Genesis: Folklore of Faith, Lesson 18

Adult Bible ClassGen. 16 – Hagar, 2-12-06

Introduction  Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. There were tears and smiles in the Atwood home Tuesday night. Why my wife chose of her own free will to be a Duke fan, I’ll never understand. She loves me too much to gloat when Duke beats Carolina, but I know that she does so silently, even in her sleep.

 The Hagar and Sarah Cycle:

This week we are turning our attention to two women, Sarah and Hagar. We have discovered in our journey so far through Genesis that this is a book that is full of surprises. That is certainly the case with the stories about Sarah and Hagar. We know that Genesis was written for the descendents of Sarah and her son Isaac. The OT is the story of Israel, not Ishmael or Esau. We know that; therefore it is surprising that the story of Hagar was even included in the Bible.

We would expect that Hagar’s story would be lost in the sands of time like the stories of most women through the ages. Who is this slave that we should be mindful of her? Everything we know about people, tribes, and nations tells us that Hagar should not even be named in the Bible or remembered by the Israelites. Certainly there should have been no tale recorded in which Sarah the matriarch or Abraham the patriarch look bad, while an Egyptian slave is blessed by the LORD. But here is this story in all its surprising and at times troubling detail.

 Read Gen. 16 Surrogate Motherhood in Ancient Times:

This story strikes modern readers as very odd, but if we think about it, we can see that Sarai proposed a form of surrogate motherhood. She knew that she was past menopause and could not conceive. She also wanted to have a child. Many commentators assume that she knew about the covenant between the LORD and Abram, and wanted to help fulfill that promise. She does lay the blame for her barrenness directly at the feet of the LORD, though, and she says, basically, “we need to help the LORD do what he intends.”

So, Sarai takes the only option that appears open to her at the time. She offers her slave, Hagar to Abram with the understanding that any children born will be considered Sarai’s children. There is evidence that this was an accepted practice in the ancient Near East, and we still do this today. Now it involves complex medical procedures and reams of legal documents, but the end result is the same. The husband conceives a child that is born by another women, but his wife calls the child own. This is just what Sarai attempted.

 Moral Questions:

Now, Abram and Hagar had to do things the old fashioned way without the benefit of a laboratory, and this is what bothers us today. For us, the moral issue in this story is adultery or infidelity, but that wasn’t the issue in Genesis. Polygamy was an accepted practice in ancient days. In fact, it was a sign of wealth to have more than one wife. It would have been perfectly understandable had Abram married another woman when it was evident that Sarai was barren. Today we view polygamy as immoral, and most missionaries have forced converts to abandon their ‘extra’ wives.

We also have to come to grips with the fact that it was also an accepted practice for a slave owner to take advantage of female slaves. This is another part of the story that should offend us today. The patriarchs had slaves and treated them as slaves. This is one reason it is dangerous to preach too much on biblical family values, the way some talk radio celebrities do. I’m not sure that we want to recreate the family values in Genesis. It is worth noting, though, that apparently Abram had not asserted his so-called ‘rights’ over the female slaves. We have an image of Abram being unusually devoted to Sarai despite her barrenness, but we must not overlook the fact of bondage and enslavement in this story. Sarai and Abram did not even speak the name of the slave who was handed over to be the surrogate mother.

This story hinges on the fact that it was Sarai who took the initiative to move the covenant forward. She offered her slave Hagar to Abram as a wife not as a mistress or concubine. Those who wish to protect Abraham from the charge of polygamy miss the fact that Hagar was a wife, and those who wish to protect Abraham from the charge of adultery emphasize that she was a wife rather than a mistress. I’m not sure it matters. Either way, it is clear that Abraham had two women, which is not accepted practice today. What is unusual in this arrangement at the time is that Hagar remained bound to Sarai as well as to her husband. She was Sarai’s slave and Abram’s wife.

 The Egyptian:

We are told that Hagar was an Egyptian. Since she was African, this story was used by Americans and Europeans to justify the enslavement of other Africans in modern times. The Bible, we know, can be twisted for many purposes. But why tell us she was Egyptian? It may be that this was originally a bit of a joke. Everyone knew that the descendents of Abraham had been enslaved in Egypt, but here it is the patriarch who had an Egyptian slave. It is more likely, though, the story-teller was merely pointing out that Hagar was one of the slaves that Pharoah had given to Abram and Sarai back in chap. 12.

