Monday, June 25, 2007

Considering Hagar's story, Part 1

I want to name my first daughter Hagar. I won't, of course. Its not socially acceptable to name your child something so "foreign." Only members of Hollywood can get away with odd names like that. But, I wish I could give my daughter Hagar as her namesake because I find her story captivating in a number of ways.

I have been studying the story of Hagar for almost a month now with the ladies in my Sunday School class. Her tale is intertwined with the lives of Abraham and Sarah, which is why, so often, she receives little attention in our typical studies of Genesis. Its hard to compete with the father and mother of the faithful, whose descendents are now as numerous as the stars in the sky. But, Hagar has her own story, one that speaks of God's love for the outsider, his provision for the marginalized, and his generosity as the God of all nations.

Hagar first appears in Genesis 16. If you read the passage closely, you'll notice that Hagar is repeatedly described by the narrator as "the Egyptian" and/or "the slave woman" (some translations use "maid" or "maidservant," but I think we all realize what that really means). With the repetition, the narrator is purposefully emphasizing her foreign-ness, her status as an outsider to the family of Abraham, which hailed from Uz. No doubt, her darker skin and distinct language set her apart from Abraham's nomadic, Aramean family. (In Genesis 16, Abraham and Sarah are still known as Abram and Sarai. For the sake of clarity, I will call them Abraham and Sarah throughout.)

We should note that Hagar enters the scene by no choice of her own. In the first half of Genesis 16, Hagar is an object, a vessel, a baby-making machine to be used by Abraham to produce offspring. Truth be told, it turns out that she's a good one, for seemingly after one encounter, Hagar becomes pregnant with Abraham's child, certainly to the mortification of Sarah, who's barrenness is a humiliating burden to bear.

Often, Sarah is shouldered with weight of "faithlessness" or "disobedience" or "meddling" or any number of negative traits because of her proposal to Abraham in Genesis 16. I would note, however, by this point, the only information either partner has from God is that the child will be from Abraham's own seed. They do not know until the following chapter that Sarah will provide the womb for the child as well. So, when Sarah offers Hagar as a surrogate mother for the child of promise, she is not acting inappropriately for her context (especially since she thinks that the Lord himself has closed her womb [v. 2a]). She is doing what would have been logical at the time, for the use of slaves as surrogate mothers was not uncommon. This is reinforced by the fact that in the ancient mind, women contributed nothing to the development of the baby except the womb. That is, women were the vessels that held and incubated the man's seed. In Sarah's mind, she was trading a bad vessel for a potentially good one. No harm, no foul.

Of course, the reality of what Sarah does to her slave woman is exceedingly foul if we are honest. A foreign woman, in a strange land, serving a wealthy Aramean woman, is taken by that woman and given to her husband for the sole purpose of sex. Hagar has no voice in the matter, of course. No one asks her if she would like to be the womb that bears the child of promise. She is simply "taken" and "given," in the way one would "take" and "give" a garment or a skin of water. In brisk Hebrew style, the narrator informs us that Abraham "came to" or "went into" Hagar and "she became pregnant" (v. 4). What takes up only a few words in Hebrew was surely a frightening night for this Egyptian slave woman in the bed of her mistress' husband.

When Hagar immediately conceives, presumably after only one night with Abraham, her response is to "look down on her mistress." This is the natural result of polygamous practices, no doubt, particularly in an ancient near eastern culture where child-bearing determines your status of blessedness by the gods. Naturally, Sarah is appalled at the disdain of her slave woman and is now powerless to do anything because she is the vessel of Abraham's child. So, she goes directly to her husband and upbraids him for her humiliation.

Ever the strong, dominant patriarch (said with sarcasm), Abraham tells Sarah, in effect, "Hagar is your problem. Do whatever you want." (Do I have to note how sad it is that Abraham would turn over the woman bearing his child to his angry, vengeful first wife?) Given freedom to do what she wishes, Sarah so humiliates and mistreats Hagar that she runs away. We should note that the Hebrew word translated "mistreat" (v. 6b) is the same word translated "rape" elsewhere. I am not suggesting Sarah raped Hagar, but that the kind of humiliation she imposed upon Hagar was such that the narrator chose the same word to describe both experiences.

