Our first reading this morning is a challenging one; it reveals one of the skeletons in the cupboard of the Judaeo-Christian tradition; but to fully understand the challenge we need a little background information.
The story concerns Abraham, Sarah and Hagar. I was tempted to try and make the story more accessible and arouse your interest by describing their relationship as a “love triangle” – but I think to describe the triangle as being about “love” would be to gloss over a tale of power and abuse.
I will briefly tell the story that leads up to this morning’s reading:
God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. A promise that did not seem possible.
Let’s pause to describe the central three characters:
Abraham is a patriarch – a respected nomad with a wife and entourage of slaves. Sarah, his wife is wealthy and free, but also old and no longer fertile. Hagar is a slave, she is property, not a free person, she is poor, she is an Egyptian, and, crucially, she is young and fertile.
Because Sarah is infertile (“barren” in the brutally picturesque language of Scripture) she can not see how God’s promise to Abraham could possible come true unless she takes some drastic action. The drastic action comes in the form of persuading Abraham to sleep with Hagar, her slave.
Sarah’s disdain for her slave is shown in her disregard for Hagar’s wishes, and she doesn’t even refer to Hagar by name, she simply describes her as “my maid.”
Hagar is not seen as a person, she is simply an instrument to be used by Abraham and Sarah so they can achieve their goal of producing heirs…
There are a few phrases in this story that cause debate among scholars, and we see the first once Hagar is pregnant with Abraham’s child. Sarah, who had come up with the idea, complains to Abraham:
“I gave my maid to your embrace but when she saw that she had conceived, then I was slight in her eyes.”
The debated phrase is what it means to be “sleight in the eyes” of someone. It would seem that Hagar’s pregnancy threatened Sarah’s feeling of superiority.
Abraham does not intervene, but tells Sarah to do what seems “good in her eyes” to her maid. And then we have the next debated phrase – Sarah “afflicted” her! We don’t know what form of bullying or victimisation or abuse that Sarah visited on Hagar, but it was so severe that Hagar decided to run away.
Hagar runs out into the wilderness, and ends up near her home country of Egypt. She almost makes the reverse journey of the Exodus that Moses will later accomplish when he frees the Israelite slaves from Egypt.
In the wilderness Hagar encounters God.
“Hagar, maid of Sarah,” says God, “where have you come from and where are you going?”
There are lots of things that are interesting about Hagar’s encounter with God:
Hagar doesn’t cry out to God – She doesn’t approach God, God approaches her. We can understand why she might not want to appeal to the God of her oppressors, but God takes an interest and makes the first step.
God is the first person in this story to address Hagar by name – elsewhere she is just described as the maid or the slave.
And it is only in the presence of God that Hagar speaks. Here she speaks for the first time in the whole story.
She calls God by name. She is, in fact, the only person in the whole of the Bible who calls God by name.
You may remember that the name of God is a big deal. In Jewish thought, a name is not just a label to tell one person from another; the name reveals the nature and essence of the thing named; it represents the history and reputation of the being named.
This isn’t as strange as it may seem at first – in English, we often refer to a person’s reputation as their “good name” or a company’s reputation may be their “good name.” The Hebrew concept of a name is very similar to this.
The most famous example of this is read in Exodus 3.13-22: Moses asks God what His “name” is. Moses is not asking “what should I call you;” rather, he is asking “who are you; what are you like; what have you done.” God replies that He is eternal, that He is the God of Moses’ ancestors, that He has seen the Hebrews’ affliction and will redeem them from bondage. And then he says he is “I am”
The name of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is designated as “Y-H-W-H” – written Biblical Hebrew has no vowels so the name used to be translated as Jehovah (not only are there no vowels but Y and J are interchangeable as are V and W!). Today we more often translate this us Yahweh; but often in writing it is left as YHWH; or many Bibles translate this as “THE LORD” but but it in capital letters to show something special is going on here.
In the whole of the Bible only Hagar addresses God by name.
But this is not an Exodus – God does not set her free. In fact God sends her back to her owners.
But she goes back with a promise:
And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”
Fortified with God’s promise Hagar returns, and we seem to have a semi-happy ending:
Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
But then Abraham has three mysterious visitors, and Sarah is promised a child. And when that promised child arrives Sarah’s hatred of Hagar bubbles to the surface again. This time she persuades Abraham to banish Hagar and her child and he drives them both out into the desert.
Hagar has been enslaved, raped, forced to be a pawn in Sarah and Abraham’s schemes, and now they try to kill her by driving her out into the inhospitable wilderness.
Hagar walks on and on, her water runs out, and so she leaves her son under a bush and walks a short distance away – she cannot bear to watch her child die.
When all hope was gone and Hagar thought there was nothing for her son and her to do but die, God appears again.
God speaks again and reveals a well – Hagar and her son are saved!
And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
If the story of Hagar was written by a modern author the Daily Mail would criticise it as “political correctness gone mad” – Hagar is persecuted for her race, her nationality, her social status and her gender. She is the faithful maid exploited, the surrogate mother rejected, the resident alien, the refugee, the asylum seeker, the single mother, the expelled wife, the homeless person…
Hagar is not the person that the story of the Hebrew Scriptures is about. She sits outside the main plot – we follow Abraham and Sarah’s children, Isaac, Joseph, to Moses and Joshua all the way to Jesus. The point of this story is that God does not only care for one group of people.
God cares for the Israelites; but God cares for Hagar and Ishmael and their descendants too.
The heritage of Ishmael is claimed by the Bedouin people, by Egyptians, by Arab nations and the prophet Mohammed is said to have descended from Ishmael.
The other message of this story is that what we do in life, and how we treat people echoes through all time.
By doubting God’s promise and abusing her slave Sarah creates a nation that will rival the nation of her descendants. More instantly the way the Hebrew couple abuse their Egyptian slave will echo in how the Egyptians will end up abusing their Hebrew slaves.
But perhaps the most powerful message in this text is that no one is too poor or too low on the social ladder to be of interest to God, God cares for the least of humanity, so we should too:
As Jesus would put it many years later:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.