Abraham and Sarah were slaveholders. Eliezer and Hagar were their slaves. The following is but a brief reflection on how we have interpreted this uncomfortable fact. It offers no grand claims. But the topic is worth considering, at a time when the nature of our collective pasts and memories has been subject to rigorous reconsideration.
Abraham and Sarah’s slaveholding was biblically notorious. The divine promise of progeny is given to Abraham in the face of the unacceptable possibility of a slave taking possession of his master’s heritage (Gen. 15:2, 24:2); and rivalry over heritage and honor presses Sarah to drive her own Egyptian slave, Hagar — along with Ishmael, Hagar’s son by Abraham — into a fatal wilderness. This happens not once, but twice (Gen. 16, 21:1-21), in narratives depicting bitterness, anger, weakness, desperation, and near death. Only God’s intervention prevents these stories from ending in a brutal double murder.
Yet Abraham and Sarah are celebrated by Jews: they are the fountain of Israel’s being, receiving covenant, giving birth to a nation, and extending blessing to the peoples of the earth. Their names fill the prayers and liturgies of Jewish life. Abraham and Sarah are also central to Christian praise and memory. They are lifted up as our ancestors in the Christian hope, praised not only for their deep faith (Heb. 11:8-11), but remembered by Mary with thanks in her Magnificat and proclaimed by Jesus himself as the objects of God’s power of “life” (Matt. 22:32). We sing about them in our Psalms, and our liturgies acclaim them in Easter Vigil, episcopal consecrations, and at the head of all the “witnesses” and “servants” of God for whom we give thanks.
It is no surprise that some modern readers of the Bible worry about these accolades and the moral message they might embody. The sharpest response to this worry is simply to re-imagine what the Bible is altogether: not divine revelation but the product of social forms of life that demand political analysis and dismantling where necessary. If slaveholders should not be praised as moral exemplars, then the documents that do so are not to be taken seriously on their own terms. This means seeking authoritative moral frameworks from outside the Bible by which to read it and, in this critical process transcending the distorted social world of the Scriptures.
This is an honest approach. But we should realize that its judgment about what the Bible is marks only the end point of a long intra-Christian set of developments driven by the discomforts arising from narratives just like those of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, whose every detail, repetition, dramatic depth and moral shadows have called attention to themselves for centuries.
Early on, Christians turned to a range of approaches by which to make sense of this account. Among the most consistent of these was to focus the story on God, and on God’s providence and compassion much as in the story of Joseph: God brings his promises to fulfillment even in the midst of human emotional confusion and ethical abuses. In so doing, God also shows a mercy that defies human standards — in this case, to Hagar and Ishmael (those most demeaned of people, as John Chrysostom notes).
Early Christians also made use of moral allegory, drawing from Jewish writers like Philo. Sarah and Hagar could stand for various virtues or passions, for reason and instruction. Some of this strikes modern readers as arbitrary or special pleading. But it was based on a fundamental intuition: the Bible is not an assemblage of moral exemplars with the attached exhortation “go and do likewise.” Its divine power is not primarily brokered through moral instruction. Its power,instead, is given in a range of ways, from prediction, warning, judgment, conversion, and comfort, to the revelation of God’s form and character, to sublime and terrifying mystery. On this score, Abraham and Sarah escape the strict moral confines of modern expectations; they are revered as iconic windows of divine power and grace.
More influential, however, than these early providential and allegorical readings was the way early Christians began to fit the texts into streams of historical distinction. On this view, Sarah and Hagar represented two “kinds” of historical destiny — based on faith or doctrine, ways of reading Scripture, or finally moral integrity itself (see Gal. 4). Thus, we find Christian readers positing two historical streams of a Sarah and Hagar type: Christians vs. Jews, or simply “true Israelites” vs. false Israelites, spiritual vs. carnal, and so on. Augustine will famously theorize about the “two cities” of Abel and of Cain, to which Sarah and Hagar respectively belong. But note what the two-pronged typology is able to do: sift from the personages and episodes of Scripture those who are commendable and those who are not. By the later Middle Ages and Reformation, this filter, by which one could identify the true “Church of the Old Testament,” permitted a reader to dwell more comfortably with some texts and figures than others.
