Hagar/Sarah Sermon 7/10/2022 Delivered by Pastor Betsy Wooster
We began a sermon series last Sunday called Profiles in Faith. Last week we took a close look at the story of Jonah, and this week we are going back in time to remember Hagar and Sarah.
Generations before the years of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham, there was a very big flood. We all know at least something about this story. A flood so monumental that Noah put people and animals, two by two, onto the Ark to live on the water until the waters receded. We all know the outlines of the story of Noah and the Ark. What is easier to miss however, is the result of the long paragraphs of patrilineal genealogy that follows the Noah story. You know, the parts that say “begats” multiple times per sentence:
“Shem begat Arpachshad, who begat Eber, who begat Peleg, who begat Reu, who begat Serug, who begat Nahor, who begat, Terha, who begat Abram. That’s a lot of fathers remembered in this genealogy. The mothers were mostly not named.
The begats take us all the way through the generations to Terah, father of Abram, whom God later names Abraham, and who becomes the founding father of the Hebrew people after a long (how many years?) and winding path to the land of Canaan.
Abraham marries Sarah, and they become the parents of Isaac, who becomes father of Jacob. Jacob, in a wrestling match with God, is renamed Israel, and Jacob’s family becomes the Hebrew people.
As people of the Christian faith, we identify with this family of Jacob. Jesus is a direct descendent of Jacob. That’s our story. Abraham and Sarah and Isaac, and all the sons thereafter, are seen and understood as the prominent forbearers of the nation of Israel. But Isaac is not Abraham’s first-born son. There is another woman involved here besides Sarah, a woman who gives birth to Abraham’s first born: she is Hagar, the Egyptian woman enslaved by Sarah and Abraham.
While the ancient Near East was a patriarchal culture, Sarah and Hagar are strong, matriarchal characters, whose courage and influence on the lives of their sons, is a striking feature of the book of Genesis, where Women generally held little to no power; they were the property of their fathers or husbands alone.
Women’s worth and power in society was dependent upon their ability to bear children, in particular their ability to bear male children.
Even in their old age, a woman’s fate was dependent on her son’s property and wealth, because women did not have the right to own property, and property ownership was the ultimate form of security, not unlike today.
We pick up the story before Isaac is born. Although God has promised Abraham that his descendants will be numerous, Abraham and Sarah have no children after many years together. And so, Sarah decided to give her enslaved servant Hagar to Abraham to bear him a child. Let that sink in: Sarah “gave” this enslaved woman to bear a child. Hagar must have been young to be considered fertile, and she was taken against her will by an older, wealthy, childless couple. Hagar’s body is used in order to produce a child. She is not given a choice.
Oh, how ancient are the errors of our ways. Today, not only are black bodies, like Hagar’s, at much higher risk of abuse and harm, but bodily ability, sexual orientation and gender identity are common ways that our society traps and condemns people for being other. Where is God in their stories?
It is a mistake to think that the scriptures always tell us how things should be. Often, the scriptures describe how things are, in all of their brokenness, and then show us how God is in the midst of the brokenness to redeem and make whole. In many ways Sarah and Abraham were bravely Faithful, but they were human and flawed, just like we are.
Here, our earliest book of scripture names Hagar alongside Sarah and Abraham, remembers her story of hardship and abuse, and affirms God’s care for Hagar and her son Ishmael as people of dignity, even though they are “other” in their culture.
Hagar had been “othered” long before Ishmael was born. In fact, Hagar had been deeply mistreated in order for Ishmael to be born. When Hagar has become pregnant, Sarah deals harshly with her, the scriptures tell us, and Hagar flees into the wilderness. But instead of the narrative staying with Abraham and Sarah and God’s promise to them, both the narrative and God have something else to say:
A reading from Genesis, Chapter 16:
“The angel of the Lord found Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the angel of the Lord said to her,
‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’
So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’”
This is remarkable. God meets Hagar in the wilderness, gives her the promise to multiply her offspring, and not only names her, but names the son who will be born to her, Ishmael. No other woman in the scriptures has been given such a promise. Hagar, an Egyptian woman who was sold into slavery to Abraham and Sara, deepens and enlightens the story.
Hagar, a slave who is other, different, becomes a central character in the founding story of the Hebrew people. In a way it is amazing that the scripture has so much to say about her at all, except that this might be exactly the point.
As Genesis continues, Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and gives birth to Ishmael. Then, miraculously, Sarah conceives in her old age, and gives birth to Isaac. BY the time that Isaac is weaned, Sarah, has become eager to rid herself of both Hagar and Ishmael.
Sarah demands that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael; and God tells Abraham to carry out Sarah’s demand, assuring him that both Isaac and Ishmael will become nations in their own right.
Listen again for how the wrongs that humans do are met by the redemption that God gives. Here is Hagar’s fuller story, From Genesis, Chapter 21:
“8 The child, grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ 11The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. 12
But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. 13As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’
14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.
17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’
19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow.”
The well and the water were a lifeline. Being cast out into the desert was a death sentence. God saves the boy, Ishmael, and in so doing, God saves Hagar. The story of Hagar helps us to ask questions about the Abrahamic story that cannot be asked in the same way without Hagar’s strength in the midst of Abraham and Sarah’s unjust actions against her and of Hagar’s righteousness in the face of them, realities that are under treated in the story’s telling.
The story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar gives us the opportunity to use our imaginations to highlight Hagar’s dignity and her mistreatment at the hands of Abraham and Sarah. Stories from the Bible demand that we use our imaginations. We can imagine what the voiceless would say, if given the chance to speak.
Here we consider how we might hear the story of Hagar and Sarah differently if Hagar had spoken up before her banishment to the wilderness. Imagine the consequences at stake if Hagar had named her mistreatment at the hands of her master and mistress, knowing that she was not only hated by Sarah, but that Ishmael was now a threat to Isaac’s inheritance. Imagine that Hagar had spoken to Sarah, her mistress, who had abused her harshly after conceiving Abraham’s son at Sarah’s own direction. Imagine that Hagar had spoken up about the potential consequences that the house of Abraham would face by securing Isaac’s inheritance through wicked means.
Instead, knowing she had no power to change her situation, and knowing her need to protect Ishmael, Hagar, finds herself banned to the wilderness. And here we don’t have to imagine that she finds her voice, for in the wilderness, Hagar speaks directly to God. And more surprising still, she names God. In other parts of scripture, there are words used to describe God’s qualities, and Moses even ask for God’s name, but Hagar is the only person, in all of scripture, that directly gives God a name. Theologian Phyllis Trible describes it like this: “Hagar does not call upon the name of the deity…Instead, she calls the name, a power attributed to no one else in the Bible. “Hagar calls the name of Yahweh who has spoken to her, ‘You are a God of seeing.’”
The treatment of those considered lesser than, or other, in our culture today, is not different in scope from Hagar’s story. And while Hagar was silent in the hands of Sarah and Abraham, our scripture and our God are not silent in naming the injustice and affirming the dignity of Hagar and her son Ishmael. That’s our story, too.
It is also the call of the Church: to see, to name, and to remember injustice, and to affirm the dignity of every person. Let’s use our imaginations to keep finding ways to open doors for the voiceless to speak and be heard. Imagine the power and change that can come by seeing and naming the injustice, by helping to create the conditions in which their dignity is honored. Imagine a world in which no one is OTHER.
We know that is where God is, and that is where God is leading us.
 Vanessa Lovelace, “’This Woman’s Son Shall Not Inherit with my Son’: Towards a Womanist Politics of Belonging in the Sarah-Hagar Narratives,” The Journal of the Interdenominational Theological Center, 41 (Spring 2015): 70.