My husband and I were in a head-on vehicle collision north of Toronto on Highway 69 at a combined speed of about 125 miles per hour. We survived what was a fatal crash for the driver who hit us, but I was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, suffered a brain injury, experienced significant physical injuries, and continue to face a long road to recovery.

The motor vehicle collision gave me firsthand knowledge of the effects of trauma and has enabled me to relate to the plight of various biblical characters in new ways. Now when I read Genesis 16—the story of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, and the events preceding the birth of Ishmael—I can understand the frustration and anger exhibited by Sarah. I can relate to the struggle Sarah likely felt when she cicepted her inability to conceive and realized that her plans for the future may not be fulfilled as she had planned. I can also sympathize with Abraham, who is directly impacted by Sarah’s infertility and abuse of Hagar yet does not know how to make the situation right or how to remove Sarah’s suffering.

Having been through my own trauma, I see how understanding trauma theory provides insight into some of the questions raised by this chapter: Why does Sarah abuse Hagar when her plan to have a child through Hagar is seemingly a success? What makes Sarah so angry? Why does Hagar run away and then return to Sarah? And finally, how can we understand the roles of Abraham and the community in the story? My experiences have convinced me that the actions of Sarah and Hagar are consistent with the responses of trauma victims and that this lens may also help to explain the response of Abraham and the community.

Trauma theory is a relatively new science, emerging out of the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. Although the effects of a wide range of traumatic experiences have since been studied, we still have much to learn about the impacts of infertility, abuse, and the refugee experience. We face the challenge that the biblical text gives us limited information. Moreover, evaluating the effects of trauma presents challenges. The impacts of trauma are highly subjective and individualized. Everyone responds to trauma and suffering differently, depending on how they have been prepared for the trauma beforehand. For example, some people develop good coping mechanisms to minor traumatic situations during their life and are better prepared to deal with major trauma than others. Even so, there are distinct symptoms that apply in varying degrees to all trauma victims. Trauma produces fear, anger, anxiety, and irritability. Trauma produces feelings of despair and hopelessness—one’s ordered world is lost and unpredictable—and unplanned responses of flight. A major element of my own recovery is the continual effort to defeat these negative feelings, to overcome the anger and frustration that erupts in expected ways, and to cultivate a hopeful outlook for the future.

This study is necessarily generalized, but I hope it will lead to further examination of the relation of trauma to the biblical narratives.


Sarah as Trauma Victim

Our first glimpse of Sarah comes in a long passage about the genealogy of Abraham. In that passage, we only learn one thing about Sarah, that she is barren and childless (Gen. 11:29–30). We later read of her beauty, which is the occasion for complex problems involving her husband’s lies to Pharaoh and, later, Abimelech, and we read of the divine promise given to Abraham concerning his offspring. However, it is Sarah’s infertility—and the seemingly endless delay of the divine promise, which is again emphasized at the beginning of chapter 16—that seems to form the crisis of her story arc.

Contrary to experiences that can be pinpointed at a particular moment in time, Sarah’s infertility is not a traumatic moment. It is instead a gradual realization and acceptance that she will not have a child. Scholars today argue that “reproductive problems tax a woman’s inner resources to a great degree, and thus they are among the most serious life stressors a woman can experience,” and contemporary psychological research indicates that “infertility has deep, lasting effects on a women’s well-being.”[1] Sarah may have struggled with these same stressors. Like many women today who view biological parenthood as necessary for happiness and the fulfillment of family goals, it is likely that Sarah’s experience of infertility was an ongoing trauma.

Moreover, the experience of infertility in the ancient Near East, without the fertility options we can access today, may have exacerbated Sarah’s trauma. In a culture where childbirth is necessary for survival, Sarah has to contend with the social pressure to bear children. Sarah must relive the ongoing pain of her infertility every day and come to terms with what she assumes to be an abnormality of her body. And then she faces the additional disappointment that her childlessness has left Abraham’s divine promises unfulfilled.

Sarah’s speech in Genesis 16 reveals her keen sense of personal and spiritual responsibility, for she describes God as having prevented her from having children. How is Abraham to be the father of a great nation if Sarah will not give him a child? The unfulfilled divine promise, and all the expectation that it created, surely made Sarah’s journey to accept her infertility all the more difficult and painful, as it required Sarah to surrender the expectation and hope that she will participate directly in fulfilling the divine message given to Abraham. In the biblical text, we are not told how Sarah comes to accept her infertility and involuntary childlessness, but her ensuing actions provide some insight.

