“A Forgotten Woman”
Genesis 16:1-11, 21:8-20
March 4, 2012/Second Sunday of Lent
The common lectionary, which is the three year cycle of scripture passages assigned for every Sunday and the different holy days, walks us through a large majority of the Bible. It is designed so we hear from the Old and New Testament, stories, psalms, prophets and epistles. Each year focuses on one gospel, with a whole lot of the gospel of John thrown into as well. I use the lectionary for my preaching, but as good as it is in teaching us a large part of the Bible, there are still many stories that don’t find their way into any of the Sunday readings. For one reason or another, they are left out. The story of Hagar, Sarai’s Egyptian slave girl, and son, Ishmael, is one of those stories. Hagar’s story can be found in the chapters before and after this morning’s passage from Genesis, Genesis 16:1-11 and 21:8-20.
Why the story of Hagar? Why should she be our focus for this day instead of the lectionary passages we’re already given? It’s also important to know that our denomination has designated this Sunday as the Sunday to Celebrate the Gifts of Women. While it is true that the gifts of all people should be celebrated on any given day, the emphasis for this day is women’s gifts, the gift of Hagar’s story in particular. Both testaments are filled with stories of women whose voices we don’t hear very often. Hagar’s is one of them. Hers may not be a familiar story to some. But her voice, her story should be lifted up. Too often she is a forgotten woman. But today, in our midst, she is forgotten no longer. Today we hear the story of Hagar.
I am Hagar. I am one of the forgotten women. I had no power, no say over what happened to me. I was a slave in the service of Sarai. She wasn’t able to have children, so she gave me to her husband Abram. My son, Ishmael, was Abram’s son. My son, Ishmael, was Sarai’s son.
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her. And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Caanan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went into Hagar, and she conceived;”
I am Hagar. I am one of the forgotten women. I had no power, no say over what happened to me. But I could give Abram a child and Sarai could not. I was a woman in a way that Sarai could not be. Sarai complained to Abram that I showed her contempt, and Abram told Sarai that she could deal with me however she wanted to. Sarai took him at his word. She was harsh, unkind and my life was bitter. I ran away.
“And when Hagar saw that she conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you. I gave my slave girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!’ But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.”
I am Hagar. I am one of the forgotten women. I had no power, no say over what happened to me. I ran away from Sarai and I was never going back to her. I sat next to a spring there in the wilderness, and that’s where the angel of the Lord found me. The angel told me to return, to listen to Sarai and do what she said. Then the angel of the Lord made a promise to me. The angel of the Lord told me that my offspring would be too many to count. I was told the child I was carrying was a son and his name would be Ishmael. It means ‘God hears’ and God did hear me.
“The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, slave girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.’”
I am Hagar. I am one of the forgotten women. I had no power, no say over what happened to me. Sarai gave me away, then abused me when I fulfilled her purposes. And Abram did not stand up for me against her. But the Lord made promises to them too. Sarai became Sarah. Abram became Abraham. And just as the Lord promised, Sarah gave birth to a son. Isaac. Child of laughter. Sarah gave Abraham laughter in his old age. When Isaac was weaned, Abraham called for a great feast to celebrate. But Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac. Something happened when she saw that, because Sarah told Abraham to throw us out. He did.
“The child grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar, the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So, she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring. So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed and wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba.
I am Hagar. I am one of the forgotten women. I had no power, no say over what happened to me. Abraham gave me some bread and some water and sent Ishmael and I out into the wilderness. They didn’t last long. When the water was gone, I put Ishmael under a bush. I couldn’t bear to watch my child die. I sat away from him and waited for the end. Ishmael was crying. I was crying. God heard Ishmael. And the angel of the Lord called down to me. The angel of the Lord told me that Ishmael’s voice had been heard, and he told me to go back over to Ishmael, pick him up, hold on tightly to him. He will be a great nation. My eyes flew open and I saw a well of water. I drew from it and gave Ishmael a long, cold drink. God was with my child. I was not forgotten.
“When the water in the skin was gone, Hagar cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with our hand, for I will make a great nation of him. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.”
I am Hagar. I was not forgotten.
Hagar’s story is a remarkable one. It is both ancient and contemporary. Phyllis Trible writes that “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.”
In this season of Lent, as we make more time for personal repentance, I suggest that in light of Hagar’s story we also strive to be more intentional in our corporate repentance. Wittingly or unwittingly, we buy into and support structures and systems that are unjust. We may not be the hands that directly harm and oppress the contemporary Hagars of the world, but that doesn’t’ necessarily mean our hands are clean either. We must wrestle with the reality that our great forefather and foremother were the ruling class that exploited Hagar.
In spite of her powerlessness, Hagar was a woman of courage. She too trusted enough in God’s promises to listen, to believe and do what was asked of her. Hagar is also our foremother. In her, in Sarah, in Abraham, Judaism, Christianity and Islam find their origin. Hagar’s is a voice that must be heard. Hers is a story that must not be forgotten.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.