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Abstracts for Hagar and Sarah in the Bible: Session 1

Christian Theology and the Bible
Society of Biblical Literature
Annual Meeting 2009
New Orleans, LA

Paul Borgman, Gordon College
“Sarah & Hagar: Rhetorical Function and the Making of Christian Theology”

The respective literary contexts of the Sarah-Hagar references in Genesis (16:1-15; 21:8-21) and Galatians (4:21-31) offer two insights: (I) Rhetoric precedes biblical theology; (II) Rhetoric can shift the biblical ground. I. Rhetoric precedes biblical theology (a) The Genesis Sarah-Hagar episodes highlight a motif within a larger narrative context, the paralleled seven visits between Abraham and God: the story’s God is challenging Abraham toward a greater morality and trust. The paralleled Sarah-Hagar accounts demonstrate just this: unlike God, in #1, Abraham lacks care regarding Hagar. But like God, in #2—and listening to God—Abraham actions parallel God’s attention to, and provision for, Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham is improving: God can finally say, in the last of the paralleled seven visits, Now I know I can trust you, 22:12); for her part, Hagar is rewarded with promised blessing come true, a line of descendants with which the story of Abraham and Sarah properly concludes (25:12-18). (b) In Galatians, Paul turns the earlier narrative perspective on its head (4:21-31): the epistolary context is a central section of rabbinic midrash (3:6-5:1) in which Paul uses Sarah and Hagar as allegorical stick figures, a free woman/son versus an enslaved woman/son: Spirit versus Flesh; freedom in Christ versus Law enslavement; peace, joy, and mutual support versus dissension, divisiveness, and competition. II. Rhetoric can shift the biblical ground Paul’s conceptualizing midrash functions within a pragmatic frame (1:1-3:5; 5:7-6:18) so that by the end of his letter the Galatians hear a resolve to the Genesis conflict between mistress (Sarah) and slave (Hagar). And his rhetorically useful polarity dissolves, ironically: it is, ultimately a pragmatic reality. We live as one in Christ. Comparing the Genesis and Galatians accounts, we discern the rhetorical transformation in Galatians of the Genesis Sarah-Hagar roles for the purpose of making Christian theology.


Nathan MacDonald, University of St. Andrews-Scotland
“Hagar as Elected and Rejected”

Hagar occupies a particularly ambivalent position within the course of the divine election in Genesis 12-50. She both despises (qll) Sarah, and yet her son participates in the promise of fruitfulness and is granted a divine blessing (brk). Hagar and her son appear to find themselves on both sides of the promise to Abraham in Gen 12.1-3. The ambiguous status of Hagar is underlined in her exclusion from the covenant and in the ways the treatment of her and her son in Gen 16 and 21 prefigure Israel’s wilderness experience and the (near-)sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22). This paper will consider the complicating of the portrayal of divine election at this very early point in the canonical text. Into the dialogue will be brought Kaminsky’s recent proposals on election as well as Barth’s reflections upon Christ as the elected and rejected one.


James Andrews, Aberdeen University
“Divine Agency and Human Freedom: God’s Gracious Response to Hagar”

The proposed paper will begin from the perspective that theological interpretation involves asking a question to the biblical text in order to hear an answer. The text is after all an instrument in the divine economy, used, as Augustine says, to move us closer to God and closer to our neighbor. Starting from such a self-consciously theological position will allow the paper to utilize the story of Sarah and Hagar to discuss divine and human freedom and God’s gracious response to his creatures. In City of God, Augustine stresses that God is at work in the natural course of procreation, but the birth of Isaac requires a regeneration of nature, thus illuminating God’s grace. For Augustine, then, as with Paul, Sarah becomes a figure of grace, while Hagar becomes a figure of nature. Taking such an interpretation as a starting point, the paper will argue that the story can say more about the relationship between divine and human freedom by exploring the figure of Hagar. Though Abraham’s offspring are named through Isaac and not Ishmael, God promises that Ishmael will also become a nation. The paper will assert that this aspect of the story, neglected in Augustine’s (and Paul’s) interpretation, suggests that God’s action in response to human freedom continues to be one of grace: even those not included in the promise are protected and provided for by God. This calls to mind Jesus’ statement that God causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good. The paper will then suggest that Sarai’s natural inclination to give Hagar to Abram in no way impedes God’s gracious act in giving a son to these two aged people, and God still responds graciously by providing for Hagar and Ishmael when they are expelled in another act of human freedom.


Cherith Nordling
“Sarah & Hagar: The Upside-Down, Inside-Out Character of New Creation”

In the context of the theological themes of creation/barrenness/death, and new creation/birth/resurrection, we will attend to Paul’s language that speaks of Abraham “as good as dead,” of Sarah’s womb as “dead,” and of Hagar’s “slave” children “cursed” to die, in contrast to Jesus’ resurrection identity given to those born as new creation. This new humanity/identity was promised to the offspring of Sarah AND Hagar (all nations) in the original covenant. It is paradoxically fulfilled by God’s final “offspring” and “new Adam” – conceived by the Spirit, born of woman, born under law and redeemer from that law. His Spirit-initiated and empowered life has initiated permanent human life, through death to resurrection. This death/birth into the life of the Son, and “adoption” by the Spirit as co-heirs, however, belongs only to those born of a woman. New creation involves the “redemption of our bodies” as eternally human “children of the resurrection.” Already we are called to live our future humanity in our embodied present as male and female children of the New Jerusalem (Sarah), image-bearers of Yahweh’s true Son and co-heirs who manifest his power and authority by the Spirit. How then might we specifically extend new covenant life to those Hagars – women at risk – under his merciful Lordship, and thus under our care?

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  1. […] abstracts here. Hagar and Sarah in the Bible: Session […]

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