By Pastor Monica McDougal
Scripture Passage: Genesis 16:1-13
My senior year of high school, I was an office aide. Now, when you work in a high school office, you basically have a front row seat to all of the drama. Every fight, every disciplinary action, every kid caught cutting class gets paraded past you. And there was this one kid at my school who was sort of a frequent flyer. For privacy’s sake, let’s call him Matt. Matt was always getting into trouble. He got into fights regularly, would mouth off at teachers, and just had a bad attitude generally. My whole school, myself included, just kind of wrote Matt off as just an angry, bitter, troublemaker. We never really stopped to ask why. Why was Matt so angry and bitter? What was going on beneath the surface?
One morning during my office aide hour, we had a pretty slow day. Not much was going on which meant we could work on our homework. I noticed I was missing my math binder, so I called home and asked my mom to drop it off on her way to work. About 15 minutes later, I saw my mom’s car pull up in front of the school and told the secretary I was going to run out and grab my binder. As I walked up to my mom’s car, I noticed Matt walking up towards the building alongside another person. They were talking to one another, but I couldn’t hear what was being said. I remember rolling my eyes, unsurprised that Matt was 20+ minutes late to school. My mom and I started chatting a bit and then all of a sudden, we heard yelling. We turned and saw Matt standing with his head hanging low being screamed at by, who we now could see was, his father in front of the school building. The dad was stuttering his words and stumbling around. He was saying horrendous things to his son, things I could not imagine hearing from anyone let alone my own father. I looked at my mom and asked what was happening. She said, “I’m pretty sure Matt’s dad is drunk right now.” She started to take her seat belt off like she was going to get out of the car and intervene, but before she could, our Assistant Principal came out of the building. He had been heading out to grab something from his truck when he heard the commotion. He walked up, told the dad to go home and sleep it off before ushering Matt inside and to his office. Suddenly, Matt’s behavior at school made a lot more sense to me.
I hate to admit it, but I had never spoken to Matt before that day. I can’t blame that on anything but myself. I went to a small school. I knew everyone and their families. I had classes with Matt and his siblings. I never spoke to him because I didn’t want to. I had made an assumption based on his behavior and didn’t think any harder than that. I had failed to truly see him. I had failed to acknowledge his full humanity. But that morning, being a witness to something that few people outside of their home knew about, forced me to see Matt differently. It forced me to see Matt at all.
From tax collectors to lepers, our Bible is full of stories of people who God sees when no one else does. One of the most, in my opinion, inspiring examples of these kinds of stories is the story of Hagar that we just heard. Now, if I had to guess, most of you had not heard about Hagar before today, or at least you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the story. I didn’t know about Hagar’s story until my first year of seminary three years ago. It’s not surprising that we all aren’t super familiar with her story. I mean, it’s not one of those go-to Vacation Bible School stories, is it? Hagar’s story is deeply sad. At its core, this is a story about a woman who experiences domestic and sexual abuse. It is the story of a slave who is forced by her master to have a child with a man who doesn’t care about her and then when she doesn’t pretend to be super excited about it, her master abuses her to the point that she runs away into the desert, preferring to take her chances out in the elements than to spend even one more minute back at the tents. That’s stuff we expect to see on an episode of The Handmaid’s Tale and there it is right in the pages of our Bible. So, like most of the other violent and uncomfortable stories in scripture, we avoid it. But, when you go to seminary, you can’t avoid any part of the Bible. All of it must be confronted, studied, and interpreted. So, during the second week of my Introduction to the Hebrew Bible class with Dr. Cheryl Anderson, I was introduced to Hagar.
