FINDING GOD IN THE WILDERNESS EXPERIENCE
THE STORY OF HAGAR
Genesis 16: 1-16
Hagar and Ishmael
HERMENEUTIC – An interpretation, a viewpoint, a method of translating texts, especially when it comes to the narratives of the Scripture. A hermeneutic is involves a “lens” of experience which one brings to the biblical text in order to interpret the meaning of the story. Imagine a pair of eyeglasses which suit your needs; but, then you pass these same glasses to someone else. While they may be able to see out of your glasses (or maybe not), these particular lens are suited specifically for your eyesight and not for others. In this same way, we can think of how we each bring our own hermeneutic or life experience to the biblical narrative.
In the story we will consider, there are at least 3 ways to read or interpret the story. The story can be read from Abram’s (Abraham’s viewpoint)- a husband who seeks to keep peace between two wives. The story can be read from Sarai’s (Sarah) viewpoint – a desperate, aged housewife who believes she cannot have a son, so she seeks and finds another way to accomplish her desire; or, the story can be read from Hagar’s point of view. Hagar, who is brought to the household of Abram and Sarai, as a young, enslaved Egyptian girl and given to Abram to accomplish her mistresses’ unfulfilled dream.
We will, for the purposes of this lesson, read the story from Hagar’s point of view. It is also called in Womanist’s and Feminist’s theology: The Hermeneutic of Suspicion. The narrative, when read from the vantage point of Hagar, as an oppressed woman of color, forces the reader to consider socio-religious elements that otherwise may have been ignored or overlooked. (We will consider these later).
And now, THE WORD from Our Sponsor………………………………………………….
16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.
9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,[a]
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward[b] all his brothers.”
13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen[c] the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi[d]; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.
15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
We are all familiar with the aphorism: There are two sides to every story. This also holds true for many of the stories we encounter in the biblical narrative. Depending upon how we interpret Hagar’s story, we will come away with a different understanding of the events that unfold in chapter 16 of Genesis.
The text reveals several facts about Hagar. Hagar is of African descent from the country of Egypt. Hagar is the slave of Abram and Sarai (later know as Abraham and Sarah). Hagar is also very young. In Hebrew, the original language of the text, Hagar is described as a “girl” or a “teenager.” We do not know how long Hagar was with Abram and Sarai before she was “given” to Abram for the purpose of bearing his first child. Lastly, we do not know how long Hagar stayed with this couple after she returns from the wilderness.
We do know from the previous chapters of the Abraham and Sarah saga in the book of Genesis, that this married couple was well into their old age when Ishmael was born. We also know that Sarai was barren; yet, God had already promised Abram he would have as many descendants, as the stars in the sky (Genesis 14:5). Imagine living in this promise, yet reaching the age of 85, with an elderly wife, and not having the tangible evidence ( a male heir) of God’s promise. Obviously, a desperate Sarai takes matters into her own hands, and Abram, as the text indicates, goes along with her plan.
Sarai decides to accomplish their joint goal of having a child through the body of their slave girl. With all the entitlement of a slave owner, Sarai feels she owns Hagar’s body and has the right to “give” Hagar to her elderly husband. In order to ensure that the male heir is legitimate, Abram agrees to marry Hagar. When the deed is accomplished, and Hagar conceives, Sarai becomes upset and accuses Hagar of looking upon her with contempt. Sarai presses her husband to “fix” the situation, and Abram tells his wife: “Your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”
We must make some assumptions here in the story, as we find that Hagar runs away, largely and likely due to the harsh treatment from the hand of Sarai. Hagar is pregnant and has no ally in the house of Abram. In a desperate attempt to change her current circumstances, Hagar flees to the desert, where nothing but wilderness, deprivation, and death await her and her child. Yet, it is in the wilderness that Hagar finds salvation. In the desert, Hagar experiences a theophany – a face to face encounter with God who “sees her. Hagar is the first person in scripture who names God for herself! Hagar is the first woman of the bible in which God makes a personal covenant – the same covenant God makes with Abram.
Hagar’s story is a powerful witness of God’s compassion, loving kindness, provision and care. Even in our darkest hour, AND ESPECIALLY THEN, God is ahead of us, waiting for us with divine mercy, grace, and love. The narrative tells us of a “spring of water in the wilderness.” Metaphorically speaking, this can mean the presence of God in Hagar’s desert experience. It is in Hagar’s most desperate hour, in the intensity of her suffering that Hagar discovers God. God cares so much for Hagar, as His own child, we see God breaking through Hagar’s shattered reality and supernaturally appearing to Hagar, as an angel. This is the holy manifestation of God’s awesome saving power on Hagar’s behalf. In the wilderness, Hagar is attended to by the angel in ways she could never imagine. While we do not know how long Hagar stays in the desert; we do know Hagar leaves the wilderness differently than whence she came. Hagar leaves the desert saved by God to return to the house of Abram with a testimony of God’s saving power. She is alive – not dead, as they suspected she would be. She returns with her son and the same covenant over her life which God made with her husband, even before she was born!
We witness this covenant in her story: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for the multitude.” Hagar will be the mother of many nations. She is the FIRST WOMAN in scripture given this immense blessing. Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl returns from the wilderness, as a matriarch of a nation. LOOK AT GOD! The promise of a lifetime was accomplished in Hagar’s wilderness.
In the Islamic tradition (one of the monotheistic religions of the world), Hagar and Abraham are recognized as the matriarch and patriarch of Islam.
Hagar runs to the wilderness, as a fearful and confused slave girl. Hagar returns to the house of Abram, as an empowered, delivered, emboldened, redeemed woman. Hagar now knows God for herself. God has turned Hagar’s sorrow to joy, her pain to prerogative, and her enslavement to empowerment. God has made a divine covenant with Hagar. In the Old Testament, this particular blessing has no comparison or precedent.
In Hagar’s story, we are confronted with divine irrationality. Why does God accomplish His will in this way? This remains a mystery to us; yet, we can trust in a God who sees us (El Ro-ee): sees our confusion, sees our pain, sees our needs, sees and knows our suffering, and responds to all in ways which blow our minds! God’s compassions never fail. God’s mercies are new each day. Even (and especially) in our desert experience, we know God is there, providing a spring of water in
our wilderness. And, most assuredly, we are changed for we have seen the power of a compassionate and loving God who cares for us, like none other.
QUESTIONS FOR OUR STUDY AND CONSIDERATION
The narrative informs us “the angel of the Lord” finds Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness. Why does the angel address Hagar as: “Hagar, slave girl of Sarai?” Why would the angel ask her where she came from and where is she going?
Assuming we know how Hagar’s story ends, why does the angel of the Lord tell Hagar to return to her mistress and submit to her?
Does Hagar’s title for God (El Ro-ee), have any meaning for us, as contemporary Christian women?
What changes for Hagar, as she sojourns back to the house of Abram and Sarai? What changes for Abram and Sarai, with regard to Hagar’s return?
What life lessons have you learned in your own personal wilderness? Explain.
“Cause a winner don’t quit on herself.” Beyounce
“How you climb the mountain is more important than reaching the top.” (Yvon Chouinard)
“Those who don’t move, do not notice their chains.” (Rosa Luxemburg)
“Never believe for a second that you are weak, within all of us we have a reserve of inner hidden strength.” (Victoria Addino)
OUR SENDING PRAYER
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
THE SERENITY PRAYER (Reinhold Niebuhr)