Genesis 21: 8-21
The Troubles of Hagar
Last time we learned about the kindness of Abraham. That manifested itself in the generous hospitality he showed to the three mysterious visitors who came to visit him. He treated them to a lavish and extravagant feast. We did not, however, focus on the purpose of their visit. In fact, they came to announce that Abraham’s wife Sarah was about to have a son. Now conceiving and having children is an ordinary, everyday occurrence. But in Sarah’s case, it ceased to be a possibility. She was way past the age when women can have children. But what the visitors foretold actually came to pass. About a year after their visit, she gave birth to a son and named him Isaac.
At the beginning of our lesson, the couple decided to hold a great feast to mark Isaac’s weaning. But there is a problem. To grasp it, we need to sketch some background.
After years of infertility, Sarah despaired of ever having a family of her own. So she offered her maidservant Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate. The plan is that through Hagar she would build a family for Abraham. In due time, Hagar became pregnant, and gave birth to a son and named him Ishmael.
But now Sarah has a son of her own. That makes Ishmael and Isaac rival heirs. This situation is intolerable to Sarah. So she orders her husband: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
Subsequently, the story foregrounds Hagar. It invites us to consider this family drama from her perspective. As a slave, she has no standing. She’s totally dependent on Abraham and Sarah for her livelihood. This leaves her in a precarious place. If one or both turn against her, it would lead to total ruin. This of course is what happens.
Let me suggest this morning that Hagar is a figure for our time. She represents a type all too common among us today. When the coronavirus pandemic broke out, it forced closures across the United States, leaving millions jobless and myriad children out of schools. Restaurant, hospitality, and service sectors saw the most devastating losses as the closures continued. Since far more women than men work in these sectors, the former were disproportionately affected by the economic shutdown. With school and day care centers closed and grandparents prevented from helping out with childcare because of shelter in place orders, a picture emerges. And that picture resembles Hagar and her son Ishmael alone in a harsh desert. For so many of us, and not only single mothers, the covid world is a harsh desert. Since this is the case, it’s worth paying attention to Hagar during these next few moments we have devoted to our meditation. For in seeing how her story turns out, the modern day Hagars among us, not to mention the rest of us, can find hope. Let us then organize our remarks under three brief headings: First, God cares. Second, God acts. And third, God provides.
God cares. Perhaps the quiet rest that can be found in really believing this to be true constitutes the greatest need of the modern day Hagars among us. That is why we should mention it first. Note that in Hagar’s case God intervenes. He is concerned with Hagar and her son. After all, he too is Abraham’s offspring. He assures Abraham with the promise that Hagar’s son too will become a great nation.
But then the story takes a curious turn. Abraham sends Hagar into the desert with only enough supplies to last a day or two at most. This is the same Abraham who showed overwhelming generosity to his three guests, about which we read last Sunday. Aren’t we right in saying that he is acting out of character here? The desert to which the story refers is Beersheba, in the South of Israel. I have been there. To this this day, it is still a dry, barren wasteland, inhospitable to human life, indeed to all life. So, to all appearances, in spite of God’s promise, Abraham seems to be sending Hagar and her son into the desert to die.
Imagine the fear. Returning to the modern day Hagars we’ve been mentioning, we note that even though men have a greater likelihood than women of dying from the coronavirus, women have suffered more emotional distress than men. That is to say, the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of women has been greater than it has been on men. What else can this deterioration of mental health be but the result of fear and anxiety about the well-being of her children?
Hagar wanders in the desert. Soon the supplies run out, the heat bears down, and the lives of the boy and his mother ebb away. One of the most poignant scenes in all the Bible is then described: “When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under a bush. She then went away and sat down: “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.”
Are there Hagars today that are in this place? Or have we ever been there? Have life circumstances ever reduced us to a place of abject helplessness? Hagar exhausted her resources. She ran out of options. She is at the end of herself.
