a handmaid’s tale


Why is humankind in such a mess?

A common Christian theory goes something like this: When Eve was tempted by the serpent, Adam stayed passive and listened to his wife rather than take charge of the situation. The lesson? When men don’t lead, in the home and in the church, God’s people suffer.

I think this approach to the story of Genesis 3 is, well, rubbish. So I was disappointed to come across this argument again recently when researching the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael in Genesis 16. Remember the story? Here’s a refresher…

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. (Genesis 16:1-4)

Hagar gives birth to Ishmael, the patriarch of the Arab people, a bloodline that does not get along with the bloodline of Isaac, the Jewish people. As some commentators tell the story, here is the beginning of the Middle East crisis: Abraham is passive, listens to his wife, Ishmael is born, and there’s been no peace in the Middle East ever since.

Again, this belongs in the dung pile for a couple of reasons:

First, the birth of Ishmael is not the source of the Middle East crisis – sin is, both then and now. The reason for this discord between Arabs and Jews is not so much found in Genesis 16 as it is in Genesis 3. People are sinners. Sin (Greek, hamartia) means to separate (see page 100-101 in Reunion). Sin is that anti-love, anti-unity, anti-relationship force that corrodes the connections of relationship between individual people and groups of people. Read the story closely and you’ll see it is the way Abraham and Sarah and Hagar all treat each other that is the problem – not the birth of Ishmael. It makes me imagine what history might have been like if Abraham and Sarah and Hagar related to one another in pure love, rather than out of their insecurity and fear.

What if Abraham had chased after his mistress and firstborn son, begged Sarah to forgive his betrayal, and urged Hagar to forgive Sarah’s jealousy, so that they might raise their sons together? Would we be any better at living in peace?
~ Charlotte Gordon

Bottom line: Arabs are not the problem. Jews are not the problem. Sin is the problem, and we all carry the virus.

Secondly (and now we’re back on our main theme for this post), while male passivity is a real issue deserving rebuke, there is no reason to see the solution as male power. We can reject this binary choice and go for what’s behind door #3: the solution is neither male passivity nor male power, but mutual partnership. The antidote to husbands who are passively disengaged is not to rally them into taking charge and asserting their headship in terms of authority, but to invite them into engaged and active partnership with their wives. This is the beautiful ideal of marriage. And this is also a beautiful goal for church leadership.

Back to Genesis 16, here is my favourite part. When Hagar runs away, God pursues her, finds her alone near a well, calls her by name, and blesses her and her as yet unborn son. God reveals himself to Hagar much like Jesus and the woman at the well in John 4. Both in Genesis 16 and John 4, the scene is exceedingly intimate. In fact, God names Ishmael (typically the role of the husband in that culture), which means “God has heard.” Now every time Hagar calls her son’s name, she will be reminded of God’s care and partnership. And in return, Hagar names God with a kind of pet-name just between the two of them, as though he is her partner, her lover, her friend, her husband. She calls him, El Roi, which means, “the God who sees me.” In a world where Hagar was used only as a sexual slave, with no one to be her partner, she knows God has given her love in the form of his focused attention.

The most desired gift of love is not diamonds or roses or chocolate. It’s focused attention.
~ Rick Warren

If you’re feeling alone and unnoticed, spend time with the God of Jesus, who is “the God who sees me.” God cares about the outcasts, the bit players, the disposable “mistakes” in any story. Whether your sense of esteem today is high or low, may it be rooted in and informed by this truth: God wants to be your partner. Take a deep breath, open your eyes, and look for ways to change the world around you together.





PS: I recently taught on this passage at The Meeting House – go here to hear it.


  1. Such a unique take on this passage! Thanks for this encouraging and challenging word, Bruxy. Question- I have heard other teachers say the name ‘Ishmael’ means ‘war’ or ‘conflict’. Are those translations incorrect? Thanks again for your egalitarian approach!

    1. Hi Rebekah! Thanks for your feedback, and your question. No, Ishmael does not mean war or conflict, but a variation of “God listens.”

      Maybe some people have confused the meaning of Ishmael with what God prophesies about him in the same passage – that “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers” (Genesis 16:12). God knows Ishmael will be a person, and will produce a people, who will live in conflict with others, especially the Jews. Knowing this, and still blessing Hagar and Ishmael anyway shows us just how gracious and loving and accepting God really is.

      Bottom line, whether or not someone takes the time to look up the meaning of Ishmael, the text itself gives the meaning: “You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery” (Genesis 16:11).

      I hope that helps. Thanks again for your comment!

  2. Thank you, Bruxy! I so needed this today, especially the last paragraph in view of all the vitriolic speech and actions in the U.S. It even extends to animosity between family and life-long friends because of policies that are being put in place. For those of us who live in very “red” states, it can be oppressive! We who try to follow Jesus are aware of what you said, but sometimes we need a refresher course! Know that you are appreciated!!!!

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