Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Hagar: The Handmaid's Tale

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Genesis 21:8-20:

The story of Hagar and Ishmael is one of those troubling stories we find in the Bible, and yet one with which we don’t often deal.  In fact, I would be willing to guess that many of you had never even heard this story before, and have certainly never heard this passage talked about in church.  Even the reference materials I have been using, both Jewish and Christian, don’t cover this story, but I think we ignore it at our own peril.  As troubling as it is, and make us question Abraham, the father of the faith, and wonder why he ever went along with what he did, it is included as part of the story of faith for a reason for what it teaches us about God.
Hagar Offering Water to Her Son Ishmael in the Desert
by Charles Lock Eastlake

But before we get into that, we need to go backwards to remind ourselves of what has already happened to get us to this point, or to learn the story if we don’t know it already.  Abraham, although he is still named Abram, as it will be changed later, is called by God and told to leave his ancestral lands, and to go to the land God will show him, and he is told that God will make of him a great nation, and that his offspring will be more numerous than the stars, and so Abraham and his wife Sarah, get up and leave and go to the land of Canaan.  And then lots of things happen, but Sarah and Abraham remain childless, the promise not fulfilled, and so Sarah decides to take things into her own hands, or someone else’s really, and offers Abraham her slave girl to impregnate, so that Sarah can claim that child as her own.  You can find this in the 16th chapter of Genesis.

Now you may have heard Hagar referred to as Sarah’s handmaid, which is how some versions translate it, but the New Revised Standard Version translates correctly that Hagar is a slave, an Egyptian slave, and I think that is important to point out and to remember because that means that Hagar has no say in what is going to happen to her, her life is controlled by her owners, Sarah and Abraham, and there is something else striking in both this story and the passage we just heard, and that is that Sarah and Abraham never refer to Hagar by her name.  We only know her name because the narrator and later God use her name.  Sarah and Abraham only refer to her as the slave girl.  And so Abraham takes Hagar, and to put it bluntly, he rapes her.  That’s certainly not how we think of it, and if you can think of another word to call it I’m open to hearing it, but let’s be honest, Hagar has absolutely no say in what takes place, even if Hagar were to say no, it’s still going to happen.  Although this would have been acceptable practice in the ancient world, it does not change the reality of the situation.


And so Abraham takes Hagar, and she becomes pregnant, and once Hagar is pregnant, she now realizes her special place in the household because she will bear the potential heir, the promised child, and so we are told that she looked with contempt about Sarah, which doesn’t make Sarah very happy, and so she demands Abraham to do something about it. But Abraham simply says, “Your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”  And so Sarah abuses Hagar; she has the authority and the power to do it and so she does.  The translation says Sarah treats her harshly, which is the same word that is used to describe how the Pharaoh treats the Israelites when they are enslaved in Egypt, and like the Israelites later, Hagar flees into the wilderness.  In fact she flees into the same wilderness that the Israelites will flee into, and there she encounters an angel of the Lord, the first person in scripture to receive such a message.  The angel tells Hagar to go back, and that she will bear a son, and she is to name him Ishmael, which means, God hears, and then she is given a promise, that her offspring will also be numerous.

Hagar is the only woman to receive a blessing from God in terms of descendants. Carol Newsom, a United Methodist Old Testament scholar, has pointed out that Hagar at first is put into the same place as Sarah, but then God puts her into the same place as Abraham.  And then Hagar does one more striking thing. Hagar names God.  Hagar is not just the only woman in the Old Testament to give God a name; she is in fact the only person in the Bible to do this.  She calls God El-roi, which means something like God sees, or more likely God sees me.    Hagar names God, and in contrast to everyone else in the story God calls Hagar by her name.  There is something about a name, and in these stories there is also something about what names mean.

Then at an advanced age, Sarah finally gives birth to her own child, and he is named Isaac, which means “he laughs,” which takes us to the beginning of today’s passage were we find them the weaning of Isaac, which would have been a huge celebration, because it meant he had survived his first year.  But in the midst of this celebration, Sarah sees Ishmael doing something.  The NRSV says, playing, and the NIV says, mocking.  The word is probably correctly translated simply as laughing, as the Hebrew word is a derivative of Isaac’s name, but it could be that Ishmael was laughing with Isaac, thus playing, or it could be that Ishmael was laughing at Isaac, and thus mocking him, but regardless of what happens, Ishmael’s laughing reminds Sarah that now that her son has survived one threat, she needs to get him past this second threat.  Although all sons would inherit, as the first born Ishmael will always hold a special place in Abraham’s house, just as Sarah does as the 1st wife and so Sarah wants to supplant Ishmael’s place and elevate Isaac instead.  Sarah demands that Abraham, in her words, “cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”  She again never uses their names.  To name them gives them identity, and identity gives them place, and having place gives them power, which is why Sarah is so afraid of them, as they represent a threat to her power, and so she uses and abuses her power in relation to both of them.