Over the centuries, this kind of historical typology increasingly squeezed out the space left for patriarchs and matriarchs altogether, and gave us, not a divine Scripture, but a repository of disturbing social tropes. For as social conventions changed, it became increasingly difficult to provide room for these persons within a text seeking to regulate virtue. By the 17th and 18th centuries, as the filters applied to biblical characters become ever more narrowly ethical, it is no longer “the gospel” or “faith” or “humility” that determine whether a story is worth attending to. Rather, the criterion becomes moral purity, however judged.
At this point, Abraham and Sarah become increasingly problematic. Abraham is “guilty of a very barbarous action” in sending away Hagar, argues the celebrated Deist, Matthew Tindal, in his attempt to demonstrate the superiority of natural morality over biblical wisdom. Who needs a Bible if Nature already tells us what to do more convincingly? The details of the Old Testament’s so-called “revelation” and its purported divine “law” are nothing better than a writ of permission for furthering “a State of War with all the rest of the World,” according to 18th century critic, Thomas Morgan, building on a growing tradition of suspicion that most religious claims are nothing more than a cloak for personal greed and abuse of power. There is nothing to learn from Abraham and Sarah beyond their embodiment of human self-regard and the hypocrisy of religion (Christianity and Judaism both) that uses its veneration of perverted individuals as instruments of oppression. The terminus to this interpretive trajectory is also its logical consequence: Scripture dissolves into a documentary resource for critical reflection on social life, governed by extra-biblical frameworks of value.
But the real problem of the Christian tradition of interpretation here was its relentless press towards moral exemplarism — a lens applied by liberals and evangelicals both: the Bible tells us how to act, and does so through the examples of good people. There is no room on such a stage for the complete ruin of the human heart that otherwise lies so clearly to view in Scripture — and in the world at large. All impurities must be stripped away. The danger, of course, is that in this stripping away, one discovers that there is no kernel underneath. “The search for hypocrisy is boundless,” as the historian of the French Revolution, R. R. Palmer, wrote. It leads inevitably, he said, to “demoralization,” the wreck of moral thinking altogether.
It is interesting to compare this history of Christian interpretation with Jewish readings of the text. Both allegorizing and typologizing are shared by each tradition. But Rabbinic commentary expends much effort on the stories’ details: Abraham and Sarah’s intentions, and Hagar’s character. In part, this is because of a deep sensitivity to the difficulty involved in discerning religious value in the midst of human antagonism, cruelty, and anguish. Hagar herself could be viewed, by the likes of Rashi, as virtuous and finally honored (Abraham marries her after Sarah’s death). She could also be identified, according to others, with Israel’s eventual enemies. Abraham and Sarah themselves come across as limited, often mistaken, and stubborn individuals, driven by passions and compassion both, whom God wrenches along in the divine plan.
Interestingly, some of this Jewish humanizing of the characters emerges in Christian interpretation as well in the 17th century especially, when Hagar herself becomes a subject of interest in her own right for the first time. It was a new departure for Christians, taking form eventually in musical (think of Alessandro Scarlatti), imagistic, poetic, and finally novelistic genres, which would finally see Hagar as the embodiment of a courageous (and eventually black African) heroine. (Nyasha Junior has a fascinating book on this topic, Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible). For the most part, however, this Christian interest in the actual personalities of the biblical characters was soon submerged in the rising tide of moralism outlined above.
