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Sunday Worship 25 June | Hagar cries out

Updated: Feb 8

Hagar's story is deeply troubling, as she is trafficked and abused, and we have to work hard to wrestle a blessing from it, so go easy if this is a difficult one to read.

Genesis 21:8-21 | NIV
The child grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 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. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

One of my favourite novels is Jon McGregor’s So Many Ways To Begin, which is about a man who was adopted as a baby preparing to meet the woman he believes to be his birth mother. As he rehearses the many ways he could begin telling her about the fifty years of his life that she has missed, many of the stories he tells are his wife’s, even stories about her from before they met, because their lives are now so entwined that he cannot tell his own story without also telling hers. I have always loved it as a picture of how our lives become knitted together with the lives of those around us, and it seems a good image to start with this morning. Because last week we turned our attention to the Old Testament reading from the lectionary, and heard some of the story of Abraham and Sarah. We focused on the visit of three mysterious strangers, and Sarah’s laughter when she heard one of them announce that she would have a child at the age of ninety, but we began by briefly catching up with their history to that point, and you may have noticed that a number of other stories were woven into theirs. One of those was the story of Hagar, and her story will be our focus for this morning, although of course Abraham and Sarah will also weave their way through it.


As we did last week, I want us to begin further back than the passage we heard this morning. In fact, I want us to begin further back than the first time we meet Hagar in scripture, when she is introduced as Sarah’s Egyptian slave girl, presumably a gift from Pharaoh when she lived in his household. We don’t know for certain anything about her before that point, but people have been exercising their prophetic imagination for centuries, and a Jewish midrash has her as Pharaoh's daughter, given into Sarah’s service because he thought it was better for her to be a slave in such a family than to be a wife in any other. We should rightly shudder at the thought of any person being handed over to another like property, but there is something particularly unsettling about the idea of a father giving his own child into slavery. How little worth we sometimes place on the lives of others, and how much pain is caused when we do so. To quote Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum, “ when you treat people like things”.


It is worth remembering here that Sarah herself had been abused by Abraham and Pharaoh, passed off as the former’s sister in order that the latter might take her as a mistress, and so perhaps there was a sense of solidarity between the two women at first. And yet if there ever was, it was not to last, and Renita J. Weems argues that the relationship between Sarah and Hagar exhibits "ethnic prejudice exacerbated by economic and social exploitation". Because eventually Sarah’s despair at her own childlessness gets the better of her. She can no longer wait for the promise of many descendants, and so she takes matters into her own hands and tells Abraham to take Hagar in order that she might bear him a child. It seems it was not an uncommon practice at the time, although that offers no excuse for it at all, and we later see Jacob have children with both of his wives’ handmaids. That last word may give you a clue as to why else this scene feels familiar. Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale offers a dystopian vision in which rising infertility has created a system in which low class women are enslaved as handmaids to bear children for ruling class families. And sadly echoes of this story are not limited to scripture or fiction, but can be found throughout history. We might prefer to turn away from these stories, or at least skip over the details, but if we don’t ever face up to prejudice and exploitation, we can’t ever stand against them.


Hagar becomes pregnant, and we are told that she looks with contempt at Sarah. It is little wonder, for she must have felt violated. She had been violated. Sarah is too caught up in herself to have any sympathy though, and she complains about Hagar to Abraham. He doesn’t want to get involved, or at least any more involved, and leaves his wife to deal with her slave. The text tells us that Sarah deals harshly with Hagar, and the same words are used to describe the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt, so this is no simple reprimand. Raped and mistreated, Hagar runs away to the desert. She is followed not by Sarah or Abraham, but by an angel of the Lord, who tells her to return and promises that her descendants will be too numerous to count. The angel also tells her that she will call her son Ishmael, which means God hears, for the Lord has heard of her misery. She responds by saying “You are the God who sees me...I have now seen the One who sees me”, and she does indeed return to Abraham and Sarah.


Why does God send Hagar back to the place of her suffering and enslavement? It is yet another troubling aspect of a very troubling story. Wil Gafney sees “God’s return of Hagar to her servitude and abuse as the tendency of some religious communities to side with the abuser", and that needs addressing. There are corners of the church that are so misogynistic that abused women will be told by their pastors to stay with their abusers and learn to please them better, but this story does not excuse that because nothing excuses that. So why does God send Hagar back? Perhaps there was no other choice for a pregnant woman with no means alone in the desert, and perhaps that should prompt us to reflect on the vital importance of there being other options for those in abusive situations. Matthew Anstey argues that she is sent back with promise and agency, suggesting that things can be different, and I hope that God spoke to Abraham and Sarah too, so that the abuse did not continue when Hagar returned.


There is something else to be taken from this encounter, because Hagar is the first person in scripture to be visited by an angel, and she is the only person in scripture to give God a name. It’s not clear from the translation, but she doesn’t simply describe God, she names him as El Roi, "the God who sees me". I don’t think we can overstate how significant this is. How long had it been since Hagar had really been seen? How long since she had been any more than a body to command or a womb to occupy? How long since she had been truly wanted rather than simply passed to whoever would find her most useful? And yet here she is chased down and seen by the God who she surely would have expected to side with those who had abused her. After all it was to Abraham that God had made the promise of many descendants. Except God now makes the same promise to her and will later make the same promise to her son. She will not be cast aside once her child is born and he will not be punished for the circumstances of his birth. God has grace enough for all of them. And how I love her unbroken spirit which has the audacity to name God!

So Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and gives birth to a son, and Abraham names him Ishmael. Except it’s not really Abraham that names him Ishmael, because that was the name that was revealed to Hagar by the angel of the Lord. It seems that Hagar has told her story to Abraham, and he has listened. Perhaps there really was a change on her return. We don’t know what happens to her in the next ten or so years, but tensions return after the birth of Isaac, the miracle child born to Sarah in her old age, and here we reach this morning's passage. The text says that Sarah saw that Ishmael was mocking or scoffing or jesting. We’ve already had a sense that she may not be very generous in her reading of other people, and so we can’t be sure if he was bullying his younger half brother or simply playing with him, but she is upset enough to tell Abraham to get rid of Ishmael and his mother.


It seems that Abraham had some affection for his elder son, because we are told he is distressed by this. God tells him not to worry, because his descendants will be reckoned through Isaac, but Ishmael will also become a great nation. And so Abraham gives Hagar some food and water, which we may note is the simple fare he initially promised the three visitors last week, rather than the abundant meal he actually gave them, and sends them out into the desert. They soon run out of water and Hagar expects that they will die, but once again God is watching and hears their cries. An angel calls out to Hagar and tells her not to be afraid, and then her attention is drawn to a spring so that they may drink and be revived. Return is no longer an option, but then Hagar is no longer alone, and so they stay in the desert and God remains with them as Ishmael grows.


Hagar’s story is traumatic, but through it all she is blessed by God. Delores Williams points out that while not liberating her, God twice shows that her survival is of utmost importance, giving her a way to survive where there was previously no way, and granting her new vision to see resources for her survival where she had seen none before. This comes back to some of what we said when we studied the beatitudes together, about blessing being the grace of God in every circumstance. I do think Hagar deserves some credit of her own too, and Wilma Bailey sees her as a model of "power, skills, strength and drive". It is a great pity then that Christianity from Paul onwards has not always been kind to Hagar, using her and Ishmael to represent the unredeemed, while Sarah and Isaac represent the faithful. I actually think it took great faith for Hagar to return and then to make a new life in the desert, and I see hers as a powerful story of redemption.


I want to end with a quote from Frederick Buechner: “The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.”

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