by Liza B. Lamis, consultant for communication in the Christian Conference of Asia
This Bible study was presented in the WSCF AP Sub-regional (SEA) women’s program on women and migration.
I have twenty-two cousins in my paternal side, and fifteen of them are abroad working as nurses, engineers, domestic helps and others are doing odd jobs. My brother who has two small kids will leave soon for the Middle East. So far, none of my relatives came home in a coffin or deranged. I hear stories of hard work and taking on two or three jobs at one time. I am wondering what will become of my family and our little piece of farmland we have in my hometown. My family is becoming global; they are all over the world working for a better income.
This is my context in reading the story of Hagar and Sarah, two matriarchs of two great religions. I reread their story as a dialogue potential for our times instead of a conflict between a rich, powerful Sarah and the servant, powerless Hagar. Re-imagining Sarah and Hagar in dialogue may provide some more insights about possibilities for women today in slowly dismantling patriarchy, at the same time weaving together a just world.
In our context today, the phenomenon of overseas Filipino workers (OFW), sixty per cent of whom are women, underlines the class division between first world, rich women and third world, poor women. In rereading the story in view of the life experiences of OFWs, the shared oppression of rich and poor women are brought to light, as well as patriarchy in dividing women. What are the possibilities of a dialogue that would bring a fuller life to women OFWs and their children? How can the Hagars and Sarahs of today support each other and reject a world that is broken by violence and poverty?
Scholars read the story of Hagar and Ishmael in the context of a divine promise of a son and blessing for descendants to Abraham (15:4). The story of Hagar directly involves another woman, a relationship deemed to be a conflict or struggle between two women. The op posit ion between them is easily discerned in the account. At the beginning, the two women are portrayed for us to configure.
Sarai, Abram’s wife had not borne him a child, but she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. (16:1) Abram had been in the land of Canaan ten years when Sarai, his wife took Hagar, her Egyptian maid and gave her to Abram her husband as wife. He went into Hagar and she became pregnant. (16:3)
Quickly we can assume that Sarah is rich, married to Abram assumed to be a rich man, that she is able to get herself a servant. She wants more blessings manifested as part of Abraham’s household. She knows she deserves to have it. She really knows about the divine promise and that she is largely instrumental as a woman in its fulfillment. She also knows what she is not capable of having, and or doing. Through the maidservant she has acquired, perhaps, she said, she can build her self up, by having children, since she had not borne Abram a child.
Sarah has been deliberate in finding ways to be blessed. Here is another woman, Hagar, whom she can use for her ends. Hagar, meanwhile, is a slave, and fecund. It does not matter if she were married or not when Abraham and Sarah took her as their servant. The fact that she is a servant in this household speaks of her economic dependency or need. The fact that her being Egyptian is mentioned tells us that she is a foreigner. Nothing is heard about what Hagar left behind in her land. She is alone and uprooted. All these things tell that she is at the disposal of her owners.
Filipino Hagars are not only taken by today’s Sarahs and Abrahams. They leave the country to find them as employers. It makes no difference at all, whether they are taken from one’s country by human trafficking or have gone abroad to seek employment. Majority of Filipinas are bonded in poverty at home, and are bonded as well in slavery abroad. They are at the disposal of both women and men in the first world countries. Their services—physical, sexual, intellectual—are put in the service of global capitalism. Filipino women are offered to predators for profit through human trafficking. The mail-order bride is a case of Hagars offering themselves as wives to rich men just to escape poverty at home. In many ways, women OFWs are very much like Hagar in their multiple levels of oppression in terms of class, race and sex.
Most if not all our women OFWs come from poor families, precisely the reason why they leave home to find work abroad. Most of them only finished secondary school, or a profession but jobs are hard to come by at home. A job done back home, which is deemed lowly because it is a job done by women inside the home, will be done for another woman for a lowly pay. This is the kind of job a poor Filipino woman can do in a foreign land even if she is a teacher back home.
Our first world sisters are lucky to be rich and able to have servants, and luckier even to be able to dream of what more they can be. They can practice their chosen professions. They have maid servants who do the household work for them. They can afford to pay others, or another woman to do their housework. They need these poor women to do chores for them.
Maybe some of these rich women who hire maids know that they are building themselves up on their sisters from the south. My cousin-in-law who works as a domestic helper (DH) in Hong Kong for twenty years already receives gifts from time to time from her mistress like extra money, used children’s stuff for her own children she left behind that she barely took care of. Her primary work is taking care of two children the same age as hers. She left her youngest daughter when she was two years old to the care of grandparents and later on, to us.
Sarah and Hagar portray “two different ways of conceiving life in God’s world”. Sarah wants to conceive and give life by building up herself on Hagar. Hagar sustains her own life by slaving herself as a maidservant. She agreed to be a surrogate in the grand design of the divine promise of life through progeny. Women are said to be resilient in sustaining and promoting life under any circumstance. Whether rich or poor, they negotiate their way through life with their best efforts.
