Hagar, a Cultural Nobody, is Very Much a Somebody to God

A sermon based on Genesis 21:1-21
June 22, 2014 at Mount Vernon, OH
by Rev. Scott Elliott

A middle-aged pastor searched his closet for his collar before church one Sunday morning. In the back of the closet, he found a small box containing 3 eggs and one hundred $1 bills. He called his spouse over to the closet to ask about the box and its contents–embarrassed, she admitted having hidden the box for their entire 25 years of marriage. The pastor asked “WHY?”  The wife replied that she hadn’t wanted to hurt his feelings. Then he asked her how the box could have hurt his feelings. She said that every time he delivered a poor sermon, she placed an egg in the box.
The pastor felt that 3 poor sermons in 25 years was certainly nothing to feel bad about. Then he asked her what the $100 was for.  She replied, “Well, umm, see, each time I got a dozen eggs I sold them to a neighbor for a dollar.” . . .
I’m not sure how many eggs my wife might have collected if she kept track of all my mistakes, but I am guessing we’d be wealthy egg merchants by now.
Imagine if both of Abraham’s wives had such a collection for the mistakes he made, he’d no doubt be yoked by a real – and perhaps egg-xaggerated– shelling of scrabbled complaints that would surely come home to roost.

It is pretty easy to find mistakes in someone else’s life, your spouses’ or neighbors’ or pastors’ or anyone else’s. it is easy to keep a secret mistake-counting collection closeted without airing concerns too. That happens all the time in our families, communities, churches and even in Bible stories.  Dealing with the concerns in a reasonable, non-bullying, out-of-the-closet-into-the-sunlight way is what makes for healthy relationships. The early Hebrew people got this and were not afraid to let leadership’s mistakes be recounted and aired–even if the leadership did not air their concerns at the time.
Sarah and Abraham are the matriarch and patriarch, the leaders of the Hebrew people and they are remembered as the founders of the faith, yet their mistakes are not hidden but told in our lessen today in a way that we not only see the errors of the hierarchy, but we sympathize with a lowly-to-them slave. Hagar is the human hero in this story, not the cultural elites.  The story is remarkable in that she is the hero and that the mistakes the culture leads its elite to commit are NOT whitewashed away or hidden in a closet.
Since the elites mistakes are by- products of cultural rules I want to focus a bit on those systemic mistakes, they have meaning for us even today.  And by “mistakes” I mean sins, a word that traces its meaning to the Hebrew archery term for missing the mark.
How does the cultural system cause the players in Hagar’s story to miss the mark God aims them – and us– toward? And where is God in it all?
To put it another way, we are all called to hit the target of loving others, why is that target missed in this story? And what’s God doing about it?
We know from the Bible that Hagar, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael are all good people. These are not evil folks with wicked hearts. They are good folks, but something goes awry.  What happens is culturally expected conduct creates injustices carried out by the actions of some otherwise good people. As a consequence the target of love for one or more is clearly missed.

In this week’s lesson God saves Hagar and Abraham’s son Ishmael in the desert through the acts of Hagar. Within the month I expect we will also consider the story in Genesis 22 where God saves Sarah and Abraham’s son Isaac on a mountain top through the acts of Abraham.  Both of these are difficult stories to wrestle with and are often avoided in church. Preaching on them can be a bit tricky. So it may very well be the sermon will cause eggs to be added to any collections based on my errors, but I am going to give it a try any way.

So let’s look at today’s lesson:

I want to start with a little background. Earlier in Genesis Sarah appeared to be barren; and as was the custom of her day she gave Abraham Hagar-the-slave to be his second wife.
She did this so Abraham’s family, her family could have a child through the surrogate Hagar. And with no indication that Hagar consented to the marriage or intimate relations, Abraham gets Hagar pregnant and she has Abraham’s first son, Ishmael.
Trouble in today’s text really starts brewing when Sarah gives birth to her own first son, Isaac. Trouble boils over when Isaac is weaned and considered a viable heir to Abraham’s power and wealth.  The Old Testament has a whole bunch of stories where primogeniture, the right of the eldest son to inherit, is in the backdrop of conflicts that arise. Jacob tricks first born son Esau. Joseph the first born son in his maternal line is sold into slavery.
Ishmael, the first born son to Hagar in today’s lesson gets cast off in favor of Isaac, the first born son to Sarah.

