Epiphany IV; February 3, 2019
I don't know if Hagar's story really figures into this series on sexuality and gender as much as I want it to, but her story is an important one and I want you to know it. Like Abishag's story, her story is of a woman who is used as a tool, and it is certainly instructive. But what I admire about Hagar is the autonomy she develops when she needs to. It is not surprising, really; consider your family's story or the stories of pioneers here in Nebraska: it seems to me women have coped on their own much better than men have coped on their own. Perhaps what is surprising is the relationship she has with the Lord God. Well, let's hear her story.
Hagar was an Egyptian woman and she was a slave of Sarah, Abraham's wife. You may remember that the Lord had promised Abraham that he would be the ancestor of many. The Lord had taken Abraham outside at night and said, "Count the stars, if you can; so shall your descendants be" (Genesis 15:5). But Abe and Sarah had no children, and they were getting on in years. So Sarah figured that if God's promise were to come true, she would have to do something about it. She said to Abraham, "Take my slave Hagar and have a child by her."
This is the 1800 BC equivalent of surrogate motherhood: Hagar's body was not her own; Sarah and Abraham would use her body to have a child. So Abraham did as his wife wished, and Hagar bore him a son, Ishmael. Later, the Lord appeared to Abraham again and reiterated the promise that he and Sarah would be ancestors of a nation. The Lord promised that everything would work out for Ishmael too, but that Sarah's son would be Abraham's heir.
And so it happened that Sarah conceived and bore him a son, whom they named Isaac. Now Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the elder, but Isaac was his son by his wife. This could lead to trouble between the two of them. Apparently, though, they hit it off from the start, for our story-teller describes the two playing together. Classical pictures of Ishmael and Isaac show them both as small children, but if you read the story and pay attention to the chronology, Ishmael is fourteen years old when Isaac's born.
Well, Sarah did not like that Ishmael was around, potentially to interfere with Abraham's relationship with Isaac. She decided that both Hagar and Ishmael had to go, so she told Abraham to send them away. He didn't want to do it, but the Lord God told him to do as she said, and that Ishmael would be okay. So Abraham gave Hagar what provisions he could, and sent her and Ishmael out into the desert.
It's curious that the story-teller describes Hagar "casting the child under a bush." By his own chronology, Ishmael is fourteen years old, a little big for his mother to be "casting" him under a bush. Somebody messed up somewhere. Anyway, Hagar is ready for the two of them to die of thirst, when the Lord God intervenes, shows her a well, and assures her that Ishmael too would be a great nation.
Two weeks ago I talked about marriage in the ancient world, pointing out that marriages were arranged by families. Hagar had to be both mother and father to Ishmael, so when he was of an age, she got a wife for him, ordinarily the father's responsibility. As she was Egyptian, so was the woman she found for her son. It touches me that this slave-woman, thrown out of her home, rose to the occasion and became self-reliant and responsible. It also strikes me that when I read through the story, I see that the Lord God often speaks of Sarah, but not to her, instead speaking to Abraham about her. There is one very small exception: the Lord told Abraham Sarah would have a child and Sarah laughed; the Lord asked Abraham why Sarah laughed and she said, "I didn't laugh" and the Lord said to her, "Yes, you did" (Genesis 18:15). But the Lord God speaks to Hagar and shows her where to find water.
According to Islamic tradition, the desert where Hagar and Ishmael began to die of thirst was the Arabian desert, a spot near the present city of Mecca. So she ran seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwa, seeking water. Her search is commemorated by pilgrims making the hajj; they travel between these hills. When she was exhausted and her search was fruitless, she settled next to her child; then the Archangel Gabriel appeared, struck the ground, and water came from the ground by Ishmael's feet. Hagar and Ishmael drank, and settled there. Ishmael grew and was married and had his own family; from him was descended the Prophet Muhammed.
For Muslims, Hagar is the great Mother, the ancestor of their people. She is highly honored. What is she for us? How shall we regard Hagar? If no more than this, I hope we honor her as a woman who was cast aside as inconvenient, but who with faith in the Lord God and with a lot of guts bravely made her way in the world.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master