So, God has a deal for Abraham. God comes to Abraham – then named Abram – when he is 75 years old. God says, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great. In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And Abram went, as the Lord had told him. Even though Abram doesn’t know God. There is no religion, no people committed to the God who will become Israel’s God at this point. It’s been generations since God spoke directly to a human – Noah.
But Abram and his wife Sarai are childless, and God’s plan to give them descendants is an offer Abram can’t resist. He gathers up his household and sets out towards an unknown destiny. God keeps showing up and reiterating the promise: Let me set you apart as the father of My people, and you will have descendants – more than you can count.
But ten years go by and: still no descendants. That’s where today’s story begins.
This text is expanded well beyond what the Sunday lectionary suggests. The assigned text is the story of the three visitors, Sarah’s laughter, and Isaac’s birth. But this year I’m not willing to join in Hagar’s erasure.
It’s easy to join Sarah’s joyful laughter at the birth of her son. She’s been through a lot. Uprooted from a settled home, late in life; dragged all over the Ancient Near East; TWICE nearly being taken as a concubine by foreign kings because Abraham insists on this bizarre lie that she is his sister and not his wife… and, one assumes, ten years of Abram looking at her askance, because God said he would have descendants, and he STILL doesn’t, and maybe Sarah is the problem. Sarah is burdened by what she has suffered, and marked by internalized sexism that measures her value in her fertility. But people are complicated, and Sarah also acts as an oppressor here.
Let me tell, briefly, the next chapter of Hagar’s story, which is assigned as a reading for next Sunday: Isaac is a young child, doted on by his parents. One day Sarah sees Isaac and Ishmael playing together, and flies into a rage. She tells Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” Abraham is distressed; he’s fond of Ishmael. But God says, Fear not; Ishmael too will become a great nation; but it is through Isaac that I will make you a people. So Abraham gives Hagar bread and water, and sends her away with her son.
Note that Ishmael’s age is a jumble in the text. This story makes him sound young – not much older than Isaac. But by Abraham’s age given elsewhere, he’d be in his late teens. Not too old to play with his little half-brother – but certainly too old for Hagar to leave him under a bush to die when their water runs out, after wandering in the wilderness for some time.
Hagar walks away, because she cannot bear to watch her son’s death. But God hears Ishmael’s wails, and the angel of God appears to Hagar a second time, telling her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid; go pick up your child. He will live and I will make him a great nation.” Then God shows her a spring of water, and she and the child are saved. Ishmael grows up in the wilderness, and becomes a great hunter.
In all of this: Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name. Neither Sarah or Abraham ask Hagar’s consent before making her body the tool of their faithless plan to arrange descendants for themselves instead of waiting on God’s fulfillment. Neither Sarah or Abraham care enough about Hagar or Ishmael’s lives to deal with their complicated family situation and struggle through to a new way of being together. (I don’t give Abraham a lot of credit for the bread and water he gave Hagar, considering how quickly it ran out.) Sarah and Abraham treat Hagar and Ishmael as less fully human than themselves and Isaac.
Let me be clear that the black-and-white racialized order of American society and economy emerged over 400 years or so of quite specific historical events and patterns. Abraham and Sarah were not white, and Hagar was not black.
And yet. The fact that Hagar is used to bear a child for her master without her consent may rightly remind us of the situation of many enslaved women before the Civil War. The fact that Abraham can turn on a dime from fathering a child with Hagar, to telling Sarah, “She’s your property, do whatever you want with her,” may rightly remind us of police in Buffalo, New York, who one day knelt in symbolic solidarity with protesters and the next day, in the same place, pushed over a 75-year-old protester and then kept walking as he lay on the ground bleeding. The fact that Hagar flees into the wilderness in the desperate hope for a better life may rightly remind us of the Central American migrants who undertake the dangerous trek across the desert at our southern border, fleeing violence and starvation in their home countries. The fact of Hagar’s agony in the face of her son’s likely death may rightly remind us of the fierce and bitter grief of the mothers of sons murdered by police and by racist vigilantes in our nation in recent years.