We are told that Abraham is distressed by this request, but only on account of his son, which God certainly is aware of because God says to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy AND because of your slave woman.”  God reminds Abraham that it is not just Ishmael who is involved, but Hagar as well, and God puts the ownership of Hagar into Abraham’s hands, although God never uses their names when talking to Abraham, which I find striking but I don’t know fully what to make of it because it appears that God is siding with the oppressors at this point, including using their language, although that will change in a few verses.  But surprisingly, God tells Abraham to do what Sarah tells him to do.

Since we live in a desert, we can begin to understand what this expulsion means for Hagar and Ishmael and for their chances of survival, which is not great.  And when they run out of water, which probably happens only a day or two into their journey, Hagar doesn’t just fear for their lives, she thinks they are both going to die.  There are two key elements to what happens next.  The first is that while it is Hagar lifts up her voice to God and God only talks to Hagar, we are told that it is Ishmael’s cry that God hears.  There are several possible reasons for this.  The first is to remember that Ishmael’s name means God hears, so of course God hears his cry.  A second reason is that the story is more concerned with telling the origin of family lines, and those lines rest with Isaac and Ishmael.  A feminist interpretation would emphasize the fact that the woman is ignored while the man’s complaint is heard.  While I don’t want to discount this reading all together, what must be noted is that the only people to refer to Hagar by her name are the narrator and God, which is the second key element.

In each of the conversations Hagar has with God, she is called by her name.  She is not an insignificant person in God’s eyes.  It is in the eyes of Abraham and Sarah that she is nameless, merely a slave, someone who can be cast aside whenever they desire.  It is the power dynamics of that situation that relieve Hagar of her humanity and her dignity, not the writer of this story nor God.  Hagar is a person in God’s eyes. Hagar represents all those on the extremes of society, those who exist outside of the dominant power structure, those who challenge that structure or force them to recognize injustices, and most especially those who are forced out through powers they cannot control. Someone who was in the youth group at the first church I was appointed to has recently come out as gay, which isn’t really surprising, and he is wondering where he fits into the church, where some no longer see him as Tyler, where some will cast him aside, and tell him that that he is no longer welcome or wanted by them or by God.  He feels cast out into the wilderness and he is crying out to God.  Any time in which we look at someone and don’t see them, but instead see a stereotype, or when we say “those people,” or refer to someone not by name but by some characteristic, depersonalizing them so that we, or society, can abuse them or cast them out, then we are acting as Sarah and Abraham act, not as God acts.

I may have already told this story before, but Kathleen is a college professor in California who ended up in an abusive marriage after college.  After literally being beaten black and blue for a number of years, her friends got her and her young son out to a safe environment.  But, in her church, she felt shamed and looked down upon for leaving her marriage.  People told her that she took vows in which she pledged to live with her husband for better and worse, and her son needed a father, so how could she leave?  When she needed her church the most, she was turned away and cast out into the wilderness.  She ended up at an inner-city church where she worshipped with the homeless, drug addicts, prostitutes and others living on the fringes of society.  It is there that she found forgiveness, and belonging, and community.  For her, Hagar, is not insignificant.  For her Hagar is not a nobody.  For her Hagar is a reminder that God hears our cries and answers them, even when we have been rejected by those who consider themselves God’s chosen.  For her Hagar’s story is a story of hope, it is a story of redemption and it is a story that tells her she will never be abandoned by God.

On its face this is a terrible story in which we search for answers about why this is allowed to happen, and we wonder how such a story could be included in the scriptures.  But as we look more closely we see a story with a much deeper meaning, a story which gives voice and identity to the outcast, a story in which God continues to fulfill promises in those who are outcast.  It is a story in which God continues to work in the midst of complex situations and imperfect human actions, a story in which God continues to fulfill promises in those who are outcast and powerless.  And maybe today that is best represented by the celebration of the sacrament of communion when we will come together as one people, and when all are invited to the table.  Sometimes it’s important to remember and notice all who are at the table, but it’s also important to notice who is not at the table.  Who is not represented here that is part of the community?  Who are the outcast, those who are wandering in the wilderness, those who are crying out to God, or maybe just crying out to be heard, and given a place at the table, any table, that we need to reach out to, to call them by name and offer them the blessings of God.

The writer of today’s passage shows a genuine affection and concern for  Hagar and Ishmael, and that is one of the reasons it has come down to us.  It is here to help  remind us of the dangers of nationalism or an exclusive theology.  It reminds us that God’s blessing is not dependent upon whom we approve of.  God’s grace does not depend on whom we would like to include or exclude.  God’s love is not dependent on whether we like people or welcome them into our community.  The story of Hagar and Ishmael reminds us that God hears the cries of the outcasts, and that God’s story includes people that are not found in the pages of scripture, that God’s blessings fall on all of creation, even the lost and excluded, the outcast and the unwanted, and perhaps they even fall on people like us.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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