Hagar understandably breaks down and bursts into tears. We don’t know if she cries out to God through her tears. Maybe she does. The lesson doesn’t tell us. At any rate, God hears her son’s cries. And he notices too that she also is crying. This ought to be reassuring to us in our most desperate hour. When we are reduced to a state of tears, let us express them to God through prayer. Let us pour out our heart before him and cry out to him. The Psalmist offers us a model here. “My tears have been my food day and night,” the Psalmist complains in Psalm 42. “Record my misery, list my tears on your scroll—are they not in your record?,” the Psalmist prays in Psalm 56. The Book of Psalms is the church’s prayerbook. The Psalms gives us words to pray when we are in distress. For that matter, it gives us words to pray when we are joyful. We can make them our own, as God’s people have done through the centuries, even to the present day. In evocative language, the two Psalms we singled out here tell us that God not only hears our prayers, but also counts our very tears.
We spoke last time of our sense of insignificance in an incomprehensibly vast universe. The fact that the tears of this slave girl and her child could be noticed by the God of the universe defies the imagination. In this connection, we may consider the claim of Jesus in our gospel lesson: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted (10:29-30). There is a popular hymn: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” This is the testimony of the Christian. But it is interesting that Hagar had already known God as “the God who sees me,” as we learn in Genesis 16:13.
This sense of insignificance can be experienced on many levels. Think of the modern day Hagars, who experience their own social and economic insignificance in a world whose course they are powerless to control. Can they not too cry out to God to help them? And since we believe that God is concerned for them, can we not respond to their cries, and help them when and where we find them? It is good to know that several in our church have already been serving women impacted by the economic shutdown. We have indeed shown concern for the Hagars in our small corner of this world. We don’t know ultimately the shape this world will assume post-covid, but there may be many in great need. And the needs will not all be of the same kind. But as the church, we can witness to the kindness and compassion of God by responding to the needs.
God acts. When God speaks to us, and we listen, we find new strength, new courage. God commands us: “Do not be afraid.” We can stand on our own two feet again. Hagar walks over to the boy, lifts him up by the hand, and they both stand before the face of God. God then gives to Hagar and the boy what they most need in a dry and barren desert: water.
Note here the strange locution. God does not provide the well of the water, but rather opens Hagar’s eyes so that she can see the well of water. That is often how God intervenes in our lives. He doesn’t make something to appear that was not there before. God can do this. For there is nothing impossible with God. But it seems that God instead helps us to see what we could not see before, despite the fact that it was already there, sometimes right in front of us. Is this not wisdom at work? We have a problem for which we find no solution. We then recall that the Bible invites those of us who lack wisdom to ask God, who gives generously to all who ask, without finding fault (James 1:5). We then see resources at our disposal that we didn’t notice before.
Not only then should the modern day Hagars pour out their hearts to God in prayer, they should also ask God to give them wisdom. And they should ask expectantly, for this is the God who gives generously without finding fault.
God provides. Consider the word “provide.” When we break it down into its component parts, it means “to see ahead.” To provide for your child’s education, for example, means that in seeing ahead, you anticipate there will be tuition costs, for which you begin to save now. To provide then has a view to the future. In our covid world, there are many today who have a hard time seeing a future. Will I always be isolated from people and places? Will the world continue to deny me my dreams?
God was with the boy, and so he became a strong man, eligible to marry and have a family of his own. This is important for Hagar’s own future. Her son and his family will give her a home, and make sure that she has food to eat and clothes to wear.
“Do not be afraid.” The basic message of Jesus to his disciples in our gospel lesson is the same as that which God gives to Hagar in our first lesson. And it is the same message that God gives to the Hagars of the worlds, as well as to us, today. We see a world in upheaval. Our lives continue to be constrained by a pandemic that does not want to go away. It is easy to succumb to the culture of fear that surround us. It is easy to be swept along by the moral panic that has now emerged. But God has spoken to us. Will we listen, and find new courage? Let us take to heart Hagar’s story. If we can, then we can hold on and hope in God. For God knows each of one us too, even if we seem in our own eyes to be no more significant than an ancient Egyptian slave girl. Amen.