Come with me on a journey to about 2500 years ago. We are sitting around a fire in the evening and the milky way is out. Someone in our group mentions that all those stars remind them of God’s promise to Abraham and how lucky we are to have him as our father compared to all those other people living around us. The story teller rises up to meet the challenge of telling Abraham’s story in a way that might bring some new understanding to it. Let’s listen and try to figure out what the story teller is doing. We want to hear how he or she makes the story connect to what has come before and will come in the future. Good story tellers want us to be actively involved in their craft, to listen carefully and then try to figure out why they told the story like they did. Good stories should fill us with questions. Because we are guests and because we do not speak Hebrew, we need some help understanding how the story works.
The story teller in Genesis wants us to read forward but also backwards. In most books there is an introduction and possibly a foreword as well. They tell us what we should expect to find in the rest of the story and maybe even to tell us with what kind of eyes to read, or how to listen to the rest of the story. This is very much the case in Genesis.
In chapters one and two, we have two accounts of creation and each one makes some different points. In chapter one, we have the story of creation of the whole world and then the filling of that world. On the sixth day we have the creation of humans, both male and female. Together they are made in God’s image giving them equal standing in the task of being God’s representatives in this world. In chapter two, the story is much more detailed and there the man is made from the dust of the ground. Later God puts the man into a deep sleep and makes a woman from his side. Most Bibles say that God took a rib, but if the Hebrew word used here means a rib, it is the only place in the Bible where it means that. The idea is that the woman is man’s better half. The woman is to be a helper or helpmate for the man. The word used for a helper is usually used for someone who is stronger, like God, or an equal but never for someone of lower standing. These two chapters point to the ideal of what should be.
In chapter three everything falls apart after they eat the forbidden fruit. The couple is expelled from the garden and they go to the east. Later in the story, the Israelites will leave Egypt and go to the east into the wilderness. And much later they will leave the promised land and be expelled to the east. The story of the fall should prepare us for the expulsion from the promised land.
By the time we come to Abraham, the story is very different than what we find in Genesis chapters one and two. The strife which started between the man and the woman of chapter three is still there. The world has become very patriarchal. Men make the rules and that is just the way it is. This is part of the fall we find in Genesis 3:16 where it says the man will rule over the woman but the woman’s desire will be for her man. This is the result of disobeying God and trying to make it on our own, but it should not be understood as normative.
When we come to Abraham’s story in Gen 12, we find that Abraham is to be part of the solution to the fall and the return to the way things had been. When God promises Abraham descendants and a land, it is a very important statement. People should find blessing because of and through Abraham. The first time we hear the word bless in the Bible is on day five when God creates creatures, and the second time is on day six when humans are created in God’s image. The third time is when God blesses the seventh day because now everything is in order. The blessing given to Abraham is the fourth usage of the word. In other words, the blessing that was given to Abraham and which should be given to others through Abraham has everything to do with the creation being brought back to what it is meant to be in the beginning. However for this to happen, it means that Abraham must have children to fulfil the calling and promise which God gave him.
We know the story and how as soon as God gave Abraham his calling and promises, Abraham is down in Egypt selling his wife Sarah to Pharaoh. He got cattle, slaves and more while he was in Egypt, and Pharaoh is afflicted with great plagues. When Pharaoh finds out that Sarah is Abraham’s wife, he kicks Abraham out of Egypt saying, “Take these things and be gone.” These are the same words that a later Pharaoh will say to Moses. This whole story wants us to look back at what was and forward to what will come.
But Sarah can’t have children and by the time we come to this story she is well past the age of having children. So what about God’s promise to Abraham of having offspring and becoming a great nation? Sarah takes things into her own hand, just like Abraham had done when he sold her to Pharaoh. She takes her slave, Hagar, and gives her to Abraham as a wife. Whether she is a slave or some kind of indentured servant seems to make little difference because Hagar has no choice in this matter. She is completely in Sarah’s hands just as she was in Pharaoh’s control when she became Sarah’s slave. The text is very clear that Hagar is now Abraham’s second wife and as such Abraham has certain obligations to her, which he does not seem to fulfil. In 16:3 Sarah takes her slave/maid and gives her to Abraham and he takes her.
