This happened because I read a lot of review series which critique evangelical Christian literature. I was bound to start nattering on about it myself at some point.
Last summer, a woman I knew was reading Liz Curtis Higgs' Bible study book, Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible: Flawed Women Loved by a Flawless God. I rolled my eyes at the title. When I picked it up and glanced at the table of contents, names including "Hagar" and "Leah" jumped out at me. I felt more than a bit irritated at classing women living in a patriarchal culture where they were literally the property of men and thus had little to no real power as "slightly bad." It just sounded problematic.
Then I ran across the book on the shelf at the thrift store and thought, "Why not?" I enjoy reading review series of books in this genre in part because this was a culture that I once considered myself a part of, and in part because I do know a lot of people for whom this is their culture. I no longer attend church, but I have friends and family who do. Not all of them are evangelical, but some are. Evangelical Christian culture has had a massive effect on North American society, and for that alone, I find it worth discussion and deconstruction.
The first thing I learned when I looked at the book properly is that it is part of series which includes such titles as Bad Girls of the Bible and Really Bad Girls of the Bible. While these titles mostly make me wonder if she's writing smutty Biblical fanfiction, as a feminist, I absolutely find the characterizing of women as "bad girls" troubling. I haven't looked at the other books in the series (as I've yet to run across them at the thrift store or the library, and I'm reluctant to pay $20 for a paperback that supports the Christian publishing industry). A quick look at Amazon's summaries indicates that Bad Girls of the Bible includes women like Eve, Delilah, Potiphar's Wife, and Jezebel. Really Bad Girls of the Bible features Jael, Bathsheba, Athaliah, Herodias, and Salome.
To be honest, I think I'd rather be reading smutty Biblical fanfiction (Dante, I'm talking about you). But here we go.
Higgs' introduction begins with a retelling of a time when she wasn't listening to her son's stated needs and wants and tried to railroad him into attending the college she wanted him to graduate from, rather than letting him choose the one he wanted. She realized her mistake, apologized, made what amends she could, and still feels guilty about it years later. She argues that a "slightly bad girl" is one who wants to control their lives and those of the people around them, a woman who feels she knows best, no matter what.
"If I didn't know better, I'd think an impatient Bad Girl wrote the phrase 'God helps those who help themselves.' Instead, it's a line from one of Aesop's fables: 'The gods help those that help themselves.' Maybe those man-made Greek gods required human effort, but the God, the Lord Almighty, doesn't need our help to accomplish his divine plan.
"My definition of a Slightly Bad Girl is simply this: a woman unwilling to fully submit to God. We love him, serve him, and worship him, yet we find it difficult to trust him completely, to accept his plan for our lives, to rest in his sovereignty." (p. 4)The first chapter of the book is about Sarai/Sarah, wife of Abraham, mother of Isaac, and ancestor of the Hebrew nation. The first pages contain a retelling of Sarai's narrative from a modern perspective, of a woman with a successful husband who longs for a child; she is perimenopausal, and her husband insists that, while adoption is all well and good, God promised him that he would have a son and so they won't be exploring any options except those which would produce biological offspring. His wife just wants a child. No fertility treatments had worked, and she is left in despair. One day she looks at their housekeeper, a woman who had been in their lives for years and whom they both cared about, and begins to consider surrogacy.
Then Higgs moves onto the story of Sarai/Sarah found in the book of Genesis.
A quick note here - I view Genesis as mythology, rather than fact. Archaeological evidence bears that out. For more information on that topic, I'd recommend Peter Enns' work if you want the Christian perspective; he is a Biblical scholar who originally identified as evangelical, although he definitely falls into the more progressive end of evangelicalism these days. He's written a number of books for laypeople on the Bible (he also has more scholarly works available but unless you're a Biblical scholar yourself, I'd recommend starting with the easier stuff and working your way up, if only just to get familiar with the terminology required). When I was still attending church, his book The Bible Tells Me So was a game-changer for me. (It was a huge relief to discover that I didn't have to try to reconcile the genocide of the Canaanites in Joshua with the whole loving God thing - the genocide didn't happen - the accounts in Joshua are primarily origin myths). I haven't had a chance to read Genesis for Normal People, co-authored with Jared Byas, but given how much I appreciated The Bible Tells Me So, I would probably be just as enthusiastic about Genesis for Normal People. I haven't done enough reading among skeptics to be able to recommend a specific text from a non-Christian author, but I'll keep an eye out and see if I can find something and then update this post later.
Now, back to our discussion!
Higgs begins with Sarai's background, sketching out a picture of a childless woman living in a large city in what is today southeastern Iraq, in a culture where she is expected to produce children. Her husband and father-in-law decide to migrate, and she is brought along. Higgs' description is of a woman who steps out in faith and boldness to follow God's call. In the text, however, there is no indication that that was her response. When the family settles in Haran, Sarai's husband Abram, believing that God has told him to travel to another distant land, uproots his wife and household again and leaves. Higgs characterizes this as being a message about the importance of doing what God asks: "All of history affirms the wisdom of following God; Abram and Sarai were our pioneers" (p. 16). A broad statement, although she obviously believes this to be true. So far, her reading of Sarai's character, at this point, is basically in line with what I learned about her in Sunday School, Bible studies, and in a course on the Old Testament in undergrad; it's pretty typical to view Sarai as also being a woman of faith (based on my experience in the Lutheran church, the Anglican church, and at an evangelically-oriented university).
Then we get to Egypt.
