by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 16: 1-16 and 21: 1-21
Biblical scholar and United Church of Christ luminary Walter Brueggemann said about today’s selection from Genesis: “There is much here that is not clear” and “to maintain the power of the story, it is important that it be left unclear” (151). If you came to our first discussion of The Once and Future Bible thinking you’d find a key that unlocks the scriptures, you have surely been disappointed. But you might try a lens that will at least offer fresh perspective. Hagar’s story is yet another text about which much will remain unclear–in part because much depends on the lens through which we read the text. Today and for the next few Sundays I’m inviting you to put on the glasses of a feminist. We’ll do so by choosing stories in Genesis that feature women (assigned minor roles and told from a male perspective). Feminism’s underlying assumption about the Bible is that it is patriarchal: written by men and centered on male experiences and concerns. Feminists (male and female) either decide to disregard the Bible because it is irredeemably sexist or read the Bible with a “hermeneutic of suspicion”–a means of inquiry that would in this case question how women, given the chance, might have told the story. A feminist reading can push back against the patriarchal messages and even explode the notion that God is exclusively male, suspecting that the God in Genesis was made in the image of the early male storytellers.
This sermon series will focus on lesser known female characters in Genesis, lifting up Hagar today rather than Sarai/Sarah, because Hagar is doubly marginalized–as a woman, yes, and as a slave from Egypt (although race is not, in the biblical world, a construct as we know it today). Certainly Sarah is THE matriarch of Hebrew scripture, but without lots of feminist excavation, her story is always in service to Abram/Abraham’s. So I’m more interested in Hagar, Sarah’s servant. Over the next three Sundays we’ll explore more obscure female characters in Genesis: the unnamed daughters of Lot, Dinah, and Tamar.
Today let’s give Hagar a chance to take control of her story in chapters 16 and 21, located at the very center of Abraham’s saga. Although we receive this story from a patriarchal culture, Hagar is an active protagonist who speaks to the God of the Patriarch, who in turn responds and blesses her. Hagar sees God and God sees Hagar. Seeing (with a new lens) is not, as it turns out, only an approach to Hagar’s story; it is a central theme.
Before we see through Hagar’s eyes, let’s recognize the patriarchal expectations of women in that culture. How did men see women, the women in this story specifically? Starting with Genesis 19:1-3, we see that the culture primarily expected women to bear children. In fact, ancient Mesopotamian cultures encoded into law the option of using a slave to stand in for a barren wife. The Hammurabi Code of Babylonia, 1900 BCE, includes one instance of such a law (Fryer-Kensky 94).
Sarai initiates her speech to Abram with “I see” as if to say, “I see how you see me. You see me as a womb. And my womb is not functioning to serve your need for progeny. I also see my slave. Let her be my surrogate.” In so doing, Sarai’s subjugation leads her to justify the intensification of Hagar’s subjugation. Slavery allows a human being’s womb, like a person’s muscles, to be utilized for the good of the slave owner (Fryer-Kensky 94). More generally, those in power can play one disempowered group against another. It’s an old story. But a hermeneutic of suspicion should at least make us wonder if the story is being fair to Sarai. Is a patriarchal point of view making her out to be the bad guy/girl, for instance? Feminists would have us at least ask that question.
Now let’s try to see through the eyes of Hagar and Sarai to the extent that a patriarchal text allows. According to this account, Hagar, once pregnant, turns the tables on Sarai. Sarai “sees” that her slave is pregnant and then Hagar “looks with contempt on her mistress”(16:4). So Sarai, offended or threatened, turns to Abram, who holds the power. He pretends to bear no responsibility: “Your slave girl is in your power.(Power is offloaded when convenient.) Do to her as you please.” The narrator leaves the specifics of Hagar’s punishment to the reader’s imagination, but it was cruel enough for a pregnant girl to flee, with nothing, to the desert, where an angel advises her to return to her harsh mistress who’s at least a bit less harsh than the desert. (She is, by the way, the first person in the Bible to be “visited by a divine messenger” (Trible 76).
If you were Hagar, how would you have received that angelic advice? What would you think about the God who told you to return to the cruelty of your mistress? Modern feminists imagine the dangerous message young women might internalize from this story that suggests victims should return to their abuser.
I’m thinking that a God who can send a holy messenger could have protected Hagar in the wilderness and guided her back to her birth family in Egypt. I’m thinking that a loving God would not side with the oppressor and would not send the slave girl back to her abusive owner. But I’m thinking like a 21st century woman who has the luxury of living far more autonomously than Hagar.
