Our contexts have major implications for how we live our lives and engage with our world, that much is obvious. However, we sometimes overlook how much they inform our concepts of God. For those of us occupying the central or dominant demographic in society, we often associate God with power and truth. As a result, our theology is characterized by confidence, certainty, and an expectation that others should be accommodating. For those of us living on the margins of society, our sense of belonging stranded in ambiguity, God is seen as an advocate for the powerless. Our theology leans more toward inclusivity, and we talk less about divine holiness and righteousness and more about a God who suffers. On the margins, the priority is merciful and just action, not correct beliefs.
There are significant theological incongruences between Christians who occupy the mainstream segment of society and those who exist on the margins. The world of theology has been dominated by Western male thought for centuries, and this has had a major impact on our concepts of God, our interpretation of scripture, and our engagement with the outsider. There is no doubt that the church has been enriched by these men and their work, but the theological monopoly has also inflicted deep wounds. Not only has it silenced a large portion of the church, it has also limited our view of the gospel and blinded us to certain aspects of the nature of God. It is easy to listen to the familiar voices, the nearby voices, the loud voices, the voices which speak our language, and the voices which echo our thinking, but the voices calling from the wilderness (like John the Baptist) are the ones which invite us to repent, to change our way of thinking, to see the kingdom of God in unexpected places.
One of those voice from the wilderness is found in Genesis 16. Hagar is described by the Hebrew word, shifhah. The King James Version translates this as "handmaid" and the New American Standard Bible reads "maid." Hebrew scholar, Robert Alter, notes that these translations "[impose] a misleading sense of European gentility on the sociology of the story. The point is that Hagar belongs to Sarai as property, and the ensuing complications of their relationship build on that fundamental fact."  Hagar's story is the inspiration for Margaret Atwood's disturbing dystopic novel, The Handmaid's Tale, in which fertile women without social standing become sex slaves, given to powerful men in order to produce children for the ruling class. No, Hagar is not a maid; she is a slave, a woman forcibly displaced from her native Egypt, a woman whose value is tied to her work and her womb. Theology has much to say about the God of Abraham, the God who blesses and multiplies and keeps his promises, but I want us to consider: who is the God of Hagar?
Most of us know the story: YHWH promises Abram that he will be the father of a great nation, but his wife, Sarai, is barren. Enter Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl. Sarai gives Hagar to Abram as a "wife" and Hagar conceives. The slave who had little worth suddenly sees her value increase, and she relishes the lift in status, looking down on the barren Sarai. Sarai is offended by the slave girl's uppity attitude and, with Abram's blessing, treats her badly. The abuse causes Hagar to flee into the wilderness, perhaps on her way back to her native Egypt. By a spring of water, she is intercepted by a messenger from God who tells her to return to her mistress and suffer the abuse. Hagar is reassured that YHWH has heeded her suffering and that she will bear a son, calling him Ishmael, which means "God has heard." Hagar addresses YHWH as El-Roi, "God Who Sees."
Fourteen years later, Sarah finally conceives and Isaac is born. When the younger child is weaned, the rivalry between the two women comes to a head. Sarah observes Hagar's son, Ishmael, laughing or quite literally "Isaac-ing" it (Isaac means laughter). Sarah is outraged that Ishmael might consider himself an equal to Isaac. When Sarah insists that Abraham get rid of the slave girl and her son, he expresses concern for Ishmael, but none for Hagar. Abraham gives them provisions and once again Hagar finds herself in the wilderness. When they run out of water, they resign themselves to death, but God hears the cry of the lad and directs Hagar to a well. Once again, YHWH promises that a great nation will come from her son. 
Traditionally, this story has been swallowed up into the larger narrative of Abraham, seen as an unfortunate misstep for the great father of faith. Far from being an addendum to Abraham's story, Hagar's tale is noteworthy in its own right. Though she is what Daniel Hawk calls "the quintessential outsider," marginalized in matters of gender, social class, and ethnicity, she is the only person, aside from the patriarchs, who is given the promise of a great nation of descendants.  Hagar, whose mistress never names her (referring to her only as "slave girl") is the only person in Genesis who names the Lord. She is also the only woman in Genesis who carries on a conversation with YHWH. Hagar's story bears some resemblance to Abraham's narrative in structure and themes. Hawk goes so far as to conclude that "Abraham's and Hagar's story are one and the same, the only substantive difference being that Abraham's represents the view from the center, and Hagar's represents the view from the periphery."  Hawk notes that "The message is unmistakable: Human hierarchies of ethnicity, class, and gender make little difference in the way the Lord speaks to and interacts with those at the center and those on the periphery. God takes the paradigmatic outcast on a journey of promise and salvation, just as he does the paradigmatic insider." 
YHWH takes special note of Hagar. She is not forgotten, not overlooked, not incidental. The God of Hagar is the God who hears (Ishmael) and the God who sees (El-Roi). We must never separate the God of Abraham, the father of a nation, from the God of Hagar, the African slave-girl who encountered YHWH. Divorced from Hagar's story, the narrative of Abraham comes off as a tale of conquest and accumulation. One can understand how those schooled only in the Abrahamic covenant would disqualify Jesus as the Messiah. However, in Hagar's tale we see YHWH's heart for the outsider, for the abused, for the powerless. The God of Hagar is the God we see revealed in Jesus.
We can learn a lot by giving weight to the voices on the periphery of culture, society, and normative religion. We learn to become more critical of our own contexts, recognizing how deeply we are immersed in them. We learn to accommodate others instead of always expecting to be accommodated (accommodation is one of the characteristics of God, after all). We begin to reimagine what it means for the kingdom of God to be near. Instead of looking for dynamic manifestations of the Spirit, prosperity, or moral and political influence, we learn to recognize the sweet presence of God in the wilderness, in the lack, in the isolation and loneliness. We also become aware of our tendency to see God primarily as the Almighty, the Sovereign Ruler of All. Though these divine depictions are certainly present in the biblical witness, they do not dominate the narrative as much as we might think. In fact, the entire book of Revelation is a scathing denunciation of military conquest. The writer's metaphor of choice for the one who overcomes is the lamb that was slain, not the predatory king of the beasts, the lion.
When we read carefully, we notice that the overlooked, the outsiders, and the downtrodden feature prominently in the scriptures. I have already mentioned the significance of Hagar's story. Bilhah and Zilpah, the slaves of Leah and Rachel, are integral to the history of the nation of Israel. David enters the Messianic lineage through Bathsheba, a woman he stole from another man. Judah learns about justice from his daughter-in-law, Tamar. The Syrian, Namaan, is healed because he listens to a slave girl from Israel. Jeremiah is rescued from a muddy pit by Ebed-melech, an Ethiopian eunuch. The first to see and recognize the Messiah are unclean shepherds. A city in Samaria hears the gospel through a divorced and socially-marginalized woman.
Once we start being attentive to the so-called minor characters in the biblical witness, we find a God who seems to have a preference for the marginalized. This is confirmed when we look at the life of Jesus. Here is a man on the periphery of culture, society, and normative religion. Gregory Boyle states that, "The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place – with the outcast and those relegated to the margins."  Through Jesus, we learn the breadth and depth of the love and presence of God, a love which thrives and flourishes at the margins. Perhaps this is where we are invited to thrive and flourish as well.
 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary (New York: Norton, 2004), 77.
 Genesis 21:8-21.
 L. Daniel Hawk, "Cast Out and Cast Off: Hagar, Leah, and the God Who Sees," Priscilla Papers, Vol. 25.1 (Winter 2011), 9.
 Hawk, "Cast Out and Cast Off," 11.
 Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart (New York: Free Press, 2011), 72.
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