‘So Abraham Took Hagar’: A Children’s Retelling of Abraham

Catherine H Kennedy

(Department of Philosophy, University of Sheffield)

Materials for children that retell the Bible in the context of faith formation (‘Sunday school’, or catechesis) receive much less attention than Christian media for adults, which is ironic in a world that periodically debates issues of ‘radicalization’ or ‘biblical literacy’. As with Disney animated films, there appears to be a general assumption that Christian materials are wholesome or at least innocuous. Research findings which increasingly call into question the innocence of blockbuster animation can reasonably be inferred to apply to faith formation materials: if commercially successful narratives aimed at children have a demonstrable effect on developing minds, so must narratives encountered in Religious Education and Sunday school.[1]

In the summer of 2017 I obtained a SURE[2] research scholarship to research Godly Play, one of the catechetical packages used currently in the United Kingdom, supervised by Professor Hugh Pyper and Joanne Henderson-Merrygold. Godly Play comes from the United States and is popular with churches and schools around Sheffield including the Anglican Cathedral. It is also extremely successful as an activity in dementia care settings[3] and has been used in hospital environments as an aid to emotional well-being. [4] This article will give some methodological background and present examples from the Godly Play text which illustrate the study’s findings, before offering some concluding thoughts.

Most of the attention Godly Play has received has focussed on its methods; it is one of the rare (if not the only) method of children’s catechesis which does not rely on leading questions. It is designed to foster independent critical engagement with the story: the children are free to voice any response at all and are encouraged to articulate their criticisms and concerns. There is a body of literature examining Godly Play within the context of childhood spirituality. In the UK this is mostly associated with Rebecca Nye,[5] but the present study found nothing scrutinising the content of the ‘scripts’ which are used. This is important because the method relies on reaction to what is presented in a powerfully ritualistic format which includes sequencing, scripting, and choreography: this format strongly suggests the authority of the material and invokes liturgical and religious tropes.[6]

The project focussed on the Godly Play retelling of the Abraham cycle, which was compared to Genesis chapters 11 to 25, which it claims to retell, and subjected to narratological analysis. Although some aspects of the findings were not unusual, in that Godly Play is largely representative of Christian materials for children in its themes and orientations, in another sense, the elaborate nature of the Godly Play method and the precision with which the scripts are used, mean that the wording and enactment are extremely important. Analysis demonstrated that as retold, the story diverges from the biblical text in ways which change the plot and characterisation.

Findings also included the addition of modern ideology to the biblical story. One of the most prominent elements of the Godly Play version is the way that the lives of the protagonists are presented as only being fully satisfactory and meaningful when they manage to produce a child: a reprosexual anthropology. This early passage provides a clear example: ‘Abram and Sarai had been married for a long time, but they had no children. God had promised them that they would be the mother and father of a great family, but how could that be with no children?’[7] The redundant repetition of ‘no children’ in successive sentences leaves no doubt that children are both the normative outcome of marriage and the necessary mark of a ‘family’. Furthermore, as is always the case in these scripts, the male is named before the female but ‘mother’ appears before ‘father’, implying that while males take precedence over females generally, motherhood brings status otherwise unavailable to women.

The stereotypical male role of provider is not directly represented within the script, but Abraham is portrayed very differently from Sarah.[8] His leadership role is constituted through his spiritual primacy, embodied in his altar-building.[9] Abraham is shown distancing himself from Sarah to communicate with God. During these episodes, he receives instruction which is valid for both spouses, but of which only he has knowledge. Abraham is thus made sole representative of the couple, speaking and acting for Sarah. By implication, whenever Abraham makes a decision, Sarah must obey, not being in a position to question his authority or good sense. The portrayal of Abraham’s encounters with God, while broadly consistent with Genesis, directly contradicts the repeated allegation within the Godly Play text that ‘they’ have received a divine promise. God communicates with Abraham alone. Furthermore, in Genesis, God does not mention Sarah’s involvement as mother of the heir until a late stage in the story. This point will be discussed further.

