I preached this sermon a little more than a year ago at Kern Road Mennonite Church in South Bend, Indiana based largely on Delores Williams’s exegesis of the Genesis passages in Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-talk.
Hagar is an African slave woman who belongs to Sar’ai. She is property that Sar’ai brought into her marriage with Abram. We know that, especially in the culture of the Hebrews, women’s futures were often uncertain. Women didn’t possess many rights. This is not merely because of the time period—this is something particular to Hebrew customs. Other surrounding cultures of the time gave comparatively more rights to women (including Egyptian culture, in which Hagar was born). The only way that Hebrew women could secure a future for themselves was through the production of an heir—a son. When Sar’ai is apparently unable to produce a son this is a very serious economic crisis. Hebrew custom allowed for a solution in instances like these: free women could arrange for their slaves to act as a surrogate mother for them and claim the child produced from this arrangement as one’s own. Sar’ai is afraid and she knows that she has to look out for herself. We can remember that certainly Abram would have and did do the same (recall when he said she was he sister so that he could preserve his own life?). So, Sar’ai sets up such an arrangement. She asks Abram to conceive a child with Hagar, her slave, in her stead.
The normalcy of this kind of request in its time should not desensitize us to its tragic injustice. Hagar has no say over what is done with her own body—sexually or reproductively. This is a rape—a rape of a slave woman, an enormously common practice throughout many thousands of years of slave holding all over the world. In our own country, white male slave holders habitually violated the bodies of black slave women, as a means to generate more free slaves and as a means to express power over black bodies. White female slave holders habitually looked the other way when these kinds of activities happened or expected the children produced as a result of such rapes to remain in service to the household. This story looks like it might be a little different since Sar’ai intends at the beginning of the passage to claim this child (Ishmael) as her own and thus secure a better life for him than his mother’s, but this doesn’t happen. As we will see later, Sar’ai doesn’t claim Ishmael as her own son in the end.
In the meantime, however, in making this arrangement for Abram to rape Hagar and produce an heir for her, Sar’ai effectively (according to Hebrew custom) gives over what was originally her property alone to Abram. Hagar is no longer considered Sar’ai’s slave. She now belongs to Abram. We know from the text that at the time of this property exchange Hagar is a virgin since the text refers to her as a “maid”. This doesn’t mean she was a good girl, or didn’t want to date. This has a specific economic import. Sar’ai, as her slave owner, could have rented her out for sexual services to other men in exchange for a little extra income, but since the text specifically mentions that she was a “maid,” this means that Sar’ai did no such thing. Up until this point in the story, Sar’ai was (if you could ever say such a thing) a “kind” slave holder. She did not subject Hagar to the worst injustices that she could have legally been able to do at the time. She didn’t force her to be a slave and a prostitute, just a slave. So, you could imagine that Sar’ai’s decision to now begin to demand sexual activities from Hagar would have some negative effect on their relationship. You could even imagine that Hagar might resent this turn or interpret it as a betrayal.
I always thought before I read this text more carefully that Hagar started to think of herself as better than Sar’ai after her conception of Ishmael, or even that she had become prideful. But, I really don’t know where this common interpretation comes from. It isn’t in the text and it is quite ridiculous if you really think about it. Why would a slave ever get the impression that she could rise above her master? Especially when the plan was that the child she was carrying wouldn’t even be considered her own, but Sar’ai’s? It just doesn’t make sense and is probably comes from a historical tradition of trying to demonize Hagar here from a slave holder’s perspective—to make her seem like she somehow deserved what was coming to her.
In response to Hagar’s rightful resentment, Sar’ai says to Abram, “I gave my maid to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived she looked at me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” In other words, “Was I wrong for what I did?!” in that way when you aren’t really asking but just wanting affirmation. And Abram’s response is, “No. I give her back to you now. She was yours to begin with. Do whatever you want with her.” Now that Sar’a is in possession again of Hagar she acts even more unjustly, more violently, so much so that Hagar runs away into the desert for relief. You have to imagine how hopeless Hagar must have felt to do such a thing—to run away from her only home into the desert pregnant and alone without the protection of a family or a tribe. This was a move of desperation.
She stops at a spring for some water and there she is found by God. The text says, “an angel of the Lord” but this was understood at the time of the writing to be God herself, himself. God finds Hagar at the spring and asks her about what is going on. When she explains that she is running away from Sar’ai, God tells her to turn around and go back.
At this point in the story my stomach tightens in a knot. Here is a woman who has been living in slavery, raped, and beaten and she finally does something that reaches toward her own liberation and healing and God tells her no?! turn around?! The reason why God tells her to go back to the household of Abram and Sar’ai is not clear and a lack of clarity itself is not the problem. What gives me pause and, frankly, anxiety is that in the context of a larger, long and horrible tradition of telling women to stay in abusive situations out of fidelity to God, this is not helpful. Biblical scholars and theologians generally agree that this was the most prudent thing for Hagar to do since she was pregnant and had few chances of survival in the desert vulnerable and alone. Surely, the threat of giving birth in the wilderness without aid would be enough to convince most of us that the rational thing would be to go back to one’s family, however abusive. It is important to remember that Hagar is a woman with very few options and God helps her to decide here between bad and worse. Hopefully, we have been and will continue to be blessed with a greater diversity of options in our lives than Hagar is presented with here.
Before she leaves the wilderness to go back to the house of her oppression, God assures her that her descendants will be numerous (thus, her child will survive to adulthood and have children himself—an assurance to any parent, but especially to one whose own life hangs in the balance) and that God assures her that God has heard her pain. Her son will be named Ishmael, meaning God hears, to remind her of this promise. She wouldn’t have had the power to name her own son. In fact, she doesn’t have any reason to believe at this point in the story that her son will be considered her own (he would have Sar’ai as mother instead). So, later in the story when Abram does end up naming the child Ishmael it is a kind of irony: Abram thinks he is naming the child Ishamel (God hears) because God has heard his and Sar’ai’s desire for a son, but really God has heard Hagar’s cries of pain.
