevertheless thrive and be the father of a great nation. God didn’t just toss a second-rate blessing at the kid and move on; Genesis tells us that “God remained with the boy.” God had a special regard for Ishmael. Perhaps Sarah and Abraham were willing to abandon the child—perhaps their tribal society allowed for this to happen—but God did not abandon him. Ishmael is the ancient Biblical patriarch of the Islamic faith—they, too, are children of Abraham.
God keeps God’s promises. He keeps his promise to Abraham through the birth of Isaac in Abraham’s and Sarah’s old age. He keeps this promise not because of, but in spite of the fearful conniving by which Ishmael was born. He keeps his promise despite the way they treat Sarah’s handmaid, Hagar. He cares for Hagar and Ishmael despite their marginalized status—and perhaps because of their marginalization. Although they are cast out, God meets them in the wilderness and in their despondency and provides them with both immediate care and hope for the future.
It is entirely possible (and understandable, and arguably even commendable) to read the Bible and find some of its contents distasteful, tragic, or even faith-challenging. Why would God allow such a society to exist, where slavery is an acceptable institution, and women may be handed ‘round like property? Ought not God to have taught us better? Ought not God to refuse to countenance man’s inhumanity toward man?
The thing is, whenever I ask such questions of God, what I hear in response is, “I was going to ask you the same thing. Why would humanity allow such a society to exist? That’s not the fellowship for which I created you. Didn’t I teach you better? Oughtn’t you to refuse to countenance man’s inhumanity toward man?”
The Bible is the story of humanity’s slow and unsteady awakening to the character of the God in whose image we are created. If we were to continue reading beyond this morning’s lectionary passage from Genesis, we would find that our understanding of God’s will for us gets much worse before it gets any better. But scripture does have an historical trajectory. If the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is right, and “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then it is perhaps because the arc of our relationship with God is long, but it bends toward reconciliation.
We wonder why God would allow suffering in the world, and particularly why God would allow human beings to hurt and abuse their fellow human beings. But we ask this question in ignorance of God’s revealed character. For when God saw our hurt and our abusiveness—when God heard the cries of our children left for dead in the wilderness—God took on flesh, and received in his own body all the pain and abuse and torture that humanity could muster. Hagar named God “El Roi” (Gen. 16:13), the God who sees. God continues to see how we allow the marginalized to be victimized; how we allow the downtrodden to be further exploited. When people are hurting God not only sees, God shows up. But he shows up not in displays coercive power, but in the healing, helping presence of our hands and feet.
An internet meme quotes Pope Francis as saying, “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” The Pope, to the best of my knowledge, did not say exactly that; it is, rather, a summary of what the Pope has said, which is this:
In our Christian life too, dear brothers and sisters, may prayer and action always be deeply united. A prayer that does not lead you to practical action for your brother — the poor, the sick, those in need of help, a brother in difficulty — is a sterile and incomplete prayer. But, in the same way, when ecclesial service is attentive only to doing… we forget the centrality of Christ. When time is not set aside for dialogue with him in prayer, we risk serving ourselves and not God present in our needy brother and sister. St Benedict sums up the kind of life that indicated for his monks in two words: ora et labora, pray and work. It is from contemplation, from a strong friendship with the Lord that the capacity is born in us to live and to bring the love of God, his mercy, his tenderness, to others. And also our work with brothers in need, our charitable works of mercy, lead us to the Lord, because it is in the needy brother and sister that we see the Lord himself.
The fellowship for which God created us in God’s own image is God’s promise in the midst of pain. We are God’s promise in the midst of pain, insofar as we are called to care, always and relentlessly, for the needs of others, even as our own needs are met in the same way. That is the society toward which the moral arc of the universe bends, and the fellowship toward which our relationship with God bends. Call it justice; call it reconciliation. Whatever you call it, it is God’s promise to us, even in the midst of our pain. All that is missing is our participation in that promise’s fulfillment.
 Peter Enns, The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2014), 3-4.