hagar & the god who saw her

This is the (w0)manuscript for a sermon for Advanced Preaching. I edited it further, but this is raw form. The text is based off of Genesis 16.

In the church I grew up in, we’d follow the scripture reading with either: “The Word of God for the People of God” or “Holy Wisdom, Holy Word”. Just the thought of saying it now makes me cringe after reading Genesis 16.

The thing is, I usually refer to the Hebrew Scriptures (also known as Old Testament) as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll to bring some levity into scripture. For every wrestling with God piece, or God freeing a people or person, there is, well, some horrific stuff contained in the Bible. Unless you really look for those stories, we aren’t typically told them unless we seek them out. But we aren’t fully engaging with the Bible if we are hiding pieces of stories and realities from ourselves. The story of Hagar is hard and isn’t seen by the church as much as it should be.

I believe with my entire heart and soul that God is love, God loves you and me, God loves all of creation. We are all created in the divine image of God. So how are we supposed to find meaning in this particular piece of “holy” scripture?

Most of us are told of the Father of a Nation, Abraham, Israel, God’s favored, God’s chosen. Abram who is so special God re-names him, God names him, Abraham and his wife, Sarai is re-named Sarah.

But this Abraham that I grew up learning about, this strong man who followed the will of God and was to be lifted above the rest of humanity, is not in this story today is he? I expect more from Abram. We find an Abram just following the motions, not really making his own decisions. He is told to do something and does it. When he does have an opportunity to speak and stick up for Hagar, he does not. Instead it is squarely placed on Sarai’s shoulders. For the chosen, the blessed, the One, he does not play the part.

He chooses to lay with Hagar. We cannot blame Sarai here because he could have said no. He could have found another woman where the power dynamics weren’t so disproportionate. He was the patriarch, Hagar is a slave far from her home. This isn’t a marriage of semi-equals, this is rape. God’s love and lifting of Abram does not excuse his actions, or more accurately his inaction.

Then once his offspring is finally secured, he doesn’t even stand up to Sarai for Hagar. He just refers to Hagar, not by her name, and still refers to her as a slave and as Sarai’s property. This is not okay because God loves Abram the most, God doesn’t love any part of creation more than the other. God’s love cannot justify the inaction.

God is not reflected in Abram’s actions, but what about Sarai? Is this scripture about her and the barren woman narrative?

We know that God is involved in the life of Abram, therefore God is involved in Sarai’s life. Is this piece of scripture supposed to show that God provides for Sarai, her dream of having a child?

Now, we may not be familiar with the plight of the barren mother in the Bible. Culturally, barrenness was seen as God’s disfavor of the woman. Be fruitful and multiply! During the time period of the story, people had no idea how conception worked. Men’s seeds essentially were babies waiting to be incubated in a women’s womb making barrenness a rejection on the women’s part. Men were not to blame.

Genesis 16 shows a desperate Sarai. She has had enough. Before this point of the story, she had been passed off as Abram’s sister in Egypt, traveled a bunch, and known that Abram was to be set apart and father a great nation, and she hadn’t provided any heirs. Heirs that would take care of her when Abram died, or if he died early. Being a childless woman was dangerous. Not having a child, that’s a ton of pressure on a woman who is getting older and older.

Surrogacy wasn’t uncommon, some say it was common during this part of history. But it doesn’t make it okay. Sarai probably didn’t make the decision lightly to let Abram lay with her slave, who she doesn’t refer to by name. Hagar is just an object to her, a move to bring her a child, to bring her security, to dedicate to God and make her mark on history.

Something crazy happens, Hagar does get pregnant and when she realizes she is with child, Hagar looks at Sarai with contempt. Contempt is defined as “the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn”. I want to focus on deserving scorn. I don’t know about you, but Sarai’s actions do deserve scorn. Sarai, who by just being a woman is oppressed, but in this situation, she is the oppressor of Hagar, what a radical turn of events.

