Wondering About Hagar

Genesis 21:8-21 – 2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time – for June 22, 2014

“‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’” (Genesis 21:10)

Hagar:IshmaelI mused this week, here and there, on and off, about Hagar. Though pulpit-less, I diligently read the Sunday lectionary “lessons” and so she entered my consciousness after a Tuesday pre-dawn encounter with her in the 21st chapter of Genesis.

Hagar was a slave. Which meant she was worthless, but a price could be put on her body.

Hagar was not Jewish. While I could’ve written the more positive “Hagar was Egyptian,” I suspect Sarah—Hagar’s primary owner—viewed her handmaiden (nicer than slave) in negative terms. Sarah could likely list many Hagar-was-nots.

Hagar was not pretty.
(Or was she too pretty?)
Hagar was not necessary.
(Or was Sarah dependent on her?)
Hagar was not a nice person.
(Or did everyone like her?)
Hagar was not a very good mother.
(Or she seemed the best Mom?)
Hagar was not a believer in the one true God.
(But what had God done for Sarah recently?)
Hagar was not a good influence on Abraham.
(In other words, Abraham did whatever the little b**** asked.)

In truth, I have no idea about Hagar’s physical attributes or whether she would’ve vied for a mother-of-the-year award. But the Bible seemed blunt about one thing: Sarah and Hagar would never be BFFs.

Hagar the slave became the third side of the coin in Abraham and Sarah’s quest for offspring. When Sarah couldn’t conceive (ah, blame the woman!), she tossed her husband Abraham a bone, er, Hagar.

And thus Ishmael entered the Biblical world, Hagar and Abraham’s son and Sarah’s regret. Ishmael, whose name meant, “God hears” (essential later in the story), eventually played second fiddle to the child named “Laughter.” Years after Abraham bedded Hagar (I’m being polite here), the more famous birth occurred. Following unexpected announcements, divine vows and peels of laughter from Sarah, the two geriatric parents of three enduring faith traditions conceived and bore a son named Isaac/Laughter.

“Laughter,” unlike “God hears,” was all-Jewish, altogether a miraculous surprise, and destined to fulfill the promises God would make with Abraham: you will have descendants that outnumber the stars in the sky. Isaac, the first reality star in the soon-to-be vast Hebraic sky, was the reason for more sentences and chapters and stories in Genesis.

Hagar was just a slave.

Ishmael was just the child of a slave.

Both will soon leave our story. Why? Well, let’s blame Sarah, the mother of Isaac and three religions. She was jealous. She viewed Hagar as a rival. She deemed Ishmael a threat, if not to Isaac’s very life, at least to how Abraham might divide his fatherly time and treasure between two sons.

Sarah instructed her husband Abraham to relocate those two (I’m being polite here.) Dump the slave. Banish her child. While God reassured Abraham everything would be fine for Hagar and Ishmael, I wonder if Holy comfort was as persuasive as the spousal demands?

Lickety-split, Abraham gathered bread and water early the next morning. He then handed this sparse nourishment to Hagar and Ishmael. Genesis’ description about their leave-taking was also sparse. There’s no final kiss between the former “lovers.” The patriarch offered no fare-thee-well slap on the back to his teen son. Perhaps Abraham was too numb to speak, too embarrassed to hug the slave he’d given freedom to (at the price of her leaving) or to even shake the hand of his firstborn.

Did the former slave girl and playmate of the father of three religions turn to gaze at Abraham one . . . last . . . time? Would it be a melancholy wave or a bitter, symbolic spit in his direction? And if Hagar glanced back, did she also hear Sarah cackling in the shadows of that early morning?

Now they’re gone.

Let’s get back to the important stuff in Genesis, with the boy “Laughter” soon to add more stars in that promised sky.

And yet, not yet.

Hagar and Ishmael have a few more crucial verses in the earthbound part of Genesis’ mythology.

Abraham’s bread and water will run out. Somewhere in the wilds of Beersheba—where not even a Starbucks had reached—the freed slave girl and her sun-addled son neared death.

They sure weren’t near much else.

The last time Hagar had been driven into the wilderness (surprise, Genesis’ chapter 16 revealed that Sarah had forced the slave girl to leave once before) God lured and led Hagar back to Abraham’s home.

Thank God for God.

But now, death seemed inevitable.

Hagar left Ishmael under one bush while she hunkered far enough away from him so that she wouldn’t witness his death. Feel the heat draining energy from these two. Feel Hagar’s helplessness. Feel Ishmael’s abandonment.

Hear Sarah cackle, if only as an imagined song in the desert’s soundtrack, in the mix of the hot winds and the bush’s dry branches rustling against each other. The mother of three religions—and the mother of “Laughter”—apparently did get the last laugh . . . right? Sarah wins, Hagar loses.

Thank God for God. Ishmael’s name meant “God hears.”

In this peculiar story, the Holy did hear. As Hagar wails and Ishmael whimpers, God eased into the story and sent them safely on their way. Good things apparently will happen to these two. Genesis, a book that can be long-winded, simply bids Hagar and Ishmael goodbye and thank you.

I wonder about Hagar.

Who doesn’t God love? (Honestly repeat that question . . . Who doesn’t God love?)

There is a dumpster full of Biblical examples demonstrating God’s anger and spite and pettiness. Many don’t like the “Old Testament” because the OT God can seem such an OT . . . Old Tyrant. I wouldn’t want to ignore those perplexing examples, but today—now—I focus on Hagar. In her worst moment—starved, parched and with her only child verging on a god-awful death—God offered new life.

Is this a happily-ever-after tale of misfits that made it? Sure. But maybe I wondered all week about Hagar because she’s so unlike me. And yet, God loved her. God heard her and Ishmael’s cry.

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott famously wrote, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

How Sarah hated. How much am I like Sarah?

Why do I so often limit whom I think God should like?


(Image from here.)

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  1. Larry, thanks for even giving Hagar a second thought. We have many ideas we could discuss here, but I think you’re most on the right track when you suggest that God loved Hagar just as much as Sarah and Abraham. I don’t think, though, that you have to buy the traditional cat fight. What if Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham precisely because she DID trust the promise, but being a wealthy woman and, if not 90, a bit old to be starting, expected to use a wet nurse? Hagar would thus need to be impregnated (best by the master) before Sarah conceived. (And do remember that ancient obstetrics basically saw a woman as a flowerpot.) I’ve pursued this idea and a possibly even more radical one about Sarah in my own Kindle booklet, under the series title “Stronger Than Sin or Silence.” Maybe we should trade review copies?

    1. Barbara:

      Thanks for reading. I’ll email you about exchanging review copies.

      I appreciate your perspective and would be curious about others’ reactions. To me, Hagar is one of the many there-and-gone Biblical voices that prompts discussion, interpretation and what-ifs! Even old Paul in Galatians eagerly used her as an example (Gal. 4:21ff). While I don’t “agree” with Paul’s interpretation (drats, disagreeing with a saint), he’s an example of the compelling nature of Hagar. As with others in scripture, what we don’t know about Hagar is made more interesting because of the little we do “know.”

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