In our given passage, dwelling on one of the infamous traditional tools “portrayals of women” found in many books of the Old Testament by the prophets and the wisdom writers to talk about the paradoxical life of the Israelite society, faith and tradition, the Apostle Paul was trying to explain the dignity and status of a Christian in the kingdom of God by following the New Law laid down by Jesus Christ. He did this in and through the allegorical presentation of Hagar-Ishmael and Sarah-Isaac with Abraham. Though Paul himself was struggling to disown the legacy of the Jewish Law, being a Jew himself, yet, his new faith in Christ helped him to propagate the legacy of the New Law in Christ. Paul did this while writing to the non-Jewish, Greek-speaking community of the Galatians, the gentiles in the language of the New Testament. Paul, by referring to the Old Testament story of the patriarch Abraham, and his struggle for progeny in the midst of God’s promise to be the father of many nations, along with Covenant, Election, Law, Blessings, and Curses, etc. was trying to make these theologies relevant and meaningful for his Galatian audience in Christ alone as the beginning of the New Law – the new Adam.
According to Pauline theology of ‘the Promise of the heritage of the Kingdom of God’, we need to be liberated from the clutches of enslavement to human urges, to human-made law, systems, and traditions that suit our exclusivism. We need to follow the new Law that is found in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. As in the new Law in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male nor female, for you are all in one Jesus Christ” (Galatians 3: 28-29). Paul, while using the story of the two women Hagar and Sarah allegorically condemned the ill-fated traditions, law, and the pride of the Jewish exclusivist concept of election and covenant promised to the progeny of the Nation Israel with their exclusive claim of the Kingdom of God. Paul even condemned the derogative status given to women who had not conceived children as ‘Barren Women’ by saying,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband” (ref. verse 27).
According to Paul, when God wants to open the womb of a woman, it will be done in God’s own time to reveal God’s glory for progeny as clearly seen in the case of Sarah. At the same time, Paul is trying to bring to our attention the misfortune of having offspring under the forceful human plan by following traditions and beliefs as in the case of Hagar being forced to be with Abraham, which is paradoxical of God’s plan. The outcome was painful. Hagar and her son Ishmael were sent away in the desert to wander and die (Genesis 21: 15-20), which is horrifying and beyond our imagination.
While reading between the lines of the Biblical story of Sarah and Hagar, and to understand the painful reality of this human-made the practice of giving a handmaid/slave to the husband for want of progeny, a recent American television series called “The Handmaid’s Tale” created by Bruce Millers, for which production began in late 2016 from a Novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” written by Margaret Atwood in 1985 retold this episode in a very intensive and in-depth manner. This series which is heavily based on the Biblical account of Bilhah and Abraham had showcased the practice of total submission of women irrespective of their status as legal/slave wife or any other women (Genesis 29:29 ref Genesis 16:3). The plot of this TV series features an imagined state of high/rich totalitarian society called “Gilead” where there is great suffering and injustice meted out to fertile women, called “Handmaids”, to child-bearing slavery to be impregnated and bear children for the ruling elite families. The handmaids must submit to ritualized rape (referred to as “the ceremony”) by their male masters (“Commanders”) in the presence of their wives (deemed as free women) for progeny. Only these children born in this elite Gilead Society will have the right to inherit the Kingdom of Gilead.
Being a student of the Old Testament and keenly interested in reading the Bible from a subaltern perspective, this TV series of the Handmaid’s Tale helped me to re-look at the analogy put forward by the Apostle Paul in a more critical manner from the socio-religious and political context of the women’s world be it in the context of the Old Testament, New Testament or our society today. I can see how these beliefs and practices can be so manipulative with or without knowing the consequences, and how much pain it can cause to the lives of many women irrespective of their social standing in society. Sarah, till the age of 90 had to go through the turmoil, pain, and agony of being branded as a barren womb, which according to the ancient Israelite’s patriarchal understanding was a curse, and even so today. The barren womb is to be rejected, outcast, humiliated, and oppressed. On the contrary, the womb that bore a child is blessed with all dignity and high status in the family and society. Hagar was blessed with her son Ishmael, to be the first son of Abraham. But sadly, her blessed womb became the instrument of suffering and subjugation because she was ‘Ofsarah’ (of Sarah), and not an individual entity as ‘mother’ or ‘Hagar’ but the possession and the slave of Sarah. The tradition of giving slave women/daughters/wives away to strangers for the protection of the honor of the Male-Head of the family/clan is seen in Abrahamic times. Yet even as thousands of years have gone by, the tradition continues to be a tale of horror till today as a way to justify the patriarchal worldview as God’s desire. Many religious sectarian groups continue to practice even today
In the given text we read of the Apostle Paul who preferred to stay celibate. With the wisdom from God, he understood the pain which women are going through under the human-made Patriarchal norms and practices. He is therefore advocating Christians to believe and follow Jesus Christ and have discernment of God’s will in our lives and not to be blinded by the law that deeply enslaves our desire and behavior. As Christians, we are the children of the ‘free woman’ (Galatians 4:31) and “for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5: 1), so that the Gospel of Christ can be fulfilled as Jesus came to this world to give us life and enjoy in abundance (John 10:10). As we had celebrated the 75th India’s Independence Day (August 15) from the colonial rule, let us learn how to live as free citizens without fear, without exercising the demonic power of casteism, racism, classism and patriarchal hierarchical exclusivism.