Since the Bible says so little about Hagar and Sarai, Jewish and Muslim commentators added to the story over the centuries. There are stories that Sarai herself chose Hagar as her servants from among all the beautiful slaves of the Pharaoh. Hagar was not only young and beautiful, she was intelligent and pious. According to these later accounts, Hagar worshiped the one God and lived a moral life, which impressed Sarai. When Sarai chose a wife for Abram, then, it was naturally that she would choose Hagar, who faithful companion.

After Islam swept into Egypt in the 7th century, the story of Hagar became an important way to include the Egyptians into the story of the prophets. She was seen as the forerunner of Egyptian Muslims who were worshiped the one God and were submissive to the will of God. Hagar was a Muslim because she submitted. Most importantly for Muslims, Hagar is the matriarch of the Arab peoples, the descendents of Ishmael.

 Two Wives for Father Abraham:

To return to our text for today, Abram agrees to Sarai’s plan. We can assume that he did so reluctantly and took no pleasure in the arrangement, but a good man is obedient to his wife (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). Abram may have also thought that this was a way to fulfill the covenant with the LORD. The covenant did not specify who the mother of the nation would be. Many commentators are hard on Sarai and Abram for having a lack of faith here. Many people see this as a story of not trusting in God to perform a miracle, but that’s rather harsh. In the Bible, God rarely works through miracles. Usually it is a matter people working with God. Of course, the fact that this surrogate motherhood was immoral by modern standards adds to the condemnation of Sarai and Abram, but the Bible does not condemn Abram taking Hagar as a wife. We can assume that in this story, Abram and Sarai were acting with good intentions, even if their solution to the problem strikes us as unorthodox at best.

But it doesn’t go well. There are some problems in this affair. Hagar is not just Abram’s second wife, she is Sarai’s slave. Can you imagine what that must have been like? It’s bad enough to have to deal with a first wife, but to have to obey her as well. And for Sarai, it must have been hard to have your servant almost your equal. Not surprisingly, Sarai gets jealous when Hagar gets pregnant. The text says that Hagar treated her mistress with contempt. Certainly Sarai thought so. Apparently, Hagar smirked and Sarai got angry.

Why did she smirk? Because she knew that in this most crucial test of womanhood and matrimony in the ancient world, she was superior to Sarai. She knew that as mother of the heir, her status would go up. She knew that she had Abram’s attention, and she probably had no intention of giving her child over to Sarai. She was pregnant and Sarai was barren.

 Family Violence:

We can understand this type of interpersonal conflict. This is the real reason polygamy died out. It is just too stressful on everyone involved: jealousy, competition, anger and violence. Even without polygamy, this story in Genesis is so truth to real life that it shocks us today. Even with our different social norms and family values, we see that the core issues remain. Sarai was jealous, even though she got what she thought she wanted. Sarai was angry, particularly because she was the one who brought this about. So, Sarai decided to get rid of the symbol of her anger, frustration, and shattered hopes. She had to destroy Hagar, whom she may have once loved.

First Sarai turns her anger on Abram. It is his fault that Hagar was smirking and acting like she was first wife. It is his fault that he got the girl pregnant. Sarai demanded that as head of the household he do something about Hagar’s attitude, but Abram refused. Here we can sense some disapproval of Abram in the Bible. He was the brave warrior who defeated five kings. He was the man who outwitted Pharaoh. He was the wealthy and wise man who lived in peace with his neighbors. He was favored by the LORD. But he couldn’t settle an argument between two women. He couldn’t make Hagar and Sarai be nice to each other. Instead he told Sarai that Hagar was still her slave even though she was his wife. Like too many people in the world today, Abram abdicated his responsibilities and watched one person abuse another.

 Hagar Abused:

And Sarai did abuse Hagar. There is little doubt about that in the text. It is not glossed over. The Hebrew word used is that same word used later for how Pharaoh treated the Israelites in slavery. Abram let Sarai beat and humiliate the woman who was bearing his child. And this is what grips our hearts today. This is why this chapter of Genesis has become so important to oppressed people around the world, by abused people, by dark-skinned people. They identify with Hagar the Egyptian slave beaten by her mistress, not with Abram.

