A Postcolonial Reading of Hagar: A Christian Egyptian Perspective by Safwat Marzouk

The stories of Hagar and Ishmael have captured the attention of many readers from different cultural locations. Christian Egyptian readers of the Hebrew Bible have responded to the narrative of Hagar, the Egyptian maidservant of Sarah the Hebrew, in particular and interesting ways.

Many Egyptian Christians avoid identifying with Hagar and her son Ishmael, preferring instead to side with Sarah and her son Isaac. This decision is shaped by two attitudes that approach the narrative through sets of binary opposites. First, the story of Hagar has a long history of allegorization: in Galatians 4, Paul associates Hagar negatively with the law and Sarah positively with the promise. Second, the conflict and enmity between Muslims and Christians also affect the reception of the Hagar stories among Christian Egyptian communities. Although the social location of the oppressed and cast-out Hagar and Ishmael can be compared to that of Egypt’s marginalized Christian minority, their rejection of these two figures functions in a subtle way as a posture of resistance to the Muslim majority, who trace their traditions back to Hagar and Ishmael.

Christian Egyptian readers of the Hagar story might learn from postcolonial theory, which, by problematizing simple binaries that construct the self at the expense of the “other,” opens the door for mixed or hybrid identities. Rather than dismiss the Hebrew Bible because of its negative portrayals of Egypt or allegorize it to repress the political facet of identity, Christian Egyptians are invited to read the story of Hagar from their cultural location, holding their political and religious identities in a creative tension. Such a reading invites the community to critique its abuse of power when it marginalizes others, and also to recognize gifts of freedom that gush forth in the wilderness of oppression.

If the predominant image of Egypt in the Hebrew Bible is of slavery, we find a reversal in the story of Hagar, as Sarah, ancestor of the Israelites, afflicts an Egyptian woman. Though this reversal does not undo the oppression that the Israelites experienced in Egypt, it destabilizes the idea of Egypt as only a site of oppression. The same verb “to afflict” (Hebrew, ‘nh) that is used to describe Sarah’s affliction of Hagar (Gen 16:6) is also used to describe the oppression inflicted upon the Israelites by the Egyptians (Deut 26:6; for other shared words between the Hagar and the Exodus narratives, compare also Gen 16:6 with Exod 14:5 and Gen 21:10 with Exod 10:11, Exod 11:1, Exod 12:39). The verb “to wander” (Hebrew, ta’ah), describing Hagar’s loss of direction in the wilderness after she is forced to leave Abraham’s household, is also used when the people of Israel go astray in the wilderness after their deliverance from Egypt (Ps 95:10; compare Ps 107:4). In both references from The Psalms, God provides water for the thirsting Israelites, an act of divine benevolence also shown to Hagar and Ishmael: God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well that allows them to survive in the desert. Thus God cares and provides for Hagar the Egyptian and for the Israelites alike.

A rereading of the story of Hagar and Sarah that offers Christian Egyptians a way to speak against their marginalization while avowing their political identity as Egyptians could have a ripple effect. What other privileged and powerful community members might be held accountable, as Sarah and Abraham should be, because of their gender, social status, or abuse of power?

Safwat Marzouk, "Postcolonial Reading of Hagar", n.p. [cited 18 May 2022]. Online: https://www.bibleodyssey.org:443/en/people/related-articles/postcolonial-reading-of-hagar


Safwat Marzouk

Safwat Marzouk
Assistant Professor, Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary

Safwat Marzouk  is assistant professor of Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana.

Of or related to history after a colony is declared independent; also: of or related to postcolonialism, an academic orientation that critiques colonialism and impoerialism.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

migration of the ancient Israelites from Egypt into Canaan

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 16:6

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Deut 26:6

6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us,

Exod 10:11

11No, never! Your men may go and worship the Lord, for that is what you are asking.” And they were driven out from Pharaoh's presence.

Exod 11:1

Warning of the Final Plague
1The Lord said to Moses, “I will bring one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; afterwards he will let you go from here; indeed, ... View more

Exod 12:39

39They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, no ... View more

Ps 95:10

10For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they do not regard my ways.”

Ps 107:4

4Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to an inhabited town;

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