The Woman Who Named God

I just finished reading Charlotte Gordon’s, The Woman Who Named God, which tells the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and their offspring – Ishmael and Isaac.

The woman referred to in the title of the book is Hagar, who I think is often treated as a bit player in the story of Abraham. Yet it is Hagar who, the first time she speaks in the Bible, is the first to address God by name. When she runs away into the desert, God appears to her and makes predictions about her future. When God finishes doing so, Hagar says, “You are El-roi.” In naming God, “Hagar reveals an originality, a willingness to break from convention, and an eagerness to connect to this bewildering deity that sets her apart from every other Biblical figure, male or female.”

That most Christians see Hagar as no more than a bit player is, at one level, not surprising. We have such a tendency to think of things in stark, binary categories. If Sarah is the good wife, Hagar must be the “other woman.” If Isaac is the son who will give rise to nations, Ishmael must be the one cast aside. As Gordon observes, “It has been difficult for the human imagination to conceive of both of Abraham’s sons as blessed or to believe that both mothers were elected by God.” She suggests it is this human limitation that has created what she describes as a “family quarrel” between Muslims and Jews and Muslims and Christians. “Each side tends to perceive the ‘other’ son as unnecessary and, worse, as a hindrance to their one candidate’s claim of primacy.”

In her book, Gordon seeks to convey a greater understanding of all of these characters and their roles in the origins of the Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths, in the hope that we might come to “view these three great religions in all their complexity rather than as opponents in a war where winner takes all.” It is a laudable aim and I think she succeeds in giving readers much to think about. Particularly powerful for me were both the linkage drawn by Gordon between Isaac and Hagar, and the image of fraternal unity provided by the coming together of Isaac and Ishmael to bury their father.

The book is both scholarly and readable. It is respectful of each of the three religious traditions even as it invites readers from each of the traditions to stretch beyond some of the stereotypical depictions of events and characters many of us grew up with. I tremendously enjoyed reading the book.

Update: Here is one explanation of the name El-roi, used by Hagar.