In Godly Play, Abraham is never portrayed speaking to his wife or engaging in any shared activity. The only words of commitment spoken in the script are those of God: “We will be together for ever”[10] addressed only to Abraham. Lastly, the detailed portrayal of the binding of Isaac, where his father almost kills him as a sacrifice to God, acts to seal Abraham’s primacy within the family through God ordering him to sacrifice his son who is thereby signified as his sole property in the eyes of the deity.[11] Throughout, Abraham’s main, if not only, relationship is with God. He is never anxious or pre-occupied, nor does he need anyone: the archetypical normative male. He is nevertheless the figurehead of the household, embodying stability in the symbolic and material senses.

While Abraham’s life is turned outwards to his social interaction with God, Sarah is never addressed by any other character and her life is inward-facing, entirely focussed on child-bearing. She is constituted as an object for male ownership; desired and instrumentalised in conversations which concern her but from which she is excluded, as can be seen from the following excerpt: ‘…there was a girl named Sarai, which means ‘Princess’. In the same city there was a man named Abram. They met and fell in love.’[12] These opening words establish male superiority beyond question, as that of adult over child, and link the female role to that of a ‘princess’: a juvenile fairy-tale trope with which children will already be familiar. According to Veronica Heffner, Disney animated entertainment is often the first ‘moral’ resource children encounter and from which they internalise normative life scripts.[13] The Princess motif should therefore be understood in its intertextuality; use of it here is a deliberate reference to the fairy-tale trope, linking ‘Sarai’ to  the recurring Disney themes described by Heffner, Dawn England, and others: sexual maturation, love at first sight, the hetero-normative ‘happily ever after’, and the gendered expectations of ‘dutifulness, self-sacrifice, and subservience to males’ which are intrinsic to princess portrayals.[14]

‘Once they went to Egypt and the king of Egypt, called the Pharaoh, wanted her for himself. When he discovered that she was Abram’s wife, he made them both leave.’[15] The inferiority of the female role is again implied by the repeated honorific titles attached to the king, while Sarah is unnamed in the sentence, defined as ‘Abram’s wife’. She is desired because beautiful and defined as property. Her experience of the incident is not alluded to. She neither speaks nor acts. Sarah fell in love with Abraham. Her consent to be his wife, to remain so, and to be counted as his property are assumed to be for all time and to require no further representation. By falling in love she has surrendered to a permanently passive role. In Genesis, there is no mention of love between spouses and the Egyptian incident will be discussed further.

Sexual objectification is compounded by reproductive objectification when Sarah’s imminent pregnancy is announced to Abraham in her absence and is discussed with him by the three visitors as though she were absent.[16] She is described as ‘listening by the tent’,[17] which reduces her to childish eavesdropping. Rebekah, likewise, is not addressed by the servant. He tells ‘her family’[18] about Abraham and Isaac. In both these scenes the scripts depart from Genesis, in which care is taken by both the visitors and the servant to ensure that even if others wish them to be excluded, the women are aware that the information being shared is for them and their involvement is being acknowledged. In the absence of any relationship with her future husband Rebekah’s role within the family can only be read as that of reproductive partner. She has given her consent in ignorance of the man she is to marry and the circumstances she is committing to. This is accurate with regard to Genesis, but for it to pass without comment implies such a situation is acceptable and normal, and that Rebekah’s destiny to marry and have children is paramount. Superficially, this resembles a fairy-tale scenario, but at a time when society seeks to prevent forced marriage and child abuse this portrayal is questionable.

The most striking instance of female objectification is Abraham ‘taking’ Hagar: ‘Abraham took Hagar, Sarah’s helper, for a second wife’.[19] The decision is allegedly justified and motivated by the perceived need for a child, but Hagar is not consulted and her point of view is not referenced. She is ‘taken’ as an object and neither the sexual content of the phrase nor its problematic implications for consent are addressed. Furthermore, she is ‘a second wife’, carelessly suggesting that these may be in the plural. This suggests that any behaviour can be narrated without comment on condition that the producing of a child is the desired outcome.

The loss of identity of the female characters within marriage is also present on a semantic level. Sarah marries Abraham and is then generally unnamed, disappearing into plural pronouns. These pronouns are then used to narrate situations where Abraham alone is present with God. Effectively, while the identity of the male spouse is maintained throughout, female identity is subsumed into that of the couple and their reproductive project, with this portrayed as a normal course of events. This is compounded by Godly Play’s portrayal, or lack of portrayal, of motherhood.

