August 6, 2017: Rev. Anna Fulmer
Last week, God tells Abram to go from what is familiar to a land that God will show him. After that, after some wandering, some trickery in Egypt, God shows Abram that land. God makes a covenant, a promise with Abram. He tells Abram to count the stars, that that is how great him descendants will be. God tells Abram that his descendants will have this land. Right after that promise, we find our story from today. It is a difficult story, a story of a complex and dysfunctional family. It is an important story not just for the Christian and Jewish traditions but our Muslim brothers and sisters. Islam traces its history back to Hagar and Abram’s child, Ishmael.
So let us hear Gen. 16:1-16
At Montreat, the preacher Aisha Brooks Lytle had a mantra she had us repeat over and over. She referenced it for another passage and for her own life. I would challenge, it’s not just a mantra for one story in the Bible, but all of the Bible, especially our passage today. I think it must have been Hagar’s mantra, Abram and Sarai’s mantra. The mantra goes and join in when you have it: “When it all falls apart Lord keep me together.”
This story is full of anguish and pain. It is a hard text, especially because we know what comes next. God gives Abram a promise. He does not explain to Abram how he is going to fulfil this promise. And God does not give this promise to Sarai. In Chapter 15, he gives it to Abram. You could say that Abram and Sarai don’t believe in God’s promise—and maybe that’s true. “Faith in a God whose promise takes too long” is difficult. But we know, as well as Sarai that God works through human agency. Sometimes, God’s promises comes true because of our initiative. It reminds me of the common tale of the man in the middle of a hurricane, with flood waters rising who lets a boat and a helicopter go by because he knows God will save him. He drowns and once in heaven, he asks why God did not save him. God says, I sent a boat and helicopter!” Sometimes we have to choose to get in the boat, and realize human action can be from God.
Sarai takes action. She does not wait for this promise to come true—she works to make it come true. Sarai is old—she’s 75. And Abram had been promised children. So Sarai makes a self-sacrificing move. She allows Abram to take Hagar, her slave-girl as his wife. This is a common practice in their culture—later, Rachel and Leah do this too. Hagar and Sarai must have been close for Sarai to trust her, and do this. But once Hagar is pregnant, Hagar gets a little sassy and Sarai gets jealous and hurt. It is shameful to be barren, and Sarai is barren while Hagar is not. Instead of speaking to Hagar, Sarai goes to Abram, which makes sense in this culture—the man, the patriarch holds the power. Abram is both of their husbands, and so he has the potential to be their mediator. Maybe Abram can help them reconcile. Instead, Abram washes his hands clean; he does nothing. Abram does not admit his responsibility, and gives Sarai the power to do as she pleases. Sarai deals harshly with Hagar; she beats Hagar. Hagar runs away. Notice, Sarai’s cruelty and anger are not the only faults—Abram’s inaction is also to blame. When it all falls apart, Lord keep me together.
Soon, the focus in not on Abram and Sarai—it is on God and Hagar. Hagar runs. This family is getting messy, and she is getting pummeled. God finds her near Shur, which is on the way to Egypt. It’s ironic that “Hagar can find more freedom in Egypt than with God’s chosen people.” God’s chosen couple, Abram and Sarai are not a blessing to her but feel more like a curse. God speaks to Hagar saying, “Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?” For the first time in this story, someone addresses Hagar directly by name. God speaks to her. For the first time, someone asks Hagar a question. Up until this point, Hagar has been the topic of many conversations, but she has been objectified. She has been given no choice, no voice. Hagar answers this angel and a conversation ensues. The angel tells Hagar to go back. Everything in my body wants to tell Hagar, “No! Don’t go back! Are you crazy?” But the angel gives her a promise, that her offspring will be numerous, maybe as numerous as the stars. She will bear a son, and call him Ishmael. It reminds me of a conversation another angel has with a poor, unknown woman Mary. The angel tells her she will also have a son and will name it Jesus. Who knew Mary had a sister named Hagar?
God promises Hagar that her son will be a wild ass of a man; her son will be free. He will not be submissive or obedient but will fight against controlling powers. For Hagar, a slave-girl with no power, who has been beaten and battered—this is good news. This is hope and redemption.
She knows that this angel, is the Lord. She recognizes God when she sees him, and so she names God, El-roi—the God who sees me. There is mutual vision, sight happening. God sees Hagar for who she truly is; and Hagar in turn sees God for who God truly is.
Hagar is special. She is a woman of faith. She is the first person to be encountered by God—God only comes to Abram in a vision. She is the first woman given promises. She is the only person in the Old Testament to name God. God tells her to name her child, Ishmael, which means God hears. The God who sees and the God who hears. For a woman who is never seen nor heard, what amazing and radical news. God calls Hagar by name and in turn, Hagar names God, then God names her child. By the end of this story, I end up admiring Hagar, the slave-girl more than her master and his wife. When it all falls apart, God keeps Hagar together.
What does it say to us that the person lifted up in this story is the outsider, the one who is rejected by God’s “chosen couple?” This story is a warning: it shows how easily the liberated can become the oppressor. We think of Abram and Sarai as God’s it couple, but as soon as they are given God’s freeing promise, they oppress and dehumanize Hagar. Throughout Israel’s history this pattern has happened, with Abram and Sarai, the Israelites freedom from the Egyptians and conquering of other powers and stomping upon the oppressed in their society, David and Bathsheba, and so many more. We must be careful we do not hurt any of God’s children. Second, I think it means that God is not ethnocentric. God is not only committed to Abram and Sarai but to Hagar too. God is passionate. God loves and gives promises to the least of these, the outsiders. For Sarai and others in power, this sometimes feels like a threat. Third, it means that God loves and chooses Hagar and Ishmael too, not just Abram and Sarai’s child. Ishmael’s birth is a genuine fulfilment to God’s promise to Abram, just as Isaac’s birth is a fulfillment too. Both are God’s chosen and beloved children. Fourth, we see Hagar’s faith. The faith of an outsider, a slave, a foreigner, an Egyptian. She sees a future of non-oppression, of freedom from people like Abram and Sarai for her child. And she waits. She has seen God. She knows that sometimes salvation takes the form of waiting. Hagar through her actions almost seems to say, “I am going to embrace a vision of myself that says I am more than the sum total of the brutal acts committed against me. I am more than all of the hateful, hurtful actions and words that try to crush my being. For I am nothing less than a child of God. I am seen and heard by God.” (adapted from Eugene Rivers). When it all falls apart, Lord keep me together.
This story and family is messy. Newsflash: the Bible is messy. Life is messy. Giving birth is messy. For those of us who have been hurt before, who have been outsiders, who have felt powerless, and trapped by conditions outside our control, this is good news. Hagar gives us hope. Through her, we know that God sees and God hears. God comes to us in the wilderness, and offers salvation, blessings and hope for our broken bodies. God’s promises are for all, not just for the Abram’s and Sarai’s of the world. God offers blessing, hope, and care for those who are outside the chosen people. God’s promises are all, even for slave-girls from Egypt, for Hagars across the world. So may our mantra, our prayer today be, that when it all falls apart, Lord keep me together. Amen.
 Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation: Genesis, 151.
 New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 452.
 New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, 453.