Women in the Bible: HAGAR ~ Easter 5A, Mother’s Day 05/14/17

The Story of Hagar
Text: Genesis 16:1-16; 21:1-21
Rev. Heather M. Hinton
May 14, 2017 ~ Fourth Sunday of Easter
Second in the Series Women in the Bible

My name is Hagar. That means “wanderer.” And that’s appropriate, since I was a slave. I had no real home, no family to take care of me. I was a girl, destined to wait upon an old woman who wasn’t…well, let’s just say she wasn’t always kind.

Sarah, the old lady who owned me, was married to an even older man named Abraham. Actually, when I first started working – ha! Working! What a funny way to talk about it, since I didn’t receive any wages! – anyway, when I first started serving her, her name was Sarai. Sarai: a dwelling place. Or courtyard. Or palace, even. Sturdy, secure, respectable, safe. Permanent. Grounded. The opposite of me, the wanderer.

And then when her name got changed to Sarah, she was a Princess. Abraham’s Princess. God’s Princess.

Speaking of Abraham: first he was Abram – the father of multitudes. Then God made a promise to him: a promise that his “descendants will be like the dust of the earth” – and God knows, there’s a lot of dust out here in the desert. How much must there be in the whole world? That’s a pretty incredible promise. Unheard of, really. Anyway, his name changed from Abram to Abraham, but it meant the same thing: exalted father of many.

Anyway, back to my story. You know that in my time – a time that would eventually be called 2,000 years BC or so – everything in our society depended on hierarchies. Men were, of course at the top, with the rich men at the very, very top. And of course, Abraham was rich. Really rich. Lots of livestock, silver, gold. And God’s promise of more land to come – land that Abraham’s descendants would inherit – well it just went to show how much God favored Abraham.

Women? They were down at the bottom. Below male children, even. Can you imagine that? A grown, healthy woman was worth less than a little boy. But that’s how it was. And speaking of men and kids – that’s the only way a woman got any status of her own. A woman who didn’t have children, even though she was married, wasn’t worth much. Everyone knew that her childlessness was probably because God was displeased with her, and most everyone didn’t respect her very much. They pitied her. And she felt so much shame. It was awful.

And of course, all this talk of status? I’m talking, of course, about free men and women. Male slaves? They were at the bottom. And women slaves? They were at the very, very bottom. And at the time I’m talking about, I wasn’t even a woman. I was a “maid,” little more than a girl. It doesn’t get much lower than that.

Well, anyway, God made these promises to Abraham, that he would be the father of many nations, that his offspring would inherit tons of land, that all would be better than the best he could imagine. But after many years, the promise hadn’t come true. And so Sarah decided to take matters into her own hands. She told Abraham to sleep with me in the hopes that I’d get pregnant. According to custom, that child that I carried in my body for nine months, that child that I suffered through the pains of childbirth to bring into this world, that child for whom my breasts grew heavy with milk, that child who I would love more than life itself before it was even born – that child – my child – would not be mine. He would be Sarah’s.

This is me: Hagar. The wanderer. The outsider from Egypt. The one without a true home. The one destined to serve others, no matter how they treated me. The one who turned out to be nothing more than a thing in which a baby could grow and from whom that baby could then be taken away.

This is me: Hagar. The one who was – well, let’s call it what it was: I was the one who was raped. And then I was destined to lose the child who resulted from that rape. I had nothing. Not even the blood of my blood, the flesh of my flesh. Not even my own body.

Of course Abraham agreed to Sarah’s plan. Anything to make the promise come true.

But you know, something happened after Abraham used me. As the baby grew inside of me, it wasn’t just my body that changed. I looked at my mistress, Sarah, old and barren and desperate, and it was hard not to feel just a little bit superior. She may have won the status, but I would have the true worth because I would bear a child – hopefully a son! – for Abraham.

But I guess I don’t hide my feelings very well. Sarah could tell I didn’t respect her anymore, that I wasn’t afraid of her, that I thought I had become her equal. Which, by the way, was kind of true in our little corner of the world. Once a slave woman bore a son, she really was equal, at least in certain ways, to her owner. She essentially became a second wife – way more valuable than a mere handmaid.

But Sarah hadn’t thought that through, I guess. But when I began to look at her differently, she was angry. She was so angry. And jealous. She treated me…she…well, let’s just say she punished me harshly. I won’t get into the details.

So I ran away. I know, I know: such willfulness is pretty stupid. Especially when it means running out into the wilderness with nowhere to go and nothing to eat and no one to protect me, and pregnant to boot. But I was really, really hurt and angry that she was so cruel. So I just…ran.

