Year A, Pentecost 3
The story of Hagar, Sarah, and Abraham is complicated. Normally when we talk about Abraham and Sarah, we talk about their faithfulness and their holiness. God blessed them throughout their lives and promised a great nation from their descendants. Unfortunately Sarah could not conceive a child in a time when a woman’s worth was dependent on her ability to have children. Abraham and Sarah waited for decades, believing in God’s promise. While God never wavered from this promise, it took a really long time to be fulfilled. Sarah decided that they needed to take God’s plan into their own hands. Obviously God was not going to give her a child, so she decided that she would make it happen another way.
Here is where it got complicated. She told her husband to take a slave as his concubine, so that this slave could bear Abraham’s children and begin this great nation. Abraham, being a dutiful husband, did as she asked. While this sounds pretty horrible to us now, this was common practice for people in this day. Abraham was a man of prominence. Men of his standing and status had big families. It was another sign of prosperity. There was also that whole…father of a great nation thing. How would that happen without children? Feeling powerless and frustrated, Sarah did what she had to do.
While it was not considered sinful at this time, for a man to take another wife, it wasn’t the plan that God had for them. God’s plan was that Sarah would bear a child who would be Abraham’s heir. But no one can blame Sarah for doubting this at the age of 90. If God’s plan was for her to bear a child, it would have surely happened by now. Her solution was a practical one and it worked….initially. Hagar (the slave) became pregnant. But before she even gave birth, Sarah regretted her decision and abused her so much that Hagar ran away. If you put this in a modern context, it would sound like a horrible reality TV show that went a little too far.
At this point, things looked pretty bad for all involved. Hagar was abused and forced to flee. Sarah was still childless and even more bitter than before. Abraham seemed to be caught in the middle and unable to show any moral backbone. Thankfully, God stepped in. He found Hagar in the wilderness. He comforted her by telling her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” He also told her to return to Sarah. While this was not the news I would have wanted, “return to the person who is abusing you,” there was reassurance in more than just God’s words. God appeared to Hagar. She named God, “God who sees” because not only did God see her, she saw God, which is amazing. In that time, no one saw God and lived. Perhaps this is what gave her the strength to return to a hostile household. Despite Sarah’s behavior, Abraham was still the father. God even told her what to name her son. It was to be Ishmael, which means, “he hears.”
We do not hear any more about Hagar until our story for today. Clearly the relationship between Sarah and Hagar has not improved. Even after Sarah bore a son—the child that had been promised for so long–there was still jealousy. In addition to that, Sarah seemed afraid for her son. Abraham and Sarah were wealthy in land and livestock. Their firstborn son would inherit quite a lot. Not only that, but their first born was the beginning of this great nation that God had promised them. It was supposed to be her son, not Hagar’s son.
Sarah asked Abraham to force Hagar and her son out. Abraham was torn, but God told him to listen to his wife. This particular part is what a lot of people struggle with. Abraham and Sarah are humans. They are flawed humans. While Sarah’s actions are cruel, they are understandable to some extent. What seems worrisome is that God would support Sarah’s decision. In forcing Hagar and her son into the desert with meager provisions, there was a good chance they would die, or at least suffer a great deal. It seems an odd thing for God to support. But there was something else God said to Abraham besides just “listen to your wife.” He said, “I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” In those words, there is an implicit promise that God would care for Hagar and Ismael.
He did. When their water was gone and death loomed in front of them, God heard the voice of the boy and spoke to Hagar again. It is interesting that the text says that God heard the voice of the boy. Ishmael wasn’t the one making the noise; that was his mother who was weeping and crying out. However, remember that the last time Hagar was out in the wilderness scared and helpless, God told her to name her son Ishmael which means “God hears.” In naming her son, God promised that he would always hear his cries, even when he was too weak to cry out loud, God would hear him. Remember also that Hagar had named God, “God sees.” In this story, not only does God hear and see, he helps Hagar to see. He opens her eyes so she can see a spring of fresh water. He opens her eyes and gives her the vision and the courage to keep going. Even though she has been abandoned by everyone, God is still listening, still seeing.
There is a lot of debate about whether God plans our whole lives…meaning everything that happens —happens because God wants it to happen that way. However, I am not sure this story of Hagar was part of God’s original plan. God did not want Abraham to take on a concubine. He certainly did not want Sarah to abuse the concubine and then years later throw her and her son out to die. God’s initial plan was that Abraham would be the father of a great nation and this great nation would begin with Isaac, the son of Abraham and Sarah. That was what happened.
But along the way, God had to create another plan to accommodate human’s need to take control of our own story. God did not just create another plan, he created another story, of another nation—a great nation. God promised this to Hagar years before in the wilderness and he promised it again in our story for today. Human sin can never forfeit God’s plans. Sometimes it just creates more plans, more stories. We don’t know all the stories because the Bible cannot tell all the stories, but it does not mean those stories are not out there.
It is the same in our lives. We all have a story that we begin with. It is either a story we are told, or a story we develop about how our life is supposed to turn out. But it never turns out that way does it? It does not mean that God did not like that story. It’s just that things shift in our lives, sometimes because of our decisions and sometimes because of things that we have no control over. While that can be frustrating and at times discouraging, God is always there, willing to create a new and different story with us. In the end, it’s not really about the details of our stories that matters. It’s about how we live those stories and how we welcome God into our stories.