Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:8-21
We begin today an eight-week worship series celebrating women.
And so we’re going to be looking at some of the women
in some of the great stories of the Bible.
And I’ve deliberately avoided some of the better known women
on and through whom we’ve focused our worship before
(Sarah, Rebekah, Shiprah and Puah, Dorcas, Lydia).
So today we look to Hagar.
Now were I to ask, I bet a fair number of folks in our culture
would respond to “Hagar” with “the Horrible.”
Because a lot of people know the comic strips of our newspapers
better than the stories of our Scriptures.
You all, of course, know Hagar
as an integral character to the stories of Abraham and Sarah—
and not just because we heard them read this morning!
Having just heard them though, you no doubt noted,
in the interwoven stories of our holy texts,
two strikingly similar stories.
In the first, Abraham and Sarah who had long awaiting the promised child,
were getting antsy.
God kept promising—over and over again, “Y’all will have a child.”
But they were still waiting.
And Sarah, perceiving her barrenness as a God-given reality—
this is the way things are—it is what it is—
seized the initiative
and told her husband to sleep with Hagar, her Egyptian slave girl—
who may well have been with them
ever since they were first in Egypt back in Genesis 12
when Pharaoh gave them male and female slaves (Genesis 12:16).
Now I want you to notice two things:
one/ Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham as his wife.
There are social and legal implications to this decision,
But two/ you might also note that both Abraham and Sarah
continue to refer to her as a slave girl,
and Hagar continues to refer to Sarah as her mistress.
So no denying who has power and authority and who doesn’t—
who is vulnerable to whom.
But neither do I think we’re to make a moral judgment here about that.
Within the social realities of the day,
this was all accepted without question—
having slaves and using them in this way.
Leah and Rachel will do the same (Genesis 30:3-13).
Part of you know, biblical family values:
one man and … well, never mind!
What a word for us today!
Not that biblical family values (whatever they are)
don’t correspond with modern family expectations,
but that within the promises of God,
we live in the tension of awaiting fulfillment
we live wondering what to do—
what our role is in the meantime—in the waiting.
Sarah’s walking the line between
trusting God—believing in God—waiting for God,
and the idea that God helps those who help themselves.
In much of the literature on this text,
she’s actually criticized for, in Calvin’s words,
having a “defective” faith!
Where would we come down differently?
We don’t look to God to fulfill God’s promises, do we?
We’re rather more in the we think we need to step up camp.
Well, Sarah’s plan worked. Hagar got pregnant.
And one way of reading this story is that when we don’t trust God,
we just mess things up.
Of course, another way, is that when things get messed up,
God’s still there with us!
Pregnant, Hagar looked at Sarah with contempt.
And there’s more going on here that we don’t know than that we do.
Is it fair to jump into a former slave’s life at this point
and say Hagar was unfair? Maybe not.
But the word used here: “contempt”—is a strong word.
Back at the beginning of the Abraham and Sarah stories—
in the initial establishment of God’s covenant with them,
God says, “I will bless those who bless you,
and the one who curses you, I will curse;
and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed”
(Genesis 12:3), and the one who curses you? well, that’s this same word.
Hagar looked at Sarah with curses.
Technically, she’s liable to be cursed by God.
Well, Sarah doesn’t stand for this
and goes to Abraham
who doesn’t stand for much of anything in these stories!
He tells Sarah to do what she wants,
and she treated Hagar harshly—
same word as used to describe Egypt’s treatment
of the children of Israel, 15:13; Exodus 1:11-12; Deut 26:6-7,
translated as “oppressed,” “afflicted.”
One of the much ignored commandments God later gives Israel:
“you shall not oppress the resident alien” (Exodus 22:21).
And Hagar runs. As an oppressed resident alien,
she seizes what freedom she has,
and chooses an alternative—to oppression—
escapes into the wilderness.
Interesting, isn’t it?
before Israel was oppressed by Egypt,
and Egyptian girl was oppressed by Israel’s grandmother.
And before Israel escaped into the wilderness, Hagar did.
Now who follows her?
God does—follows her into the wilderness and finds her.
“I am escaping my mistress.”
Not so much a looking forward as a looking back.
“I’m running away from not toward anything.”
God tells her to go back and to submit to her mistress—
hard words—hard words to make sense of.
But do notice, in contrast to Hagar’s words,
God’s words are all directed to the future.
And not just “go back,” but a promise about numerous offspring
and blessing and a name for her son, Ishmael (God hears).
Go back and run toward something worth anticipating.
And so Hagar named God.
She named God out of her experience.
the God who sees—the God who sees me—who sees possibility.
