I read this story and shake my head. What made this seem like such a great idea? It has “disaster” written all over it! This isn’t simple surrogacy, which can be complicated enough, the kind turned into comedy in the film Baby Mama (which I haven’t seen). This is slavery. And, Sarai’s “slave-girl” or “maid servant” is given to Abram as a “wife” (16:3). And Hagar never gets asked if she is comfortable with the arrangement. No wonder, once she is pregnant, and now that she is wife, not just slave, she feels that she is better than barren Sarai. Sarai accuses Abram of not maintaining the proper balance in the relationship between the wives. I imagine him asking, “Whose idea was this, anyway?” But instead of addressing the problem itself, he gives Hagar back to Sarai as slave. The entire thing seems so foreign, so wrong, that it is hard to imagine this being part of the story of the “people of God”.
So, let’s take a few minutes to look at ancient cultural and legal traditions. The use of slave girls as surrogate-wife was common in the ancient world, and Sarai’s suggestion both proceeds in the customary fashion and uses the standard legal language associated with the practice. Yes, God had promised Abram an heir, but had not explicitly spoken of that heir as coming through Sarai. She is taking initiative, not a bad thing in itself, and making a personal sacrifice to share her husband (Terence Fretheim, Genesis, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, I:452). She may also be sensing the pressure of her barrenness upon the situation. Barrenness was not only shameful, but provided additional motive, in an already polygamous and male-centered society, for the man to take an additional wife. Giving a slave as surrogate-wife was a common way to prevent a husband from taking a fully equal second wife (Tikva Frymer-Kensky, cited in Talking About Genesis: A Resource Guide, by Bill Moyers with Public Affairs Television, p 94). But, Sarai’s plan was for the child born to Hagar to be Sarai’s. She steadfastly refers to Hagar only as “slave-girl”, and Abraham too never refers to Hagar by name (Frymer-Kensky, 95; Fretheim, 452). Despite the efforts to keep Hagar in “her place”, she develops a clear and powerful sense of her own identity (F-K, 95), over against her mistress, as a mother, and even as a person before God (Fretheim, 453). So much for the plan! Whose idea was this, anyway?
We recently received a newsletter from a friend who serves in mission in a traditional male-centered society. Women are expected to be obedient, without questioning, to the men in the family – their fathers, their brothers, and – eventually – their husbands. Violence by men against women is tolerated and widely practiced, even brother to sister. No one calls the police, and if the police show up they are sent away, because this is a family matter. Men are not corrected for their violent temper, but the women are blamed – victims often are – and told to obey. We have no reason to believe that Abram is violent or mean. It appears that he feels genuine love for Ishmael and at least something for Hagar. And when Abram dies, it is both Ishmael and Isaac that bury him (Genesis 25:9).
Despite the fact that Abram is a “good guy”, he and Sarai and Hagar are part of a social system that turns women – even free women – into property. Just a little earlier in the story, Abram and Sarai are in Egypt, and the Pharoah takes Sarai as wife . . . with Abram’s permission, and with Abram and Sarai concealing the fact that they are married. Despite the powerlessness Sarai experiences in Egypt, she seems to have little sympathy for a powerless Egyptian slave-girl that she and Abram probably purchased or were given while there (F-K, 97; Fretheim, 454). The social system is just plain wrong, evil. There are things about it that I will never understand. But everyone in the story seems to be doing their best, mostly, in a bad situation.
Story with a Future: The story comes to us from the book of Genesis, a name that comes from the opening word of the book: “Beginning”. And, this story is the beginning of many other things. It echoes forward in history. People ask me about the modern conflict between Jews and Arabs. It begins in this story. Our Jewish friends trace their story through Isaac to Abraham. Our Arab and Muslim friends trace their story through Ishmael to Abraham. Just a week ago, our president announced the death of Osama bin Laden. As American citizens, we can be thankful that an enemy is gone. But as citizens of the kingdom of God, we have much more to consider:
Proverbs 24:17 Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble....And, we have this story. Despite all the evil and oppression that accompany it, at the end of the line, two brothers reunite to honor their dead father. When we are in the middle of a conflict, that kind of future is hard to imagine. Perhaps we should make that imagination a part of our prayers.
