I recently read Dr. Michael F. Kuhn’s brilliant book, “Finding Hagar: God’s Pursuit of a Runaway”. Dr. Kuhn has lived for about 25 years in different parts of the Middle East (Egypt, Lebanon) and North Africa. He is a professor, scholar, and a prolific author. He is a highly accomplished person with a Master of Divinity and a Masters in Arabic language and literature. He completed a doctoral degree in the field of Muslim-Christian relations. He was a professor of discipleship and Biblical theology at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Lebanon and teaches as an adjunct faculty at the Fuller Theological Seminary. He is an elder, teacher and pastor in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church.
This post is regarding my interview with Dr. Kuhn. I had the honor and privilege of interviewing Dr. Kuhn regarding his book. I found him to be very kind, generous and erudite as he brought to light the importance of Hagar, who briefly appears in the Bible. Dr. Kuhn’s writing is clear and concise, with clear arguments depicting Hagar’s story with compassion and wisdom. In his writing, Dr. Kuhn challenges us to reflect on our interactions where we may be labeled as “others” and with people that we may consider “others” in our lives. This is an essential point given that we are currently living in a deeply divided country and a fractured world.
Interview Transcript on “Finding Hagar: God’s Pursuit of a Runaway”
Dr. Michael Kuhn (M.K.)
Dr. Anindita Ganguly (A.G.)
A.G. : Welcome, Dr. Kuhn to the blog, GOD, and i. I very much appreciate your generosity in discussing your phenomenal book, “Finding Hagar: God’s Pursuit of a Runaway. Much gratitude for your patience as we had major hiccups in technology today. I was struck by your description of the story of Hagar in the Bible as a “love story” between Hagar and God. Having attended catholic school for years, I have heard about the story of Hagar. However, given your background in studying Arabic language and literature and living for many years in the Middle East, you have a very nuanced and compassionate view of Hagar and Ishmael, as blessed abundantly by God, not cursed. You describe Hagar and Ishmael’s story as a prequel to the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.
I was also struck by your discussion of God Is Love, which I agree 100%. I also loved your view of your work with other people through the relational framework of love. Another powerful reason that I read your book on Hagar was because most people, including myself, have experienced being the “other” but not so severely marginalized as Hagar. We also encounter people that we categorize as “others” or “Hagars” in our lives. There are so many diversity factors in life, where people can be in the category of the “other” based on their ethnic backgrounds, politics, religious views, languages and cultures.
Please tell me about yourself and how this book on Hagar developed.
M.K.: I am very privileged to be interviewed. I am an American and I grew up in North Carolina. My journey included living in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. I lived for years in Arabic speaking countries, such as, Egypt, Lebanon and Morocco. I am a follower of Jesus and went there as a witness and servant of the church. I know that readers of the blog have faith perspectives very different from mine. While living in other countries, I was the outsider or other and I wanted to be included in the culture. I saw the generosity of these people and beauty of their collective culture and importance of the extended family. During my visits to the US after 9/11, I saw westerners and Christians fearing the Muslim world. There was a broad-brushing of the Muslim world as consisting of fundamentalists, which is unfair and untrue. Therefore, I wanted to write about my enriching experiences of interacting with people in the Middle east. I was interested in talking about the story of Hagar as she is the symbolic mother of the Muslim people and Ishmael is the symbolic father of the Muslim people.
A.G.: What is the story of Hagar and Ishmael?
M.K.: The story of Hagar and Ishmael is in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament or Book of Torah. Hagar was the Egyptian slave of Sarai, wife of Abraham. Sarai was not able to bear children and therefore, she had Hagar bear a child for Abraham. This may seem very odd in our current times, but, in those ancient times, it was customary that if a woman could not bear children, the servant of the woman could bear children for the family. Hagar had a son, Ishmael, with Abraham. However, there was jealousy between Sarai and Hagar and Hagar looked down on Sarai after Hager became pregnant. Sarai was abusive to Hagar. In the chapter of Genesis 16 in the Bible, Hagar’s flight is depicted as she runs away from the abusive behaviors of Sarah. During her flight in the desert, Hagar, a pregnant and runaway slave encounters a Being, The Angel of the Lord.
A.G.: It is profound and beautiful that Hagar, a nameless person owned by Sarai, names this Being as “El Roi”, the God Who Sees and Hears”. In this encounter, God knows her and calls her by name directly as she is not referred by her name in the story thus far. I think that to be seen and heard fully is being loved in relationships.
M.K.: A severe form of depersonalization and dehumanization is when someone’s name is cancelled. The narrator tells us that her name is Hagar, but she is referred to as “servant of Sarai” until she encounters God in the story. When Hagar encounters God, He named her and asks her where she is coming from and where she is going. This is a God who asks a nameless, runaway slave about her dreams and aspirations. This is a slave that is cast out by society.
A.G.: As a psychotherapist, I find this story of God seeing, hearing Hagar and naming her as very powerful. I see the power of listening as critical to the healing process. The power of listening creates safe spaces of dignity, respect, and agape love, where one is a witness to someone’s experiences. This is a God who sees, hears, and listens to Hagar, unheard and unseen in all aspects of her life. This resonated with me. God’s Grace is for everyone.
You also discuss in your book that the Angel of the Lord, whom Hagar encountered in the Old Testament, was Christ in pre-incarnate form, before He incarnated into flesh as a human being. In the New Testament, Christ in incarnated form, was radical is that he reached out and interacted with marginalized people. That is one thing I love about Christ was that he was bold and fearless in reaching out and healing people that society deemed as outcasts, such as, the woman in Samaria. Christ shook up society, culture, and religion. He fiercely challenged dominant institutional power structures in his times and championed the marginalized people. Christ deeply experienced marginalization in human form as He was born in a manger and crucified mercilessly.