I was sitting by a spring – oh, that water was such a relief – do you know how thirsty you get when you’re pregnant? Anyway, I was sitting there and an angel came to me. The angel asked me what I was doing, and when I said I had run away because of the way Sarah treated me, the angel told me to go back and be obedient, to submit to Sarah.

Nice, right? I couldn’t believe it. But then the angel said, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” Interesting. Apparently I was to get the same blessing that Abraham and Sarah got. Maybe submission to Sarah wouldn’t be so bad, even if she was jealous and angry and mean.

So I named the God who spoke to me: El-Roi. That brings us back to names again. El-Roi: I have seen God. Since I love names so much, and since I was full of so much joy and hope, I had to play a little with that name: I said to the angel, “I have seen the One who sees me!” Kind of clever, right?

Anyway, I trusted God and returned to Abraham and Sarah. And about nine months later, when Abraham was eight-six years old, my son Ishmael was born.

Of course, I still had nothing. And even though I knew Ishmael was my son, and so did everyone else, everyone also knew that he wasn’t my son. He was hers. I had nothing: not my own body which was served up to a man without my consent. I had nothing: not even my son…

Well, many years later, when my son was fourteen, Sarah, who by then was 90, gave birth to a son. They called him Isaac, because when God told Sarah she was going to get pregnant and have a son, she laughed – Isaac: “laughter.” But here’s a question: why were they surprised? God kept making this promise to them; even after my son was born, God continued to promise that Sarah would have a son. Clearly God didn’t mean that my son was her son; there was still a future son being promised to her. But they never seemed to really trust God as much as God hoped they would.

Weird that I ended up trusting God more than they did – and this God wasn’t even the God of my people. But there you go. People are strange…

So about two – or was it three? – years later (it all gets a little blurry in my mind here), Isaac was weaned and Abraham threw a big party. Ishmael and Isaac were playing – weren’t all the kids playing? Of course they were! It was a party! Anyway, they were playing and Sarah saw them, and she got really mad (again). She said, “Ishmael is mitzachek!” It’s another play on words, a pun: Ishmael is M-itzaac-chek. Can you hear it? How Isaac’s name – Yitzak – is in the middle of the word, a word you usually translate as “play?” How can I say it in English? My son was “Isaac-ing.” He was being like Isaac, laughing. Having a good time. But Sarah saw a threat in that. My son was too much part of the family. He was Isaac-ing. She thought he was trying to take Isaac’s place. He was, after all, the first-born. He could claim all the rights of inheritance when Abraham died. Apparently Sarah hadn’t really thought about that. But when she saw them playing, getting along, acting like real brothers, she got, what? Scared? Probably. Angry, for sure.

You know, for someone who would come to be regarded as one of the fore-mothers of the Jewish people, Sarah sure had her fair share of doubt and anger. She wasn’t always admirable. But I digress.

The point is that Sarah got so mad that she went to Abraham and told him to get rid of me and my son, to send us out into the desert and let whatever would happen, happen.

Abraham was really sad about his son. Distressed, even. Because he loved him so much. That was plain. What wasn’t clear was: was he distressed about me at all? Did he care for me even a little? Such is the fate of women, especially slave women: we’re invisible. We’re nothing. We have nothing. Not even our own bodies.

Now I did finally have my own child, of course. But only to die with him. How could we possibly survive out there in the desert, with nothing more than a little bread and one measly skin of water? My fourteen-year-old son and I wandered – remember my name? Wanderer? – we wandered around in the wilderness of Beer-sheba until our food and water ran out.

I couldn’t stand it. Ishmael didn’t seem fourteen anymore; he was my tiny child, my baby, and he cried from the agony of unquenched thirst. We were both going to die of dehydration and exposure. And I just couldn’t listen to his cries anymore, my son, my baby, finally my own but only to die. I led him to a shady spot and left him there, still crying. And I went a ways off and I sobbed. I just…

But just when I was sure all hope was lost, the angel of God appeared to me again, and said what angels almost always say when they show up: “don’t be afraid.” And then the angel said, “God has heard the voice of the boy.”

Suddenly, in that moment, I understood my son’s name – I, the one so fascinated by names, hadn’t even realized it! – Ish-ma-El – God hears. God has heard Ishmael. God has heard the one who is named “God hears.” I was amazed.

Anyway. “God has heard the voice of the boy where he is,” the angel said. “Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

And then I saw it: a well of water! Where none had been before! I filled up the water skin and gave it to Ishmael to drink, and then I drank, and we filled up that water skin over and over again until our thirst was finally quenched.

God kept God’s promises. God stayed with Ishmael his whole life long – and since Ishmael took care of me, as a good man should, God was also with me.

