By Sylvia Keesmaat
One of the astounding things about the Bible is the way that it repeatedly gives voice to those whose stories are normally ignored, the marginalized. These stories tell us who our God is, who we are called to be, and what true healing looks like.
One of those pivotal stories is that of Hagar, Sarah’s slave, given to Abraham so that she could bear a child by proxy. Hagar, a slave woman, was used for sex, beaten, and then sent away into the desert, thirsty and hungry. Hagar cried out to God. She lived because she saw God, the God who hears the cry of the slave (see Genesis 16 and 21 for the whole story).
Of course, we aren’t surprised, for this is the God who rescued the Israelites from Egypt and tells us to proclaim freedom for the oppressed. Who is this God? The one who hears the cry of the slave and sets them free. Who are we called to be? The ones who image this slave-freeing God by setting free the oppressed.
Two other pivotal stories revolve around women named Tamar. One is denied her right to a husband after her first two husbands die. Dressed like a prostitute, she seduces her father-in-law, gets pregnant, and avoids being burned to death when he realizes that the sin was his (which was, interestingly, not using a prostitute, but denying Tamer of her rights; see Genesis 38). The other story describes the rape of another Tamar, the daughter of King David. When King David hears of this, he does nothing (2 Samuel 13). These stories highlight the violence done to women throughout the biblical narrative and indeed throughout history. We sense the desperation of the first Tamar and are told of the devastation of Tamar after her rape.
In the New Testament, however, we see a shift. Women are no longer victims, but partners in the proclamation of the gospel. The tide has turned, their voices now heard.
So, what do these stories tell us about our God? That our God works through and on behalf of the most vulnerable. And what do they tell us about who we are? That we are called, with Judah, to acknowledge the righteousness of the vulnerable. We are called to look for justice. We are, with Paul, called to work alongside the vulnerable in announcing redemption.
A third story is that of Ruth. This story is one of hospitality given by the detested enemy people, the Moabites, to Naomi and her husband, who had come as refugees to Moab. It is the story of one of those Moabites, now a refugee herself, arriving in Israel. And it is the story of Boaz recognizing that Ruth was righteous for all she had done for Naomi. This is the story of the enemy becoming family, of deeply ingrained hatred being overcome, of welcome for the stranger. It is a story of the stranger demonstrating the welcome that God and Jesus call us to throughout the Biblical story.
Who is God in this story? The one who loves the stranger, who gives them food and clothing. And how do we image this God? By welcoming the stranger as God has welcomed us.
The last story is that of Naboth, whose ancestral inheritance, his land, was desired by the King. When the Queen realized this, she had Naboth framed and killed so that the king could take possession of his land (1 Kings 21). This story is all too familiar. It’s the story of the ancestral inheritance taken by the powerful, by the colonizers.
Who is our God? The one who brings judgement on those who take the land of another. Who are we? We are the ones called to give it back.
These are the stories our culture would like to keep hidden. They are the stories of those suffering from economic oppression (the slaves), violence (the women), exclusion (the stranger) and land loss (Indigenous peoples). But these stories are also about those who dare to name the pain, and so dare to hope for God’s newness. When we hear their voices, we too can glimpse the kingdom.
Sylvia C. Keesmaat is Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies at the Toronto School of Theology. Her forthcoming book (with Brian Walsh) is entitled: Romans Disarmed: Resisting Empire, Demanding Justice.