M.K.: Being seen and heard is critical to healing. I have family members, who are therapists, who emphasize that being heard and seen in relationship are important in healing as we are often wounded in relationships. Hagar is valued and given dignity in her interaction with the Angel of the Lord, who I believe to be the pre-incarnate Christ. In his incarnate form, he interacted with the woman from Samaria who was estranged, shamed, unable to bear children, passed from man to man. Christ told her “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (Bible, John 4: 23- 24). I believe this opened a space for this woman to belong and to worship, something she had not experienced before. Christ created this welcome for persons who were alienated and estranged—Hagar in the Old Testament and the Samaritan woman in the New Testament. His invitation is open to everyone to know God through God’s personalized love.
A.G.: I have questions about the section where you write that Hagar’s story points to the “uncomfortable reality” in all of us. You discuss beautifully that like Abraham and Sarah, human beings are complex and we have conscious and unconscious biases or conditioning from our environments. We have both social identities of marginalization and privilege which may lead us to form stereotypes of “others” and interact with “others” as less than us. We may have difficulty seeing ourselves in the humanity of “others”. I know that when I have been seen as the “other” in my life and experienced generosity, compassion, and kindness from people, I am very grateful for the grace.
M.K.:. God is very inclusive in His Grace towards all kinds of human beings. However, as human beings, we may have difficulty accepting people, who we define as “others”, like Hagar. Hagar was definitely a threat to Sarai because Hagar, a slave, bore Abraham a son, which Sarai was unable to do until this time. In Hagar’s encounter with God, who sees and hears her, she feels valued, acknowledged and loved and begins to heal. Her identity is no longer from her history of slavery and servitude, but, rooted in her relationship with God. Perhaps, this healing process allowed Hagar to go back and serve in the house of Abraham and Sarai.
Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. When Ishmael was in his early teens, Sarai gave birth to Isaac. After the birth of Isaac, Sarah’s jealousy for her son was aroused by an incident between the two boys. She asked Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael in the desert. The Biblical story is very poignant. Hagar weeps. Exhausted and thirsty, she lays her son under a desert shrub to die. She moves away so as not to see Ishmael suffer. The Angel of the Lord spoke to Hagar, saying: “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (Bible, Genesis 21:17-18). Hagar had once been “under the hand” of Sarai as a slave. Now her own hand, as a free woman, is to bring life and health to her son. As the story concludes, God shows Hagar a well and she gives Ishmael water to restore his life.
A.G.: God blessed Hagar as a free woman. What about Ishmael?
M.K.: Hagar and Ishmael were not cursed, but abundantly blessed. Ishmael became the father of a nation of 12 princes, just as Israel had 12 tribes. He was also given his own land as were the twelve tribes of Israel. Abraham becomes the forefather of Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities.
A.G.: So, Hagar and Ishmael were blessed and prospered. You talk about some misconceptions about Ishmael.
M.K.: The Angel of the LORD tells Hagar that Ishmael will be a “wild donkey of a man ; his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers” (Bible, Genesis 16:12). We usually think of a donkey as an insulting word, stubborn and unwise. Unfortunately, contemporary readers often read this passage as an insult to Ishmael. Some even refer to this passage as a “curse.” I think this is an unfortunate misreading of the text. The word used for donkey is not the common “beast of burden” which is often used to insult others. In this passage, the donkey in question is the desert donkey of the Middle East. This animal is a sturdy survivalist, a master of the desert, independent and freedom loving, not subject to human domestication.
Furthermore, some read the promise that Ishmael will live “opposite (or east of) his brothers” as a promise of continual enmity between the descendants of Ishmael and the twelve tribes of Israel. But this, again, is a misreading of the text. Quite simply the text says that Ishmael will live “before the face” of his brothers. That is exactly what happened as Ishmael’s tribes settled south of Israel in the desert land of southern Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Ishmael and Isaac were not enemies. In fact, the two sons buried their father Abraham together. The current geopolitical conflict in the Middle east should not be read back into the text of the Bible as is commonly done.
A.G.: Although I loved the book on Hagar, I struggled with the notion of how a loving God could command Hagar to go back to serve in the home of abusive Sarai. Abusive relationships are harmful to the mind, body, and soul of a person. It is never Ok to abuse anyone, and no one should have to endure abuse. My interpretation of this event of Hagar going back to Sarah’s house is not an endorsement of going back to an abusive place. I believe that this is a broader metaphor that sometimes when we face hardships in life, God sees and hears our cries and gives us the strength to walk through the challenging times to get to a better place. God blesses us in the peaks and valleys of our lives.
M.K.: Anindita, may I also add to your comment above. I agree that returning to ongoing abuse is ill-advised. In the case of Hagar, we have no indication that abuse was an ongoing feature in the household of Abraham and Sarai. It is more likely to be a single incident that led to Hagar’s flight in Genesis 16. It is clear that giving birth to Abraham’s son gave Hagar a place of honor in the family. It is also clear that Abraham loved his son Ishmael. He even pleads with God to let Ishmael be his heir after God informed him that Sarah would give birth to another son. Hagar, then, was the mother of the presumed heir of Abraham for 13 years (until Isaac was born). So I believe she returned to a protected place and an elevated status.
A.G.: Thank you very much for the powerful book and the interview. Many thanks for your patience with the technology problems.
Dr. Kuhn’s book is powerful, insightful and challenges us in our interactions with “others” : that we stretch ourselves to see and hear perspectives of “others”, who are very different from us. This contributes to seeing parts of us in “others”, recognizing common ground to reach goals, which is helpful to collective humanity.
WEBSITE TO CONTACT DR. KUHN: