A Proper 7: Genesis 21:8-21
“Hagar”, Jean Michael Prosper Guerin, 19th Century
I’ve always found the story of Sarah and Hagar extraordinarily unfair, cruel, and troubling, but also filled with surprising hope.
It’s one of the biblical stories that makes me wonder about the goodness (and seemingly lack thereof) of the God we see in the Old Testament.
Sarah can’t have children and so she gives her slave girl to her husband as a concubine.
When Hagar does what she has asked, well really forced to do, (have sex with Abraham and conceive a baby that she must give away)Sarah erupts in jealousy and makes Hagar’s life so miserable that she runs away.
Hagar should have never gone back. And she probably wouldn’t have if she did not hear God’s messenger calling to her.
Promising her that she would have a son that God’s blessing would fall on, but more immediately telling her to go back to a toxic, abusive, situation.
In today’s text, Sarah decides to kick that Egyptian woman and her “wild ass” of a son out of the house. Abe rightly vetoes, but then God lets him off the hook, telling him not to worry about it.
While Abraham’s household celebrates with a feast, Hagar and Ishmael wander into the wilderness with scant rations. As Abraham and Sarah laugh (Isaac literally meaning, “he laughs/will laugh”) in the wonder of their baby boy, Hagar tearfully leaves her son to die under a tree.
Why would God let this woman suffer so much at the hands of the one he would use “to bless all the nations of the world?”
This is a valid question, one that understandably de-rails many from claiming faith in a benevolent divine being, and keeps the rest of us up at night.
But in the same story we see a God that is remarkably inclusive, progressive, and loving. When I say progressive, I don’t mean it in the modern sense as a synonym for liberal, but as a way of affirming a God that is out in front of us. God’s concept of justice, and practice of mercy being literally beyond the grasp of our comprehension.
Hagar is the first person and certainly the first woman in Hebrew scripture to be visited by an angel. She is the first person to have the courage and wisdom to name God! As an Egyptian slave girl she receives a promise only rivaled by that of God to Abraham. God hears her cry (Ishmael meaning, “God hears,” or “God may hear”). God shows her the well that would save her life and the life of her son.
God spoke to, heard, and blessed this outsider. God honored God’s promise to make a nation from her descendants. Hagar is honored by our Muslim brothers and sisters as the wife of Abraham and the mother of Ishmael…in some sense the “mother of Islam”. Her desperate search for water is ritualized in the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), by a symbolic retracing of her run by pilgrims.
Whether or not you agree that God blessed Ishmael in the same way God blessed Isaac, I believe that it would only enhance our spiritual lives to lift up Hagar as an example of faith. She demonstrated remarkable perseverance, wisdom, and strength. She was open to the voice of God when everything in her circumstances tell us she shouldn’t have been. God embraced her, when everything in our exclusive logic says God shouldn’t have.
Admittedly this is complicated. It opens up all kinds of questions about Israel, Islam, and “God’s plan”. It forces us to grapple with Sarah’s cruelty and Abraham’s cowardice. It requires us to rise above our “us vs. them” logic.
But more than this, the story of Hagar is a ray of light streaming into our dark circumstances,,pointing us to a God who makes a way out of no way.
Whispering to us that we are never completely forgotten, never all alone, never left for dead, whatever our circumstances may be.