Reading Genesis 16:1-16
The world is not neatly arranged into heroes and villains, victim and violator, wronged and righteous. We are complex people within a complex world, and should we live long enough we cannot be said to be defined simply by one scene in our life.
Last week, we saw Sarai violated and treated with indignity and neglect. Abram, fearing for his life, poses as her brother and allows her to be taken into the household of Pharoah. In this arrangement Abram grows rich, and Sarai is expendable. But for the intervention of God, who knows how long Sarai would have been kept as another’s unconsenting wife… thankfully she is delivered, her and Abram leave Egypt along with some newly gained wealth, livestock, and slaves… one of whom, it is more than likely, is an Egyptian slave girl named Hagar.
Sarai’s treatment of Hagar is cruel and inhumane. Both here and in the later story after the birth of her own son Isaac, Sarai shows little to no concern with Hagar’s will, dignity, or survival. Sarai gives her to Abram to produce an heir, then when confronted with Hagar’s contempt for her, her anger at this mistreatment, this forced surrogacy, Sarai treats her so harshly that Hagar is forced to flee.
To abandon all protection and care to flee, alone and pregnant into the unknown, serves as testimony to just how harsh this treatment must have been. Just how inhumane and undignified Sarai must have treated Hagar, all the while, Abram washes his hands of the whole mess, reminding Sarai that “the slave girl is in your power, do with her as you please.”
The old idiom holds truth: hurt people hurt people. The team here at the Kirk working in domestic violence response know too well the power of vicious cycles. We surely all have examples whether from our communities or wider history, to understand that just because someone has experienced something, doesn’t mean they spare others from it. Sarai knows what it is to be passed off into the house of another man for their gratification, but this does not prevent her from repeating this pattern upon Hagar. Last week, Sarai was victim, here she is violator. Last week she was wronged, here she wrongs another.
Last week, as we sought a generous read for Abram’s actions, how perhaps his virtuous commitment to the big picture of God’s plan for him allowed for him to prioritise his survival over Sarai’s dignity and safety. Might the same be said for Sarai, might she too be so focused on the promise of God, and so concerned with its delay, and that she might bear responsibility for this delay, that she feels it appropriate to treat another person as a tool in order to secure God’s vision. If that is the case, then once more we are reminded of the many times in history where such sacrifices have appeared justified. We are reminded of the many times in which people’s value has diminished through the elevation of another’s calling. Last week, we wondered whether Sarai might have confronted Abram with the question: what good is it for you to become a blessing to all the families of the earth if it requires cursing your own wife… Hagar would be justified to ask a similar question. If this is the way a blessing is to be secured, it isn’t much of a blessing.
We can see why Hagar looked on Sarai with contempt. She should know better. Hagar looks on Sarai with contempt, and Sarai is unable to face what she has done, and so instead, treats Hagar with further harshness, seemingly trying to drive that unremitting gaze from her presence. Eventually Hagar obliges.
I’ve preached before on this remarkable encounter between God and Hagar in the wilderness. The way this scene parallels and foreshadows the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt in the story of the Exodus (reminding us that this foreign slave girl evokes the same attention and care as God’s chosen people). I talked about how Hagar is unique in scripture as one who names God.
We can also observe today, how this scene with God and Hagar, mirrors the one between God and Abram last week. The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness. Like Abram last week, Hagar hasn’t done anything to seek God, to earn this care and attention, God simply draws near. Then, like Abram, Hagar receives both a command and a promise. Abram is commanded to leave his father’s house and go into a new country, but is promised that God will make of him a great nation… Hagar is commanded to return to Sarai but promised that God will greatly multiply her offspring so they cannot be counted among the multitude. Both these commands ask a lot, but Hagar’s causes us particular difficulty. What kind of command is this, to return and submit, return and suffer?
The best we might be able to make of it is what others in similar situations have made of this. The sculpture of Hagar we saw during the reading is an 1870 work from African American and Native American artist Edmonia Lewis. It sits within a long theological tradition of marginalised women, particularly Black women in the US, who identified with Hagar and her plight. Who knew what it was to suffer under the tyranny of other women, who knew the pain of forced surrogacy, and who knew that not everyone could experience liberation. For many, survival was the driving force, survival was the goal. And God was the one who saw them, like Hagar, suffering in an impossible situation, and gave them the courage, the promise, the dignity, and power to survive it further. There was no life for Hagar in the wilderness, she could not survive out there, but she could and would survive back where Sarai and Abram were, survive long enough at least, before she could be delivered, until she and her son could return to the land of their ancestors, claim the freedom and promise given to her by God.
And yet, we might wonder, that in returning Hagar to the camp of Abram and Sarai, was there another way for harm to be undone, another way for the future to unfold, another way for the plans of God to unfurl in the lives of those who have been called? What if Abram had repented to Sarai, and what if Sarai had repented to Hagar? What if Hagar had received welcome, dignity, and a share in the life of blessing? Might not God have rejoiced at such a path to deliverance, at this breaking down of the dividing walls of hostility? How might the story have unfolded if Ishmael were allowed to grow up with Isaac?
This wouldn’t have been easy. It would have required a great deal of work and sacrifice to restore, repent, and reconcile. Many hurts would need to be addressed, accountability taken, grace offered, and a new kind of household envisioned… but is this not the very work to which we have been called? Is this not the work of faith? Is this not what it could have meant for all the families of the world to be blessed? We cannot know what this story would have looked like, but we can take these lessons, these questions, and ask them of ourselves. We can ask ourselves about our readiness to perform the work of truth-telling, healing, restoration, and imagination. Ask ourselves about what we are willing to do to break cycles of violence and violation, misuse and neglect. Ask ourselves how we are joining Christ in the work of breaking down the dividing walls of hostility.
There is much to grieve in this story, and much to learn from, but there is also great comfort to be taken, and great hope to be claimed. Despite the web of human sinfulness and the complex legacy of harm, the love of God will not let Hagar go (nor, we shall see, does God abandon Abram and Sarai). God gives Hagar a promise and a calling, and looking at her response we confess that she – just as much as Abram – is a paragon of faith. God sees and hears the suffering of the enslaved foreigner and abides with her until she is carried to safer shores. By the love and power of God, Hagar survives, and is delivered back to the land of her ancestors, where the son brought into the world through indignity and impatience will prove a blessing, for God sees without prejudice and loves beyond measure.
IMage: Edmonia Lewis, Hagar, 1875, carved marble, 52 5/8 x 15 1/4 x 17 1/8 in. (133.6 x 38.8 x 43.4 cm.), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., 1983.95.178
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