Abraham and Sarah's Treatment of Hagar (Genesis 16)

Our Cultural Moment

This is not an easy chapter. It is a story that we would rather skip or forget altogether. The heroes (Abraham and Sarah) are callous in their treatment of Hagar, their Egyptian slave. No perfect feet walk the path of faith, as the saying goes, and the husband and wife are not exempt.

In our cultural moment where the headlines show us the span of abuse that has, is, and continues to exist, this story grows all the more important. It tells us that this has always been the case - those with power, privilege, or position often abuse or refuse to see the humanity of others. We need this story, otherwise the unnoticed dragon within will grow and consume us and others.

In Genesis 12 God gives Abraham and Sarah a command and a promise - leave everything you've ever known and I'll give you a land that I will show you. So they leave. This takes courage, strength, and will. The end of that chapter ends with Abraham and Sarah going to Egypt because there is a famine. They do something very stupid and end up being asked to leave Egypt. They apparently come out with Hagar, a slave.

We are not told how they "get" Hagar, only that they got her. The way Hagar became a slave is not known, but we may presume she was either born to parents who were slaves, was enslaved by Egyptians, or through calamity and poverty became a slave. To do so and to be so meant she gave up any control of her life and person. Sadly this type of existence still casts a shadow on this earth.

The Callousness of Sarah and Abraham

Abraham and Sarah are assured of God's promise: I will give you a land and an heir. They are reassured of this more than once, yet in Genesis 16 the damn breaks for Sarah and she petitions Abraham to sleep with Hagar, hoping that in doing so Hagar will bear a son. Consider Hagar's plight - not only does she not consent, she is unable to do so. And even more distressing, not even her child belongs to her. As Katey Zeh states, she is treated like a baby machine.

Hagar conceives but this does not satisfy Sarah, for she is upset that Hagar, who has been treated as a souless object, is resentful and casts glances at Sarah. This false equivalence of sexual power over and staring daggers is almost absurd. Sarah complains to Abraham and says, "Do with her [Hagar] what you will." No harsher words could have been said, for Sarah unleashes on Hagar all her anger at God. Sarah is ashamed and is faced with the fact - an Egyptian (someone culturally inferior) slave (someone socially and economically inferior) has something that I can't attain.

I wonder if resentment and anger like this is what fuels racism and nationalism (both of which are sins of idolatry and ideology). Hurt pride, disdain, and disgust of someone you consider inferior.

Hagar is pregnant, sluggish, and craving. She leaves and walks south. How desperate must she be to walk back to Egypt, the one place that didn't want her? Sometimes the unknown is better than the known.

The Tenderness of God

Whereas Sarah only thinks about herself, Hagar is thinking of her and her baby. What will happen if I give birth to a girl? If they treat me thus, how will my daughter be treated? And who is to say if I have a son that he will be welcomed?

She goes and drinks water and the Angel of the Lord comes and mentions her by name (Abraham and Sarah never call her by name), "Hagar, servant of Sarai . . ." God knows. God hears the lamenting.

Then the unlikely and unbearable (?) is spoken, "Go back to Sarah. You have conceived a son, but when he grows up he will be a wild ass of a man." This is persuasive to Hagar, but why?

A wild ass is like a mustang. Hagar's son will be free. No one will be able to tame him. He will not dwell in captivity like his mother. It must be that Hagar's prayer was this, "I just want my kids to avoid experiencing what I experienced." God knows, God sees, and God hears, and God answers, "Hagar, God will let your son experience only what you can lament and long for, but he will play an important role in God's plan." She goes back.

She experienes the callousness of people, but the tenderness of God.

The Question the Text (and life) Requires Us to Answer

This world is unfair in many ways and I wonder if you could find it in yourself to look out for Hagar or her children. To see how the deck was tilted against them and then come alongside and prayer for and serve, to befriend those who are weeping by the streams of water hoping in the unknown.

Slavery and sexual exploitation exists in this world of wifi, incredible culinary delights, wireless recharging, binge watching Netflix shows, and flights to other planets.

The question the Scriptures raise in Genesis 16 and the question facing us in the midst of cultural chaos and tempted unraveling is this: Who will you side with and speak for?

Time and again the Scriptures state that God takes side with the exploited, harassed, and marginalized. The prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah and so many others tell us this. JESUS tells us and shows us this.

He touches the lepers, which would be like someone living with and also caring for someone with HIV/AIDS in 1983. He reaches out to the Samaritan woman, which means he swims the Rio Grande or lives in a resettlement camp in some dusty valley on the other side of the planet.

Jesus and Hagar are, in many ways, sister and brother. They both came to familes who were not powerful or affluent. They both were marginalized. They both experienced the callousness of others. They both listened to and submitted to the will of God for the benefit of the world.

Walk the road with Hagar and commune there with Christ.

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