“When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.” Genesis 21: 15-16
These verses, from Genesis 21, our reading from the Hebrew Bible this morning, are terrifying and heartbreaking. They tell the story of a mother at wit’s end, facing the death of her beloved child, and her own death. She is hopeless and in despair. And in her situation, she is like so many others in our world, victims of violence and oppression abandoned by their families, their society, their fellow humans. Hagar is like all of the refugees in the world, looking for a safe place to live. She is like all the mothers in the world, searching for food and water for herself and her children. She is like the millions in our nation who are staring at a future with no safety net, no healthcare, no hope.
But it’s worse than that because Hagar’s story is not just about being cast out from her home. She was a slave and like slave women throughout history, she was at the mercy of her master and mistress. It wasn’t just that she lacked freedom. It was that they could do with her what they wanted. And when Abraham and Sarah still lacked an heir after years of marriage and years of God’s unfulfilled promises, they conspired to get an heir by violence and coercion. Ishmael was Abraham’s son, and as soon as Hagar became pregnant, Sarah’s resentment boiled over. She had Abraham cast her out into the desert. But God heard Hagar’s cries, rescued her, and sent her back where she gave birth to Ishmael.
Sarah’s resentment and jealousy persisted even after she gave birth to Isaac. She couldn’t stand that the two boys were friends, so she had Abraham cast Hagar and Ishmael out again. And so we have that scene of Hagar in despair in the desert, waiting for certain death.
This summer, we are reading the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs. Right now, we are in the midst of Abraham’s story. In the coming weeks, we will hear excerpts from the stories of Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. In the fall, we will hear the story of Moses and the Israelites in Egypt and the wilderness. This is a long narrative arc that focuses on the promises of God to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants—that they are God’s chosen people, that God will give them the promised land, and that God will make of them a mighty nation. But underneath that long narrative arc are other stories and other themes, stories of challenging God, of what it means not to be chosen by God, disobedience, and faithlessness. There are stories of horrific violence and violence. Often, the lectionary chooses not to include those latter stories in our weekly readings, but occasionally, we’re given a glimpse into the other side of the tale.
Today, we hear one such horrific story. It’s one of the stories that Phyllis Trible called “texts of terror” in her now classic work of biblical scholarship. It’s a story of sexual violence, slavery and oppression, hatred and revenge. Sarah is depicted in negative terms throughout. She is conniving, petty, and manipulative. Abraham doesn’t come off much better. He could be regarded as what we used to call “henpecked.” He seems to submit to Sarah’s will, even when he doesn’t want to and against his better judgment.
By contrast, Hagar is shown to be both victim, vindictive and agent. The slave of Sarah, she has been taken from her homeland of Egypt and subject to foreigners—Abraham and Sarah. We don’t know her feelings when Sarah compels her to submit to Abraham’s desires but we can imagine that when she learns she is the mother of his heir, she has some hope that their treatment of her will improve and that her child will have a better life than she had. And also, being pregnant with Abraham’s heir emboldens her to hold that over Sarah. But her hopes are dashed when Sarah responds by forcing her into the wilderness the first time. A pregnant mother, she seeks refuge by a water spring, where she has an encounter with God.
God seeks Hagar out, asks her why she has fled, and where she is going. When she responds, God instructs her to return to Abraham and Sarah and tells her to name her son Ishmael which means “God hears.” In response, Hagar gives God a name—El Roi, which likely means, the God who sees, for as Hagar added, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”
In our reading, Hagar and Ishmael are again forced into the desert, where they have an encounter with God, are miraculously rescued, and Ishmael is promised that he will be the father of a great nation.
As I’m sure you know, in the Islamic tradition the stories of Isaac and Ishmael are turned upside-down, so that Ishmael is the favored son, chosen by God. Indeed during the hajj, the drama of Hagar seeking water in the desert is reenacted ritually by the pilgrims as they run seven times between two hills near Mecca.
There are so many levels to this story. In one sense, Hagar’s story is the story of Israel. Like the Israelites in Egypt, Hagar was a slave. Like the Israelites, she wandered in the wilderness where she encountered God and experienced a miraculous gift of water. Like the Israelites, she was forced out a second time, into exile, like the Babylonian captivity. But unlike the Israelites who returned home to Jerusalem and received new promises from God, Hagar’s life ends in exile.
The story is also the story of Arab and Jew. In Genesis, Ishmael is understood to be the father of the Arabs, and of course, he is a great patriarch for the Muslims.
This is a complex story with layer upon layer of meaning. It’s a story in which none of the characters come off very well. Sarah, for example, has followed Abraham on his foolhardy journey in response to God’s call. She’s had to leave the comforts of family and home behind, and after all these years she has nothing to show for it. Her lack of a child makes her worthless in the eyes of her culture. But then she takes matters into her own hand and whatever sympathies we might have had for her vanish. Abraham is depicted as weak-willed. God doesn’t come off very well, either. God is arbitrary and even though God rescues Hagar, God forces her back into a difficult situation and tells her that she and her son are not favored. And Hagar herself. We see her in today’s reading as victim, but in the earlier story, when she discovers she is pregnant, she does humiliate Sarah.
It’s a complex, difficult story and in that way it is a story about life, a story about us. Human beings are not one-sided, all good or all bad. We are complicated; our stories are complicated. Hagar isn’t perfect. She’s a victim but she’s also vindictive. And yet, she is the first woman in scripture to be visited by God, the only woman in scripture to give God a name. She’s the only woman who receives the promise that she will have many descendants. She’s the first woman in scripture to weep over a dying child.
That very complexity may be why her story is in scripture. For it is a story that reminds us about the complexity of human beings, the complexity, the complexity of salvation. We like to think it’s all very simple. That God called Abraham, that God blessed Abraham, that Abraham prospered. We want to identify with that story.
But then there’s Hagar whose story reminds us that Abraham isn’t quite so simple or exemplary as we want him to be. There’s Hagar, who’s a victim and vindictive, who encounters God, is rescued by God, and who still has to live with the knowledge that in the end, God preferred Sarah and Abraham.
In the end, we may need to remember that Hagar is the story of salvation, the story of Jesus. She wasn’t an angel. She wasn’t perfect. But Jesus didn’t come only to the worthy, only to those who suffer their oppression silently and submissively. Jesus comes to all those who struggle in oppression, in poverty and need.
Hagar’s story is our story. How many of us are with her in the desert, feeling hopeless, in despair. How many of us feel crushed by the weight of our lives, crushed by the weight of the world, the oppressive structures from which there is no escape. How many of us regret decisions we have made, ways we have hurt our loved ones or ourselves, that have brought us to this place. How many of us are seeking Jesus, wondering whether we deserve his grace, deserve his love?
Jesus comes to us, and to those we have cast out, and is with us, in our pain, suffering, and need. Jesus comes to us, and offers us the water of life. Jesus comes to those we’ve cast out. He reminds us that they too are our mothers, our sisters, our children, that whatever sins they’ve committed do not excuse our oppression or disdain or coldness of heart. Jesus calls us to reconcile with them and offer them water, food, shelter, and hope.