Me. The slave girl. The one who had always had nothing, not even my own body. Now I had my body, my son, and my – our – freedom. The very same God of the people who had enslaved me was the God who freed me. Think about that!

But you know what? It’s funny. Even though I was not one of God’s chosen people, God appeared to me twice. I even named God. That’s a privilege not many people ever had, or have. Certainly not women! To see God. To talk with God. To name God.

Me. Remarkable.

And God provided for me and my son. God heard our cries.

So. What do I want to say to you today? Well, maybe first that God – your God – our God – hears the cries of the desperate. The oppressed. The outsider. The outcast. The abandoned.

And even when everyone around us gives up on us, God doesn’t.

And I want to say that I truly believe that God is trustworthy and faithful, even when we falter. After all, those promises God made about my son, about him becoming many nations? That happened. He – and his wife, of course, let’s not forget her, even though nearly everyone does – they had twelve sons. Those sons became the Twelve Tribes of Ishmael. You probably don’t know much about them, even though you know about the Twelve Tribes of Isaac – the people that became known as the People Israel, who are your ancestors in faith.

But my son’s Twelve Tribes? They became the people you call Arabs. Specifically the ones who call themselves Muslims.

But we all come from Abraham, the people of all three faiths: Jews, Christians, Muslims. We’re not so different. In God’s love, in God’s mercy, none of us are outsiders. None of us are out of God’s reach. God has not – nor will God ever – abandon us. As one of your hymns says, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea.”

But you know, it’s not just my son whose life changed the world. Mine did, too, even if only in a way that lots of people – probably most people – don’t realize.

Here’s what I mean. Nowadays, in your time, people, especially Christians, can be expected to know the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The story of Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel and Leah. But mostly they don’t really know about me, Hagar, the wanderer, the slave, the one who had nothing, not even her own body.

No, most people don’t know about me, or if they do, they tend to forget about me until someone reminds them. But there are people who do remember me, who do pay attention to my story. For them, I have become the symbol, the archetype, the model of the downtrodden women who persevere. Women who need a story about a woman who suffered tremendously and yet survived, a woman whose God never abandoned her even in the worst of times, in the midst of the worst pain a mother can ever be asked to bear – those women can look to me and find hope. Men too, of course, can find strength in my story. But we women, who so often go unnoticed – only 93 women speak in your Bible, and only 49 of us are named! – we women need to see ourselves explicitly represented in the stories of our faith.

There’s another group of people who know me well: African American women. In the days of slavery in the United States (and elsewhere), I showed them the real possibility that slave women could survive, and could maybe even one day find freedom and happiness. The divine promises to rescue me – and the fulfillment of those promises – have become symbols of God’s concern for the survival of African American women and their children, whose families, not many generations ago, were enslaved as I was… [1]

I guess I want to say one last thing. For centuries, there has been strife between Isaac’s descendants, the Jews, and Ishmael’s descendants, the Muslims. They go in and out of war year after year after year. And Christians get caught up in it too, some siding with Isaac’s people, some siding with Ishmael’s. And yet we are all part of one family, all descended from Abraham!

What will it take for us to realize that we are all family?

Maybe it will start with the women.

Maybe, if we can imagine what Sarah and I might say to each other if we could let go of jealousy and anger and fear, if we could learn to love and forgive and cherish one another – maybe then our sons and their sons and their son’s sons could learn to love and forgive and cherish one another. Maybe mercy will flow from God to the women to the children – children like the ones you baptized here this morning.

After all, there is no love like the love of mothers. Maybe we can shower that love on our sisters and brothers with as much passion as we shower it on our children.

May it be so.

Sarah and Hagar
a poem by Linda Hirschhorn

I am calling you, oh, Sarah.
This is your sister Hagar
Calling through the centuries
To reach you from afar.
Here is my son, Ishmael,
Your sister’s son, alive.
We share the sons of Abraham,
Two peoples, one tribe.
Oh, yes, I am your Sarah.
I remember you, Hagar.
Your voice comes through the distance,
A cry upon my heart.
It was I who cast you out,
In fear and jealousy.
Yet, your vision survived the wilderness,
To reach your destiny.
But it wasn’t ‘til my Isaac
Lay under the knife
That I recognized your peril,
The danger to your life
I tremble now, Hagar
For our peril’s still the same.
We will not survive as strangers;
We must speak each other’s name.
We must tell each others’ stories,
Make each other strong,
And sing the dream of ancient lands,
Where both of us belong.
Let us hear the prayers
Where spirit was first sown,
That all of our children
May call this land their home.

 

[1] “Alice Ogden Bellis, Hagar in the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books.” Women In Scripture, Carol Meyers, ed.

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