Hagar is an Egyptian woman who is sold into slavery and purchased by Abram and Sarai, who would later be known as Abraham and Sarah. She was bought to be a servant for Sarai, specifically. Other than that, we don’t know anything about Hagar’s background. We don’t know how she ended up in slavery, what family she came from, or how old she is. We don’t even know her real name! The name Hagar in Hebrew means “The Foreigner” or “The Sojourner.” Possibly, Hagar was stripped of her given name when she was sold into slavery and/or purchased by Abram and Sarai as a means to strip her of her identity and was then given a label more so than a new name. Perhaps, those who finally compiled the stories passed down through oral tradition into the Old Testament that we know of today, didn’t know her name and had to make one up. Regardless, we don’t know much about the woman we call Hagar. We can make some educated guesses. For instance, in this nomadic tribe she was enslaved in, she likely was not the only slave so perhaps she found community with the others. However, she could be the only slave with this tribe who speaks her language. We know that as a slave to Sarai, she probably primarily did cleaning, cooking, sewing, and other domestic chores. We know she likely had little to no agency or power. Which is why when Sarai tells her husband to have sex with Hagar, we can safely assume that Hagar had no say in that arrangement.
Sarai and Hagar’s relationship in this story is painful. Sarai desperately wants a child. God has promised her children, but she has yet to conceive. She starts to lose trust in God’s promise and decides to take matters into her own hands. Sarai instructs her husband to sleep with Hagar in hopes that the child they conceive will help fulfill Abram’s destiny to have many sons. Again, Hagar had no say in this or any part of her life up until that point. However, after she conceives, Hagar (probably knowing her status as a second wife granted her a bit more power) begins acting out. The text says that Hagar “despised” her mistress. The exact Hebrew wording here is a verb “qalal,” which translates in this context to mean Hagar “curses” Sarai or “finds her worthless.” Essentially, Hagar has lost respect for her mistress. Hagar is furious at Sarai for putting her in this situation and also knows that as the only woman in the tribe carrying Abram’s child, she now technically has higher status than Sarai. Sarai has unintentionally given Hagar a bit of power and agency and Hagar’s taking it. But this infuriates Sarai.
Sarai becomes jealous of Hagar. Now, I don’t know about you but when I read this story, I found myself thinking, “Well, what did Sarai expect?” How would Sarai feel if another woman enslaved her and then forced her to bear a child with a man who doesn’t care about her? Wouldn’t she curse that woman too? Regardless, Sarai, with Abram’s permission, begins to, as the text puts it, “mistreat” Hagar. The Hebrew word here tells us that Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar was likely in the form of physical abuse. Then, as Hebrew Biblical Scholar Dr. Wil Gafney writes of Hagar’s response to this abuse, quote, “Hagar liberates herself.” Hagar flees into the desert towards her homeland of Egypt. I imagine she takes off running, letting the adrenaline and fear carry her until she collapses at the base of a spring. Hagar sits at this spring, out in the middle-of-nowhere, in the barren desert. Was it nighttime? Was she alone in the pitch black nothingness? Or was it midday? Was she alone under the scorching sun? The text doesn’t tell us, but it does tell us that this enslaved and abused pregnant woman is completely alone.
On our altar today are picture frames. In each frame is a picture of a person or group of people who I believe we often fail to truly see. We have the elderly who are homebound or living in nursing homes. We have older foster children who have spent thousands of days in the system. We have migrant workers who pick our produce, oftentimes for little or no pay. We have refugee women and children living in camps hundreds of miles away from home. We have thousands of missing and murdered indigenous women whose cases remain unsolved. We have our frontline, essential workers who have not had a moment's rest in this entire pandemic. But it’s not just these specific groups who go unseen. I tend to think feeling unseen, feeling invisible or unappreciated, is a near universal experience. Each of us has probably felt that way numerous times. Maybe you’ve sat alone in a hospital waiting room as a loved one goes through surgery. Maybe you are lost in a new city and can’t get anyone to stop and give your directions. Maybe you’ve gone through a personal struggle that you haven’t been able to share out loud with another person. Whatever it is, we’ve all found ourselves out in our own version of Hagar’s desert.
