“Can Egyptian Christian Women Identify with Hagar?” by Wagdy Elisha

“Hagar does not belong to us… she is the great grandmother of Muslims.” I still remember these words that my grandmother used to say. In fact, I can affirm that these words reflect the dominant attitude among Egyptian Christians, especially the women, toward Hagar. Therefore, when Egyptian Christian women read the biblical traditions concerning Hagar and Sarah[1] in Genesis 16 and 21, they identify themselves with the latter, although they are presumably ethnically related to the former.

For me, however, reading African-American literature and theology helped me to think critically about our Egyptian Christian stereotype of Hagar and Sarah. At that point, I recognized that Egyptian Christians face a serious challenge when they read the stories of Hagar and Sarah. This challenge has to do with the tension between the political and the religious aspects of the identity of Christian Egyptians. While ethnically we are related to Hagar because she was an Egyptian, we are religiously related to Sarah because she is a great grandmother of Christ. In this paper I argue that Egyptian Christian women, despite the hermeneutical and ethno-religious obstacles, can identify with Hagar, as well as Sarah, and find their story to be relevant to their Egyptian context, and a basis for coexistence, understanding, and solidarity among the whole Egyptian community.

In order to support my argument, I will present some examples of the Egyptian Christian readings of the Hagar-Sarah story. Then, I will explore Hagar’s status in the Islamic thought, and how it influences the Egyptian Christian attitude toward her. After that, I will engage with some interpretations of Hagar’s story in the African American womanist writings. Finally, I will attempt to present a different approach to the Hagar-Sarah story, by which the Egyptian Christian woman can keep her positive self-perception and dynamic feminine identity as manifested in both Hagar and Sarah. Moreover, I will investigate the possibility of the use of Hagar and Sarah story to establish a common ground for tolerance, understanding, and solidarity among all Egyptians.

One of the main factors that influenced the Egyptian Christian perception of the biblical Hagar and Sarah is the allegorical reading of Paul in Galatians 4:21-31. As John Thompson writes;

“Of all the stories in Scripture, Hagar’s alone receives an allegorical interpretation which is canonically approved-licensed, so to speak, by St. Paul. Christian interpreters after Paul knew only one text of Genesis, and that was the one already glossed and interpreted in a way that did not flatter Hagar or her son. Consequently, to attend at all to the historical dimension of the story in Genesis would require resisting two impulses, both Pauline: first, to read that story solely in terms of its typological significance, and second, to see Hagar and Ishmael solely as villains.”[2]

Thompson’s analysis of this hermeneutical problem, I suggest, probably describes the situation in Egypt. Egyptian Christian interpretations of the Hagar and Sarah story focused on the allegorical understanding of Paul. Hence, based on this typological exegesis, Father Tadros Malaty,[3] in his very widespread Arabic Commentary on Genesis, condemns Sarai’s request of Abram to have intercourse with her slave Hagar. For this was a resort to the human method, and not faith, in order to fulfill God’s promise of having a child. However, this weakness was used for the glory of God. Hagar became an allegory for Israel.

However, Sarah became an allegory for the Church of the New Testament. Hagar is the law (nomos), and Sarah is grace and faith. Hagar is the slave and her children (Israel) will forever be slaves, while Sarah is the free and her children (the church) will be free.[4] The author describes Hagar as “evil and alien from the faithful life of Abraham. Therefore, God ordered Abraham to expel her.”[5] It is obvious from this commentary that the author depends on the Galatians passage more than Genesis 16, 21.

The allegorical exegesis by the Egyptian church, however, is even harsher toward Hagar than Paul’s exegesis. Father Antonios Fakry states Hagar was a sinner and committed the sin of pride, and left the house of Abram, which symbolizes the church. But Hagar survives because of the mercy of God on sinners. So, God orders Hagar to return to Abram’s house.[6] Fakry uses Genesis 16:12 to negatively allude to the Arabs. He says that Ishmael is the father of all Bedouin Arabs.[7] So, Ishmael was “a wild fighter who used his sword to beat, conquer, and rob his enemies, as his descendents are doing against their enemies.”[8]

Fakry also argues that Sarah’s demand that Abraham expel Hagar and Ishmael was “in a prophetic spirit.”[9] Therefore, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael was an allegory to the disappearance of Israel (God’s People according to the flesh), and the appearance of the Church (God’s People according to the promise).[10]

The rest of the article is located here.

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[1] Although Abraham and Sarah were called Abram and Sarai in Genesis 16, in this paper, I will mainly refer to them as Abraham and Sarah.

[2] John L. Thompson, “Hagar, Victim or Villain? Three Sixteenth-Century Views,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 59, no. 2 (1997)

[3] Father Tadros Malaty is a prominent Coptic Orthodox priest. He published commentaries for all the biblical books. One main feature of his interpretation is his reliance on the writings of the Coptic and Eastern Fathers.

[4] Tadros Malaty, “Commentary on Genesis,” St. George, http://www.popekirillos.org/ar/bible/oldtestement_commentary_Fr_Tadros_Yakoup_tafseer_abona_tadros/Genesis.htm. Father Malaty claims that he relies in his interpretation of this allegory on John Chrysostom. He, however, does not mention any citations.

[5] Ibid

[6] Antonios Fakry, Bible Commentary: Genesis (Cairo: St. Mary the Virgin, 1997), 153-55

[7] Here, Fakry means the ancient inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula.

[8] Fakry, Bible Commentary: Genesis, 157. This is an indirect allusion to the aggressiveness of Arabs. The Egyptian Christian reader, I suggest, would understand this allusion to be about the Islamic conquest of Egypt. It may also remind the reader of some sectarian attacks in Egypt against the Copts throughout history.

[9] Ibid, 182

[10] Ibid, 183

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