There are deep threads here that we recognize all too easily about our capacity to dehumanize and harm one another. To identify other human beings as members of a group that matters less than our group – whether that group be slaves, Egyptians, African-Americans, illegal aliens, or protesters. It’s one of the strongest threads of the HPtFtU – the Human Propensity to Eff things Up, the vocabulary Francis Spufford offers us for sin.
Yet when people occasionally ask me how I can love the Bible so deeply when it contains such terrible stories, the story of Hagar is one of the stories I often mention. Because here – so early in our great sacred story, at the very beginning of Israel’s covenant relationship with God – we can already see light between God’s perspective and human perspectives. We can already see that God’s vision of human wholeness and holiness is much bigger than anything Abraham can imagine.
It is true that in repeatedly promising a son to Abraham and Sarah, God seems to be buying in to the way they reckon identity and status. The eldest son of the first (or favorite) wife is the child who matters. Neither the adoptive son Abraham names as his heir early on, nor Ishmael, properly “count” as the REAL SON God has promised.
But does God perform the miracle of Isaac’s birth because God endorses that thinking, or to prove God’s power to Abraham and Sarah? Without human biases and resentments, could another kind of story have been possible? Remember that glimpse of Isaac and Ishmael playing together. Genesis contains many stories of non-favored sons who matter.
What really draws me to this story is God’s relationship with Hagar. Neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use Hagar’s name … but God does. Both times, when the angel of God’s presence seeks out Hagar in the wilderness, they address her by name. The first time, the angel calls her “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai,” and sends her back to subjugation and abuse. I don’t love that… but apparently Ishmael needs to be part of the story; Hagar can’t disappear from the narrative yet.
And as counterweight to the the story’s acceptance of Hagar’s enslavement, we need to understand how big a deal it is that Hagar has a direct encounter with the Divine. Keen listeners may nave noticed that the text says an angel spoke to Hagar, but she speaks of having seen God. The nature of angels in these ancient stories is a fascinating topic. Sometimes they seem to be autonomous beings who work for God.Sometimes they seem to be something much closer to a local, limited manifestation of Godself. The voice that stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac? – “The angel of the Lord.” The burning bush that speaks to Moses? – “The angel of the Lord.” And let’s not forget the Angel of the Lord who stops Balaam’s donkey. The Genesis text does not use the word “angel” in describing the three mysterious men who were somehow God, who visited Abraham’s tent, but they have been read and depicted as angels for a long time.
So Hagar’s meeting with the angel of the Lord – TWICE – is understood by the text itself as a theophany, a direct encounter with the Holy. And that’s a big deal. That does not happen to very many people, in the whole Bible. God’s visits with Abraham set him apart as the ancestor of God’s people. God’s direct communication is a privilege and a burden for Moses. The prophet Elijah begs God for the chance to actually see God. Various people are struck dead on the spot for coming too close to the presence of God, unworthy or unprepared. Hagar’s reaction – have I actually seen God and lived? – is appropriate.
God appears to Hagar to tell her that her child will be special. Sound familiar at all? This is an annunciation scene – one of many Biblical scenes in which a woman receives a divine message about her future child. Note that God never addresses Sarah this directly! God makes promises to Hagar that sound a lot like God’s promises to Abraham: You will have more descendants than you can possibly count.
And in response to this divine message – I love this – Hagar is the first person in the Bible to name God. In fact, I haven’t had time to verify this, but some claim that she is the only person in the whole Hebrew Bible to give God a name.The Biblical text names God; Moses asks God’s name; there are many texts describing God in poetic language… But what Hagar does here is different: she invents a name for God, based on her experience of God’s saving power. You are El-Roi, she says, the One who sees – the one who sees me, the unseen, disregarded, and abused.
In the second story of Hagar in the wilderness, the one we’ll hear next week, the angel no longer calls her “slave-girl,” but simply “Hagar.” Abraham’s casting out of woman and boy is also their liberation. She is a free woman now, and will not return to bondage.