Matthew 5:44-45 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
This story echoes forward in history. The apostle Paul does an imaginative teaching based on this story (Galatians 4). He declares that the children of the slave woman are those who follow God through the Law, but that the children of the promise are those who follow God by faith in Jesus Christ. By that peculiar twist, he identifies his own nation of Israel not with Sarah and Isaac but with Hagar and Ishmael!
The language of the text in Genesis actually sets up some interesting correspondence between Hagar and Ishmael and future-Israel. Hagar is presented as an Egyptian slave. Israel as a nation is enslaved in Egypt. Hagar is oppressed by her mistress (16:6). The same Hebrew verb is used for the oppression of Israel in Egypt (Genesis 15:13, Exodus 1:11-12; Deuteronomy 26:6-7; F-K, 96; Fretheim, 452). Later, after Isaac is weaned, Sarah demands that Abraham choose one son over the other and send Hagar and Ishmael away. The word for “sending away” is the same as the word for Israel being “driven out” of Egypt after the death of the firstborn (Exodus 12:39, Genesis 21:10; Fretheim, 488). And, like Israel leaving Egypt, Hagar and Ishmael wander in the wilderness and are supplied drinking water by the LORD (Fretheim, 489).
Women without a Future: This story echoes into the future. But, neither woman in the story sees a future for herself. Sarai is barren and, from her perspective, God has made her that way (16:2). The text never tells us that God has made her barren; yet she interprets her barrenness that way (Fretheim, 451). Do we ever interpret the bad things in our lives as the hand of God turned against us? Once we do, we close off a future in our minds. As it turns out, barrenness would not define Sarai. She was re-named Sarah and became a mother in her own right, not through a surrogate.
Hagar, too, sees no future for herself. When she runs away from Sarai, the LORD asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?”. She only answered half the question: “I am running away from my mistress Sarai” (16:6). She is going nowhere, she has no future (Fretheim, 452), only a past. God gives her a future, albeit one she must wait for, but it is a future with a promise for her son and freedom for both of them. Indeed, when Abraham finally sends them away, Hagar is freed.
Naming Grace: In these crazy stories, it is important for us to get our focus on the grace of God. In this story, the grace of God is manifested in naming. Three persons are named in this story. First, the LORD names Hagar (Fretheim, 452). This is huge. Abram and Sarai never address her by name. God is the only one who speaks her name. You may think that everyone has forgotten your name. You may think that you have been reduced to a number, a cog in the machine. You may think that you have been forgotten or forsaken or lost by those who love you. But God knows your name, and God calls you by name.
Second, the LORD names Hagar’s son Ishmael. The name means “God hears”. It is another echo of the exodus story: “I have heard their cry” (Exodus 3:7). This name reminds us again that God hears our bitterness, that we are not ignored, and that – in listening – God becomes active as our deliverer. In fact, the words of the “angel of the LORD” – an expression not for an angel but for God appearing in human form – sound just like the words to mother Mary announcing the coming of Jesus (Fretheim, 453). To Hagar:
Genesis 16:11 Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael...To Mary:
Luke 1:31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus...Yes, in terms of salvation history and God’s purposes to bring blessing to the world, Isaac is in and Ishmael is out. But the blessing to Abraham and his descendants is not for them alone but so that “all families on earth” may be blessed (Genesis 12:3). And Ishmael – and all Arabs and Muslims who trace their story to him – is included in that larger blessing.
In the same way, you and I – even when we find ourselves on the outside looking in, even when we feel ourselves to be under a curse rather than a blessing – we are included in the blessing, we are included in the love of God, we are included in the family. Because God hears us, and in listening makes us Somebody.
Third, Hagar names the LORD. Hagar – the slave-girl from Egypt, the mother of the “not chosen” son – is “the only person in the OT to name God” (Fretheim, 454). Her name for God: El Roi, the God who Sees, the God who is Seen. This too becomes exodus, deliverance language (Exodus 3:7). But, aside from that, the naming of God is an expression of faith and a sign of her own independent relationship with this mysterious, holy, and loving God.
“Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved” (Joel 2:32, Acts 2:21). Hagar does that one better. She not only “calls on the name”. She names God, using her own experience as the anchor for that naming. My prayer for you is that you find the experiences in your own life that anchor your naming of God: the God who Sees, the God who Comforts in my Pain, the God who Meets me where I am, the God who Embraces me. El Roi. Ishmael. Hagar.