xbn .
Politics of Scripture

Lament As Subversive Prayer

In the voices of the oppressed, one can listen to the voice of the divine. In this decolonial reading, one can excavate a liberative hermeneutic, which is life affirming and life nurturing. The lament of Hagar and her son Ishmael are echoed today in the voices of several people who are excluded in the society by the dominant, and the call for us today is to listen to the divine and work for a just world. 

8 The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. 15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

Genesis 21:8-21

Colonial readings of the Biblical texts have always allied, and upheld, the patriarchal, casteist, and racist dominance systems of the society, and do not provide any potential liberative hermeneutic to oppressed communities. Colonial epistemology either undocuments, or silences, the voices of the oppressed in a narrative. This conveniently runs the story from the perspectives of the powerful, making such a narrative normative. The tears and the lives of the oppressed communities are neither valued – nor recorded – and continue to be hidden and forgotten transcripts.

The story of Hagar and her son Ishmael in Genesis is one such transcript. In this reflection, I employ a decolonial method in an effort to speak her lament, inviting readers to listen to her story from her own perspective. I explore Hagar’s lament as a subversive prayer, for she rants at God to quench the thirst of her child. Her prayer is subversive because, at her deepest moments of helplessness and lifelessness, she calls on God for water, and the “God who sees” listens to her prayer and comes to the rescue of her child. 

In the text, Genesis 21: 8-21, Hagar (an Egyptian who served as a slave) and her child Ishmael were both sent out into the wilderness by Abraham, with only some water to drink. As they walk, wander, and thirst in that sun-scorched wilderness, Ishmael reaches the edge of death. Hagar leaves her child under a bush, for she did not dare to see her son dying out of thirst. She does not go far away, sitting opposite her son with a hope against hope. Hagar, out of her desperation, lifts her voice, weeps, and prays, “Do not let me look on the death of the child” (16v).

At this point it is also important to recollect that, in Genesis 16:13, Hagar runs away from her mistress’s harsh treatment and encounters the messenger of God at the spring – a well in the desert. It is here that Hagar – a slave woman from Egypt, an ‘ethnic other’ to Abraham and Sarai – names God, perhaps the only person to name God in the scriptures. Hagar names God “El-Roi”, meaning ‘God who sees me.’ This connection between the divine and water offers an intriguing perspective to the crisis of her son’s overwhelming thirst in Genesis 21. Weeping, Hagar invokes the name of the ‘God who sees’ as a lament, begging God to intervene and save both her child, and herself.

From Hagar’s weeping I hear a lament, where she raises her voice, and demands of God to save her child and not force her to see his death. As she received a promise from ‘God who sees’ in Genesis 16 that God is going to make a multitude of generations through Ishmael, why would God allow the death of her child at this point? For me, lament in the setting of faith is a public outcry in the presence of God, looking for hope, in protest against the oppressive systems and structures within a community. Lament is a subversive way of praying, using rants to gain God’s attention and favour in an effort to survive and live, as well as dismantle all notions of status quo, including religious exceptionalism. Lament provides an understanding of the God who chooses to be on the side of the oppressed.

Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa (Archbishop of Bukavu, in the Democratic Republic of Congo) is often called the ‘Romero of Congo,’ due to Munzirhirwa’s tireless and courageous efforts for the cause of peace and justice in the context of Rwandan genocide. He shared Oscar Romero’s unfortunate fate as well, eventually being shot dead in 1996. One of his famous sayings came to my aid in understanding the power of the lament that I hear in the prayer of Hagar. He said, “There are things which can be seen only by eyes that have cried.”

In the lament of Hagar, in her tears, in her weeping, she has seen abandonment, she has seen loneliness, she has seen thirst, she has seen the near-death experience of her son, she has encountered ‘God who sees’ and ‘God who hears’, and she has seen hope offered by God. There are things which can be seen only in the eyes that have cried.