Why didn’t Jewish interpretation move in this moralistic direction? Some of it did, by the 19th century, at least for a time and among a few. But by and large, while Jews struggled with the moral ambivalences of their ancestors, the fact that these ambivalent ancestors constituted the very founding of Israel’s life — perhaps demonstrated by centuries of ambivalent experience — meant that human life before God is not as easily parsed as Christian hopes often seem to imply. What, after all, is the “history” of God’s “chosen people”? What, after all, marks the social experience of Abraham and Sarah’s progeny? It is nothing other than a constant oscillation of capturing and being captured, of liberating and being liberated, of enslaving and being enslaved — fleeting prosperities, lengthy suffering, brief faithfulness, and extended disobedience. The Egyptian “house of slavery” from which God frees Israel (Exod. 20:2) mirrors, in a strange way, the very form of redeemed Israel now proclaimed as the Lord’s own transfigured slave (Isaiah 53). The nation’s history becomes a continual, often exhausting, stirring up of these human and divine marks, for which Abraham, Sarah and Hagar are vivid ciphers. What seems to count through all of this is a preternatural conviction of God’s own faithfulness, offering a final end that is only murkily, but nonetheless certainly, discernible in the shifting currents of time.
Christians, by and large, have been less comfortable with this open-ended, messy view of human history tied to a trust in the faithfulness of a mysterious God. The novum of Jesus and the definitiveness of his revelation has tended to press toward clear claims about how to judge history. However, Augustine, who offered the earliest and greatest attempt at parsing history and its moral contours, was, on this matter, far more complex than his followers. He understood at least how Christians are unable to escape the disconcerting reality of their own Christ, and of his cross, which is not drawn from the easy lines of history’s moral blueprint.
In the first place, Christians could never quite forget that the Incarnation takes the very posture of slavery. The one who was “equal” with God took the “form of a slave,” not only in terms of a social status, but because to be “born a human being” is to be enslaved (Phil. 2:6-8). The oscillating lines of Israel’s history — and of the history of the nations, too — is thus seen as being contained within the human frame itself. Christian experience demonstrates this fact, however hard it is to dwell on, let alone celebrate. Jesus, the Messiah, is truly “son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1).
In the second place, the New Testament intractably testifies that, having become human, the Lord of history “became a slave for all.” Just here, the moral destiny of his followers was laid out. This was something Paul himself — “slave of Christ” — struggled to make sense of in his ministry, somehow finding divine truth in his “weakness” (Mark 10:44, Rom. 1:1, 1 Cor. 9:19, 2 Cor. 11:23-30). In this context of human life, where, to reverse Rousseau’s adage, “everyone is born in chains,” redemption — presupposing enslavement — astonishingly shifts to the realm of “adoption.” In Christian terms, the “children of God” are no longer “naturally” defined, but are rather liberated to be such, “designated” by grace as heirs (Rom. 8:14-21). Whatever Paul was doing with his Sarah-Hagar allegory, he also understood that in the divinely incarnate human slave who is Christ, Abraham’s servant does become an heir, even as Abraham and Sarah’s history finds its term. It was a recognition, embedded in the story of Abraham and Sarah, that was only spottily grasped over the centuries, seen with great clarity by some African-American Christians, and rightly reoriented easy religious evasions.
But what kind of fulfillment is this history in the end? Certainly not a clear one, in temporal terms. I have no idea, therefore, about the political implications there may be for our moment from this Scripture and from its interpretation. Life is hard, complex, brief, full of dark suffering and moments of blazing light that often only flicker, and in all this God shares a glory that both consumes and creates. Barth, among others, taught us that moral “principles” — and moralisms even more so — are a weak reed to lean upon in the face of this God. Thus, the Sermon on the Mount is not only a list of “shoulds” but a description of “what is the case” for Jesus Christ himself, a statement of the way things are, graciously but also inescapably. Navigating these two sides of Jesus’ teaching is hardly obvious. But because the way things are for Christ is itself a gift from God, somehow, murkily, mysteriously, and ineluctably, what is clear is that Christians dare not sever themselves from that history. Abraham and Sarah, slaveholders, remain our ancestors in God, just as was the case for Jesus. And Hagar too, who has somehow found her place there with them. Both of these realities are worth remembering, putting into words, and perhaps even singing.
The Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.