As Eugene Rivers III says in Bill Moyer’s Genesis: “See, the funny thing about this is that most poor people don’t need any of our liberal clichés about the unfairness of it all because they know that infinitely better than we do. So much of what salon intellectuals in the academy, where we go through a kind of hand-wringing routine about the injustice of life, really has no bearing out there in the streets. This is why the scriptures are so important for people.” (207). The Scriptures are important because they contain the unexpected message that God cares for more than just the chosen ones; the pious ones; the wealthy ones; the blessed. God cares for more than just Abram and Sarai. God cares for Hagar, the slave.

 Finding and Naming Hagar:

Here is the revelatory twist in this story: Sarai and Abram cannot name Hagar, but the Bible does. Sarai erases Hagar and drives her out into the wilderness, but the LORD searches for her. The LORD goes after Hagar and finds her near a spring in the desert. This goes beyond the parable of the prodigal son where the father looks into the horizon waiting for his son’s return. Here it is the LORD who seeks the one who has been forced to flee. There is no story like it in Scripture that I know of where God seeks out the refuge.

The angel of the LORD spoke to the Egyptian slave and names her: “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?” It is a question rich with meaning; a question filled with suffering and longing, hope and fear. It is a question the angel of the LORD may ask you or you may ask yourself: “Where have you come form and where are you going?” What is the purpose of your running? Are you running away or are you lost in the wilderness?


Then the angel said something we do not like because it has been used for centuries to increase domestic violence and abuse. The angel tells Hagar to submit to her mistress, just as preachers two centuries ago told slave women to submit to their masters; just as ministers today tell abused women to submit to their husbands. This may be what the biblical story-teller intended, but I’m not convinced. In any case, that is not a message that we need to give any longer.

I think what is happening here is that the angel tells Hagar she had choices. She did not need to die in the desert. She did not need to be erased and un-named by Sarai. She did not need to be a victim. She could return and assert her dignity by willingly submitting to Sarai. She could choose to give up the smirk without giving up her life and her future and her child. Her options were limited, but she had the power to choose.

 Promise and Blessing:

Before Hagar could answer or protest, the Angel spoke again. Her submission would not be pointless. It would not be for Sarai’s sake, but for Hagar’s. Hagar would become a matriarch herself. Her child was also a child of the promise given to Abram. He would also be the father of tribes. He would be “a wild ass of a man.” The NIV is more delicate and calls Ishmael a wild donkey, but I think the older translation captures better the original sense. You may know men like Ishmael, wild men living in tension with the world. Despite what many commentators persist in claiming, Ishmael was not cursed by God. But the prophecy states that he would have a hard life. He would have enemies and have to defend himself. He would struggle, but he would

prevail. This prophecy is really not much different from the life of Jacob, who will be renamed Israel, as we shall see. But there is more.

 Naming God:

Though Hagar is not honored in churches, she was the first woman after Eve to whom God spoke. She was one who survived injustice and hardship and who insured the survival of her son. She was called by name by the LORD, and more significantly, she named God in return. She called him El-Roi, the God of seeing because God had seen her distress, just as God would later see the suffering of the Israelites. Hagar named the spring where she met God, The Well of the Living One who Sees Me – Beer Lahi Roi, and she named her son Ishmael, God hears. God sees and God hears.

Chapter 16 is very rich, and there is much more that could be said, but perhaps it is best leave it here with Hagar and the God who sees and hears. We will see that life remains difficult for this Egyptian slave and her son, but they will endure with the help of God. In reading this story of domestic violence, I hope you will recognize that God in this story is on the side of the abused woman. It is not Sarai who sees God, but Hagar. It is not Sarai who names God, but Hagar. I hope you will also recognize in this story that God’s love extends beyond the racial, ethnic, and religious boundaries that we erect. He called an African slave by name and made her a matriarch. Next week we’ll continue with the Genesis 17. We’ll also get to discuss the ever popular topic of circumcision. So tune in next Sunday at 10:05.

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