Biographies of Jewish Saints

Hagar Sent Away. Dore

We’re reading the biographies of Jewish Saints these days– stories of the patriarchs, their wives and times, from the Book of Genesis. The story of Sarah and Hagar is not the story you think of when you think of saints. (Genesis 16, 1-22, 15-16)  It’s a shocking story of Sarah, Abraham’s wife, arranging for him to take as a concubine her maidservant Hagar,  so that he can have children, for Sarah is childless. She’s lost trust in God’s promise, and so has he.

The story doesn’t turn out well. Hagar becomes a nasty rival for Sarah. Sarah turns on her and abuses her maidservant, finally throwing her out to the dogs. She also turns on Abraham, who doesn’t look like much of a hero here. No one looks good in this story, except God.

And maybe that’s what the story’s meant to say. 

Our lectionary doesn’t like to offer stories like this. There’s an alternative reading offered that tones the story down. 

On the other hand, the Jewish biographies of saints in the scriptures don’t hesitate to tell their dark sides, and so maybe they’re a caution for Christian biographers who tend to idealize their saints. 

Pope Francis offers that caution in “Gaudete et exultate”:  “Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person.” (22)

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