This spring, I have been taking a class at the Academy for Jewish Religion with Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, the Academic Dean of the seminary. The class is called Disturbing Biblical Texts. It does a deep dive into some of the more troubling texts of the Hebrew Bible in an effort to find new meaning in, or find new ways to negotiate, some of the more, well, disturbing Biblical texts! This past week, we were discussing the two stories pertaining to Hagar, the servant of Sarah and the concubine/wife of Abraham who bears him his first son, Ishmael (Genesis 16 and 21).
Hagar and Ishmael are characters that are largely acted upon. In the first story, Hagar, pregnant with Ishmael, is treated so abusively by Sarah that she runs away, into the desert. An angel of God instructs her to return and bear the mistreatment. In time, the angel explains, “I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count.” In the second story, after Isaac’s miraculous birth to the aged Sarah, Sarah protests that “the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” She insists that Abraham banish her, and God instructs him to do as Sarah said. He packs Hagar and Ishmael “some bread and a skin of water” and sends them off into the wilderness. Again, an angel appears, this time to save them from impending death, and he tells Hagar that God will “make a great nation of [the lad].”
In some ways, the story reflects the nation’s current unrest. It paints a picture of an underclass oppressed, mistreated, and debased by the prevailing power-structure. Hagar is repeatedly called “that slave” and Ishmael “the son of that slave.” They are used (especially Hagar!) and then cast aside when no longer necessary.
But Dr. Horn Prouser points out another striking parallel to the upheaval in our country that was sparked by the murder of George Floyd. The history of Bible criticism and Bible commentary was marked, through most of its history, by a singular focus on the main characters and the narrative that supports their stories. It was really only in the 1970s that scholars (especially in the field of Feminist criticism) began to closely examine the role that “supporting” characters played. Figures like Hagar and Ishmael became more than bit players in someone else’s narrative; they became characters worthy of study in their own right. Their stories, in and of themselves, became new lenses through which to read the Bible.
The point is, throughout history, we have told “our” story – the focus has been on (for example) Abraham and Sarah and how crucial they are to the Israelite narrative and to the “happy ending” which sees our ancestors receiving the Torah and inheriting the land that was promised to them. It is “our story,” and it’s a good story. But all this time, there has been another story running at the same time, a story that plays in the shadows, a story of the forgotten characters. These characters are neglected, downtrodden, abused, and put upon. And in our historical focus on the heroes, many of these tragic figures have been neglected, amounting to a tacit condoning of their mistreatment.
America’s neglect and oppression of its African American population is the understory of this nation. The predominant culture has been whistling past the graveyard for centuries, reveling in its own progress and in its successes; and all the while, an entire segment of the population, neglected, forgotten, and consistently downtrodden, has paid the price. What we are experiencing right now is the convulsions of this history. Hagar and Ishmael have a story to tell, and it’s not a nice story. It’s a story of unspeakable pain and abuse and neglect and is more than most of us – the happy protagonists of the larger story – can bear to think about or even have the capacity to imagine.
I have no answers to this problem at this time, but I pray that the upheaval and unrest that we are experiencing are the birth pangs of meaningful change. We can take a page from the history of Bible criticism and learn that all stories need to be heard, and that our country’s “disturbing texts” need to be processed and negotiated so that we may learn new and better truths from them.
Shabbat shalom u’mevorach – truly praying for a peaceful and blessed Shabbat.
Our evening service takes place at 6:45 every evening (Sunday-Thursday). Because the days are getting longer, we are now reciting only the Mincha service at that time as it’s too early to recite Ma’ariv. We have a robust minyan every evening, and now that we’re only reciting Mincha, the brevity of the service (15 minutes, 20 max!) might make it more appealing to you to join us!
Join us this Friday night at 6:30 for Shabbat-a-BimBom, a warm and friendly service for children and their families. Please spread the word! Contact RoomJ@emjc.org for details and Zoom link.
We continue to be able to offer food to those in need. Please inform anyone you know who may be in need of a little support in that area – a bag of kosher groceries can be delivered to neighborhood homes and apartments on Mondays. Please contact Wayne or me if you would like to initiate this (for yourself or on behalf of someone else. All deliveries will be strictly confidential).