Sarah offers her servant Hagar to Abraham as a way for Abraham and Sarah to build a family. Rather than returning to the hope of bearing a child herself or renewing her trust that God will give her a child through her own body, Sarah abandons those possibilities and finds a new way of coping. She transfers her hope to Hagar. This transference of hope, though, is complicated and fraught with difficulties. It is tremendously difficult to let go of the hope of someday and somehow, and I imagine that Sarah must have struggled as she contemplated the decision to have a surrogate.

When Hagar becomes pregnant, we might think that Sarah would celebrate—her goal of having a family is finally being realized! However, a new challenge arises when Hagar’s response to the pregnancy is to despise Sarah. Angered at this response, Sarah blames Abraham and then proceeds to abuse Hagar. We don’t have the details of Sarah’s abusive behavior, but her response reflects a typical response to the traumatic experience of infertility coupled with childlessness—a response of anger, frustration, and violence. And I suspect that Sarah’s negative reaction to the success of Hagar’s pregnancy is also linked to her own pain. Even before the birth, Hagar’s growing belly is a visible reminder to Sarah that she cannot bear children and that her natural role is being filled by another. Hagar’s pregnancy acts as a public confirmation of Sarah’s painful reality and her decision to procreate through other means. It is a threat to her way of life and sense of self. And so when Hagar shows resentment toward Sarah, it upsets Sarah’s equilibrium—this one part of life comes to taint all other experiences, spoiling her appreciation of the present and overwhelming her capacity to respond to Hagar with reasonable and appropriate measures.[2]

Through Sarah, we see that trauma affects the way an individual feels about herself and the world. Commonly, the victim of a traumatic experience loses sight of the meaning in suffering and is no longer able to see its purpose. The feeling that the pain, betrayal, and loss are meaningless “is one of the painful lessons that the trauma brings; the victim often feels godforsaken and betrayed by others. Usually, suffering does not bring an increased sense of love and meaning, but rather, it results in loneliness and disintegration of belief.”[3] Like Sarah, victims of trauma come to view God as against them. And then many victims reenact their trauma by traumatizing those around them. This is not surprising. Irritability, anger, and violence are normal responses to trauma, as victims fight to remain in control, and this is precisely the response we see in Sarah’s subsequent victimization of Hagar.


Hagar as Trauma Victim

In our encounters with the narratives of those who have undergone significant traumas, we often find that traumas cluster together. When one person experiences trauma, others do as well. In this case, we don’t have to look very far from the trauma of Sarah to find Hagar, an Egyptian servant who lives with Sarah.

Before our story begins, Hagar has been taken from her Egyptian home to Sarah’s household in Canaan. She has already been uprooted from her former social identity, place, family, and support system. This initial journey from Egypt to Sarah’s household may have caused Hagar physical and psychological distress. Her social standing as Sarah’s slave placed Hagar in a role of powerlessness, and it required her to adapt to life in a foreign environment. Although Hagar may have developed new strengths in this environment—resiliency and independence, for example—the impact of leaving one’s home does not disappear; it disrupts one’s very identity.[4] In its introduction of her character, the scriptural text thus positions us as readers to encounter Hagar as a lowly outsider who is far from home—a person seemingly on the margin of the narrative of Genesis itself.

A second and more obvious disruption to Hagar’s identity comes by way of her involuntary surrogacy. When she discovers she is pregnant, Hagar assumes a new identity. Hagar is now in a position of power as mother to Abraham’s child. Her pregnancy presents a transition from a state of powerlessness, as she can now look forward to a future that holds some promise, purpose, and meaning. It is not surprising, then, that Hagar develops arrogance in her newfound identity and that she comes to despise Sarah. Like Sarah, Hagar transitions from victim to victimizer. Now, Hagar reinforces Sarah’s pain of infertility by contemptuously lording over Sarah the fact that while Sarah is infertile, Hagar is now bearing Abraham’s offspring.

Hagar’s hope for a future of promise and purpose, though, is dashed. Her assumed identity as powerful is proven false, and she is caught up in a cycle of oppression and victimhood as Sarah reacts to Hagar’s pregnancy with abuse. Hagar’s basic rights to protection and safety are violated by the very family that was responsible for her well-being, and in this helpless position, there are scant possibilities for resistance. And so, despite lacking the necessities for survival in the wilderness, she flees.

