This is the second sermon in the series called “Her-Story: Women of the Hebrew Scriptures.” Today we spend time with Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant.
In addition, we’ve commissioned Rev. Rachel Frey to write a hymn for this sermon series, and she’s done a wonderful job! You can find the hymn here:
SCRIPTURE – Gen. 16:1-16; 21:8-21
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
(Chapter 21) Isaac grew and was weaned, and on the day Isaac was weaned Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking, and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”
Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.
Gen. 16:1-6; 21:8-21
June 9, 2013
Here’s the funny thing about the story of Hagar – it has no business being in the Bible. There’s nothing that it contributes to the progression of the narrative. Starting with Genesis 12, the story tells us how God chose a specific person – Abram – to the bearer of God’s divine blessing. Abram will carry that blessing and, after a few false starts and stumbles, will pass the blessing onto Isaac, who will pass it onto Jacob. That’s what Genesis is about, God blessing Abram and Abram passing on that blessing through his offspring.
So Hagar doesn’t belong here. She’s simply a messy complication in the story, an unfortunate footnote. Ishmael, the son that she has with Abram, will not be the bearer of God’s blessing, so there’s no reason for his story to be told. This is like trying to get somewhere unfamiliar and turning down a street that ends at a brick wall. There’s nowhere that this story goes. It’s a dead-end story. So why is it in the Bible? Why does the author of Genesis spend a chapter and a half telling Hagar’s story?
It’s certainly not because she was important. In fact, she was just the opposite. An Egyptian slave girl was about as low on the social status pyramid as you can get. If you’ll notice, Abram and Sarai never call her by name. To them, she is simply, “that slave girl.” Abram and Sarai had recently been to Egypt, and when they left Pharaoh gave them some parting gifts: sheep, oxen, camels, and servants. Hagar was probably one of those, numbered among the livestock as property changing hands. As a human being, Hagar was invisible. She didn’t count.
Her only value to Abram and Sarai was as a slave and then as a surrogate. The couple have been promised by God they will have children, but Sarai gets impatient and forces the situation, tell Abram to make a child with Hagar. This may seem extreme and even adulterous to us, but back in those days it was actually quite common. In fact, some ancient Near-Eastern laws had a provision in them for dealing with issues of barrenness, which included a wife using her maidservant in this capacity. So Sarai adds to Hagar’s job description, invoking the “other duties as assigned” clause to force her to get pregnant. It’s not like Hagar was actually a human being to Sarai; she was simply a means to an end.
So Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child, and the Bible tells us she unwisely looked with contempt on her mistress. Hagar began to rub it in a bit that she could get pregnant when her boss couldn’t. Sarai goes to Abram and says, “Do something about this!” Abram just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Your problem, not mine.” Remind you a bit of Adam, doesn’t it? Shirking the responsibility. So Sarai begins treating Hagar harshly, so much so that Hagar is faced with a no-win situation: stay and put up with her harsh treatment and this dysfunctional family, or risk her and her baby’s life by running away. She runs.
End of story, right? Sarai picks another maidservant for Abram to impregnate, this one a little less cheeky and a little more complaint, they have a kid, and the narrative just goes chugging right along. No one was going to miss what’s-her-name. She probably wouldn’t last a day on her own anyway. So after she runs away, the story picks back up with our main characters, right?
Strangely enough, no. Rather than staying with our main protagonists, the story follows Hagar out into the wilderness. While on the run, we’re told that an angel of the Lord comes to her. Let me emphasize again that we’re talking about an Egyptian slave girl. By all accounts, she was a nobody. She was young, she was single, she was female. Everyone around her would say God had no use for her, just as God had no use for a young, single, female named Mary, And yet, both women are visited by an angel of the Lord and given extraordinary news. Mary is told she’s going to have a baby named Jesus. Hagar is also told she will have a son, that his name would be Ishmael, and that God would so greatly multiply her offspring that they will be too numerous to be counted. And Hagar responds by naming this God she has encountered.
Now let’s hit the pause button a second here to recognize the magnitude of what’s going on here. There are several firsts that take place. Hagar becomes the first woman in the Bible visited by a divine messenger. She is the first woman to be given the promise of descendants. She is the first woman to see and have a conversation with God. And she is the only person in all of scripture who gives God a name: El Roi, which means, “the God who sees me.” Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, the nobody, the invisible, has been seen. The slave girl that was never called by name by her owners is called by name by the angel of God.
