Revisiting Hagar, The Woman Who Named God
By Charlotte Gordon
The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths, By Charlotte Gordon (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)
What inspired you to write The Woman Who Named God? What sparked your interest?
In 2003, I heard the Iraq War described as a conflict between the sons of Ishmael and the sons of Isaac, which disturbed me so much I went back to the Bible to read the Abraham story for myself. I was struck by the strong women in the story, Sarah and Hagar, and was surprised that I did not know more about Hagar in particular. Also, I was interested in discovering more about my own religious heritage and how it connected to Islam. I was raised as a Christian and did not discover my father was born Jewish until I was twelve. He converted to Christianity when he was fifteen. My mother is Christian. I felt torn between these two religious traditions.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
All too often the tale of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar has been used as a weapon in the battle between religions. According to my research, however, this story contains seeds of hope, not hatred. God blesses both of Abraham’s sons and Hagar is not simply a tragic exile. She is the founder of a great people.
Anything you had to leave out?
I would have liked to spend more time discussing and analyzing the commentary from the different religious traditions, but I did not want to slow the story down.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
One of the saddest things about this story is when religious groups claim exclusive rights to Abraham’s legacy. Jews do this when they assert that their traditional ancestor, Isaac, is the chosen son because he is the son of the chosen woman, Sarah. Muslims respond by arguing that Ishmael, the son of Hagar, is the favorite son. Christians misuse Paul’s words and assert that they are the true children of Abraham. But in actuality, all three religions have an equal share in Abraham’s legacy; as the story of the two women demonstrates. In the Bible, both sons are blessed by God. Both inherit their father’s legacy. Isaac gets the rights to the Promised Land, but Ishmael is granted his freedom and becomes the patriarch of a great people. Indeed, the Bible is clear that Ishmael’s descendants are equal to Isaac’s. They have the rights to a different land and develop different customs. Still, both sons are “chosen” by God and so their descendants all share in the Abrahamic legacy.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
I wrote this book for those who have never read the Bible and those who have studied the Bible. I wrote for the believer and the non-believer alike, and for those who are interested in helping foster interfaith understanding. I also wrote this book for those who are interested in women’s contributions to the history of religion.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I am hoping that my reader will have a broader and deeper understanding of the ideas we have inherited from this story. I would also like readers to shed their prejudices against other traditions. Believers and non-believers are still awash in the cultural legacy of this saga.
What alternate title would you give the book?
I love my title: The Woman Who Named God. I don’t think I would change it.
How do you feel about the cover?
I love the woman on the cover. She is pregnant and dressed in red. There is a suggestion of mystery and the yellows of the desert are beautiful.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
There are so many wonderful books about religion and the history of religion, but I am a great admirer of Jack Miles’ God: A Biography.
What’s your next book?
I am moving forward almost 4,000 years. My next book is set in late 18th century and early 19th century England. It is the story of the famous mother and daughter pair, Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. These two women were ridiculed, ostracized, and humiliated because of their revolutionary ideals and controversial lifestyles. Both had children out of wedlock. Both were ambitious writers and thinkers. I wanted the world to see their strength, their sufferings, and their courage.
Charlotte Gordon is a professor at Endicott College in Beverly, MA. Her new book is The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths(Little, Brown). It is a nonfiction retelling of the biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar from a tri-faith perspective.
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