Thank you to New Creation Fellowship Church for allowing me to share this message this week. You can find the full serviceon YouTube.
Hello friends at New Creation! Today, I want to share with you about one of my favorite stories of the Bible: the story of Hagar. Hagar’s story appears in the Hebrew Bible in Genesis and in the Christian scriptures, in Galatians. She belongs to the Muslim tradition, too, with allusions to her in the Qur’an and commentary on her in the hadith, a collection of traditional sayings attributed to Muhammad, that faith’s founder. She holds a special place in black feminist theology, called womanist theology, for reasons I think you’ll discover today as we talk about her. It’s also a story that speaks to the pain of women’s experiences of sexual violence, a topic I will not address in detail today.
You’ve heard part of her story read today, but I want to back up to tell more of it. Hagar deserves more of our time because she has a very special role in the history of the Abrahamic faiths: she is the first person to call God by name. So we should know more of her story.
Yet her story is very hard to piece together. To begin, we don’t know her name. Hagar is a Semitic word, not an Egyptian one, but she is Egyptian. She enters the household of Abraham and Sarah with her own name, from her own culture, but we never know it. They call her Hagar, which might mean stranger or alien or sojourner but also has connections to the phrase pressed into service or dragged away. A picture begins to emerge: a slave, stolen from her own place and brought against her will into another, where she will always be an outsider.
Sarai is Taken to Pharaoh’s Palace (1896-1902) by James Tissot
We don’t know why she is Sarah’s slave or how she came into this household, but perhaps we can guess. Abraham and Sarah were fleeing a famine and came to Egypt. Abraham, fearful that Egyptians would kill him and steal Sarah, tells his wife to say she is his sister. The Egyptians were experiencing an influx of immigrants in search of food, and so killing a man and taking his wife would have solved two problems at once: the problem of another hungry and unwanted immigrant and the problem of desiring his wife. And it probably wasn’t entirely lie: Abraham and Sarah were kin, probably cousins, though the same word is used for both cousins and siblings. In any case, Abraham is forced into a bargain: Pharaoh takes Sarah into his household and, in exchange, gives Abraham gifts of livestock and servants. We don’t know what life is like inside Pharaoh’s world for Sarah, a Hebrew living among Egyptian royalty. We don’t know what choices, if any, she faced and what she did not protect her dignity or privacy. We don’t know how she felt about Abraham and his willingness to trade her away. Did she regret coming to Egypt, or did she understand that hunger makes people do dangerous things? Did she resent Abraham’s helplessness to save her? What was the last look between them like? Was she lonely among the other women in Pharaoh’s household? Did she hope to be chosen to be a primary wife, or did she hope to be ignored?
Pharaoh Returns Sarah to Abraham (1640) by Isaac Isaaczs
We might expect that this experience of insecurity, utilization by her husband and objectification by other men, and trauma would create in Sarah deep compassion for outsiders and solidarity with other women. It doesn’t seem to.
We don’t know if Hagar enters Sarah and Abraham’s life while they are in Egypt, but it seems likely. Pharaoh takes Sarah and gives Abraham a bunch of slaves; perhaps Hagar is one, and perhaps they developed a relationship while Sarah was part of Pharaoh’s household. Or perhaps Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah while Sarah was part of his household. Some scholars argue that Hagar was actually one of Pharaoh’s own daughters—and his gift of her to Abraham tells us how much Pharaoh valued Sarah. We don’t know, because Hagar’s background is not important to Sarah or Abraham, just as Sarah’s background was not important to Pharaoh.
Still, Sarah and Hagar have some kind of relationship. When Sarah and Abraham fail to produce any children, Sarah puts forward Hagar as a surrogate. Hagar is not consulted; she cannot consent; her opinion is not even considered; considering her opinion is not even something that could be considered. It would make as much sense as asking a chair if you could sit on it or asking an apple if you could eat it.
Sarah Leading Hagar to Abraham (1638) by Matthias Stom
In this situation, Hagar moves from being Sarah’s slave to being a wife of Abraham. She experiences a change in status, but she still doesn’t have control over her life or even her body. She conceives.