For the record, female children did not have rights to their father’s estate. At best their birth primacy put them in line to be married off first (Gen. 29:16ff.; I Sam. 18:17ff.).  Moreover, once a woman was married– first daughter or not– in Abraham and Sarah’s patriarchal culture wives were property, owned by the husband. Sarah may have been the family matriarch, but she did not have ownership rights to Abrahams’ estate.  What she did have was a position of privilege as the first wife, as a Hebrew, and as a non-slave and she used that privilege to manipulate Hagar and Ishmael out of the family.  And to be fair, that manipulation may have been for survival purposes, because if Abraham dies it matters very much to Sarah who inherits the wealth. Because as a woman in this patriarchy she would then need to be taken care of by the next male in line – which she needs to be her son.
I want to take a few moments and summarize the patriarchal cultural failures to hit the mark of love in what we have covered so far. Primogeniture is a rule that places more value on first born sons and denigrates the value of all later born children, most especially the daughters.  Women were born into a world where they had very little rights and were often pitted against one another for not only their survival, but their children’s survival.
From our vantage point, Love, the desire for the well being of another is not fostered by this patriarchal male-first-born-privilege thing that is going on. It is not fostered by the patriarchal way of oppressing women and other lowly-to-the-culture people, like children, foreigners and slaves. Given all of this, the amazing thing about today’s story is that the patriarchy remembered and passed it down through generations at all.
If you follow where God is and whom God rescues and sides with in the story, it is those the patriarchy oppresses. God’s siding with justice and love outweighs patriarchal interests.  In this story, and other Bible stories, the trick is to keep our eye on what God is up to. In our lesson today God sides with Hagar, a foreign female child slave who’s being oppressed.
As I mentioned, not only did females have less rights but so did foreigners, especially the hated Egyptians. Children also had less rights. And of course, slaves, had way less rights than non-slaves. This story very purposefully makes the hero – and the one God sides with– a combination of all the lowly people in the patriarchy that the storyteller could muster. See, as a foreign Egyptian female slave child, Hagar is culturally the lowest or low.
And what transpires and is recorded is that the cultural elite, Abraham and Sarah, buy into the cultural norms, not the norm of love for others that God aims humans toward.
Although we may find what Abraham and Sarah did to Hagar reprehensible it was nonetheless culturally proper, justified by the law, and certainly expected conduct by slave owners.
So Hagar – whose name means “stranger” or “alien”– has a whole world of hurt put upon her by a system of living that sees her in so may ways as a lesser being. To the system Hagar is not worthy of love and justice.  The mistakes –the sins– in the story are ultimately relational and are traced to Ancient Near East norms dictating how members of this particular tribe are to relate to one another and others. Thankfully we do not live in a culture with those oppressive norms, but the lessons regarding oppressions can be heard to have a universal application to all oppressions–like those that do exist in the world today.
That universal application has served to make Hagar a symbol for all sorts of people who are oppressed–most especially women. Theologian Phyllis Trimble lists the stunning flexibility of Hagar’s story like this:

As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others. 1

All of these women that Prof Trimble lists are the very type of oppressed people God sides with and helps wants us to side with and help. God wants all people to have justice and love, to have enough respect and necessities to obtain the state of well being that they and all the rest of us deserve and are aimed toward.
The cultural elite can appear to be villains in the story, but it is the culture’s rules that they follow without much resistance that create the injustices. God does not side against people, but against oppression and injustice.  And we see this earlier in Genesis 16 where God, ignoring cultural rules, rescues the then pregnant runaway slave Hagar. In that chapter God has Hagar go back to slavery to save her son and herself promising her and her child justice in the end. Today’s reading lets us know how that promise unfolds.

Because Abraham and Sarah have been such a poor witness to God and God’s way of love, Hagar does not convert to their faith path, but instead names God El-roi “the one who sees me.”  Hagar this nobody to the world girl is the only person in the entire Bible who gets to give a name to God. In a culture where names mean everything Hagar is never called by name by Abraham or by Sarah, yet God honors her, not only by calling her name, but letting her give a new name to God.  The list of other honors for Hagar go on and on. God sees to it that she and her son gain freedom.  As Prof. Trimble notes she is also

the first person in scripture whom a divine messenger visits and . . . [w]ithin the historical memories of Israel, she is the first woman to bear a child. This conception and birth make her an extraordinary figure in the story of faith: the first woman to hear the annunciation, the only one to receive a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child. Truly, Hagar the Egyptian is the prototype of not only special but of all mothers in Israel. 2

How remarkable is that? An enemy Egyptian slave girl is loved by God in the same way that every other person is loved by God. And according to the Bible, and especially to Jesus, this is what we are to do too, right? To love our enemies! To love everyone!

Interestingly this Egyptian nobody Hagar has a story that reflects the Exodus story. The Hebrews flee the iniquities of Egyptian enslavement into a wilderness exile; The Egyptian Hagar flees the iniquities of Hebrew enslavement into a wilderness exile. God rescues them both out of oppressions, out of mistakes, out of sins caused by oppressive cultural norms.

The Old Testament is primarily about how God rescues and relates to the Hebrew people, but stories like this are reminders that God rescues and relates to anyone regardless of faith, religion, race, gender or any other cultural status.  Indeed this story makes it very, very clear that no matter what status the culture doles out, God loves everyone from the lowest to the highest. See there is no patriarchy– or any other hierarchy, when God orders our value.  We are all of us loved. And that is the Truth echoing in this remarkable story of an outcast down-trodden slave girl whom God loves and rescues and honors. Hagar is loved steadfastly and forever by God. So are we all. So are all our enemies.  That’s good news . . . and a reminder that all are precious in God’s sight and they all need to be precious in our sight too . . . 3    AMEN.
1.Trimble, Phyllis, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (London: SCM Press, 1984), pp. 27-29 found on the internet at this link: theconnexion.net/wp/?p=11141#ixzz34Gl2vPdl)
2. Ibid.
3. This sermon was inspired by a wonderful course I took at Eden Theological Seminary in 2004 called “Feminist Biblical Interpretation” taught by Rev. Dr. Deb Krause.
Scott Elliott Copyright © 2014