When she laments, Hagar is crying out loud against a system that has left her and her child in the wilderness.When Ishmael is on the brink of death, she laments, looking for hope from the God whom she previously had an encounter with. “Do not let me look on the death of the child” (16v): these are the only words of Hagar’s lament that the text records, while in the rest of the story we witness her own silence, or her being silenced when she is sent away into the wilderness.

To understand the depth of her lament, I (ad)ventured to hear this text from the perspective of Hagar. Such a reflection here is adding voice to the lament of Hagar, or to put it in other words, this is one way that I hear, in my context, the voice of Hagar’s lament in this text. Perhaps my own Dalit theological positioning inspires me to ‘hear to speech’ the lament of Hagar, for in the Indian public sphere where the episteme of caste dominates and dictates, the voices of Dalits are either silenced or never heard. So when Hagar speaks, I hear the voice of my own Dalit sisters and brothers lamenting for justice, for water and for dignity of life.

If Hagar were to narrate her own story at that place in the wilderness, however, she would speak out of her quest for life and dignity.  (I confess that as I narrate this story from Hagar’s perspective, my male privilege is exposed, challenging me to seek repentance from patriarchal readings of the text that silence the voices of women). This is one of the many ways she might have narrated her story:

“Early in the morning, when it was still dark, Abraham – through whom I, Hagar, bore his first descendant – deserted us and sent us away into the desert. All that he gave was some left-over food and a skin of water, leaving us to wander into the dark.

“Here I am with my son Ishmael, deserted now to be a single parent. I do not know where to go, and now I have to start walking and wandering through the wilderness. Coming from a Black Ethnic Minority community, an outcast community, I was treated as a property of my master at their house and was inhumanely thrown out. After a brief walk in the woods, my child (and the love of my life) Ishmael felt hungry and I fed him with food and water.

Towards the end of the day, in that scorching sun in the desert, we were thirsty and couldn’t continue our walk. We woke up the next day thirsty, and fruitlessly searched for an oasis. All I hear is my love weeping for water! I couldn’t see my son dying of thirst, and I left him alone near a bush while I wept at the other end, crying out loud in desperation and in helplessness.

What kind of God is this? Where is this ‘God who sees?’ Can God come and save us from this thirst? I lamented to God in that wilderness: “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” I did not want to see the death of my child in front of my eyes. There are things which can be seen only in the eyes that have cried. I wept, wept, and only wept.

I might be the only woman (perhaps the only slave woman) who had a conversation with God in the Scriptures, calling God as ‘El -Roi’ (God who sees). Yet, Abraham – who couldn’t overcome his patriarchal dominance – deserted me and my son. And now we are dying of thirst here.

At that moment, ‘God who sees’ saw our plight and heard our cries. By rescuing a slave woman and her child, God undermined Abraham’s assumption of divine justification for all of his actions. God demonstrated, in real life, that God consciously takes sides with the oppressed, ignoring human assumptions of divine favour. In fact, the patriarchal writers of the text did not record my plight and cries: they only mentioned that God heard the cries of my child! 

Yes, God did hear the plight of my son, for God gave life by quenching our thirst with a well of water. The angel of God called on me, and I heard the voice saying: “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is, and your weeping from where you are. Come lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

As I heard the voice, my eyes were opened, my heart was opened and my whole being was filled with hope for a new life. Immediately I drew water from that well, filling a skin and quenching Ishmael’s thirst. Water gave a new life to me and my son, for through that water, my child was ordained to become a great nation.

I realised that life is impossible without water. I have seen it with my own eyes, for my son was nearing death from thirst, and was longing for fresh water. By drinking water from the well, Ishmael my son came back to life. God responded to my lament in a practical, timely and relevant manner. God did not use “magic”, but helped us draw water from a nearby well we did not realise existed.

Even though Abraham deserted me and my son, God did not leave us nor forsake us. God gave us waters of life so that we can become a stream of life for many generations. God watched over me and Ishmael: Ishmael grew up, made a living in the wilderness of Paran and became an expert with the bow. We have recognised and experienced the presence of God in the wilderness. I am a testimony to a ‘God who sees,’ and Ishmael lives up to the meaning of his name in his testimony to a ‘God who hears.’