When she was aware of this, she began to despise her mistress. Sarai said to Abram, “May this injury done to me be yours. I put my servant in your arms and now she knows she is pregnant, I count for nothing in her eyes. Let Yahweh judge between me and you.” Abram said to Sarai, “Your servant is in your power, do with her as you please.” Then Sarai treated her so badly that she ran away. (16:4b-6)
Sarah must have suspected that something is wrong with the arrangement, and indicts patriarchy that Abram represents. Sarah could be part of the fulfillment process of the divine promise with the help of Hagar. But Sarah does not see this as help from Hagar. She could use Hagar! Hagar seems to forget the fact that Sarah made it possible for her to bear a child. Hagar may be Abraham’s wife now, too, but she remains a servant to Sarah. Class difference, with both women’s total immersion in their cultural and social milieu, prevented them from seeing further the whole picture of their instrumentation towards the fulfillment of the divine promise. This is understandable though, for the times of Hagar and Sarah measures a woman’s worth in her capacity to bear children, especially a son.
The absence of a dialogue between Hagar and Sarah led Sarah to turn to Abraham and to clamor, invoking Yahweh’s justice between her and Abraham. Abraham is quick to point to Sarah that Hagar, her servant, is in her power, and she may do as she pleases. Abraham pointed out their social and class disparity that led Sarah to afflict Hagar. Sarah treated Hagar harshly. Inequality, opposition and distance bred violence. Hagar flees to the wilderness.
Class disparity is a sharp wedge driven between rich and poor women of today. Violence ensues. Many DH in the Middle East escaped their employers, seeking refuge in Philippine consulates only to be given to prostitution by consulate officials. More violence meets the modern day Hagars in the wilderness.
In Hagar’s exile in the desert, she converses with the divine, naming Sarah as the reason for running away. What she sees is the conflict between her and Sarah (16:7-15). She recognizes her abuse in the hands of a fellow woman who could have been her ally in life. Still she could not see the whole picture why she was a ‘used’ servant in that household. We cannot expect her to see it.
True, Sarah remained within the old structures. They did not see their being women in the household of Abraham as an occasion for sisterhood. This instance could have been an opportunity for Hagar and Sarah to build a household together, to conceive life together in God’s world though in different ways. This is something crucial today for our sisters from the north and to us in the south. This consciousness of being women and all things shared as women regardless of race and class in a patriarchal society is key in forging solidarity and a common front in transforming our patriarchal world.
My cousin in HK knows what to sacrifice for the sake of her family. Her employer knows how she could least repay my cousin for allowing her to pursue her own life. In their own little corner of the world, they made it possible for my nieces and nephews to live ‘better off’ lives in the midst of poverty. She mothers her mistress’ children while hers back home are un-mothered. That is what my cousin knows best to do under the present circumstances. She knows what it entailed her and her own family. If she were not grateful for this opportunity, she could have not lasted for twenty long years as another woman’s maidservant.
We need our first world sisters to help sustain life back home. Our first world sisters need us to pursue the life they wanted, free to follow their hearts’ desires or further enhance their already handsome family income. We also need to delve deeper to find out how this whole system works and how we contribute to its perpetuation by letting it just be. Together, we have bigger possibilities of discovering creative ways of weaving life in its fullness for many who have hard ones. We need to discover more effective ways to dismantle patriarchal structures that bred the poverty of many women, and gave a little freedom for a few. Alone, we have no chance of changing the world.
The angel of Yahweh found near a spring in the wilderness and said to her, “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress.” The angel of Yahweh said to her, “Go back to your mistress and humbly submit yourself to her.” The angel of Yahweh said to her, “I will so increase your descendants, that they will be too numerous to be counted. Then the angel of Yahweh said to her, “Now you are with child and you will have a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for Yahweh has heard your distress. (16:7-12)
I note Hagar’s naming as an affirmation of the personhood of Hagar, as well as the deliberate stressing of her ‘being maid of Sarai’, to remind her who she is: a poor, foreigner maidservant. Only in the beginning (v. 1,3) is Hagar named as Egyptian maidservant. Throughout the story, she is known only by her name or as servant. Filipinas are typified the world over as maids, a mark for all to know that the majority of Filipinos are poor by indication of their being servants in rich countries.
This naming is important for Filipino women. Not only do the women OFWs are recognized in their contribution to the national and family economies; their plight is brought to the open and properly named as it is: exploitation and modern day slavery. In this way of naming emerges a clear vision. We can hear these women demand decent jobs and livelihood so that there would be no reason for them to leave home and become enslaved by another family or be abused by a fellow woman. We also hear them demand that the nation’s resources be placed at the disposal of Filipinos and not of big capitalists, so that there will be enough for everybody; and human resources valued and compensated decently.
I think this talk of Yahweh to Hagar to return to Sarah and endure the harsh treatments cannot be separated from the promise of a blessing. Once the order to return is disconnected from this blessing, it will be all suffering for Hagar and no future. Hagar’s son has to be born in Abraham’s household for him to survive, assert his sonship, and make true a future that will stand against oppression within that patriarchal household.
If used today against the OFW, this exhortation to stay in oppressive and exploitative conditions will only bring death to them. However, for the OFWs this is a better option than staying at home and waiting for death to come by hunger. Yahweh’s promise of a future for Hagar’s son is an uncertain one for the OFWs. It is either death in a foreign land, or a better future for their children left behind. Who knows the future, anyway? Hope for the OFWs is in the unpredictability of the future, and life is taking that chance on the future.
