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Women
Quilting
A Biblical Pattern

by LETTY M. RUSSELL*

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her....

Abram went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with comtempt on her mistress....Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her....

The angel of the Lord said to Hagar, "Return to your mistress, and submit to her."...Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishamel....

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So 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...."

Genesis 16:11-16 and 21:9-12

 

This story -- the story of Sarah and Hagar -- is a story of terror for those who are marginalized or oppressed. It is the story of two women caught in the patriarchal structure of their society. Let’s look closer:

In Chapter 16, Sarah tries to overcome her failure to produce male progeny by giving her slave, Hagar, as a wife to Abraham. Hagar, oppressed by her nationality, class and sex, awakens to the possibility of new status as a mother. But being treated harshly by Sarah, she flees toward Egypt. God sends her back into slavery after appearing to her in an annunciation of Ishmael’s birth.

The two women are caught in a downward spiral of patriarchal oppression. They are linked by the process of male succession, yet are not able to see this nor are they able to resist the barriers it places between them. Sarah, depressed, suppressed and repressed, takes out her own terror on the one she can oppress.

From the perspective of the oppressed, this is also a story of survival. Sarah is struggling for survival, first to overcome her barrenness and then to prevent the loss of her own status and means of support should Ishmael become the first born of Abraham.

Hagar struggles to gain her freedom and to survive in her exodus journey. Then in chapter 21, she is exiled into a wilderness that holds no water and no life for her or her fatherless child.

While Abraham and God hold the resources, the two women vie with each other.

Finally, from the perspective of the oppressed, this story is one of promise -- a part of the entire patriarchal story of promise of God’s blessing to Israel.

Sarah is part of that promise because God intervenes to save her so that Isaac may also be saved as the child of the promise. Hagar’s story also contains promise. She receives the first theophany in the Bible and is the only person to give God a name -- "You are a God of seeing" -- says Phyllis Trible in her book, Texts of Terror.

God promises to multiply her descendants as well, so that the child of injustice and the child of promise are both blessed by God who seems to have a thing about Abraham’s sons whoever they are!

What would it take for the Sarahs of our own church communities to overcome their racism and fear? What would it take for the Hagars to build new coalitions for survival in the wilderness?

A biblical clue is that there is no reconciliation, no connection between the two sisters because there is no imaginative, constructive repentance on Sarah’s part. She is dismissed with the note that she dies at the age of 127, right after Abraham is tested in the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 23:1-2).

As Ms. Trible has pointed out, the logic of the sacrifice story would have been to have Sarah involved in God’s call for offering up her son to be returned to her a gift, not a possession.

It is difficult for us as women to give up those privileges that separate us. We need more than stories like this. We need changed actions that make new coalitions for changes in our churches and communities.

The problem with Sarah and Hagar, as well as with ourselves, is that our repentance and searching out of God’s mercy requires us to understand the sin. This story, and its many patriarchal interpreters, often fail to see that the problem in the story is not Sarah and Hagar, but Abraham and God.

The underlying problem is that the sisters are forced to produce an heir.


Quilting our faith story

This look at the story of Sarah and Hagar, Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham and God, comes out of women seeking meaning in the Bible. It comes out of an understanding that the message of the good news of God’s love is situation variable. God’s good news speaks to us where we are, in the midst of our longing, pain and vulnerability.

Looking anew at this familiar biblical story is just one example of women seeking the biblical connections that make up a pattern of authority that is life-giving within faith communities that are struggling for the full humanity of all women together with all men. These connections include a connection to ourselves, our bodies, our lives; a connection to those on the margins of church and society; and a connection to the Christian story of faith and practice.

Quilting provides a metaphor for looking at this process of making connections between Scripture and the lives of women.

On my 60th birthday, friends and colleagues presented me with a quilt in a pattern known as "Sister’s Choice." The quilt was made by my sisters, each of whom is on that journey of choosing to be a woman, assisted by the opportunities to learn about those choices through their years in seminary. Looking at the quilt evokes pictures of my life and relationships in a way similar to the powerful panels in the AIDS quilt.

Quilting is a woman’s art form, carried out by women together no matter how marginal or poor they are. Traditionally, quilts are made up of women’s lives pieced from clothing, bedding and linens used by themselves and their families.

The Sister’s Choice pattern reminds us of the way women chose their traditions and piece their lives together in so many creative ways. In seeking to understand our experiences and how they interface with biblical tradition and our naming of God, we add to the quilt of our lives the many beautiful pieces of the stories of our faith. In this process of quilting our past, present and future, the Bible helps us to discern the pattern of our faith and teaches us to piece together the pattern of our lives.


A crazy quilt

A popular style of quilting is the crazy quilt, made from fabric scraps of diverse shapes, sizes, colors, patterns and textures pieced together with decorative stitching. The Bible, like our lives and world, is a crazy quilt. It is pieced with stories, laws, history, parables, sayings, letters and revelations. It reflects good and bad, justice and injustice, faithlessness and faithfulness.

Within the Bible, it is communities of faith who witness to their experience of God’s presence in their lives in ways that confirm, correct and change the experiences of those who had gone before. This process continues on into our lives as we assent to the authority of Scripture because we discern patterns of meaning in our lives, and these point to the presence of God in our midst.

As women have increasingly joined those seeking interpretation of the Bible through intelligible discourse, speaking out of a variety of academic disciples and religious traditions, their starting point has been their experience of oppression and marginalization. Our scriptural crazy quilt is always in need of such "new eyes" to search out the pattern of our faith.


The Bible in the future

The future of the Bible depends on its ability to change and to be changed as it is read and pondered in communities of faith. The written text remains the same, with continuing clarifications and corrections through the study of languages, and new archeological discoveries like the Dead Sea Scrolls. New translations are needed all the time as the text must be translated into ever-changing contexts of culture and ever-changing language usage.

Interpretive styles are constantly changing as new tools of research, such as the recent ones of literary interpretation and sociological analysis of the social worlds of the Bible, emerge. Change also takes place because new questions are asked of the biblical text.

From the perspective of feminist and liberation advocacy of the God-given full humanity of all persons, the church communities that learn to piece together the pattern of our lives are communities of faith and struggle. They are communities that seek to live out the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ not only by their trust in God’s justice and love, but also by their own struggles for justice and wholeness.

It is these struggles for faithfulness that become the prism for discerning the pattern of our lives and actions, piecing them together in ways that serve our neighbors and ourselves.

The problem here for feminists is that because the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture, the cultural message that comes along with the message of justice and liberation often does not include women. This is why women must wrestle harder even than Jacob with the biblical texts, which very often are texts of terror, making connections and meaning in our lives only with great difficulty. Ultimately women of all races, cultures, nationalities, ages, abilities and sexual orientation have to piece together the message of God’s love in a way that is seriously imaginable as good news for them as well as for others.


Inspiration of Scripture

By discerning the patterns of oppression, we as women can begin to piece together a new pattern of sister choice as we wrestle with what the Bible has to teach us about God’s intention for our lives. In moments of inspiration by the Spirit, we find that, in the words of Kathy Sakenfeld, the Bible "reads us," and becomes the word of life and future for our communities of faith and struggle.

There are many ways for Christian communities to quilt a biblical pattern for their lives, but for those of us who find that the Bible reads us, it will continue to have a future because it provides a pattern of God’s welcome. It will continue as our teacher because it pieces our lives together in a pattern of justice and love.


This article is excerpted and adapted from a speech by Letty M. Russell given at Scarritt-Bennett Center Nov. 13, 1992. Ms. Russell is a professor of theology at Yale Divinity School.