Abraham, Sarah and Hagar
My husband, Brad, and I have been reading through a “Bible in a year” plan. It’s a Chronological study of the Bible, so we just finished Genesis, and I am always in awe of how God reveals more and more of himself to us as we spend time in his word- even when we are reading things that we have read many times before!
That was my experience reading the story of Abraham and Sarah this time around. I have spent the last year studying scripture and seeking the Lord, as he has been calling me to do more difficult, scary things that the culture around me doesn’t always want to accept. I am a woman in ministerial leadership, and unfortunately, the church as a whole, has not always been the kindest and most receptive to women stepping into the same callings that they encourage men to embrace.
It’s probably not a shock to hear that the culture that existed during Old Testament times was not super friendly to women. A woman’s value was found in sex. Coming to the marriage union as a virgin and then producing offspring- specifically sons- were the primary contributions that women made to society. This is a bit ironic to me, as someone who works in the world of pregnancy, because a mother always contributes an X chromosome during conception. It is the man who gives the second chromosome- either an X or a Y, determining the biological sex of a child. Of course, Abraham and his generations did not understand this, so this was a woman’s primary function. That brings us to “Father Abraham.”
Look, I know that Abraham is the father of Judaism. We call him, “Father Abraham,” and everyone sings his praises, but as I read through Genesis this year, I must confess: I wasn’t a fan. I know, I’m always the button-pusher, that’s probably going to get me burned at the stake, but this whole thing made me very uneasy.
So, we have Abraham, who is God’s chosen one, and he is interacting with God. God tells him that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars. Abraham is confused. I would be too- he has no children and he and Sarah are not exactly of reproductive age. God is telling him he’s going to have this extensive genealogy, but Abraham is thinking…my heir is currently one of my workers. This makes no sense, right? But God makes a covenant with him, and this is a huge deal. This is not just God telling Abraham that he will do something, he is sealing this commitment in blood. Abraham should have the full assurance that God will deliver.
But, here’s where it gets messy. Sometimes God gives us just enough information to make us antsy. That’s what happens here. Abraham now has this covenant with God, and he knows that he is to be this patriarch of many, but he also has one wife, and she is not young and she is not fertile. Sarah, his wife, is VERY aware of both of things. Can you imagine the level of insecurity, indignity, and discouragement she must have been experiencing? The one thing that her culture told her made her valuable was the one thing that she could not do. She had not, and there was no evidence that she could ever, produce offspring. I imagine she so desperately wanted this to be true for her husband, but the world around her had told her that she was less than. She had failed him. God had promised her husband this thing that SHE could not deliver on.
So rather than wait on the Lord, they took matters into their own hands. Hagar was Sarah’s servant, and she was essentially sex trafficked for the purpose of forced procreation. Yes, I know that sounds extreme. I know that is a pretty heavy accusation to levy against Father Abraham, but the reality is that if the exact same thing happened today, that is what we would call it. The difference is that this was not an unheard of practice in that day and age simply because women were seen as valuable mostly in terms of their sexual and reproductive contributions for the men around them. However, if we had a woman today, who was in a foreign place with no support system, completely dependent upon a couple with whom she lived, and that woman was told by the couple that she had to have sex with the man so that he could create a child, would we really consider that consensual sex and willing reproduction? Now let’s add into that equation that in Hagar’s case, she is not just a dependent woman, she is a servant- a slave. Let’s just get real here: There is no option to say no. On top of this, Sarah intends to CLAIM THIS CHILD AS HER OWN. In Genesis 16:2, Sarah tells Abraham, “Go in to my servant, it may be that I obtain children by her.” Guys. “I obtain children by her.”
So the plan here is quite literally to use Hagar sexually, then use her womb, then take possession of her baby and steal her motherhood as well.
This is FATHER ABRAHAM and his beloved wife SARAH, the mother and father of the Old Covenant. We put these two on such a pedestal, talking about their faithfulness and relentless pursuit of the Lord, and that is not wrong, but so many churches, teachers and pastors just completely overlook this part of the story. Or maybe they mention it, but they gloss over it as Abraham and Sarah not having enough faith. This is so much more than not having enough faith, though. Not only did they not have enough faith to wait on the Lord, but they were willing to exploit a woman- they were willing to exploit one created in the image of God himself, in order to pursue having “offspring that number the stars.”
It gets worse though.
So they do. Abraham has (non-consensual) sex with Hagar, and they produce a child- Ishmael. And Hagar is not stoked. It doesn’t seem like she WANTED to bear a child for her mistress…in fact the text says that she “looked at her with contempt” (Gen 16:4). Sarah doesn’t like this attitude- she wants Hagar to be celebrating this and she isn’t- so Sarah approaches Abraham about it. He tells her that since Hagar is her servant, she can deal with her as she sees fit. He’s done his duty. He had sex with her, he conceived the child, and now it is no longer his problem to deal with. And scripture tells us that she dealt so harshly with Hagar that this pregnant woman tried to flee, until an Angel of the Lord spoke to her and sent her back.
Here’s what I love though.
