For the life of me I can’t remember learning this story in Sunday School. I remember being bored by tales of the Old Testament, but never inspired, excited or moved. Maybe it was because after you hear the story of Christ everything else feels like commentary. A way to fill up the pages.
But even my college Bible class seemed to gloss over it. They focused so much on the leading man and woman that they never paid tribute to the girl that went through hell.
Everyone knows the chronicle of Abraham and Sarah. The mother and father of Israel. We know how God showed Abraham the stars and said his descendants will be greater in number. We know about Sarah laughing when she finally became pregnant in her old age, a reminder of a God that surprises. And we know about, Hagar, but that’s more or less commentary.
When I first heard about Hagar, I was told she was more or less a mistake in Abraham and Sarah’s past. That she was an example that although Abe and Sarah were chosen to lead this generation, they too were imperfect folks.
Abraham was a hero of faith to be sure, let’s not forget God’s heartbreaking command to slaughter Isaac. Sarah is less easy to eulogize, so I’m not going to.
God gave Sarah and Abraham everything under the sun, except for a son. Despite the promise of a long lineage, Sarah still couldn’t conceive. And when God reassured them he would, they didn’t trust him. No, Sarah didn’t trust Him. Instead she recruits her slave Hagar for the job.
But calling this a “job” would imply that a choice was involved. There wasn’t. It was written in the law that Hagar was Sarah’s property and tasks like this weren’t too out of the ordinary.
True to the meaning of her name, Sarah is a princess. The haughty kind, like Victoria Grayson (Revenge reference). One case-in-point. God pays a visit to Abraham and tells him again that Sarah’s going to get pregnant! Eavesdropping on the conversation, Sarah snickers at the suggestion. Obviously, God hears it (He’s God) and calls her out. Sarah lies. In a simple, yet perfect response, God says, “yes you did; you laughed.”(Genesis 18: 15) I envision a lot of head tilting and brow furrowing.
Hagar was an Egyptian. A slave to Sarah while Abraham and her stayed in Pharoah’s palace. When the two got the boot out of Egypt, Hagar was packed up like luggage and carted along with them. Away from everyone and everything she ever knew.
She was a minority in every sense of the word. Her gender, race, nationality and social status put her in the bottom of the barrel. Nothing more than a means to an end. Something to be traded, used and discarded. Born to be little so her master could be great, her existence nothing more than a sad roll of the dice.
Approaching Abraham with her proposition, Sarah actually says, “Maybe I can get a family from her.” (Genesis 16:1-2)
In the aftermath of conception, Hagar understandably feels a sea change in her role. Carrying another’s child has to have a psychological impact. For the first time since Egypt, she felt a part of a family. Her family. Little by little she was rising out of the refuse.
But her changing heart wasn’t lost on Sarah. She noticed. Seeing the foggy morality with any violent action against her husband’s concubine, she tells Abraham she’s gonna teach her a thing or two and God will judge her if she’s wrong. To which Abraham responded with, “your maid is your business.” (Genesis 16:6) A verbal declaration of cleansed hands.
And thus begins a cycle of domestic abuse. Sarah terrorized Hagar for her uppity attitude. With an iron fist, she intended to make her fall in line. Under this oppression, with no soul to count on, Hagar does the only thing anyone could.
The pregnant slave girl found herself beside a spring in the desert, collapsing in tears. The geographical route she took has led many to speculate she was headed back home to Egypt, the only place she ever belonged. This life was a train wreck and about to get even worse. The baby within her womb was soon to be separated from her forever. She was to be stripped of any acknowledgement as the child’s mother- wiped completely from his memory. And if that wasn’t devastating enough, she had to hand him over to her predatory abuser.
Hagar’s heart was not driven by self-preservation; it was sacrificial love. Love for her boy.
And then someone finds her.
In an incredible twist of this epic tale, an “Angel of the Lord” (commonly understood to mean God in the scriptures) shows up. Joining her beside the spring, He gives dignity to her story and becomes a confidant for her to speak of her turmoil. Her story. A life as someone else’s thing.
But whatever hope she had of escaping this life vanished when God told her to return to Sarah. Maybe Hagar wasn’t really surprised. Always the means to the end. How could He see a survivor in the skin of a slave?