In the midst of Hagar’s crisis, a divine messenger appears. When this angel meets the wandering Hagar and asks where she is going, Hagar only indicates she is fleeing her mistress; she gives the angel no specific destination. She seems aimless and unprepared for the journey. This flight is characteristic of many trauma victims, who give little thought to the consequences of their flight, which puts them at increased risk for further trauma.

Hagar’s response reminds me of how I have struggled to find a place where I feel safe, where I can escape. After our collision, I felt driven to leave everything I knew in our hometown and to start a new life with my husband many miles away. Eventually we moved from Canada to the United States, and I kept thinking that if I could start a new life “far away,” perhaps we could leave our troubles and pain behind. Perhaps Hagar felt a similar instinct to flee.

When Hagar flees, she does so as a lone woman who is culturally and ethnically distinct from those around her. This exacerbates her flight, making it less likely that she will be able to successfully resettle among another group. And so when Hagar is visited by the divine messenger, she faces a difficult choice—to return home or to seek asylum elsewhere.[5]

The angel connects with Hagar on a personal level, calling her by name. This simple act has profound implications, as so far in the biblical text, only the narrator has addressed Hagar directly—Sarah and Abraham have simply referred to her as servant. Thus, by calling Hagar’s name, the angel bestows a sense of value and worth upon Hagar. She is not an anonymous being but an individual with an identity.

The angel instructs Hagar to return to Sarah and to the setting of her mistreatment. Some readers take umbrage at this angelic injunction, for indeed, returning to Sarah may have meant continued abuse for Hagar. Like many who have experienced trauma, however, Hagar’s most immediate need is for a place of safety, security, and stability. In the wilderness, Hagar is vulnerable to a far worse future than what she may find with Abraham and Sarah. More broadly, we might read this directive as suggestive of the importance of victims integrating back into their communities after a traumatic experience.

The angel then gives Hagar a divine promise and offers her the hope of a better future. Like Abraham, Hagar is told she will have many descendants. She is also told that she will carry her pregnancy to full term and then give birth to a son—a promise of hope in the midst of the wilderness. While Hagar often found herself in situations of vulnerability and abuse, she is told that her son will be independent and free to live away from this community. Perhaps most importantly, the angel affirms that Yahweh has heard Hagar’s cry of affliction; the angel acknowledges Hagar’s trauma and assures her God has not abandoned or disregarded the servant girl. The profound impact of this divine comfort on Hagar is reflected in her response: Hagar names God as the one who has seen her.

There is no doubt that Hagar’s experiences—both the trauma and the divine intervention and affirmation—change Hagar. In facing her reality, Hagar is able to begin again, to live in the present, starting not from the beginning but from the point at which her life was disjointed. We may be uncomfortable that the angel sends Hagar back to her abuser; we may want a fair and just world where the angel will intervene in Hagar’s situation and prevent any future abuse or mistreatment. But in Hagar’s life—as in ours—the world is neither fair nor just. Hagar must return to Sarah, but she returns with a new sense of identity and an empowerment that comes not from an unjustified arrogance but from divine affirmation. Her future is not empty, but rather is filled with divine hope and purpose. She has seen God in the wilderness and returns a changed person.


Abraham and the Community as Trauma Victims

Trauma studies prompt us to consider not only Sarah and Hagar as victims and victimizers but also the role of Abraham and the community. Abraham is characterized throughout Genesis 16 as passive: he follows Sarah’s initial directive to sleep with his servant, and when conflict arises, he does not intervene. Yet we would do well to remember that Abraham is a witness of trauma within his own family structure. Abraham is personally affected by Sarah’s infertility and the unfulfilled divine promise, and his passiveness in the conflict between Sarah and Hagar is reflected by the community, which also neglects to protect Hagar or to intervene. We may criticize Abraham for not intervening, but we may also understand his actions as a typical response to the challenge that trauma presents to a society and its bystanders, who are often deeply affected by witnessing the trauma endured by others but unsure of how to respond.