The difference between Hagar and Sarah of old and the Sarahs and Hagars now is that women OFWs are able to articulate their situation and critically analyze it in the context of global capitalism. This is a great sign of hope, for in this naming the vision of a future is determined. It is the divine whom they recognized within each OFW that led them to see and to hear their weeping from abuse and violence.
Divinity was always with Hagar. Hagar knew it; she took her every chance on life with great faith. The OFWs are our modern day women of faith. They recognize themselves in Hagar in her terror and in her faith.
The number of OFWs will not decrease soon; more are going abroad to seek greener pastures. Today is different. They have a consciousness, an organized expression, a venue for dialogue between countries and between women of these countries. We must answer for the terror in Hagar’s story, and to the terror in the lives of the present OFWs. This accountability is expressed partly in women’s willingness to overturn patriarchy and in their participation to the national struggle for economic and political sovereignty.
Sarah recognizes the unfairness in her situation, and invokes that Yahweh judges between her and Abraham, the patriarch largely responsible for all the mess. Yet Abraham outsmarted Sarah. He pointed out the barriers, and Sarah readily falls into the trap. Who would want to d issipate the inheritance and the power of the position one holds in exchange of sisterhood and solidarity? It is not Sarah. Certainly not the rich women who have maidservants. What, then, could break the illusion of these class and social barriers in order for women to cross over and to forge solidarity?
Patriarchy pits women against each other, in effect blinding them from their shared exploitation and abuse. Thus patriarchy continually perpetuates itself. It offers more affluence to the already affluent, and affords a degree of freedom and equality to some women at the expense of others, and at the expense of the poor women from the south. I have no idea what miracle is needed to happen for our rich sisters to recognize the clutches of patriarchy over them, and indict it soon. Was Sarah able to recognize it? Maybe Hagar must have also asked herself: “Which law led me into Abraham’s tent and then back into loneliness?” It is not remote for the women OFWs to ask the same question: what force led us into slavery? After all, we are all ‘sisters in the wilderness,’ only others happen to live near an oasis, many of the rest are like Hagar, women of the desert.
God then opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin and gave the boy a drink. (21:19)
The retelling of the life and death stories in the wilderness of abuse and violence of the modern day Hagars is God’s movement in opening our eyes. The women OFWs—the blessed mothers and their children, for whom God opens a well of living water in the wilderness so that they might drink and live—will themselves see a wellspring of hope, and from their hands give their children a drink that would revivify them in their struggle for survival and liberation.
Hagar’s story said that Ishmael grew up to be ‘a wild ass of a man’ who is to dwell in the desert, in the outskirts of civilization. Ishmael will be free, roving in the wilderness... he will not be submissive to oppressive people... Hagar bears the child for Abraham, the possibilities for a future of non-oppression will be opened up for her family and for the future descendants of the household of Abram. Hagar of old foreshadowed Israel’s pilgrimage of faith through contrast. Our Hagars today are still on a journey.
We see the Ishmaels and his sisters of today strong, organized and militant in advocating OFW rights and welfare here and abroad. This band of OFWs in Migrante, vowed to work not only for the defense and care of abused and exploited OFWs, but especially for a national household that provides enough for its dwellers and does not send them to seek better provisions and opportunities abroad. This signals the possibility of a future without oppression, of a blessing of a fuller life, for “God was with the boy” (21:20a). We, too, are blessed, and we claim this blessing.
But from the son of your servant, I will also form a nation (a people who will always reject exploitation and oppression), for he too is your offspring. (21:13)
Hagar “bears public witness to the God of Abraham and Sarah.” The same God of Hagar, Abraham, and Sarah sees and hears us today, and grants us a future not of an oppressive and patriarchal household. Filipino women OFWs have seen a definite glimpse of possibilities through dialogue and solidarity together with our sisters in the north, and through the on-going struggle of the Filipino people for social transformation. Together, we can take patriarchy apart and weave a just and peaceful world, because another world is possible.
Hagars and Sarahs of the world, let us unite in sisterhood and solidarity!
Your Womb shook with compassion, God
When Hagar the slave cried out in despair,
Used, abused and discarded by man
Cast out to die in the desert, with her son
You the God of the oppressed and poor
Appeared to Hagar a woman and a slave
To comfort, to strengthen, and then to uphold
In the time of her grief and deep depression
You opened her eyes and nearby she saw
Life giving water welling up,
She quenched her thirst and revived herself
And was favored to be the mother of a nation
God of our foremothers ever heard
The cry of the oppressed and the poor
But Hagar the bond-woman thrice oppressed
Was the first to glimpse the Divine Being.
Prayer for Our Overseas Workers
The Angel of God bless you,
When you are straying through the desert,
Lonely and in despair.
The angel of God bless you,
When your worries for those you love
Make you restless.
The angel of God bless you!
May God show you to the water of life,
Which will accompany you out of the desert Into fertile and.
Be not afraid.
(based on Gen. 21:14-19, Hannah Strack)