When Hagar speaks, she exposes the principalities and powers of patriarchy. When Hagar speaks, she invokes a God who sees and hears the plights of the thirsty communities, thirsty for water and thirsty for justice and peace. When Hagar speaks, she is firm in addressing the thirst of her children. When Hagar speaks, she overcomes stigma and discrimination inflicted by race, caste, and other prejudices. Let those that have ears listen to Hagar and strive for a just world, where water will be accessed by all people, freely and justly.

The God of Hagar is a God who sees and is a God who hears, for the God of justice sees and hears the cries and tears of communities who have been living under stigma, discrimination and exclusion. The God of Hagar offers hope to the thirsty communities today by the wells of fresh waters, quenching their thirst and granting life.

In the context of growing child hunger in the UK in particular, and in the world in general, these words of Hagar- “Do not let me look on the death of the child”- reverberate as our lament, and as our prayer today. There are many around the world today crying out “I can’t breathe”; maybe that would have been what Ishmael was saying as he was crying out loud in that wilderness.

God in our context is inviting us to be, and become, wells of fresh water where we can quench the thirst of people dying of thirst, and offer hope to people who are unable to breathe due the pressure of prejudice and discrimination.

Emmanuel Katongole is a Ugandan Catholic theologian who argues for the existence of three constitutive elements that belong to the theological practice of lament: lament as protest, the grace to weep, and lament as “suffering with”.

Lament as Protest: Kantongole calls this ‘critique,’ where society has forgotten the experience of weeping. Due to the growing individualism in our societies, with a culture of growing personal well-being, we have lost the sense of fraternity. Hagar’s lament offers a critique of her patriarchal society, where our churches are called to lament the insensitivity and indifference that we show towards people who are different to us. When child poverty is on the rise in our communities, when ongoing sagas of discriminations and oppressions demonstrate that Black lives don’t matter to many, and when fear of the stranger has been increasing, we are called: to lament of our complacency, of our insensitivity, and of our indifference towards others.

The Grace to Weep: The church must be a community of lament. Hagar’s lament is an invitation for us today to be a community of lament, speaking openly in the public space for both the plights and pathos of children who are pushed to poverty, and for the plight of refugees. Liberation is an invitation to join with Jesus in those situations of weeping which offer a way of light: by being and becoming wells of fresh water to the thirsty community around us.

Lament as “Suffering With”: Compassion has significant power. The grace to weep is an invitation to be in solidarity with people who are suffering, and join with them in their suffering, in their weeping. Hagar wept as Ishmael wept, and demanded that the ‘God who sees’ act by demonstrating compassion for her dying son. As faith communities, our calling is to offer lament as our willingness to join and suffer with those who are suffering. It is time to keep continuing the acts of compassion which should extend beyond our confines to the margins of our societies.

In continuation of my theological imagination, I think Hagar and Ishmael, having tasted the hope from God after their laments, would have dug several wells in that wilderness and beyond, ensuring that people can quench their thirst. By digging wells, they would have demonstrated the presence of God, both turning the wilderness into a liveable place and offering hope through building community. Should we not become a well of fresh water to our community around us, quenching the thirst of many Hagars and Ishmaels?

From my own Dalit theological positioning, this reflection of Hagar’s lament offers hope to raise our voice against oppressive systems, and to strive towards quenching the thirst of children and all that are thirsty for justice and peace. This reflection is a decolonial reading of the text, allowing us to hear the text from the perspective of the colonised.

In the voices of the oppressed, one can listen to the voice of the divine. In this decolonial reading, one can excavate a liberative hermeneutic, which is life affirming and life nurturing. The lament of Hagar and her son Ishmael are echoed today in the voices of several people who are excluded in the society by the dominant, and the call for us today is to listen to the divine and work for a just world. 

May the God of Hagar and Ishmael grant us the compassion to see things that can be seen only through the eyes that have cried for water, food, peace, love and justice.

Like what you're reading?

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This

Share this post with your friends!