Remarkably, however, in Genesis 16 we see an acknowledgement of Hagar’s experience. Her story is commemorated by the community in the naming of the well. The community thus retains memory of Hagar’s traumatic experience in a positive way by a symbol that serves as a reminder of her divine encounter. This act gives the traumatic experience of abuse and the flight response a new meaning. It serves as a way for the community to partially redeem itself and bring justice to Hagar. The community that failed to protect Hagar now publicly recognizes her value as one who may be a foreign servant but who has encountered the living God in a dramatic and personal experience. Abraham also participates in Hagar’s process of healing by confirming the divine encounter when he names the child Ishmael, indicating his acknowledgement of and obedience to Hagar’s divine instruction.

Again, Hagar returns to the abusive situation, but the dynamics have changed. She has a new sense of identity and worth through her divine encounter, she has hope for the future through the divine birth annunciation, and she has been affirmed by the communal and divine acknowledgement of her painful experience.


Learning from Trauma

It is reasonable to infer that Hagar has retold the narrative of her divine encounter to the community. By retelling the story, she is able to regain a sense of dignity and reclaim her history by framing the traumatic experiences in her own terms. By retelling the story, she demonstrates that the victimization no longer paralyzes her.

Because we can encounter Sarah and Hagar’s story in the biblical text, we can enter into what Wendy Williams describes as a “dynamic process of interaction” where we “as listeners and readers” can connect to the biblical text through “a relatedness and recognition of the other.” This in turn enables us to see that “the story is as much a journey as an arrival, wherein the listening becomes an active and resourceful opportunity to become forever changed.”[6] Viewing the biblical text through the perspective of trauma and its effects can equip us to apply the text to the experiences of trauma victims today. Hagar’s plight, for instance, is similar to what is happening in many places every day—we see her as a refugee, as someone who is sexually exploited, and as someone who then becomes an aggressor, and finally we see her fleeing her abuse. These are real-life situations.

We find answers to painful experiences in this passage—Yahweh does see the pain Hagar experiences and responds to her. For trauma victims who feel forsaken by God and abandoned by their communities, this is a powerful story of reassurance and hope. Her story does not necessarily conclude with a happy ending, but it is nevertheless one of victory and empowerment. Hagar demonstrates that in the midst of suffering, we can be empowered by the presence and affirmation of God.

Understanding the effects of trauma may also inspire a more compassionate view of Sarah. Though her abuse of Hagar is inappropriate and inexcusable, we may characterize Sarah not only as an aggressor and victimizer but also as a broken character, as a woman who herself is the victim of the traumatic experience of infertility and childlessness despite the divine hope given to her husband.

Retelling this biblical narrative can help us learn as a community. We often fail to protect members of our community from trauma, and this story shows us that when a community fails to protect one of its members, there is redemption in acknowledging the suffering of trauma victims and in celebrating their triumph over trauma and redefinition as a person of worth. As I have personally witnessed, I think that many people find dealing—even interacting—with a trauma victim to be awkward and difficult. Instead of avoiding interactions with trauma victims, we can follow the example of the angel by affirming their worth and creating a place of safety, empathy, and healing. We can listen to their stories and integrate them into our communal narratives. To readers of this narrative who are also trauma victims, I hope you find consolation in knowing that often, like Hagar, those who experience great suffering also encounter the divine in profound and transformative ways. This has certainly been my experience.

[1] Marianne Amir, Netta Horesh, and Tami Lin-Stein, “Infertility and Adjustment in Women: The Effects of Attachment Style and Social Support,” Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings 6, no. 4 (1999): 463–71; and Kami Schwerdtfeger and Karina Shreffler, “Trauma of Pregnancy Loss and Infertility Among Mothers and Involuntarily Childless Women in the United States,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 14, no. 3 (2009): 222.

[2] For more on how traumatic experiences can have this effect, see Bessel A. van der Kolk and Alexander C. McFarlane, “The Black Hole of Trauma,” in Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, ed. Van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (New York, NY: Guilford, 2007), 4.

[3] Van der Kolk and McFarlane, “Trauma and Its Challenge to Society,” in Traumatic Stress, 26.

[4] There are many excellent resources available for refugee studies. See Miranda Alcock, “Refugee Trauma—the Assault on Meaning,” Psychodynamic Practice 9, no. 3 (Aug 2003): 291–307.

[5] See Miriam George, “A Theoretical Understanding of Refugee Trauma,” Clinical Social Work Journal 38, no. 4 (Dec 2010): 379–87.

[6] Wendy Williams, “Complex Trauma: Approaches to Theory and Treatment,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 11, no. 4 (2006): 332.