Now if we stop for a minute and listen carefully, what do we hear? And where have we heard this before? In Genesis 3:6 when the serpent talked the woman into thinking that God is holding out on her, she takes the fruit and gives it to the man beside her. In giving and taking both are equally guilty; Abraham didn’t need to take what Sarah gave. Sarah and Abraham become the new man and woman in the garden who take what they should not take. None of this is Hagar’s fault. She is given the short end of the stick from the very people through whom she should have found blessing. When Hagar becomes Abraham’s second wife, she should be treated the same as the first wife, but neither Sarah nor Abraham ever call her by her name because in their eyes she is someone only to be used and abused. They can do what they please with her. We might also hear in this passage the similar way in which Abraham gave Sarah to Pharaoh, and now Sarah did the same thing to Hagar.
Hagar becomes pregnant and it causes problems between her and Sarah who gave her to Abraham for this very reason. Most of our translations read in such a way that it seems Hagar is to blame for what happens between her and Sarah in the next couple of verses, but more likely Sarah is deeply jealous of Hagar. Maybe Sarah sees herself losing her position of dominance. Whatever happens between the two of them, Sarah accepts no blame; instead she blames Abraham and in 16:5 she asks God to judge between herself and Abraham. However we read this story, we must remember that Abraham and Sarah have a relationship with God and what they do does not stop the outcome of God’s plan.
Abraham’s response shows what he and Sarah think about Hagar. In their conversations about her, they never call her by name. Hagar is just a despised slave girl. Her name means the other, or the sent one, forsaken, or stranger. Abraham says to Sarah she can do with Hagar as she pleases. Sarah deals harshly with Hagar, just like Pharaoh will later deal harshly with the Israelites (Gen 16:5-8). The story teller wants us to know that the tables have been turned. The Egyptian is now treated like the Israelites will be treated later, and the very people whose task it was to bring blessing to the world have become like the Pharaoh who enslaved the Israelites.
Hagar thinks it is safer for her to flee into the wilderness than to stay with the people of promise. The wilderness is a place of death, and without water the chances of making it are very small. Hagar finds a spring with some water in it and stays there. The angel of the Lord comes to meet her there. The angel addresses her by name, “Hagar, slave girl of Sarah, where are you coming from and where are you going?” Hagar only answers the first part of the question. She is running away from her mistress Sarah, but it seems she is lost because she does not answer the second part of the question. The angel of the Lord tells her to return to the very difficult situation of living with Sarah and Abraham. Then the angel gives some of the same promises to Hagar which were given to Abraham. She too will have descendants which will become a great nation (16:10). She is to name the son she will have Ishmael, which means “God hears.” God had been listening to Hagar’s cries when she was abused and afflicted (Gen 16:11 & Ex 3:7). The word that is used here for afflicted is also an exodus word from when the Pharaoh afflicted the Israelites with hard work. In Hagar’s affliction, God comes to speak to her. She is promised that her son will be free; he will not be a slave to the people of promise the way Hagar is.
Hagar’s response is to name God, El-roi, which means “the God who sees” (Gen 16:13). God has both seen and heard Hagar’s afflictions and comes to her because of them. Hagar is the only person in the O.T. who names God. To name something gives the person some control over the thing being named. What we should never doubt is Hagar and God’s relationship. In God’s eyes, she is not a slave but a person of the same worth as Abraham, the man of promise. God is on the side of the afflicted.
Hagar returns to Sarah and I doubt the relationship improved between the two. In the coming years, God’s promise to Abraham for him to have a child with Sarah comes true. And the day comes when it is time to wean Isaac as we find in chapter 21. Abraham and Sarah put on a great party, because once the child is weaned the chances are good that he will survive. Sarah looks out during this party and sees Ishmael doing something with Isaac. We are not sure what he is doing because the word in Hebrew means “to laugh”. It is what Abraham does when God tells him he will have a son with Sarah, and it is what Sarah does when God tells her she will have a son, and so they call their son Isaac which means “laugher.” So Ishmael is “isaacing” with Isaac, whatever that means. It is also what Isaac will do later with his wife. Whatever Ishmael is doing, Sarah will have none of it. Ishmael will not “isacc” with her Isaac; so again she complains to Abraham and she tells him to cast out this “slave” woman ( Gen 21:10). This is the same language that is used in Exodus 12:39 where Pharaoh cast out the Israelites. Again neither Abraham nor Sarah can call her by name; they only know her as “this slave woman.”