I read this narrative, Hagar and Sarah’s pregnancies and the births of Abraham’s sons, as reflecting the tug between human understandings and the divine purpose. The story hangs suspended between Abraham’s desire to become the ancestor of many nations, and God’s desire to found a people who belong to God in covenanted love. God is working with human understandings and limitations, and so God through Abraham founds a lineage, because lineages are how people organized themselves in that time and place.
But God SEEING Hagar, saving Hagar, is only one of many hints that God’s ultimate plan is much broader. Both Jews and Christians, as covenanted peoples of God, blessed to be a blessing for the world, will become peoples not defined by descent or bounded by blood kinship. Hagar’s story is a distant foreshadowing of Isaiah’s vision of the redeemed Jerusalem as a light to enlighten ALL nations and peoples.
Suspended between human understandings and the divine purpose is also where we find ourselves – often, and particularly with respect to matters of racism and human dignity and wellbeing. We live in a world that normalizes black poverty; that takes “good” and “bad” neighborhoods as natural features of the landscape; that assumes the vastly disproportionate numbers of people of color in our prisons reflects a disparity in criminality rather than a biased system;
that insists that systems that work for some kinds of people would work for EVERYBODY if folks would just put in a little effort; that struggles to maintain a moral differentiation between property damage and violence against human beings; that, as Ibram Kendi writes, finds it much easier to place blame on people rather than to examine the impact of policies.
In tension with those and other human understandings, which shape our lives and judgments and actions at levels deeper than conscious thought, Are God’s desires and intentions for humanity – as we understand them: Revealed in the witness of the prophets who held the privileged and powerful accountable for the wellbeing of the poorest and most marginalized. Revealed in the witness of the apostles who called us into holy community in which Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female are all one in Christ Jesus. Revealed in the witness of Jesus Christ himself, who taught and lived and died that God is a god of the dispossessed, forgotten, wounded, unseen. Hagar speaks the truth: God is the One who Sees.
Friday of this week is Juneteenth, a day commemorating the end of slavery.
It’s not a national holiday, which speaks volumes, though it’s observed by many states and cities. There are lots of things I could say about what this day means, But let me say simply that it’s a day to dwell with, and repent of, the HPtFTU – and specifically our longstanding and well-attested propensity to create in-groups and out-groups, and to use, disregard, harm and tolerate harm against, those whom we see as outside our group. That may rightly weigh on us more heavily this year.
I am listening and reading and praying about what repentance looks like for me, and for us. This week, writer and church planter Emily Scott wrote about how she and her congregation are moving forward. She and others researched organizations in Baltimore, where she lives, that are working toward racial justice – and looked at the kind of support they were looking for: some ask for money, some need volunteers, and so on. The congregation weighed in on the organizations they felt called to support. Scott writes, “Rooting the work in our call and our gifts means we’re drawing from a deep well.” A small core group of members have committed to attending meetings of two local groups, as a next step.
Scott concludes, “This [work] takes time and intention. It may take setting other priorities aside, because this is important…There will be the slow, steady work of learning stories, building relationships, supporting with our money and our time, and showing up as we’re asked to. This is what it takes. Movements are built on excel sheets and reminder phone calls, monthly meetings and one-to-ones. Let’s get working.” It helped me to be reminded that big change is slow and stepwise and collaborative; and that our best work will flow from the gifts and capacities we’ve already developed.
In the meantime, while we listen and wonder and pray, I invite you to join me Friday at noon for a liturgy of repentance. I’ll try to do it on both Zoom and Facebook Live. I don’t have it all figured out yet but I know I need to do it.
And today we begin our summer Prayer of the Week Project – we’ll share a prayer every week, from different sources and for different occasions. The idea is that over the course of the summer you may discover some new prayers to plant in your heart and use as part of your ongoing conversation with God. This week’s prayer is one from our Book of Common Prayer; you may have heard it used in our diocesan worship last Sunday.
I invite you to pray it with me.