This is a summer of story-telling in our church, and the stories being shared by members of our congregation have been moving and thought-provoking. We are grateful to our friends for sharing such interesting and formative parts of their lives. I know all of us look forward to hearing still more of our stories as this summer practice proceeds.
On successive Sundays we’ve also been following the story told in the Book of Genesis of the patriarch Abraham and the matriarch Sarah. We’ve heard about how these two elderly folks, in response to an unexpected divine call, picked up and left their home in Ur of the Chaldees (modern Iraq) and journeyed many miles westward to the land of Canaan (modern Israel and Palestine). We’ve heard how the God of Israel promised an elderly Abraham a great progeny that would out-number the stars of the sky, an immense family of descendants who would confer great blessings on all the nations of the earth. So, it is natural and fitting that the three modern religions we call the Abrahamic faiths look back to these two ancestral figures with awe and respect. And yet, as could be true for any of us, the gleam and glaze of their story might on closer inspection reveal some cracks and imperfections.
In response to that surprising divine promise, we see how Sarah had pondered its improbability, in view of her and her husband’s advanced age. Sarah resorted to a strategy to address this difficulty that would have some tragic consequences. She tasked one of her household staff with serving as a surrogate mother. She proposes that Abraham have sex with Hagar, her Egyptian slave, in hopes that in this way they could have children. This was an acceptable approach to deal with infertility or marital incompatibility in the ancient world.
Abraham indeed does impregnate Hagar, but the reality of that pregnancy is more than Sarah can handle. She imagines that her slave woman now despises her due to her inability to conceive and bear a child. She can’t bear the thought that her slave woman’s child would inherit God’s extravagant promises. In her self-righteous anger, Sarah demands that Abraham intervene in some way, but he demurs and tells her “Look, your slave is in your power—do to her what is good in your sight.”
And what feels good to Sarah is punishing and banishing her slave. As we read in Genesis 16, “Sarah treated her harshly and she fled from her presence” into the desert wilderness. But Hagar’s absence (this her first dismissal) is cut short by divine intervention. As she rested by a spring of water, God’s angel finds her and commands that she, quote, “Return to your owner and submit yourself to her authority.” Hagar dutifully obeys and successfully gives birth to a son for Abraham, who names the infant Ishmael. Some modern Black theologians find parallels with the dilemmas of runaway slaves in the United States returned to their masters, including enslaved women impregnated by their owners without their consent.
God visited Sarah’s camp and promised that she—though more than ninety years old at the time!—would bear a son to fulfill that amazing promise with a child of her own. And last week we heard how Sarah laughed in disbelief at such an odd prediction. Yet even then, after the stupendous miracle of Isaac’s birth, we find Sarah once again filled with rage at Hagar and now also at her son. Somehow, while she watches Ishmael play with young Isaac, the sight brings up all her old jealousy and resentment. After all, Sarah is only human!
This time Sarah convinces her husband to send both Hagar and the little boy far into the desert to die in the south. So, according to the text read today, “Abraham rose early in the morning, took bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar, putting them on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. And when the water in the skin was used up, she cast the boy under one of the bushes” (Gen. 21:14f). She stepped away “and lifted up her voice and wept.” She could not bear to see the boy die. A loaf of bread and a bit of water were never going to be sufficient to keep the outcast mother or child alive for very long. But once again God sends an angel, this time not requiring that Hagar and Ishmael return to their abusive masters, but offering fresh well water that permits her son to grow strong and prosper.
All too often, I fear, as we read these stories of Biblical heroes and their adventures and challenges, it is easy to take on the viewpoint of the dominant figures in the narrative while glossing over the pain and suffering of their slaves. This response is for me painfully analogous to the many ways in which White American Christians have for far too long historically reacted to the violence and injustice wreaked on our African American and Indigenous siblings. Indeed, in some ways, Bible stories like these have too often provided rationales and excuses for patterns of exclusion and disinterest, at best, and outright murderous violence at worst.
In place of a loaf of bread and a skin of water, all too many people today, the more privileged folk, might “generously” offer a family $127 a month in food stamps, and then look with pity if not dislike on a mom making use of that charity in the grocery store. We might judge a family that lacks the financial and other resources to offer the privileges of inheritance and wealth such as Isaac would receive in place of the horror of abandonment that Ishmael got under a bush in the wilderness. We might well ignore the fact, if we even care, that the vast majority of Americans on welfare and other governmental aid are White like us. Instead, too many of us will stand by unmoved as our politicians pathologize and scapegoat the poor, the needy, the disabled, the immigrant, all God’s people we might claim are “different” from us.