Then the angel offers the most auspicious of promises for any woman in that time and culture: God will eventually give Hagar so many offspring through this child they’ll measure a multitude. Even so, tied to that promise is a warning or qualification. The child Ishmael will be “a wild ass of a man” at odds with everyone. At that, Hagar the female slave, the most powerless of the powerless, takes it upon herself to give God a name: El-Ro-i. Scholars are not sure what that name signifies, but Hagar then names herself as “The one who saw God and lived.” Her words apparently are not intended to be ironic, but we might imagine that the angel’s not-entirely-good-news gives her every right to feel lucky that she has survived this God encounter — so she is indeed “the one who saw God and lived!” Alone and vulnerable, Hagar dares to ask, “Have I really seen God and remained alive?” A feminist might theologize with this observation in this way: Often those who are invisible to the powerful are the ones who see and are seen by God. And any student of the Bible would recognize a theme that will stretch from Genesis to Jesus: the least are often the chosen ones; those on the margins may SEE most clearly.
Hagar’s story is about seeing: Abram seeing Sarai’s barrenness, Sarai seeing that Hagar was pregnant, Sarai seeing Hagar’s look of contempt, and Hagar in the wilderness seeing a representative of God. But feminists remind us that WE are seeing this narrative unfold through a male perspective. Let us keep a healthy suspicion as we read farther.
A few chapters later after the story of three messengers visiting Abram and Sarai, and after another angel visitation to Sarah to announce SHE will also have a son, and the the renaming of Abram and Sarai, and after the angels travel on to Sodom where they barely escape being gang raped, and after God destroys the town . . . after all that, Sarah’s son is born and we return our gaze to Hagar. By Genesis 21 Abram (now Abraham) and his wives again are jealously squabbling. Once again the least powerful woman is scapegoated. But this time God speaks to Abraham both to back Sarah and also to assure Abraham that Isaac, the second born son, will make Abraham the patriarch of many descendants. And by the way, the son of the slave woman will also survive to have many descendants. So for the sake of peace in the household (and maybe as part of a folktale to explain enmity between two clans), back to the desert Hagar and Ishmael are sent. When their water and bread run out, all seems lost. Poignantly, she puts her young son at a distance so she does not have to SEE him suffer and die. She has already SEEN too much. Piteously, she weeps for her son, but interestingly, God heard the boy’s cry (not hers). (Is that patriarchy, or what?) An angel calls from heaven to Hagar to say God has heard the boy’s cry and God will save him and make of him a great nation. Then God “opens Hagar’s eyes to see a spring of water.” The slave girl sees her way to salvation: seeing and seizing opportunities, knowing her survival will eventually depend on the survival of the only son she is allowed to claim. Seeing and being seen, they survive in that inhospitable land, and when the time comes, Hagar, the slave from Egypt, finds Ishmael a wife from Egypt: another woman whose survival will depend upon a man. We might wonder how Hagar, years later, will “see” the wife of Ishmael.
The Zulu word for “hello,” sawubona, means “I see you, and by seeing you, I bring you into being” (David). What a powerful greeting. Hagar’s story is not only about bringing a child into being—but is also about seeing people into being—or not. So much of women’s history is about not being seen.
Hagar’s is a story about seeing. In highly patriarchal cultures, women are not seen. Sometimes quite literally they don’t leave the domestic sphere. Much of women’s history is about women not being seen. Really SEEING someone so they feel seen, acknowledged, and valued can indeed bring someone into being. Hagar experienced a godly encounter as being SEEN.
Imagine how a feminist commitment to SEE women into their fullness and agency could expose oppression, foster relationships of mutuality, and recognize the inner person and not merely the roles they play or the body they inhabit.
I would describe one of the practices our facilitators engage in with our Prism Youth is to SEE them, simply to SEE them into their growing authenticity.
When is the last time you have felt the intimacy of being seen, truly seen? When have you honored someone else by compassionately seeing who they are: their needs and strengths and fears and joys?
At a training session for Family Promise churches last Thursday night, we were encouraged to remember that the families we serve quarterly need to feel seen.
As do we all.
Bellis, Alice Ogden quoting Phyllis Trible in Helpmates, Harlots, Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1994.
Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982.
David, Susan. TED Talk.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NDQ1Mi5I4rg
Fryer-Kensky, Tikva. Talking About Genesis. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
See us, God of Sarah and Hagar, See women today still caught in a patriarchal culture. See us, mired in messy relationships. And let US truly see you in one another. Amen