As Hagar sits alone by the desert Spring, an angel of the Lord speaks to her. And this is where Hagar’s story takes yet another troubling turn because the angel tells her, quote, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” Yikes. God telling someone who has fled abuse to return? That’s troubling and it’s the perfect example as to why understanding scripture within the context it was written is essential. Because plucking this verse out of its context and using it to instruct victims of violence and abuse to return to dangerous and deadly situations is absolutely not okay. You see, when we understand the historical context around the time the Bible was edited and compiled, the inclusion of this message from God makes more sense. Almost all of the Old Testament was written down or received its final edits during or immediately following the Exile into Babylon. Before then, this story of Hagar (set over 1000 years before the exile) would likely have existed only as oral tradition, a story spread down through the generations by word-of-mouth. During and after the exile, documenting these stories and traditions so they wouldn’t be lost was a high priority. So, much of the Old Testament is best understood in the context of the exile because that was when it was last edited. Why, then, would the exiled Judeans include a message from God ordering an enslaved and abused person to return to their mistress and submit? Well, because they themselves were abused persons and during the exile, they couldn’t see an end to their abuse in sight. They resonated with Hagar’s plight because Hagar couldn’t escape her abuse anymore than they could, but God promises Hagar that if she returns she will be blessed with a long line of descendants just like Abraham. Sidenote: that long line of descendants produced from Hagar’s son Ishmael is held in the tradition of Islam as being the creation of the Arab people. It is through Ishmael and Hagar that Muslims claim lineage to Abraham and is why they are considered along with Judaism and Christianity to be an Abrahamic faith.
But this promise from God to Hagar that she would be rewarded for her perseverance of faith would hold tremendous significance in the eyes of the exiled Judeans over a thousand years later. It would be as if God was saying, “Just as Hagar survived her abuse and was rewarded tenfold, so will you. Hold onto faith. You will get through this.” Hagar’s story is in dialogue with the stories of the exiled persons. It shows us that the Bible is a living, breathing document which takes on new relevance in new times and places. So, what is the message in Hagar’s story for us today? Well, I think we begin to answer that story by looking at the significance of Hagar’s interaction with God in this passage. Hagar is the first person in the entire Bible to name God. Now, anyone could have been the first to name God in scripture. It could have been Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Moses, or Joshua, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t one of the high-profile, Biblical heroes that we know and love. That honor went instead to an enslaved and abused soon-to-be single-mother. Hagar could have chosen any name for God. She could have called God, “Great Warrior,” “God of Ultimate Power,” “God of Vengeance and Retribution,” but what she chose tells us so much about what image of God most comforted our Biblical ancestors. Hagar says, “You are ‘El-Roi,’ You are the God who sees me!” It was not knowing of God’s strength and power. No, it was that God sees us. Truly sees us. That God calls us by name while we hide alone in the desert or when we’re exiled in a foreign land. God sees each and every one of you. God sees your trials and tribulations. God sees your fears and anxieties. God sees your hopes and your dreams. You don’t hold any of it alone.
Furthermore, Hagar’s story is a call to action. If we are made in God’s own image and God is a God who sees, then it holds that God is calling us to see too. It’s easy to get so caught up in our own lives, fears, worries, etc. that we forget that every other person on this planet is a person with a life, fears, and worries of their own. My schoolmate, Matt, that I mentioned earlier, I failed to see him before that day. I looked at him and assumed he was acting out for attention or just because. I didn’t slow down to wonder about him, to ask him if he was okay. It shouldn’t have to take watching someone get screamed at by their drunk parent in front of your school to care about them, to see them as more than just your own assumptions. We must resist the temptation to mistreat, abuse, and chase out our human siblings or to turn ourselves away from their suffering. We must be willing to open our eyes and see one another.
This is hard for us in the United States. We are a very individualistic society. We tend to forget that our humanity is bound up in one another, but this is not the case around the world. The Zulu people of South Africa, for instance, have a way of greeting one another that I think I find meaningful. One person will approach and say, “Sawa bona,” meaning “I see you.” In response, the other person will say, “Sikhona,” meaning, “I am here.” The two greetings said together communicate the belief that in seeing someone, you help bring them into existence. This is a powerful and beautiful witness to the humanity of the other. As I close my message today, I would like for us to engage in this greeting.
"I see you."
"I am here."
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