Sarah is passive, discussed and disputed over by others. However, in matters of childbearing she is active, although not in the sense of her embodied experience of pregnancy and childbirth. A promise has been received and Sarah is anxious that the child necessary for its fulfilment has not been born. As discussed above, anxiety is a solely female experience in the scripts. She decides that Abraham should ‘take a second wife’ and later, that he should send Hagar and Ishmael away. These are the only instances of Sarah actively making a decision or communicating. She does not even address her son. The script presents Sarah’s motivation in proposing the surrogacy as a response to the delay in the arrival of the promised child. [20] However, given that at this point in Genesis Sarah is unaware of any such promise her suggestion to Abraham should be read as following the incident in Egypt where the biblical text is clear that Abraham manipulates Sarah in order to cede her to Pharaoh.[21] Tammi Schneider argues that read from Sarah’s point of view, excluding chapters 13 to 15 from which she is absent, her desire to present Abraham with an heir is most logically an attempt to ‘build up’ her status as a protection against future abandonment or trafficking. [22]

In the Godly Play scripts, the life of these female characters is presented as exclusively interior and emotional: Sarah wonders if she will see Isaac again. She worries about not having the promised child, becoming angry and jealous when Hagar conceives. Hagar is afraid, and runs away. Female existence is introverted and essentialised, centred exclusively on child-bearing in an abstract sense. The experiences of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing are totally elided: ‘Ishmael was born’,[23] ‘Do you know what happened? Abraham and Sarah had a son’.[24] ‘She did have a son. She named him … laughter’.[25] The only acknowledgement of pregnancy is ‘when Hagar was about to have a baby’.[26]

This treatment bears no resemblance to the source text. Terence Fretheim analyses the nativity of Isaac, observing that the verb ‘yalad’, ‘to bear’ is used of Sarah five times, she is named six times, and speaks at some length,[27] whereas Abraham is content to circumcise and name his son. From Sarah’s mention of ‘pleasure’ in Genesis 18:12 to her reference to suckling in 21:7, her focus is on her own, pleasurable, bodily experience. Ann Marmesh observes that the physical sensation of breast-feeding is such that Sarah’s declaration should be read as celebrating the ‘gratification’ she now finds in her relationship with her new-born, which supersedes any sexual satisfaction she might have hoped for from Abraham.[28] Given this, the erasure of the female body observed in the Godly Play scripts does not represent the source-text. Godly Play’s excision of the women’s experience of motherhood from the account of their lives adds to the sense of their being defined and objectified by their reproductive role. Women’s reproductive capacity is necessary for the constitution of the family and for the promotion of the husband to the status of father but female agency is entirely unacknowledged. The female body is a means to an end and, like the problematic absence of female sexual consent, this exclusion of female experience as a valid category is troubling.

The assumption that socially conservative themes must, by definition, be biblical is prevalent. In informal discussions, volunteers and teachers using these materials have related that they are unaware that the retelling diverges from the Genesis original and do not think to question the validity of such materials. Two questions seem to arise from this and from the observations made during our research into the Abraham story: why is it desirable that children read the Bible or be familiar with its contents, and why would the Abraham story be considered important to children who are not Jewish?

The main objective of a retelling such as the one discussed above seems to be to impress the principles of ‘male headship’ (spiritually instituted authority of men over women) and reprosexual self-realisation on young minds. A cynic might suggest that it has become traditional to do this before they become articulate enough to question such ideas in the light of lived experience.

Given that the Abraham of Genesis is not a particularly good role model and the themes of the original text are decidedly adult, involving trafficking, rape, adoption, and relationship break-down, the value of the Abraham cycle for young children is questionable and it should probably be avoided. There are plenty of other tales from the Bible and elsewhere that can be used to teach moral and religious principles. More broadly, the disturbing implication of a retelling like the Godly Play version being used, unexamined, in churches and schools is that many other Bible-based books and media in widespread use may be equally undesirable.




