A Troubling Love Triangle

By Jennifer Willis

October 2, 2009


Review of The Woman Who Named God by Charlotte Gordon (New York: Little, Brown and Company)

Charlotte Gordon’s The Woman Who Named God is not a slender volume or a casual read. This is a dense, academic volume that asks as many questions as it answers.

The Woman Who Named God coverThe title can be confusing. The woman referenced is Hagar, but the story is much more about Abraham and his relationships–to his people, to his two wives (Gordon makes a strong argument for Hagar as a second wife, instead of a concubine), to his God. That’s no small task. In her quest for deeper understanding of these Genesis stories, Gordon has put a much more human and three-dimensional face on Abraham, Sarah, Hagar and others–even on God.

A God who doubts. A God who is prone to fits of anger and moments of tenderness. A God who isn’t always wise and doesn’t necessarily know everything. This is the God of the Hebrew scriptures, one that many of us ignore altogether because we don’t know quite how to grapple with this image.

On my 10th birthday, my grandfather presented me with my own copy of the King James Bible, complete with its black leather binding and my name inscribed in gold letters on the cover. I’m not sure I’d held a Bible in my hands before that moment.

Though raised in a secular Episcopalian home–we lit pink and purple candles only when my grandmother was visiting at Easter–I spent hours with that Bible, reading the stories of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel over and over.

I rarely read further into the Old Testament. I wasn’t interested in the New Testament at all. When I came to the part about Joseph heading into Egypt, I stopped and went back to Abraham being called out into the desert.

As an adult, I still marvel at the thought of just walking out into the wilderness like that. Not so much to be called by a new-to-you deity, but to actually heed that invitation–to leave behind home and family and sense of self to wander out into the unknown, regardless of what that voice promised.

What God promised was to make Abraham the father of nations. And that all started with two sons: Hagar’s son Ishmael, whose descendants founded Islam and Sarah’s son Isaac, whose descendants became the Jews and the first Christians.

This common ancestry isn’t news, but Gordon delves deeply into her examination of what really divides these faiths. She starts at the source: the story of these two brothers and how their own parents set them up in opposition to one another. She looks not only to the Bible but also to the Koran, the Talmud and other sources and references Jewish, Christian and Muslim scholars in comparing different perspectives on the stories, characters and nuances contained in the Abraham narrative.

As an interfaith minister (and as a Jew by choice), I am relieved by Gordon’s seeming impartial approach to this age-old conflict. I have training in the world’s major religions and a big part of my personal mission is helping people of different faiths better understand each other.

In 2001, I was teaching a two-week class on religious diversity to high school students in Richmond, Va. During a classroom discussion, one student raised her hand to ask a simple but powerful question:

“If these three religions all come from the same place, and they all are centered in love and harmony, then why is there so much strife?”

We talked about the common ancestry of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, about the faiths’ overlapping principles and about sibling rivalry between Ishmael and Isaac. But that’s about as far as we got. We were stuck on Genesis as a sparse and dry text.

If I could distill Gordon’s book into a shorter, less-dense text, I’d love to have these same students get to know the Biblical archetypes of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar as real people–full of doubt and hope and as prone to mistakes and misunderstandings as the rest of us–instead of just as two-dimensional players on a page.

These religions were founded and grown by human beings, not by god-like saints. In Chapter 17–“Naming God”–Gordon stresses Hagar’s experience of God as a deity who can form intimate, personal relationships with mere mortals. Today, we don’t appreciate how revolutionary this was, that a servant woman would converse with and even challenge a deity, and that she’d dare to name God.

The idea of the individual’s right to interact with God directly and to experience God through the text is a fundamental building block of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. There’s often as much discord about belief and interpretation within these faiths as there is between them. What is an authentic Jewish, Christian or Islamic reading of the text? In each religion, the question is contested, because the individual has to have the right to his or her own relationship to God. Because all three religions have these stories as part of their origin myth, all have within them the idea that even a humble individual has the right to name God.

Gordon shows us there’s no right way or wrong way to understand Genesis, or even God. By putting human faces on archetypal characters, she helps us get more comfortable with shades of gray.

About Jennifer Willis

Jennifer Willis is a freelance writer and the author of the Green Soul Guide blog. A religious studies scholar, she has taught classes on religious diversity and spiritual practice. She is in the process of converting to Judaism. Jennifer lives in Portland, Ore., and can be found online at www.jennifer-willis.com.