Me Too Has Always Been

Click here to read Genesis 16

This is not an easy chapter. It is a story we would rather skip or forget altogether (actually, the compilers of the Revised Common Lectionary do skip this chapter.) 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, headlines show us the span of abuse that has, is, and continues to exist. In such conditions, this story grows in importance. It tells us that this has always been the case, that those with power, privilege, and position often abuse or neglect the humanity of others for their gain. The good news is that God honors what others forsake and God is on the side of the abused.

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. In faith, they go but then they do something very stupid: Abraham, out of fear, tells the leader that Sarah is his sister. The leader takes Sarah into a harem but doesn’t sleep with her. This is discovered and even the “godless” Egyptians are appalled at such a despicable decision. If Abraham would do that, what wouldn’t he do?

We are not told how Abraham and Sarah “got” Hagar from Egypt, only that they did. We may presume she was either born to parents who were slaves, was enslaved by Egyptians (like Abraham’s descendants would be later), or through calamity and poverty became a slave. To be a slave was to give up any control of her life and person. This ugly reality still casts its shadow upon this earth.

The Callousness of Sarah and Abraham

Sarah and Abraham have trouble conceiving. This is no small matter. Despite this, more than once they are reassured that God is able and faithful and that they will indeed have an heir. In Genesis 16, the dam breaks for Sarah and she petitions Abraham to sleep with Hagar, hoping that in doing so Hagar will bear a son. Let’s stop there: sleep with Hagar so she will conceive and eventually, I will become the baby’s mother. Consider Hagar’s plight: not only does she not protest, but she is also unable to do so because she is a slave. And even more distressing is that the child that she will bear will not belong 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 thus treated like a soulless object, is resentful and “casts glances at Sarah.” This false equivalence of sexual power over and staring daggers is absurd. Should Hagar not be incensed at her personal plight, to dispense “gifts” but never be blessed herself or appreciated? Sarah complains to Abraham the reply is, “Do with Hagar what you will.” Abraham is no moral giant here. No harsher words could have been uttered, for Sarah unleashed upon Hagar all of her own anger at God. Read that again and lament, for Genesis 16:6 reads, “Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away.” Sarah is ashamed and is faced with the fact that an Egyptian slave (someone she considers culturally, socially, religiously, economically inferior) has something that Sarah herself can never attain.

I often wonder if resentment and anger like this are what fuels racism and nationalism, which are both sins of idolatry. We do well to resolve our hurt pride, disdain, and disgust of others, for are we not all created in the image of God? Hagar is pregnant, sluggish, and craving. How desperate must she be to walk back to Egypt, the one place that didn’t want her and never loved her and enslaved her? Sometimes the known bad is better than the unknown.

The Tenderness of God

Abraham and Sarah only think of themselves. Hagar only thinks of her child. What if the child in my womb is a girl? If Egypt has treated me like this, then what is the hope for my child? To bear a child, to see a face, to give a name, only to suffer? Yet, God bends toward Hagar. The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water. Without her saying so, the angel tells her to go back to Sarai and Abraham. The child is to be named, “Ishmael,” for that phrase means, “God hears.” God hears the lamenting in the wilderness. This will be repeated in Exodus chapter 1 as the laments of Abraham’s descendants are heard by God and deliverance comes.

Why does Hagar go back? Why, besides the angelic vision, is this persuasive to her? We are told the angel says, “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 . . .”

A wild ass is like a mustang. Hagar’s son will be free. No one will shackle him or tame him. He will not dwell in captivity like his mother. I wonder if Hagar’s prayer was, “I just want a better life and for my suffering not to be repeated.” God knows, God sees and hears, and God answers and frees. In Hagar’s eyes, this is tenderness.

The Question Life Calls Us to Answer

The question that is raised in Genesis 16 and the question facing us in our cultural chaos is this: who will you side with and speak up for? Can we talk about the faults of our heroes or must they always be right and their actions always justifiable?

Would we dare have a Nathan in David’s courts today?

Time and again the Scriptures state that God sides with the exploited, harassed, and marginalized. The prophets Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, and others tell us this. Jesus shows us this.

Jesus touched lepers and welcomed a cultural enemy (Samaritan woman). Jesus swims the Rio Grande or lives in a resettlement camp in some dusty nowhere.

Jesus and Hagar are, in many ways, sister and brother. They both came from families who were not powerful or affluent. They were both marginalized. They both experienced the callousness of others. Their life and their fight for justice and fairness benefit of the world. They both long for their children to be free.

May we walk the wilderness with Hagar and commune there with Christ.

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