Who is Hagar? Her story is not well-known, even to people who have read the Bible all their lives.
Who is Hagar? A woman, first of all. And that immediately means, in the world in which she lives, that Hagar is one of the no-accounts, a person with little status, little power, little hope.
Who is Hagar? She is a foreigner, an Egyptian separated against her will from her homeland, her family.
Who is Hagar? She is a slave, maid to her mistress Sarah, who is the wife of Abraham. As a slave, Hagar cannot come or go as she chooses. Her needs, her wishes, are not given serious consideration. Hagar will do as she is told, like it or not.
Who is Hagar? An outsider in terms of social position, gender, race, and age. She is one of the oppressed. She is victim.
Hagar’s story begins with a promise. Not a promise to her, because she is a woman, a slave, a foreigner. But a promise to a man named Abraham. God makes the promise to Abraham that he will be father of a great nation, with descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth, as the stars in the heavens (cf.
You see how it is with Hagar, don’t you? When the master and the mistress of the household decide that Hagar can be used to bear them an heir, Hagar is not consulted. She is simply told what her role will be.
We hear Hagar’s story and we shake our heads. Yes, we think, she did not have an easy time of it, but things were different then. Maybe it wasn’t all that rough on her because as a slave, she would have expected to do what she was told.
It is one thing to hear a story like Hagar’s; it is a different thing to experience it ourselves. To that end, I ask you now not only to listen to Hagar’s story but to imagine that you are Hagar. You are Hagar and this is your story.
Your mistress, Sarah, calls you into her room. “Hagar,” she says to you, “the master and I have decided that he will father a child with you. When the child is born, the child will be our heir, Abraham’s and mine.” She pauses for a moment, and you wonder if she is waiting for you to make an answer. Does she expect you to protest that you are very young, little more than a girl, and your master is an old man, eighty-five years old, and that you had hoped to marry a young man? You want to object that you have never been with a man and that you surely aren’t ready to be a mother. And you think what a heartache it will be to have the child of your body be treated by this old woman as her child.
But you say nothing because you know it will do no good. Your mistress isn’t interested in your feelings. Nor will it do any good to appeal to her husband, your master. You know well enough that he has agreed to go along with his wife’s decision. In such matters, she runs the show.
“Go to Abraham’s room,” your mistress says to you. “He is waiting for you.” And so you go, not because you want to but because you must. What should be an act of love will be instead a loathsome duty. You go to him until, one day, suddenly and surprisingly, you know that a new life has entered your womb. You are with child. And Sarah knows it almost as soon as you do. How does she know? Can she read your mind?
A few more days go by and then you overhear a conversation between your master and your mistress. She is furious. “Abraham, I simply will not stand for it! That girl, that slave, dares to lord it over me. She flaunts her pregnancy. She will bear the child that I wanted to bear. And she laughs at me because of it. I won’t be treated with contempt. I will not! I am your wife! Do something about it.”
Is it true? you ask yourself. Have I really been letting my feelings for the old witch come through? I haven’t said a word, but no doubt I have betrayed my contempt for her with a look, a gesture. You listen breathlessly for Abraham’s answer. Will he stand up to his wife?
“Sarah,” you hear him say. “Do whatever you want to her. Leave me out of it.”
In the days and weeks that follow, your mistress does everything she can to make your life unbearable. She makes disparaging, hurtful remarks about your appearance. She piles on more and more work and finds fault with everything you do. In Abraham’s presence she ridicules and insults you. Occasionally she launches into screaming tirades until you are reduced to tears. Once she even spits in your face and slaps you.
