Remembering Hagar - A Reflection
16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 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. 3 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. 4 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.” 6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
7 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.
9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
11 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.
12 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.”
13 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.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
The text from which my sermon on Sunday derives is Genesis 21:8-21. This is the story of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael by Abraham after the birth of Isaac. Though he did this reluctantly, Sarah demanded that she be exiled so her son, Isaac, wouldn’t have a share the inheritance with the son of her slave, though Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn. In that story, God provides for Hagar and her son, and God promises that her son will be the father of nations. The passage in Genesis 21 is the second story featuring Hagar, a woman who doesn’t receive much attention, at least in white churches. I’ve discovered that Hagar plays a significant role in African American churches, precisely because she is African (from Egypt) and a slave. Although she doesn’t appear in the Quran, the story of Hagar (Hajar) and Ishmael is found in the Hadiths, and in a prominent ritual during the Hajj.
The first story featuring Hagar is found in Genesis 16, which I’ve printed above. In this chapter, Sarah, who to this point has been unable to bear that promised child through whom God’s promise of blessing to the nations would be fulfilled, decides to offer her slave, Hagar, as a surrogate. In other words, if Hagar became pregnant and bore a child, Sarah would claim the child as her own. So it goes. Sarah sends Hagar into Abraham, who sleeps with her, and she conceives. At that point the relationship between Sarah, the owner, and Hagar, the slave, changes. The writer of Genesis says that from that point on Hagar despised Sarah or perhaps better held her in lower esteem. In turn, Sarah mistreated Hagar, leading Hagar to flee into the wilderness. There she is met by an angel who encourages her to return to Sarah and Abraham. But she goes back with a promise. From this child she is carrying, God promises to “increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
Hagar returns, but not before she names God. She calls God “El-Roi,” or “You are the God who sees me.” What is interesting is that Hagar is the only person who names God. Debbie Blue writes about Hagar’s act of naming God: “What thrilling audacity! She calls God “The God Who Sees”—a beautiful name. This God pays attention to her and draws near enough to see here. Hagar’s God is not a narcissistic deity obsessed with being seen—this God sees her—sees her suffering. This God finds her in the desert and helps her” [Blue, Consider the Women, p. 39].
Though God does provide help to Hagar, God does her back to her enslavement, but with a sense of hope of something different. Wilda Gafney writes:
God’s message to Hagar is disturbing. She must return to Sarai and submit to her violent and vicious abuse. It does not appear that she will be subject to Abram’s sexual use again, but that is entirely up to him— or perhaps Sarai in that family. The biblical text reifies her enslavement. God’s words are unwelcome, but there is hope. Sarai will not destroy her; Hagar will survive. [Gafney, Womanist Midrash (p. 42). Kindle Edition].
She will bear a child, who will take the name Ishmael. When we come to Genesis 21, we will encounter Hagar once again, this time after Sarah has had a child. Things are different. This leads to the expulsion of Hagar and her son. Once again, however, God will enter the picture and provide for her and her son. There will be liberation. In the Hadiths, for Islam, Abraham accompanies Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, where father and son create the Ka’aba, the holiest shrine in Islam. These are overlapping stories, that perhaps provide a foundation for our interfaith conversations, but we can’t have them if we ignore Hagar.
Returning to the role that Hagar plays in the African American community, and especially Womanist theology, I will conclude this reflection with these words from Wilda Gafney:
I read Hagar’s story through the prism of the wholesale enslavement of black peoples in the Americas and elsewhere; Hagar is the mother of Harriet Tubman and the women and men who freed themselves from slavery. I see Hagar as an abused woman. I see God’s return of Hagar to her servitude and abuse as the tendency of some religious communities to side with the abuser at the expense of abused women and their children. Frequently that advice is couched as “God’s will.” Ultimately Hagar escapes her slaveholders and abusers and receives her inheritance from God, and God fulfills all of God’s promises to her. [Womanist Midrash (p. 44)].
In that tomorrow is Juneteenth, a day of liberation from slavery, the story of Hagar is especially pertinent. We hear this during a time of reckoning when the nation is faced with the question of race and even slavery. Thus, Hagar and Ishmael offer us an opportunity to reflect on our story as the people of God.