The Handmaiden’s Covenant
The Rise of Dispensationalism as a ‘thing’, and the forgotten Covenant of Hagar
When talking about the rise in popularity of Dispensationalism and the consequent decline in popularity of Covenant Theology, at least in the United States, one must be prepared to sound really, really boring.
Covenant Theology (CovThy hereafter), so named for its emphasis upon both those particular promises God extended to various actors in the OT: Adam, Noah, Abram, Moses, David but not Hagar*, and the New Covenant explicit in Jesus Christ’s teaching during the Last Supper. Some could claim that the CovThy framework is as nearly as old as Christianity itself. This is not the only framework, however. Dispensationalism comes into vogue in the 19th century with the teachings of John Darby (1800–1882) and favors breaking up the history of God’s engagement with his creation into small sections called Dispensations as opposed to ordering it by Covenants.
The Dispensationalists have many points of contention with CovThy specifically in relation to Biblical Prophecy and when prophecy, in the future or past, it is to be fulfilled. They often accuse CovThy of Supersessionism because it allegedly teaches the Christian Church succeeded ethnic Israel as the “Chosen” people. This framework, called Supersessionism, is also really boring, but at least it includes the Muslims, grafting their systematic thinkers on to the Western Monotheistic diaspora.
At this point, I invite you to take your pulse.
Still here, not raptured, great:0)
I’m gonna keep going then.
My point is that these frameworks — CovThy, Dispensationalism etc., are simply artifices of the mind. They are subsidiary to the truth of the Bible: the narratives of Jews and teaching of Jesus, and the imperatives of God’s dominion.** They are secondary, maybe even tertiary, even to the endless epistles of clarification, (Paul: The first recorded Nigerian Prince meme). They are the novel systematizing of theological tinkerers; conceptual overviews and interpretive paradigms only as important as they are useful.
Assuredly, one can be saved without them. Additionally, one can be condemned because of them. If we mistake these intellectual novelties for piety, if we let them take the place of love in our hearts, if we depend on them as we should solely rely on grace, then they are like the boastful prayers of the Pharisees. How many times were those waiting for the Messiah face to face with Jesus but did not recognize him because their framework could not account for the fulfillment of prophesy that defied their traditional expectations? Psychologist would argue these speculative organizing principals are a form of Cognitive Bias.
Cognitive Bias by its nature elevates certain truths, in this case, certain biblical narratives over others and so should be held in the highest suspicion as much as they are completely unavoidable by everyone all the time. We are pattern-finding beings after all, and with the Bible’s flagrant self-introspective agenda — in that the Bible is fully aware that it is the Bible and is deeply concerned with its own Biblical awareness — analogy, cross commentary, and textual double reflection is fertile soil for speculation, symbolic association, and categorization (See:Thomas Aquinas). The Bible is a dialectical byproduct not just between the Old and New Testament, but between the Jew, the Gentile, and their respective cultures; between the traditions of Oral Torah and the Written Torah; between the evolving covenants of God; between the writers of the Synoptic Gospels themselves and between the writers of Synoptic Gospels + John; between the historians of Israel and the prophets; between the (M)ediocre (I)nternet (B)iblical (S)cholar (MIBS) and the spirit of Revelation; between Paul and everybody else. The Bible’s truth is K-Subjective*** and so reflects into our souls as we reflect upon it. This heterogeneity of distinct perspectives is something any decent Biblical scholar must take into account, and by doing so, an interpretive framework is unavoidable. It is how we construct our perspectives of history and God that develops the vocabulary that describes the intimately personal phenomenon that is our faith, but as I have mentioned before, this vocabulary/framework is still not and never will be, faith itself.
This framework or perspective is the lens through which the meaning of the Bible appears.
So what about Hagar? My article returns to her, faithful handmaiden of Sarah. It was not she who suggested she lay with Abraham but Sarah, but it was she who became pregnant. Soon, Sarah grew in bitterness toward Hagar. In Genesis Chapter 16 verse 6, Hagar fled into the wilderness near Shur. It was here that the Lord first appeared to her. In verse 10, The Lord offers his covenant, “I will greatly multiply thy seed, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.” He names her son Ishmael, and on that day Hagar calls the Lord by the name El Roi, “The God who Sees”. It is the first and only time this name for God is recorded in the Bible.
Later, in Chapter 20 of Genesis, Sarah demands Abraham cast out Hagar and her son. Abraham capitulates. He leads Hagar and Ishmael into the desert of Beersheba and there he abandons them. She wanders there until her water is gone. Unable to watch her son die, unable to endure his crying any longer, she walks a distance away from him. Verse 17, God heard the boy crying. He came to Hagar and said, “Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.
My question: Why not Hagar? Why do we not speak of her obedience to God when she returned to Sarah? Why not discuss the astounding power of her faith? Mention her besides the name of Moses and David? Surely, God fulfills his promise to her. Why is God’s Covenant with Hagar unmentioned?
The answer returns to the dangerous rigidity of interpretive frameworks. God’s Covenant with Hagar is overlooked because later historians, undoubtedly male, had no idea what to do with God extending a promise to a woman in the not-so-progressive era of Ur III period in Mesopotamia circa 1876 B.C.. Because later historians and Biblical scholars of the West could never imagine God’s covenant extending to and manifesting in Eastern cultures, despite God’s claim to do just that with Abram. The Gentile and MIBS, admittedly grafted on to the promise, remains blind to the fullness of God’s garden because they can’t recognize the fruit. To believe in the Covenant of Hagar is to invite a sort of collegiate imperative, to insist upon a spiritual kinship with those individuals who received this covenant, the descendants of Hagar through Ishmael, faithful followers of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)— Muslims.
It would also reflect back to us a question we don’t want to answer. It would ask us how we have treated these people? How have we honored the descendants of that covenant that God made with a handmaiden many centuries ago in the desert of Beersheba?
*Throwing shade at Genesis Chapters 16–21. I mean, the Moabites get a Covenant but not Hagar? What sexist BS is this?
**I would even go so far that they are less important than the Torah and Talmud, less important than the Quran and the Hadith.
***I mean K-Subjective as to signify my borrowing of Kierkegaard’s “Subjective”, meaning: something that posses personal impactfulness. I do not mean by “subjective”, what most modern thinkers mean, that is — Relative and Dependent upon Individual (See: Jean-Paul Sartre).