And you decide at last that you can no longer bear it. You hunger for just one kind word, one gesture of caring from anyone. But day after day, all you receive is either hatred or indifference, and you don’t know which is harder to bear. Finally, on a day when Sarah has unleashed another of her venomous attacks, you wait until nightfall, until everyone is asleep, and you run away. You don’t know where you are going and you don’t care. All you care about is getting away from this torment. (
When the sun comes up the next morning you find yourself in a lonely place, a place you have never been. All you see around you are rocks and bushes. You’ve brought no food with you, and you realize that in the panic of running away you have gotten yourself into real trouble. As the sun rises, you begin to get thirsty. You stumble on, hoping to find water in this wilderness.
At last, when you think you cannot go another step, you see a spring, water trickling out between some rocks. You pull your weary body over to it and drink greedily. Then you collapse, exhausted.
When you wake up, you see a strange figure standing in front of you. He says your name and asks where you’ve come from and where you are going. As if in a dream, you hear yourself saying: “I am running away from my mistress Sarah.”
The man listens and then gives you an order: “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” You lower your head and shake it in terror. No, anything but that. Who is this man? Why is he telling you to go back to the very thing you’ve run away from. But then he speaks again, and this time what he says tells you he is no ordinary mortal.
“I will give you so many descendants that no one will be able to count them. You will have a son and you will name him Ishmael, because the LORD has heard your cry of distress.”
What a strange thing to say. He is addressing you, not as if you were slave at all, but as if you were a free woman, the mother-to-be of a great nation. You raise your eyes, but the stranger is gone. And you think, “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” You name the place El-roi, which means “the God of seeing.” It must be God’s will that I go back, you say to yourself. And so you go, not because you want to, but because … because this is what you must do. (
Hagar returned, gave birth to a son, named him Ishmael, and surely must have delighted in watching him grow. How her mistress treated her upon her return and how she treated the baby we are not told. But when Sarah herself had a son, it wasn’t long until the old animosity flared up again, hotter than before. Now Sarah gave Abraham a direct order: “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave shall not inherit along with my son Isaac…”
The Bible tells us that Abraham was distressed because of his son Ishmael. At least that much is to his credit in this most distressing of stories, because, let’s face it, not much else Abraham does here is worthy of praise. What we hear next is especially distressing, for now the Bible says that God sided with Sarah and told Abraham to send the slave woman and her son away. And God also told Abraham that a great nation shall come from Ishmael, because the boy is Abraham’s offspring. Not Hagar’s. Abraham’s.
What kind of story is this, in which God joins Abraham and Sarah to oppress a slave woman and her son? What kind of story is this, where the best God seems to come up with is an almost reluctant rescue mission in the wilderness after hearing the mother weeping?
It is a distressing story, I have said. Distressing, because from the beginning of the story to the end, Hagar is powerless. She is an innocent victim of use, abuse, and rejection. I wonder if you felt even a little of what she must have felt when the story was told with you as Hagar. But whether you felt it or not, you may wonder why her story was included in the scripture. Of what importance is Hagar’s story?
Hagar’s story is important in the Bible. She is the first person in scripture visited by a divine messenger. She is the only person in scripture who dares to name the deity. She is the first woman to hear the announcement that she will bear a child, a forerunner of Mary who will also hear an angel tell her that she will bear a child. Hagar is the only woman in the Bible who receives a promise from God of descendants. She is the first woman in scripture to cry for her dying child.1
Hagar’s story is important for another reason, important because so many women in history find their stories in hers.
She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water …2
Hagar’s story is important because she reminds us that injustice is sadly still alive and well in our day, as it was in hers. Racism and ethnic hatreds flourish in this country and around the world. Hagar’s story is important because if we have any feeling alive in us at all, we are touched, moved by her story. Moved enough to say, “This must not be.” Women and men and children are not created to be abused but to live lives that are free and fulfilled. All are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity.
Hagar’s story is important because every person’s story is important. My story, your story. In the wondrous mystery we call the love and grace of God, each story is heard and known, treasured and blessed and remembered.
Who is Hagar? God knows.
Who am I? Who are you? God knows. God cares. Now and forever.
1 Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror, Fortess Press, 1984, p. 28.