Abraham is celebrated as the ancestor not only of the Hebrew and thus the Jewish nation but also of the Arab and thus the Muslim peoples. According to the New Testament, Abraham and Sarah further stand as the spiritual progenitors of Christianity. In contrast, from the perspective of both biblical testaments, Hagar and her progeny serve mostly as points of inferior contrast with heroic figures like Sarah, Abraham, and Isaac. Consider for example the symbolic abuse of Hagar by the apostle Paul in the passage from Galatians 4 that we just heard read.
Hagar is described specifically there as an enslaved Egyptian person dwelling in the Arabian desert. She represents for Paul the inferior, fleshly, sinful side of humanity, while our true ancestor, or so he claims, is Sarah, the free woman who is allegorized as the heavenly city of faith and grace. For first-century Judeans like Paul, foreigners like Arabs and Egyptians represent both historical and contemporary enemies and rivals in their region. Paul not only debases the enslaved woman to the point of inhumanity, he adopts and expands upon Sarah’s perspective on Hagar’s supposed maltreatment of her owner by claiming that Ishmael persecuted Isaac. This is something never actually mentioned in the Genesis text. Ishmael’s “playing” with little Isaac is seen by her not as brotherly fun but as cruel mockery.
As New Testament scholar Jennifer Glancy comments:
Paul’s version of the Sarah–Hagar story turns on deeply embedded prejudices about slaves and free women. . . . Paul does not temper his midrash with sympathy for the moral position of the slave. Without any recognition of the active role of Sarah in persecuting Hagar, Paul claims that the enslaved child persecuted the freeborn child. The free woman’s hostility is displaced onto the enslaved child.
Too many of us today might displace our own fears and resentments and foist blame on those less privileged.
When the biblical narrative comes to recount the events surrounding Hagar and Ishmael, we are offered the opportunity to flip the script a bit, to begin to center for a moment not on the hopes and worries of those celebrated ancestors of faith, but instead on the experience and terrors of Hagar, the Egyptian woman they have enslaved. Let’s see what happens when we leave the comfortable encampment of Abraham and walk alongside Hagar, visibly pregnant with her owner’s child, as she is sent forcibly into the forbidding desert. I wonder how long we would survive? Would we ever prosper? Would we have the remarkable strength of Ishmael? To bring the thought experiment closer to our own lived realities, would we share the resilience shown by descendants of people enslaved and shunted aside and left without adequate resources? It seems like an open question, even as we merely imagine walking alongside Hagar into her deadly future in a desert wilderness.
We live in a culture that protects us through our economic and legal privilege and yet also poisons our hearts and minds by the dire effects of White supremacy. The old spiritual poses us the question, Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Of course, we were not; but nor did many—if any—of our ancestors and relatives suffer the violence and humiliations seen in a century or more of lynching, or were brought sharply into focus with the horrific death of George Floyd. Today we might wonder: Were we there when Sarah banished the pregnant Hagar into the dangers of a barren wilderness? Can we even imagine such a fate? The analogues, I believe, remain all around us.
Despite these difficulties of understanding, I nonetheless feel drawn to attempt this practice of accompaniment by the inspiring work of Womanist theologians. These female African American biblical scholars adopt an attitude to the scriptures that is informed less—much less—by the sort of Eurocentric, male-dominated interpretations that influence conventional churches. Instead, Womanist theologians read the text through the lenses of Black people’s experiences of maltreatment and terror from the days of enslavement and Jim Crow right down to today. This very much includes the bodily trauma felt in the face of persistent state-sanctioned violence of the sort so well and sadly documented on our own city’s streets. As New Testament scholar Angela Parker puts it in the title of her recent book, If God Still Breathes, Why Can’t I?
In her own recent book Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and Bible, Womanist scholar Dr. Nyasha Junior has this to say:
Hagar has become an important figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but in many ways, Hagar is a minor character who appears in only a few scriptural texts. We do not know her age, height, weight, skin color, or hair curl pattern. . . . Nevertheless, Hagar is a complex character. In the space of only two chapters in Genesis, she is a surrogate to Sarah, a wife of Abraham, a mother to Ishmael, an enslaved woman, an Egyptian woman, a pregnant woman who is told to return to an abusive home, and a banished woman who experiences a theophany in the wilderness. . . . Due to the variety of elements of her story, Hagar is an excellent prism for interpreters who have concerns regarding inclusion and exclusion.
We, as progressive Christians, who care deeply about justice and oppose all forms of injustice, could, I hope, be strengthened in our resolve to work harder for that better present and hopeful future by taking a long walk with Hagar. One way we at First Church are already taking steps to make that journey real is through our work of reparations and hospitality. With such commitments and practices, we sign up to journey with Hagar’s modern analogues and descendants, as we travel more deeply and fully into our own time and places of fear, loneliness, and abandonment—accompanied by the God of love, care, and justice. Amen—may it be so.