Again, we don’t know how Sarah might feel. Maybe she is relieved, because her intention is to take credit for the child. “Perhaps I can build a family through her,” she tells Abraham when she hatches the plan. But what else? Perhaps humiliation at evidence that her own infertility is the reason she and Abraham don’t have children. Perhaps anger at years of lost opportunity to have children while she suffered first under famine and then as a captive in Pharaoh’s household. Perhaps satisfaction that the material riches that Abraham had accrued trading her off could finally be secured for her through a child of her own, stolen from her slave.
We don’t know how Hagar feels, either. We don’t know how she feels about this deal: the conception of a child as a way to advance her status and offer her additional protections in a hard world. Here, I think of Harriet Jacobs, author of the 1861 memoir Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Jacobs was born into slavery in North Carolina. As a young woman, Dr. Norcom, the white man who enslaved her, begins to build her a cabin in some remote woods where he plans to store her. Understanding that this means a life of sexual violence, Jacobs enters into a sexual relationship with a different white man, lawyer, politician, and eventual Confederate officer Samuel Tredwell Sawyer. When she becomes pregnant with Sawyer’s child, Norcom rejects her. With Sawyer, Jacobs bears two children; they, too, are slaves, and though he promises to grant his own children freedom, Sawyer doesn’t do so. Her love of them motivates Jacobs to fake her own escape to the North, but she really hides in a crawlspace in an attic, using a peephole she has drilled in the wall to watch her own children from a distance. An enslaved mother, she writes, “may be… degraded by the system that has brutalized her from childhood; but she has a mother’s instincts, and is capable of feeling a mother’s agonies.”
I wonder if Hagar had similar feelings—if she had been brutalized from childhood, as Jacobs was, or if she was one of Pharaoh’s daughters, fallen far into the role of concubine. I wonder if she saw her pregnancy as a choice she was making or recognized it as an adaption to survive oppression. Did morning sickness remind her of her progress toward freedom, or did it remind her of the constraints of her life? We see that both women love their children, but were there also moments of anger? When they looked or acted like their fathers in big or small ways, did the women feel again the abuse of these men?
We don’t know how Hagar felt, though the text tells us that she begins to treat Sarah poorly. But what does that mean? The women would have known each other for years at this point—perhaps Hagar had even witnessed Abraham’s willingness to trade Sarah for King Abimelech’s livestock and slaves and silver. (Abraham again claims he fears for his life. At some point, does Sarah resent his trading her off to save his own life?) In any case, in chapter 16, we are told that “Hagar began to despise her mistress.”
This is our first look at Hagar’s interior life, her feelings or motivations. I also suspect that, though the text says that “Hagar began to despise her mistress,” pregnancy did not initiate these feelings, though the protection of pregnancy with Abraham’s child may have emboldened Hagar to express them.
In fact, other translations seem to indicate that Sarah’s problem with Hagar is that Hagar begins to treat her as less than the primary wife—in other words, to some degree, Hagar began to treat Sarah as Sarah had always treated Hagar. Sarah is enraged—enraged enough to undermine all her scheming to get Hagar pregnant—at the idea that someone less than her would treat her as anything other than a superior. They live in a patriarchal system in which women are only as valuable as their ability to produce sons. Harriet Jacobs says the same about American slavery: “Women are considered of no value, unless they continually increase their owner’s stock.” While we might expect Sarah to be jealous of Hagar, Sarah does not hate Hagar for her fertility; she hates her for daring to think of herself as valuable.
Sarah complains so mightily about it that Abraham tells her to do what she wants to Hagar, and Sarah mistreats the pregnant woman so badly that Hagar runs away; as Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney points out, the word to describe this abuse is later used to describe the oppression that Pharaoh inflicts on the Hebrews; perhaps this is a kind of violence Sarah picked up while living with Egyptian royalty. She chooses likely death in the desert over abuse and, we know, the coming theft of her baby. Better that he dies inside of her than this. I think of every enslaved woman who has made the same choice—to throw herself over the side of a ship carrying enslaved Africans to the New World—when I think of this story.