By this time, you are probably wondering, why on earth would you find this story captivating? Hagar's life is exceedingly sad and pitiful, even by the most optimistic reading of Genesis 16. I affirm this, but find my reason to love Hagar's tale in v. 7: "The Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur." Don't miss the wonder of this statement. The way the narrator words this verse is significant. The Lord "found her," which implies that he was looking for her. That is to say, while no one else was looking for her, while Sarah was glad to be rid of her and Abraham uncaringly ignorant of her plight, the Lord was looking for Hagar. And, he finds her, presumably while she refreshes herself with water from a spring on the way to Shur. It seems that Hagar was on her way back to Egypt, seeking to return home, empty-handed, pregnant, and alone.

The Lord speaks to Hagar in full knowledge of her situation, calling her "Hagar, slave of Sarai" and inquiring where it is she is going. Hagar, seemingly unperturbed by the fact that God is speaking to her, replies that she is running from her mistress. The Lord's answer to Hagar is that she must return to Sarah and submit to her hand.

Now, I must pause and recognize that the Lord's response to Hagar has been much abused as a source of support for some awful pastoral instruction. I have heard of a number of women told by their pastors to return to their abusive spouses because of God's instruction to Hagar in 16:9. Unfortunately such pastoral counselors participate in sloppy hermeneutics (not to mention horrific pastoral care), for there are a vast number of differences between the situation in Genesis 16 and the situation of abused women today. For the sake of space, though, I will refrain from making the case for these distinctions and simply state that Genesis 16 doesn't apply to the situation of abused women today.

I prefer to think that God sending Hagar back to Sarah had more to do with Hagar's survival and the survival of her child. A pregnant woman traveling to Egypt alone probably didn't have much chance of success, facing possible starvation, injury, or even further enslavement. So, in effect, God compels Hagar to "choose life." Although she would suffer under Sarah's wrath, by returning to her mistress, Hagar was ensuring a future for herself and her child.

The rest of God's interactions with Hagar present two delightful surprises. First, God promises Hagar that he will "greatly multiply" her "seed," so much so that "they will be too many to count" (v. 10). This sounds vaguely familiar doesn't it? Hagar is given a promise of innumerable offspring in a manner parallel, though not identical, to that of Abraham. Hagar, the Egyptian slave woman, will have offspring too numerous to count. (Do we have to note how odd it is that Hagar, a woman, is said to have "seed"?) Moreover, her son will be a tremendously strong and stubborn man, who will distinguish himself from his surrounding brothers with fierce independence. (We should note that the word often translated "wild ass" in v. 12, can also mean "wild stallion." Perhaps our preference for seeing the descendents of Ishmael as "wild asses" has informed our translation of this flexible Hebrew word.) Hagar's son is to be named Ishmael, a beautiful testimony of God's favor upon her, for it means "God hears."

The second surprise comes in v. 13, where Hagar literally "names" God. She is the only person in the entire Hebrew scripture who names God. She calls the Lord, "The God Who Sees." Does the innocence of this act touch you in the way it does me? Yahweh, the God who covenanted with Abraham, condescends to allow himself to be named by this Egyptian slave woman, whose knowledge of him is exceedingly limited. Indeed, all she knew of this God is that he is a God who sees and hears her. What an incredible revelation of God's generosity and love, that this marginalized and abused woman finds favor with the Lord of the Universe and is able to name him in childlike faith. Its as if Hagar is saying, "I know nothing else of this God except that he has seen me. When no one else saw me, this God saw me."

Now, strengthened with the promise of innumerable offspring and having encountered the God who sees her, Hagar returns to Sarah and gives birth to Abraham's son. Interestingly, v. 15 says that Abraham gave the name Ishmael to the baby, presumably at the insistence of Hagar who told her story upon returning to Abraham's tent. Hagar's son and Abraham's first son, forever represents in his name the truth that God is a God who hears the cries of the afflicted and marginalized. Hagar met the God who sees her at a spring in the wilderness and the world was radically changed because of it.

(Part 2 of Remembering Hagar coming soon...)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello, and thank you for sharing your thoughts on the story of Hagar and Ishmael. I have loved this story for years, particularly because God showed mercy on a mother when she was anquished and distraught about her only son, who looked as if he would perish in front of her. After my first child, a son, was diagnosed with severe autism and spent most of his early years in great distress, confused, regressing, crying, shouting and definitely lost in the wilderness, I found comfort in this story and God's provision of the life-saving well, and that God saw Hagar and knew where she was, and didn't forsake her. My son is now ten and although each day is still challenging, we survived being thrust out into the wilderness of a daunting and at times emotionally draining disorder. And God provided for my son in many ways, and enables me to work for an outstanding Christian publishing company, which provides for our needs and offers health benefits.