Yet, God wasn’t finished. He continued to tell her of a wonderful road ahead. That this was only the beginning of it. That the hand she had been dealt would one day win. A dream Hagar probably never allowed herself to hold on to was suddenly promised. “I’m going to give you a big family. Children past counting.” (Genesis 16:9-12). He tells her to name her son Ishmael, which means God has seen your humiliation. God had seen her distress. Her life as a doormat.
And in a response that could only be said through sobbing eyes and trembling lips, Hagar cries,
“You’re the God that sees me!” (Genesis 16:13).
Imagine the significance of this moment. Think about the whole of Hagar’s life. The context she arose from gave her a gross depiction of God. In her eyes- God belonged to Sarah and Abraham. He was confined to their altars and private exchanges. They were the chosen ones. Sarah was the chosen one. All of them except her. Hagar was just the tablecloth they talked over.
Imagine for a moment how Sarah symbolized God to her. He was someone who would never accept her. Never find favor in her. Never love her. Never see her. Never notice her.
And all it took was a trip to the desert. An evacuation of the oppressive system she was a slave to. A liberation from her life as a doormat to find that God did notice. That God loved her. That people like Sarah make for poor missionaries and doormats like Hagar can be card-carrying disciples.
Heading home, her heart beating with humility, Hagar became a doormat once again, but with a “soon enough” story to hold on to. After a decade of thankless service, Sarah kicks her to the curb. Rationale? Ishmael teased Isaac. Heartbroken, at his wife’s heartless response, Abraham grieves to God. God responds with promises of protection for the two. Abraham had to let them go.
Both were banished and left to wander into the wilderness. It had been several years since Hagar and Ishmael’s first venture into the shadow lands but this time, no spring was there to save them. In another devastating chapter of the story, Hagar places her dehydrated son beneath the shade of a tree and walks away, unable to watch him die. And in a parallel moment of desperation, God shows up again.
“When the water was gone, she left the child under a shrub and went off, fifty yards or so. She said, “I can’t watch my son die.” As she sat, she broke into sobs.
17-18 Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, “What’s wrong, Hagar? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy and knows the fix he’s in. Up now; go get the boy. Hold him tight. I’m going to make of him a great nation.”
19 Just then God opened her eyes. She looked. She saw a well of water. She went to it and filled her canteen and gave the boy a long, cool drink.
20-21 God was on the boy’s side as he grew up. He lived out in the desert and became a skilled archer. He lived in the Paran wilderness. And his mother got him a wife from Egypt.” (Genesis 21: 14-21)
With a word of encouragement and a well built by a miracle, Hagar and Ishmael are saved.
What stood out in this story is not that the Bible edits out the inconvenient. Clearly, the source here is the scripture. What stands out is how this story is told. Or rather not told. It taught me that taking to task the tellers of the Word is an imperative placed upon us all. When we do, we find it is not simply for instruction, but for empathy and inspiration. I was never told this story. I was never told the Eunuch’s story. Or the story of Cornelius in Acts.
And yet at the same time, should we really be surprised? Church history has traditionally trashed Hagar as an example of the sinful. Of the fallen. And within the same breath, they say Sarah is an example of the heavenly. Augustine compares Hagar to the city of the Earth and Sarah the city of Heaven. Aquinas separates the children of Sarah and Hagar into the “redeemed” and the “unredeemed”. Even Paul, in the very same Holy text, suggests the same assertions. So what do we make of it? Racism? Sexism in a male-dominated history? I’m still sorting it out, but it baffles me.
What I do know is that there is a whole reservoir of runaways like Hagar in both the Old and the New Testament. And yet, we still remain dumfounded by the rap sheet of Christ’s Chosen twelve. When people looked past the fisherman and tax collector, Christ saw them. Outer perfection is of no interest to our God, he seeks the humble hearts. The meek and weak. Those that are cast out, he brings back in. Lepers, Samaritans, slave girls, and gentiles. Our God does not carry a guest list!
And the best part about this is that he meets them where they are. Where we are. He is a seeker, a searcher, the God that sees. That is the God we are dealing with. One who dwells amongst us. One who doesn’t define us the way people do. He values us because we are his. The imperfect rubric of the world is of no relation to him. He does the opposite of conventional wisdom, touching lepers and washing feet. He honors the unusual and the unattractive. He cracks open a corridor for the exiled to sneak in and shows us that only the humble are truly heroic.