This is how Hagar meets God. She is fleeing. She meets a messenger of God, but she recognizes this person as God. In chapter 16, he asks her, “Hagar, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She responds by answering only half of the question: that she is running away from Sarah. She doesn’t say where she is going, perhaps because she doesn’t know. But the messenger tells her the future she is running toward: a son, one whose name will mean God hears because God has heard her. And she receives the same blessing as Abraham: that she will have more descendants than she can count. Hagar sees that the messenger who makes this promise to her is God Godself. This desert encounter precedes Moses’ encounter with the burning bush. And while in that encounter, Moses can only ask who he has encountered, Hagar recognizes God herself. While Moses cannot name God and God rejects any attempt to do so when declaring “I am that I am,” Hagar boldly puts a name on God and, in a recognition of her worth in God’s eyes, she does so in a beautiful way—“You are the God who sees me,” she says, speaking directly to God. “I have seen the One who sees me.” What a statement of wonder and intimacy!
Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert (1883) by Emanuel Krescenc Liška
Later, in Exodus, we will be told that no one can see God and live—but Hagar did. And she saw in God someone looking at her, a God who had trained an eye on her with as much love and intention as Harriet Jacobs watched her children grow up through a hole in the attic wall. Another lectionary reading today is from Matthew 10 and includes verses 29-31, where Jesus assures his followers of God’s unwavering care for them. “Even the hairs of your head are all counted.” Though she had reason to despair, Hagar knew this: that God saw her.
She returns to Sarah and Abraham, which is where today’s lectionary reading begins. The story is set on a party to celebrate Isaac’s weaning. The half-brothers are playing together. We don’t know the age difference, exactly, but we can imagine that Ishmael, Hagar’s son is a tween and Isaac, Sarah’s son, is a younger child. We don’t know what in their playing angers Sarah, but something sets her off. It seems that the mere existence of Ishmael—something Sarah demanded and orchestrated—now infuriates her. The child was to be her way of securing a future for herself in Abraham’s family history, but she no longer has need of him and he now represents a competitor for Isaac’s inheritance.
In an act that seems incomprehensible, Abraham decides to dump Hagar and Ishmael to die in the desert—or perhaps to be picked up by some passing caravan and taken into slavery. Yet, as incomprehensible as it ought to feel to us, we are only a few generations from slavery ourselves. In the 1860 census, conducted as Jacobs was writing her story, nearly 25% of white Southern households owned enslaved people; nearly 100% of them supported the idea that you could own others, inherit them, and buy, sell, and trade them. This was not so long ago. Friends—this is how close we are to slavery: the last person to collect a Civil War pension died on June 8, 2020, just two weeks ago. She was the child of a former Confederate soldier who had defected and joined the Union, and she died at age 90.
We know that these things are not incomprehensible. Samuel Tredwell Sawyer knew the horrors of slavery, risked his life in the Confederate Army to defend it, and yet enslaved his own children.
Hagar has been here before, wandering in the desert, facing death for herself and her child. Now, her water has run out. Her child is surely going to die. She can’t bear to watch, so she puts him under a bush, in some shade, to die of thirst where she does not have to see. When I think of her grief, I think of every mother who has no water for a child. I think of women today in Syria and Yemen today as they prepare their own children for starvation.
But remember—God told Hagar to name the boy God hears and, indeed, God hears his cries. Just as God saw Hagar, God hears Ishmael. In this, Hagar has the assurance that God loves her and her son. And God tells Hagar to do what I am sure she wanted to do but cannot hope will work: Go, hold his hand, lift him up. God gives her the courage and confidence to care for him.
When she obeys, the Scripture tells us in Genesis 21:19 that her eyes are opened and she sees a well. Of course, this is important, most obviously, because their water has run out; now, they can drink again and are saved. But it’s also important it orients Hagar. She recognizes the well as a landmark, and it points her in the direction she wants to go. Alone, without the protection of a relationship to an adult male, she finds a way for herself and her son. He grows into an athletic archer, and she finds a wife for him from Egypt—her homeland. This indicates that she has the status and the ability and the money to secure for him a good life. He goes on to have many children.
All of this is part of a happy ending for Hagar, and I am glad for her. She has grandchildren more than she can count and a place in Jewish, Christian, and especially in Muslim history, where she is honored as a matriarch of the faith. She goes from a woman whose name is only her status as a slave to a woman whose faith and intimacy with God we can see as a model. Because of her, we meet a God who sees and a God who hears.