Even though Abraham and Sarah- God’s earthly representation- had mistreated Hagar, God SAW her. He heard her. In fact, In Genesis 16, after the Angel of the Lord tells Hagar to return to Abraham and Sarah, he assures her that she will have a son named Ishmael, because “the Lord has listened to your affliction.”
Did you catch that? God HEARD HER, when Nobody else heard her. God SAW HER, even when nobody else saw her. When his own beloved one, Abraham acted against her, GOD did not leave her, he did not forsake her and he never abandoned her. In fact, He promised her that her offspring would also be so numerous they could not be numbered. Ishmael was HERS. Not Sarah’s, but hers, and her offspring were to be so many that they could not be numbered.
God, the Creator of Heaven and Earth, who had chosen and made a covenant with Abraham, was assuring Hagar, the lowly, sex-trafficked, pregnant slave girl of this. I love it so much. So does Hagar. Can you imagine how validated she felt in that moment? The relief, the peace, the acceptance of just being seen and heard must have been overwhelming.
Sarah gave Hagar’s body away to be used.
Abraham used her.
Sarah rejected and mistreated her.
Abraham never defended her.
She was completely alone, and pregnant.
BUT GOD. He is the one who stays. He will never leave us, never forsake us, never abandon us.
Hagar goes back, and Sarah conceives Issac- a miraculous conception in and of itself. Evidence of God’s supernatural ability to deliver on his promises- a redeeming and validation of Sarah’s value. We learn that the covenant is meant to be carried by Issac, not Ishmael, as God’s promise was designed to exist within the context of His miraculous intervention and not of the exploitation of Hagar.
And Still yet, God never forgot Ishmael.
The story picks back up in Genesis 21, with Issac being weaned. Sarah is still bitter and unkind regarding Ishmael. I wonder, sometimes, what life must have been like for these two women trying to coexist, raising these boys with such contempt between them? It must have been so difficult to live in circumstances like that. The environment must have been fraught with tension because Sarah reaches her boiling point because the little boy, Ishmael, is laughing.
Y’all. That’s it. A little boy was laughing. And he was LITTLE. We’re later told that he was small enough that he was strapped to Hagar’s back. I’ve got three boys of my own at home- ages 12, 7 and 6. I could MAYBE handle having one of the little two strapped to my back for a short period of time. Maybe. Possibly. My 12 year old is taller and stronger than I am. A LITTLE BOY WAS LAUGHING.
And Sarah demands that they be cast out. CAST OUT INTO THE DESERT WILDERNESS. Can you imagine this situation? The incredulity? The helplessness of Hagar, when Abraham hands her some bread, a skin of water, her son and just sends her on her way out into the wilderness?
Genesis 21:13-16 is one of the most heart-wrenching texts for me to read in all of scripture. There are a few that really hit home for me, as a mother, and this is one of them. “When the water in the skin was gone, she put 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, “Let me not look on the death of the child” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.”
Put yourself in Hagar’s shoes for a moment. Everyone has abandoned her. Everyone has betrayed both her and her son. She has been used, exploited, abused, mistreated, cast aside and now, cast out. She believes that they are both about to die, and she cannot bear the idea of watching her son die. Can you blame her? Abraham and Sarah forced her to create this child, whom she now dearly loves. A child she has raised, who has also been cast aside because now the favorite, the chosen one, Issac, has been born. She is so alone. She is so broken.
Genesis 21:17-20 goes on, “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? (Seriously? Do you not see this hot mess?!) Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow…”
WOW. God heard the boy. What was the boy saying? He must have been praying for his mama. Children are so smart. He had to have known, seen and observed what was happening around him. This “wild boy,” with a tender heart, bending the ear of the Lord on behalf of his mama, changes the story.
And God is with them. God never leaves them. He walks right with them, hand in hand, step in step when the whole world and the entire culture was walking away, turning their backs on and exploiting them.
Abraham and Sarah failed Hagar and Ishmael. But God never did.
As I was reading, studying, praying over and processing this, I was reminded that the fullness of scripture is one big rescue story. It is the story of how God rescues us, bringing us from separation into relationship with him for all eternity. It’s the story of how much God loves us, and his long-term process of bringing us back to him.
So how does this particular story fit into the greater rescue story that IS scripture? Even God’s chosen ones are imperfect. Even Father Abraham failed in a huge, epic, awful way. Righteous, Faithful, Committed Father Abraham with his Old Covenant STILL needed saving. He was still fraught with sin, even though he did not recognize it- even though he stood for and represented God here on earth in his time. He was still FAR from the perfect example that is Christ. He was still a fallible, sinful man. Sarah was still a fallible, sinful woman.
We are all in need of a Savior. None of us- not even Abraham with his faithfulness, commitment and willingness to sacrifice it all could earn through behavior, work, sacrifice or act his way into a perfect representation of what God calls us to be. There is no other solution but the blood of Christ Jesus.
We desperately need his example.
We desperately need his sacrifice.
We desperately need Him to save us- whether we are Hagar, Ishmael, Sarah or Abraham.
“None is righteous, no, not one”- Romans 3:10
** I chose to use the names “Abraham and Sarah throughout this text, even though in the beginning they are known as Abram and Sarai for the sake of consistency. Partway through the story, God gives them new names!