Instead of compassion, Sarai mistreats Hagar so badly that a pregnant Hagar runs away. A woman in her most vulnerable state runs away, it must have been bad. First Hagar is pawned off to Abram and then is dealt with harshly, maybe in the midst of morning sickness. God is not in Sarai’s actions, or ordained her actions to provide Abram a child through Hagar. God also doesn’t love woman more or less depending on if they have children!

If we can’t find meaning in Abram or Sarai, we can mind meaning in God, right? God is in all parts of the Bible, but is God working in all parts of the Bible? In this narrative there is an angel of the Lord who really is God. God seeks out Hagar in her moment of need, calls her by name, and then sides with the oppressor. “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” God sides with the oppressor! To lighten the blow, the angel who is God then gives Hagar a concession to make her the mother of her own nation and a name for her son, Ishmael, which means God has heard.

Why would the angel of the lord, God, take the side of the oppressor, regards on the promises made? Before we can dive into the question we need to remember that the victors, male victors, the patriarchy has written history, and the Bible is not immune from this. The Bible has been written by men, human men, perhaps Divinely inspired but entrenched in their privilege and as the oppressor in this narrative.

Hagar, and later her son Ishmael, are not the winners, they are quickly written out of the story a few more chapters after Genesis 16. God did not write the Bible, men did. We need to remember this when we read this scripture and other hard area of the Bible; this piece of the Bible is horrific and if God truly takes sides, it is not with the oppressor, it is with raped and/or the oppressed.

Nothing justifies rape or oppression; it is not of God but humanity falling short of living into the hope and possibility, the promise of God. This scripture showcases sin, systemic sin, but yet it was kept in the Bible and so that leads me to circle back to our original question. How are we supposed to find meaning in this piece of “holy” scripture?

To find meaning, we need to know where is God in the midst of rape and oppression. God is with Hagar, in her agency. We can find meaning in Hagar’s actions and abstract interaction with the Divine.

Hagar takes control of her situation and runs away, she uses her God-given agency to make a decision for herself. And once she does this, she encounters the Divine. And when Hagar encounters the angel something amazing happens, she recognizes that the angel is really God and then names God for herself. “So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’”. The God who sees is also seen. She sees God, God sees Hagar. It is finally a point of mutuality in the text.

God is embodied in Hagar. In her grasp of theological reflection and in her taking of action, she returned to Abram and Sarai, but with the knowledge that she would give birth to a son, which gave her internal strength. It was by her own sense of agency, but not God’s decision, it was hers.

I believe God is always at work, but sometimes God isn’t accurately reflected in the Bible, sometimes it’s not “Holy Scripture, Holy Word”. God is in Hagar’s agency, in the agency of the oppressed. Hagar was raped and oppressed due to her social economic status, her nationality, and her gender. Yet, God was still with her, and God is still with those who are oppressed due to nationality, class, and/or gender, we can add sexuality to that list as well.

This is a hard piece of scripture. As I read it from my position of privilege, I realize that we can find meaning in this “holy” scripture by seeing ourselves as conduits to bring the Divine into the seemingly un-Divine. To see ourselves as oppressors, to see where our lineage has been apart of the rape and plunder, to open our eyes to how we oppress.

I want to be Hagar’s ally, but God was portrayed as her ally. I want to be more than that. Someone who walks along with, but does something more. I want to see her. Perhaps this narrative showing how God walking with can open our eyes that we need to do more. How can one be an ally who is not just doing the bare minimum?

Should those of us who weld privilege aim for something stronger? To be co-conspirators with those who need us to go beyond ally? To really see what is needed and how we can actually help? What would it look like if God had been a co-conspirator with Hagar? God is in what we bring into scripture and how we move beyond it into our reality, into our social contexts. That’s the way we move beyond horrific disbelief and into action as co-conspirators with Hagar and the modern day Hagar’s. To see what is truly around us.