There are a number of pictures of Hagar in western art. Some portray Sarah offering Hagar, her slave, to Abraham to get her pregnant, so she can have a child for Sarah. Others show her as Abraham sends her and Ishmael out into the desert to fend for themselves or lost in the desert helpless and despairing. All of these tend to emphasize Hagar as victim. But I’ve come across two pictures of Hagar recently that show a different side of her and her story.
This picture is by Jacqueline Gad, an Egyptian artist. Inspired partly by the 1875 sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, of mixed African-American and Native American heritage, in this portrait we see, not a victim of others’ actions, but a woman of courage and resolve. The sculpture has her looking up to heaven expectantly, but Jacqueline portrays her looking forwards – is this where she is encountering God in front of her? Or emboldened by the encounter, now ready to go on, knowing that God and she have seen each other and God is not just the god of Abraham and Sarah, but is aware of and caring for her. He is now ‘The God Who Sees Me!’ (Genesis 16:13)
This next picture is by an Australian indigenous artist, Joanne Baker from Milingimbi. Joanne shows Hagar next to the well of water God has provided for her (Genesis 21:19).
In desert cultures, water holes are a source of life, and also a meeting place – here of God meeting with Hagar again in her need. We are reminded that before the theme of men meeting brides at a water well (Genesis 24:15ff, 29:9ff; Exodus 2:16ff), Hagar tells us of an older story, of God encountering a woman in need and offering life-giving water, a story which is re-enacted by millions of Muslims every year in the Hajj: and a story which stretches forward from Genesis 21 to John 4, with Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
In this contemporary Egyptian iconic depiction of that encounter in John 4,
what do you notice? What is foregrounded?
As we look at art work which depicts Biblical stories, what is focused on? What new insights can we gain, both cultural and Biblical? How can we encourage our local friends to portray stories from the Bible, or from their own journey with God? And what might we learn as we do so?
(c) When Women Speak … December 2021
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she has been writing, teaching, training, and supervising students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women.
Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and Doctor of Theology (Melbourne School of Theology).