Our text doesn’t actually say she went back,
but we assume she did—
continuing to assert the freedom she had.
And again, within the sensitive reality
of expecting a slave to submit to being a slave,
this may be, at least for us, less about slaves submitting to their masters
than about how we all live and move and have our being
within various constrictive realities.
Only a sociopath considers him or herself completely free.
So no matter the complications of our lives—
no matter the various truths that limit us—bind us—oppress us,
do we look with God to see a future of possibility?
And consider: Hagar’s the first person in Genesis
to be encountered by an angel of God.
She’s the first woman to receive divine promises.
And she’s the only person in the Old Testament to name God
(Terence E. Fretheim, The Book of Genesis:
Introduction, Commentary and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume 1
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 454).
How ’bout that?
So what we have here, we come to see,
is a larger story of which we only have part.
For Hagar is more than a slave-girl—more than a wife—
more than a mother—more than an Egyptian. More than just a part of Abraham and Sarah’s stories.
She is beloved of God, and she is a woman of faith.
Okay, so some sixteen years later,
Abraham and Sarah, still waiting, now in disbelief,
but laughing at the very thought of a baby
(Genesis 17:17-19; 18:12-13), finally have a baby,
and God has the last laugh.
But when Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac—
and that word translated “playing” is interesting.
Sometimes translated “mocking,”
it has both positive and negative connotations,
but the root of the word goes back to the same root as laughter—
as Isaac’s name—
as Abraham and Sarah’s response to the promise of God.
And it really doesn’t matter, if it’s the laughter of disbelief
that Sarah hears—
that she herself laughed.
Doesn’t matter if it’s a bitter, mocking laughter
or the laughter of genuine amusement and even of joy.
Ishmael has no business laughing, is Sarah’s response.
Isaac’s inheritance cannot be threatened—
she won’t stand for it,
and she goes back to Abraham,
who’s still not standing for much of anything,
and demands that he get rid of Hagar and Ishmael.
Abraham’s distressed, but let’s them go
when God says don’t worry about it.
And while it may in fact be that Abraham simply trusted God,
he doesn’t come across as admirable, but as quite passive.
Now this is all problematic for us.
We tend to take sides—
to side with and to side against.
But this is the story about a truth that’s bigger than sides—
the assurance of which is not rooted
in someone winning and someone losing,
but in the God with us all.
Could it be?
Hagar and Ishmael set out—back out into the wilderness wandering.
But when they’re about to die, again, God hears them—
sees them—is with them.
And, as God will do again later for the children of Israel,
God provides water in the wilderness
for the children of Egypt,
and reiterates the blessing of Ishmael.
It’s fruitless to ponder how the story might have
otherwise unfolded if …,
but we can’t help but wonder!
If Hagar hadn’t gotten all superior
and if Sarah hadn’t responded harshly—
and again, we’re tempted to side with and side against,
but God doesn’t do that.
Yes, the main story in the Old Testament is the story of God’s chosen people
but even within the story of the chosen—within the distinctive blessing,
God is lovingly involved with others—the not-chosen.
Nothing in this story denies the distinctive blessing
extended to the family of Abraham,
but too often, we substitute exclusive for distinctive
and rejection for chosen.
Ishmael has no business laughing?
Oh, but he does.
And we close with a Shakespearean detail offered at the end.
Hagar gets Ishmael a wife from Egypt—from her people.
No small matter—
to find a wife for a wild ass of a man
who lived in the wilderness of Paran
with his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him—
at odds with all his kin
(which would include his mom, right?! at times).
What a woman!
Hagar is one of our first solid indications
that this story is bigger than any boundaries we place on it—
that it exceeds our comfort zones
and spills out into the wildernesses that surround us—
that as particular as it is,
it is never defined by our particulars.
It’s not, after all, our story,
but the story in which we find truth—
and thus, our true selves.
And so while in our stories, Hagar doesn’t have much to laugh at,
I picture Hagar laughing—
wrapped in purple—
laughing through the years with Ishmael.
Having claimed their inheritance—
because God was with them always.
And they lived into a story
that always turned out to be bigger than anticipated.
And we hear even in this part of the story,
intimatation of the pure laughter of God
that absorbs into itself
all the cynical, mocking laughter—
and all the laughter of disbelief—
absorbs it all without compromise,
but, in the end, resolves into gales of joy.
And years later
Ishmael and Isaac would stand side by side—
one having grown up with Sarah and her stories,
one having grown up with Hagar and her stories—
both women including God in their stories—
both men with an understanding of God with them.
And together they buried their father—
in a shroud composed of purple cloth
each kept from an article of his mother’s clothing.
And they laughed.