BIG Stories of Bible: Hagar and Sarah

Last night the Bible Study group explored the interweaving stories of Hagar and Sarah, which includes Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and God as well. The stories can be found in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21.

The story goes something like this. God has promised Abram that he will have a multitude of descendants. But Sarai remains barren years after the promise has been made. So Sarai decides to take matters into her own hands. She tells Abram to take her slave girl, Hagar, whom they got while they were in Egypt, and for him to have sex with her and produce a child. It was sometimes practiced this way in those days – where a surrogate mother would have a child for a woman who was barren. Interestingly, Sarai also gave Hagar to Abram as his wife – not just as a surrogate. Abram went along with the plan, and soon Hagar was pregnant. .

Hagar apparently got some attitude about herself when she became pregnant, and Sarai felt diminished and mocked. So Sarai complained to Abram – who now had power over Hagar – and Abram gave Sarai permission to do as she wished with Hagar. Sarai treated Hagar very harshly, to the point that Hagar ran away.

In the wilderness, God came to Hagar and asked where she was going. Hagar replied  that she was running from her harsh mistress. And then, stunningly, God told Hagar to return to Sarai. To submit once more to the suffering and anguish. This image of God is a troubling one. Why would God send anyone back into an oppressive or abusive situation. Phyllis Trible calls this a text of terror. It feels that way.

Some commentators suggest that God was aware that Hagar could not survive on her own in the wilderness. And if Hagar was away from Abram, then the son she was carrying would not have any connection to the gifts of Abram. So God had Hagar go back as a “suffering servant” figure to insure the safely of Ishmael. This is not a satisfactory reason for God to allow such suffering for most of us. How do you work this out in your mind:?

An interesting note – Hagar has a direct encounter with God and lives to talk about it. And she finds her voice and gives God a name – El roi – which means – the one who sees. She is the only person in the Bible who names God.

Chapter 16 ends with Hagar giving birth to Ishmael, the first son of Abram when he was 86.

Now we move 17 years into the future. Ishmael is growing into a man, but we have no idea who he is or what his relationships with Sarai and Abram are. Hagar disappears from the story for awhile. God comes to visit Abram and again says that Sarai will have a son. God does not speak to Sarai, until Sarai laughs at the idea of her having a child, and God rebukes her. But there is not annunciation story for Sarai. God also changes the names of Sarai and Abram to Sarah and Abraham.

Chapter 21 begins with the birth of Isaac. And along about verse 9, Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac. Some texts suggest he is mocking Isaac. Sarah is upset and tells Abraham to cast the “slave woman and her son” out. Note that Sarah does not call them by name. Abraham is not willing to do this, probably because he loves Ishmael his son. But God intervenes on behalf of Sarah, and tells Abraham to do as she tells him. God promises Abraham that he will be the father of many people through Isaac, and yet God will also form many nations under Ishmael. So Abraham agreed to cast the boy and his slave mother out. To say it another way, Abraham casts our his first born son Ishmael and his wife Hagar.

Abraham gives them bread and water – not nearly what is needed to survive the wilderness. Why is he so stingy? Why does God have to allow this casting out into homelessness and desolation? Why can’t there be another way? What do you think?

Hagar and Ishmael become famished as they run out of food and water. Hagar goes a distance from Ishmael so that she does not have to hear his cries and watch him die. But God hears his cries, and God comes to Hagar and shows her a well – the boy and the woman are refreshed. God says – I will make a great nation for Ishmael. Now the promise is not to Hagar but to Ishmael. Hagar is left out again.

There is too much to tell here. You need to read the story for yourself. But we have the story of two women who, instead of helping and supporting each other, compete with each other and both are hurt by that competition. We see a strong emphasis on patriarchy – from God and everyone in the story. We wonder at God’s support of the oppressors instead of bringing relief to the suffering. We see God going to the margins to reach out to Hagar, but then calling her back into abusive relationships. The story is complex and troubling.

Phyllis Trible offers this reflection on Hagar: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surragate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mot her, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others.

What do you see happening in this story? What does the story have to say to us today?

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