Amos, Clare, The Book of Genesis (London: Epworth Press, 2004)

Anonymous, ‘Godly Play and Dementia’, The Diocese of Sheffield http://www.sheffield.anglican.org/godly-play-dementia [Accessed 3 May 2018]

England, Dawn Elizabeth, Lara Descartes, and Melissa A. Collier-Meek, ‘Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses’, Sex Roles, 64 (2011), 555-67 http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7

Farell, Joan D Phd, James H Cooper, D Min, Scot Brooks Cope, and others, ‘Godly Play: An Intervention for Improving Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Responses of Chronically Ill Hospitalized Sick Children’, The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, 62 (2008), 261-71

Fretheim, Terence E, Abraham, Trials of Family and Faith (Colombia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007)

Hay, David, Rebecca Nye, The Spirit of the Child, (Revised Edition) (London: Rebecca Kingsley, 2006)

Hefner, Veronica, Rachel Jean Firchau, Katie Norton, and Gabrialla Shevel, ‘Happily Ever After? A Content Analysis of Romantic Ideals in Disney Princess Films, Communication Studies, 68 (2017), 511-32 http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2017.1365092

[1] Veronica Hefner and others, ‘Happily Ever After? A Content Analysis of Romantic Ideals in Disney Princess Films’, Communication Studies, 68.5 (2017), (pp.511–32) pp.512-3 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10510974.2017.1365092>. Dawn Elizabeth England, Lara Descartes and Melissa A. Collier-Meek, ‘Gender Role Portrayal and the Disney Princesses’, Sex Roles, 64.7–8 (2011), (pp.555–67) p.556 <http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11199-011-9930-7>.

[2] Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience: 6 weeks of paid research funded by the University of Sheffield.

[3] Anonymous, ‘Godly Play and Dementia’, The Diocese of Sheffield <http://www.sheffield.anglican.org/godly-play-dementia> [accessed 3 May 2018].

[4] Joan Farrell and others, ‘Godly Play: An Intervention for Improving Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Responses of Chronically Ill Hospitalized Sick Children’, The Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling, 62.3 (2008), (pp.261–71).  Cheryl V Minor and Ryan Campbell, ‘The Parable of the Sower : A Case Study Examining the Use of the Godly Play ® Method as a Spiritual Intervention on a Psychiatric Unit of a Major Children’s Hospital’, International Journal of Children’s Spirituality, 21.1 (2016), 38–51.

[5] See, for example: Rebecca Hay, David, Nye, The Spirit of the Child (Revised Edition) (London: Rebecca Kingsley, 2006).

[6] See Jerome Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 1 (New York: Morehouse, 2002)

[7] Jerome Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 6 (New York: Morehouse, 2006), p.41.

[8] Because the names of the main protagonists change from ‘Abram’ to ‘Abraham’, and from ‘Sarai’ to ‘Sarah’, in the course of the Genesis narrative, the Abraham cycle is confusing to discuss. This article will follow the scholarly tradition of referring to ‘Abraham’ and ‘Sarah’ regardless of any direct quotes using the alternate versions.

[9] Jerome Berryman, The Complete Guide to Godly Play Volume 2 (New York: Morehouse, 2002) p.61.

[10] Berryman, Volume 6, p.42.

[11] See Genesis 22.

[12] Berryman, Volume 6, p.41.

[13] Heffner et al, ‘Happily Ever After?’, p.512.

[14] Heffner et al, ‘Happily Ever After?’, pp.512-4.

[15] Berryman, Volume 6, p.41. See Genesis 12.10-20.

[16] See Genesis 17.15-22; 18.1-15.

[17] Berryman, Volume 2, p.62.

[18] Berryman, Volume 2, p.63. See also Genesis 24.

[19] Berryman Volume 6, p.41. See Genesis 16.

[20] Berryman, Volume 6, p.41.

[21]Tammi J Schneider, Sarah: Mother of Nations (New York: Continuum, 2004), p.47.  Clare Amos, The Book of Genesis (London: Epworth Press, 2004), pp.79-80 & 112-113. Sharon Pace Jeansonne, The Women of Genesis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990), pp.16-17 & 25. See Genesis 12.1-3, 10-20; 16; 17.5-22; 18.1-15; 20; 21.1-21.

[22] Schneider, Sarah, p.48.

[23] Berryman, ‘Volume 6, p.42

[24] Berryman, Volume 2, p.62.

[25] Berryman, Volume 6, p.42

[26] Berryman, Volume 6, p.42.

[27] Terence E Fretheim, Abraham, Trials of Family and Faith (Colombia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), pp.116-7.

[28] Ann Marmesh. “Anti-Covenant.” in Anti-Covenant: Counter-Reading Women’s Lives in the Hebrew Bible. Edited by Mieke Bal. pp.55-56.