This time Abraham does not want to do it (21:11). He seems to not care about Hagar, but cares because Ishmael is his son and now he has blood in the game. While it may be hard for us to understand, God gives Abraham permission to cast out the slave woman because the promise will find its way through Isaac. Abraham and Sarah’s actions didn’t change the promise even if they hurt many people. The promise which God made to Hagar about her son Ishmael becoming a great nation is repeated to Abraham (21:13). So Abraham gave some bread and water to Hagar and sent her and Ishmael away. The same word is used in Exodus when Pharaoh was to let the Israelites go so they could worship the Lord. When Abraham sends Hagar away, she will never be the slave woman of Sarah again. She will find her freedom in the wilderness, like Israel found their freedom from slavery.
She goes into the wilderness and wanders around, just like the Israelites do when Pharaoh casts them out. Like the Israelites, Hagar runs out of water and thinks she will die. She puts her son under a bush and waits for the end, wailing and crying. But for God’s promise to come true, something has to happen (21:17-21). Again the angel of the Lord comes and says he has heard the boy’s cry. God repeats the promise to Hagar of Ishmael becoming a great nation. And then the God who sees opens Hagar’s eyes so she can see the well that is close by.
I have tried to point out how the story works by making connections to the creation stories and also by looking forward to another creation story, the creation story of Israel as a nation. I think this story wants us to see how Hagar in the wilderness becomes like Israel when she is given her freedom. But when we think of the stories about the wilderness, we should also think of Moses. Moses has to flee into the wilderness to save his life and God meets him there. Moses, instead of naming God, asks God what his name is and God reveals his personal name to Moses. Moses, like Hagar, is sent back to Egypt, but then is sent or cast out of Egypt again which this time brings freedom to the Israelites. It is in the wilderness where Israel becomes a nation.
At the end of the story, Hagar finds a wife for Ishmael in Egypt and thus become the head of her family. She is now on the same level as Abraham who later sends his servant to find a wife for Isaac. This story is about a great cultural reversal; Sarah and Abraham become like Egypt, which in the Bible is the place of slavery. The story teller is trying to show us how easy it for us who claim to follow God, to become like those who do not make that claim. Hagar the Egyptian slave girl gains her freedom like Israel, but her status is higher than Israel’s because she names God. Abraham, the chosen one of God, seems to be a weak person in his relationship to Sarah and Hagar.
Does the story teller want us to look at Genesis one and two and consider what it means for both men and women to be made in the image of God, and what it means for the woman to be made as a helper who is man’s equal or greater than the man? Is the story teller using her/his skill to undercut a patriarchal system, one in which women and slaves have no rights? Why do you think the story teller tells the story like this?
How can we live this story out in our lives? Who are the Hagars or slaves in our lives to whom we give no value? They might be our most hated enemies but God gives great value to them because they are made in his image. God is not only working in our lives but in the lives of those who we think of as “the other.” God is the God of the oppressed; but are we for those who are oppressed, or might we be like Abraham and Sarah when they deal with Hagar? Who are we in this story?
What the story teller implies in the way the story is told, Jesus acts out explicitly. We see this best in the meal scenes in Luke. To be invited to a meal meant that you belonged, and the way people sat at a table showed their standing in society. We find Jesus eating with all kinds of people: tax collectors, women, and other sinners. The people Jesus eats with would not have been given a place at the table by other hosts but would have been made to stand outside and look in. At Jesus’ last supper with his 12 disciples, there is a man at the table who will betray him. Jesus gives him the bread and the wine just as he does with the others (Luke 22:14-22) even when he knows what the betrayer will do. This is the opposite of what Abraham and Sarah did. Instead of taking, Jesus gave and it is what we are to do as well.