So she goes back to Abram and Sarai and has Ishmael, who becomes Abram’s first-born son. Meanwhile, Sarai finally does conceive and has Isaac. And now the story turns into a soap opera. You’ve got two half-brothers, both of whom could make the claim as the first-born. You’ve got Sarah, mother of one of the boys, who despises Hagar, the mother of the other boy. Did I mention that Sarah and Hagar are both married to the same guy? And then you’ve got Abraham, the father of both boys, the husband of both women, caught in the middle. Throw around a few chairs and you’ve got an episode of Jerry Springer. Is it any wonder the Bible tells us the matter was “very distressing” to Abraham?
Sarah once again takes matters into her own hands. Even though she finally got the son she was promised, she doesn’t want that Egyptian slave-girl and her boy hanging around. She tells Abraham to send them packing, but there’s a problem. Abraham loves Ishmael. After all, Ishmael is his first-born son. But God tells Abraham to go ahead and do what Sarah says, because God will take care of them. So, for the second time, Hagar leaves the protection of Abraham’s camp and goes into the wilderness.
Only this time, she’s not alone. Ishmael, her teenage son is with her, and her well-being is tied directly to his. Eventually, they run out of water, and it’s looking like they both are going to perish. The story appears to have come to a dead end. So Hagar puts Ishmael under some bushes and departs, saying she can’t bear to watch her own child die. But the God who sees is also the God who hears, and for the second time an angel of the Lord visits this invisible nobody.
I was talking once with a young mother outside of the church nursery where a bunch of kids were playing. In the middle of one of her sentences, there was a loud, blood-curdling cry from the nursery. The mother stopped, tilted her head to the side, and got this look of intense concentration on her face. After a second she said, “Nope, it’s not mine,” and went on talking. It’s amazing how parents, even in noisy places, know the sound of their child.
God knows the sound of our cries. The angel of the Lord says to Hagar, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy.” The angel reiterates the promise of blessing for Ishmael, and then opens Hagar’s eyes to show her a well of water, from which she gives Ishmael a life-saving drink. El Roi, the God who sees, now helps Hagar to see, and when she does, God literally saves her life. This dead-end story ends up being not such a dead-end after all.
I believe Hagar’s story is in the Bible as an important reminder that the God of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac is also the God of Hagar and Ishmael. A person’s worth to God is not determined by their status or birth order or usefulness. This story says to us that even the most invisible people in our world matter to God. The single, the pregnant, the oppressed, the foreigner – God sees them. They matter to God.
When I think of the modern-day Hagars, I think of people whose livelihood is dependent on taking care of others, and yet who are often invisible. I think of factory workers, waiters and waitresses, hotel maids, custodians. For many of us, these people only exist for their utilitarian value. We only see them because they serve a purpose for us. And when they’re out of our sight, they’re out of our mind. We certainly don’t know their names, much less care about them. And that’s not to mention those in our world who are kept against their will as sex slaves or personal property. We’d like to think in our modern world those kinds of situations don’t exist, but stories like the imprisoned women in Cleveland are a reminder that there are Hagars all around us.
The same God that gave us life gave them life. The same God who hears our cries hears their cries. The outsiders, those on the margins, those who don’t fit our definition of valuable, they are also God’s children. Hagar’s story gives us this jaw-dropping sense of God’s intimate interest and care for the invisible people in our world. God has opened their eyes and shown them the life-giving well of water that is the kingdom of God in their midst.
And guess what? The church is full of water bottles. Actually, the Bible calls us “clay vessels.” God calls us to fill ourselves with the living water of Jesus Christ, and then to go out and quench the thirst of the Hagars and Ishmaels of this world who are literally and spiritually dying of thirst. If you’re not sure where to start, pick up a Summer of Service packet, which is full of wildernesses places where the Hagars and Ishmaels have fled to find refuge and hope. We have that to offer, don’t we? We have the means to say, “You matter to God.” People are crying out for hope, for justice, for a reminder that God sees them. They are dying of thirst. And there is water right here, sweet, life-saving water. “She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.” Hagar and Ishmael mattered to God. Do they matter to us?