“Wilderness as wide, wide world could not be contained, but wilderness as a specific place could be.” This notion of wilderness is the nucleus of Delores Williams’ work around what Dr. J. Kameron Carter has coined “fugitive theology.” As such, it provides the theological grounds upon which an alternative way of imagining what we might call “God” emerges. I read Williams’ exegetical work around Genesis 16 and 21 as a path of potentiality for reconfiguring the doctrine of the Creator away from notions of sovereignty and towards a social-symbolic notion of wilderness vis-à-vis the black radical tradition. I am interested not so much in exploring God as that which Hagar discovers in the wilderness, but in the figuration of God as the wilderness itself—the space of fugitive refuge devoid of exclusionary practices of governance. This essay will begin by looking to Sallie McFague and M. Shawn Copeland to establish the ways in which particular conceptions of God have been deployed as a means of exclusion and a justification of colonial enterprise. Next, I will utilize Williams’ reading of Hagar to explore God as wilderness (/fugitivity). This God, I will argue, functions as a sociopolitical critique against every system that attempts to police the boundaries of belonging.
To begin, let us first establish the popular view of the God-world relationship that Williams’ work challenges. McFague refers to this view as the monarchical model. It imagines God as an “all-powerful king [that] controls his subjects [who] … in turn offer him loyal obedience.” Mcfague notes that the allure of this model is bound up in the ways it “dramatizes divine transcendence,” meaning it places great emphasis on the authority and grandeur of God. This notion of the sacred incites both “awe and reverence” as well as vocational identity, considering that discipleship calls forth service to the Master. Finally, in keeping with the male pronouns used for God throughout scripture, divinity is almost always rendered as male within this model. Therefore, God is foundationally patriarchal, which presents a kind of social double predestination for women in which they are destined by virtue of biology to a life of both human and divine subordination.
It is crucial to mark that God as sovereign overseer has routed within it a racialized doctrine of election that functions as a theological bordering tool. By the fifteenth century, supersessionism transubstantiates and meets the transatlantic where it begins to route itself through the slave trade. The Gentile Christian claim to owning the covenant of Israel (see Exod 3:10) becomes part of a wider matrix of the desire to own the earth and label it as property. In that way, the story of YHWH’s relationship to Israel becomes a story of bordering, of negotiating who is in and who is out, with black bodies positioned on the receiving end of this “elected” system of governance. Copeland notes that though race “is a social construct with no basis in biology, … skin [pigmentation] morphs into a horizon funded by bias.” This should not surprise us, however, since (white) Christian settlers were operating from the basis of the monarchical model of the God-world relationship. As we will see glimpses of in the story of Hagar, insofar as divine sovereignty relates to lordship and property, the racial imaginary is secured and sanctioned under the guise of divinely ordained social hierarchy.
Reframing Hagar’s escape to the wilderness as an act of sacred defiance against her own brutality, Williams challenges this notion of a monarchical God who sanctions the arrest of black bodies. When Hagar escapes to the wilderness she is liberated not only from the brutalities of being a slave, but also from the patriarchal God of Sarai and Abram. As such, “Hagar becomes the first female in the Bible to liberate herself from oppressive power structures” and “the only person in the Bible to whom is attributed the power of naming God.” Here in the wilderness—a home away from home (which is not so much a home as it is a scene of captivity)—is a space of possibility where Hagar exercises a sort of ‘paratheological’ – imagination of the divine. Here she freely names God in a way that interrogates the doctrine of the Creator funding the brutalizing body politics of the Abrahamic plantation.
Hagar’s naming of God is the hermeneutic by which God as wilderness can begin to take shape. She addresses God as “El Roi,” which, as Williams notes, is a deity that “is not associated with Hagar’s oppressors, the patriarchal family.” Instead, El is traditionally used to refer to the god of the Canaanites. And, interestingly, names compounded with El were not applied to specific people or tribes but to cultic sites: “El olam, ‘the Everlasting God,’ appears in Genesis 21:33 in connection with Beer-sheba. El ro’i, ‘God of seeing,’ appears in Genesis 16:13 at another sanctuary in southern Palestine.” What does it mean that Hagar does not call upon the patriarchal God of her slave owners Sarai and Abram? Hagar’s unique choosing of the name El Roi is the mutinous construction of a non-anthropic, non-patriarchal, non-monarchical deity that is found in the very site of resistance to those opposing notions of sovereignty. Considering the context in which Hagar announces this sacred name (in the wilderness), God is the wilderness and the wilderness is the cultic site of fugitivity. The implicit corollary is that God is not the god of the plantation or the patriarchy. In this way, Hagar’s naming action is a staunch critique against “patriarchal power at its highest levels, since the ultimate head of this ancient Hebrew family was its patriarchal God.”
The runaway slave Hagar witnesses to the runaway God who is wilderness—the path of fugitivity towards abolitionist futurity. This God is a challenge to imperialist notions of the divine operative in the popular doctrine of the Creator. It is a notion of the sacred that is uncontainable, and therefore a polemic against all systems of power that necessitate the politics of surrogacy and atonement. What if the brutalities of the external and provincial God is a reflexive gesture of sovereignty to try and border the unborderable? What would it mean to think divinity not through the logics of the settler, and therefore the notion of borders and boundaries, but rather through the wilderness “as wide, wide world [that] cannot be contained?”