Hagar is so moved by this encounter with God that she dares an even more radical kind of action than even running away into the desert: she names God. Hagar is the only person in the bible who dares to name God. Many invoke God, saying something like, “God, my rock and my salvation,” or something like that. But Hagar instead gives God a proper name: El-roi. This is very different, especially in the ancient world where the act of naming demonstrated some kind of dominance (Adam names the animals in Gen 2, the father of a household names his children, etc.) And, there is no sense at all in the text that God resists this naming by Hagar. El-roi, “the God of seeing,” “the God of my seeing,” or “the God who sees me”—the Hebrew doesn’t make the grammar clear here. In her pain and her desperation, Hagar sees God and God sees her. Lost and suffering, Hagar hears God and God hears her.
When we are really in pain and don’t know what to do or when we feel like things are impossible, we want to be seen and be heard. We don’t want quick assurances that don’t really take into account the depth of pain that we are actually feeling. We don’t want to be told that everything will be alright before we are sure that the other knows what the situation actually is. And yet also, just being seen and heard is not often enough. When real assurance can come after real recognition, this is a moment of deep comfort. I think that Hagar felt deep comfort in the desert, if only for a little while, so that she could return to the house of Abram and Sar’ai with a sense of peace. We know that Hagar’s story is not over. God will continue to be present to her.
Several chapters later in Genesis, we learn that Sarah and Abraham (since God has now changed their names) now have a son of their own, Isaac, and it becomes clear that Sarah (for whatever reason) has decided not to claim Ishmael as her own son (as was the original agreement) and instead wishes Ishmael and Hagar to leave the family all together. Now it seems if the whole rape of Hagar and conception of Ishmael was for naught. What purpose did this escalation of pain and suffering have if not to produce an heir for Abraham and Sarah? Why get Hagar involved? Now Hagar and her son are no longer needed they are cast aside. Abraham is at least mildly disturbed about the casting out of a son that he has grown to love (though his concern does not extend to the situation of his slave, Hagar), but God encourages him to follow Sarah’s wishes. He sends them off with a little bit of water and bread, a mere token of goodwill, not enough to ensure their survival and the pair wanders in the desert until their water has run out. This seems to be the end. And, Hagar cannot bear to see it.
She closes her eyes, she cannot look at her child as he dies of thirst. And, perhaps she remembers “the God of seeing” who she discovered the last time she was in the desert. She hears God’s voice again. It speaks to her, reminding her what it said years ago:
“I hear you”
“God has heard you”
“God has heard your son.”
She has now the courage to go to her son and to hold him in his pain. God assures her that through her hands God will hold Ishmael secure. She goes to her son and holds him. She sees her son where he is and God empowers her to really see, to open her eyes wide. And, what does she see? Water. Exactly what she and her son need to survive in this moment. The text doesn’t explain how they continued to survive, but they did and I imagine that it was a lot like this episode—only one moment at a time, only the next right step, no clear vision of a long term future. Many of us understand this kind of grace—not knowing whether it is all going to come together in the end, but knowing that just for right now we are surviving– one paycheck at a time, one year at a time, only the next right step for now.
Before Hagar hears God saying to hold her son in his pain and before she can see the way forward, Hagar hears God saying to her, “Don’t be afraid.” In the past few years as I’ve worked on constructing a theology of posttraumatic healing I’ve learned a little bit about fear and what it can do to you when it afflicts you in an acute manner. Often fear, stemming from experiences of intense suffering or anticipation of intense suffering, can block your attention to the present and the new. Because the suffering individual is giving her attention to the feared event or outcome, she encounters difficulties in responding to new perceptions that are unrelated to this fear. I can imagine that Hagar had felt an overwhelming fear that she would not hear God’s voice again directing her to the right decision, that her son would die before her eyes, and that she would be left alone to die shortly thereafter. After a while of not finding a solution to aid their survival, her fear could have grown so large and so overwhelming that she could not notice a nearby well or could not garner the strength to walk and search a little farther on. These comforting words from God, “don’t be afraid” was what she needed to courageously hold her child (though death might be on its way) and to open her eyes to new possibilities (though it already seemed that she had exhausted all options). I don’t imagine that God said to “don’t be afraid” in that Pollyanna kind of way that we can sometimes speak to each other—this way that suggests everything will be alright in the end, because it has to. I imagine God saying to Hagar “don’t be afraid” in a way that suggests “You can’t be overwhelmed by fear now. You can’t shut down yet. If you don’t want this story to end here, we have to keep going… together.”
Hagar’s God is a god who helps us to keep our eyes opened wide, if only just to see the next step before us. Hagar’s God didn’t bring her to freedom though a fantastical parting of the red sea. No, this was a more subtle moment of liberation—enough water to last the mother and child a few more days– followed surely by many thousands of other subtle moments of grace over a long lifetime. I am familiar with this kind of grace, as I’m sure many of you are. It is the grace that has sustained me one day at a time while loving and supporting a family members addicted to drugs—one painful day at a time, one crisis at a time. It is the grace that has helped us as a young family deal with financial strain—one paycheck at a time, one unexpected bill at a time. It is the grace that helping me to hold on as I face an amazingly oversaturated job market and no sure options for long-term employment. It is the grace that is helping us to hold on to the possibility of a blessed future despite the very sure knowledge that we are just barely hanging in the balance. We can’t be overwhelmed by fear. May God grant us the courage to open our eyes wide.