This is where Abram tells everyone that his wife is his sister, because she's beautiful and he's worried that Pharaoh will just kill him and take his wife. This way, Pharaoh snags Sarai for his harem but spares Abram; he even gives Abram livestock and slaves in exchange for Sarai. Higgs rightly condemns Abram's behaviour here, though one bit in particular bothered me.
"[W]e'll never know what she was thinking because Sarai remains maddeningly silent in this biblical scene, 'a testimony to her powerlessness.' At this juncture in our story, I can't decide if she was Mostly Good because she obeyed her husband or Slightly Bad because she 'consented to a deception.' " (p. 21)Sarai's husband has essentially sold her to another man and Higgs is quibbling about whether she is "Mostly Good" or "Slightly Bad"? Really?
In the Genesis narrative, Pharaoh discovers Abram's deception when his household becomes ill and he attributes it to a god's judgement - and Abram and Sarai are unaffected. Abram gets a lecture from Pharaoh, his wife returned to him, and then is sent on his way, with his entire household and the gifts that Pharaoh had granted him. This point, interestingly, is where Higgs believes Hagar made her entrance into Abram's household:
"The sages of old believed that Pharaoh gave 'his own daugher to Sarai, one that had been born to one of his concubines' to serve as Sarai's handmaiden and that 'her name was Hagar, and she was very young and strong.' Though we have no biblical proof, I find it a credible story." (p. 24)While it would be plausible to assume, narrative-wise, that Hagar, an Egyptian woman, joined Abram and Sarai's household while they were in Egypt, I find it interesting that Higgs is willing to incorporate this rabbinical interpretation (from the midrash Genesis Rabbah) into her story. That's an unusual choice in evangelical circles. However, I wouldn't call it a credible story - I would call it a development in the narrative that evolved over time to add nuance to an already important character.
Then we get to Abram's promise from God. After they leave Egypt, God apparently promises Abram that he will have a son of his own blood to carry on his legacy, despite him having one wife, and having produced no children with her over many years of marriage. Sarai, who is getting older, turns to a common solution to her problem: She offers her slave, Hagar, to Abram. Her child will belong to their family and fulfill the requirement for an heir.
"Scandalous as her plan appears, Sarai didn't come up with this on her own. An Assyrian marriage contract, dating from around 1900 BC, stipulated 'if the wife does not give birth in two years, she will purchase a slave woman for the husband.' Still, no matter how common that solution was in her culture, Sarai was not of that culture. God had set apart Abram and Sarai." (p. 29, emphasis in original)Here's the thing: You can't just divorce yourself from your culture like that. The culture you are raised in and in which you participate for most of your adult life can't be dismissed instantly. Even if you are actively choosing to change how you respond, much of it will be so ingrained that it will seem intrinsic to you. The fact that Abram accepts her solution indicates that he hasn't rejected that aspect of their culture, either. Sarai was of that culture, and the only surprise here is that neither she nor her husband had proposed this alternative earlier.
And no, this is not okay. Just because slavery was a cultural norm, that did not make it okay for Sarai and Abram to decide that Hagar should serve as their womb. Slavery has been a cultural norm in many, if not most, cultures throughout human history. And guess what? That still doesn't make it ethical. Sarai's subsequent poor treatment of Hagar (when Hagar acts "proudly" and "despises" Sarai because she is pregnant and Sarai is not) is simply an extension of the injustice she and Abram have already perpetrated. They've already treated Hagar as an object - and when Hagar responds in an attempt to regain some power and autonomy in a situation where she has none, Sarai's response is to remind her of her place, to the extent that Hagar flees into the desert, convinced that death is better than life as Sarai's property.
Both Sarai and Hagar's stories are set in a world where neither belongs to herself. Sarai belongs to her husband, to the extent that he is permitted to hand her over to another man, and the biggest reprimand he receives is a scolding from Pharaoh when he finds out that Sarai is married. Sarai retains some power over their household, as wife of the head of the household, but only to the extent that Abram allows it. Hagar is a slave - she belongs solely to her owners and has no say whatsoever in what they do with her. Her owners may kill her or they may decide her body is suitable to bear their heir. Even her ova do not belong to her.
Other than Higgs' tendency to gloss over the slavery and subjugation aspect, one of my biggest problems with this book so far is Higgs' comparisons of the original stories and her modern retellings. Infertility can be a profoundly painful thing for a woman to experience, especially in a situation like the one Higgs has sketched, where the woman's husband insists upon a biological son (not child, son). But she also has recourse to options that Sarai never would have been able to explore. She could, if desired, divorce her husband. She actually has access to fertility treatments, which, while they don't work for the character in the story, would not have been a choice for Sarai. She is legally recognized as a person, and lives in a country where she can vote, have a career, and pursue higher education. She may not be able to have a child when she desperately wants one, since her husband has nixed adoption, but her choices are not bounded in the same way as Sarai's. It's not the same story; it's not equivalent, and Higgs doesn't seem to realize that.
I haven't experienced infertility personally, but J. and I watched other couples negotiate it, and I listened to more than one friend talk about how much she'd cried whenever her period started, and how much it hurt when well-meaning people asked when they would start having kids. I saw friends who tried fertility treatments that worked, others who adopted successfully, and others who had both fertility treatments and adoptions fall through. It's hard. And if it's hard in a culture where not having children is slowly becoming an acceptable choice for women to make, it must have been beyond devastating, and possibly life-threatening, in a culture where woman were primarily valued for their ability to bear children. Sarai's response and treatment of Hagar are not good things, but they are understandable in a world where even a free woman was the property of her nearest male relative.