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Last week we heard about the arrival of the long-promised genetic son Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 21:1-8. Today we hear the larger part of that story. Desperate to have children, drowning in their confusion (as they remain barren despite God’s promises in Genesis 12), Abraham and Sarah take matters into their own hands in Genesis 16. By chapter 21 the miracle has happened. She has given birth to her own son, Isaac. But now they’re in a bind. How do you undo what you tried to do to control God when God didn’t seem to be acting?
Hagar is a slave girl that belongs to Sarah. We’ve softened the story in the past by calling her a handmaiden. She belongs (her body and her reproductive capacities) to Sarah. Abraham, still without children, sought to adopt a male slave from his household who would then become heir to the family fortune. Abraham seems to have considered this option legal in that time option in Genesis 15:2-3. But he and Sarai instead settled on Hagar as the way where they see no other way. Sarah gives her slave Hagar to Abraham who then impregnates her. More than likely raping her as she would have been a virgin to be a hand-maiden responsible for caring for her mistress, her household and eventually as wet nurse for the mistress’ children. Abraham then gives Hagar back to Sarah.
But Sarah grows jealous? Or does Hagar shows off? We forget that in the ancient near East a woman’s worth was in large part decided by the children she bore. As a rich woman without children, Sarah was in a sense a nobody, shamed culturally. It would seem likely that a nobody-slave would lord it over her mistress who was somebody in the world but nobody in terms of being a mother. It’s the only thing Hagar has going for her. Sarah makes her run away, then she comes back, and the story repeats itself again. Hagar was needed, but not now is seen as expendable by her owners. Yet lost in the desert wilderness, without family and tribe to protect her, God sees her and she sees God. In genesis, Hagar is the only woman to be promised a great inheritance of progeny and also who gives a name to God “El-roi” (the God who sees). So in the way that the story is told she’s not a nobody.
This story has been used throughout history to justify slavery and animosity versus Arabs and Muslims (said to be descendants of Ishmael). It’s also at the foundation of the modern story The Handmaid’s Tale – a dystopian take on twisted Christianity that can lead to horrible misogyny and violence. So should we just get rid of it?
Questions for Reflection & Examen:
• What engaged you, enraged you, or surprised you in the text?
• The story is complex. What relationships of oppression do you see? Freedom? The wilderness is the lonely desolate place of testing and trail in the Bible. Who is in the wilderness in the story? Who sees God – in terms of eye-vision; in terms of spiritual-vision
• How has the story shaped you? Our culture? What have we maybe missed?
• How is the Spirit of God inviting you – or us – to act, speak, be, or change our relationships through this story of Hagar in the wilderness?
Go deeper about learning more about Phyllis Trible‘s feminist reading of this story in her book Texts of Terror [link to a shorter blog post based on it].
In the sermon on this text Monte referenced in particular the work of Delores S. Williams in her seminal book: Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.
Find the PDF study sheet guide we’ll use in our discussion at CAPC Oakland HERE.