There’s a funny thing about history. It changes depending on who is telling it. For many years, history textbooks told the story of this country’s past from the viewpoint of white men. Stories of women, Native Americans, African Americans, and other minorities were either omitted or merely mentioned in passing. But to really know the story of a nation, the stories of all of its inhabitants must be told.
The same thing is true of the Bible. For the most part its stories are about God and men, told by men. Women make a few appearances, but usually only in minor or supporting roles. Very rarely is a story told from their point of view.
So we have to fill out those stories, imagine what the women might have to say. Today, I’d like to do that with Hagar, Abraham and Sarah’s slave.
Our reading from Genesis says this:
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 will not inherit with my son Isaac.”
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.
I imagine that this is how Hagar might have told the story:
* * *
Well, here I am in the wilderness again. I’ve been down this path before, 13 years ago. That time I was fleeing; this time I was cast out. But the end result is the same. My son and I are alone and afraid, and I will do whatever I need to do to keep him safe.
Maybe I should start at the beginning.
My name is Hagar. You wouldn’t know that from my masters, the great Abraham and Sarah. They never address me by name.
Of course, everyone knows about them – the patriarch and matriarch of a great nation, the recipients of a covenant with God, the first couple of God’s chosen people.
They are held up as the epitome of faithfulness and loyalty.
But there is another side to their story, the story of my life.
Throughout history no one has really cared much about my story. But a woman, Phyllis Trible, a great Bible scholar, wrote about me, calling my story one of the Bible’s “texts of terror.”
“Hagar the Egyptian slave claims our attention,” she wrote. “Knowledge of her has survived in bits and pieces only, from the oppressor’s perspective at that, and so our task is precarious: to tell Hagar’s story from the fragments that remain.”
Here is my story.
I am a slave, born in Egypt. Abraham bought me for Sarah while they were wandering through my homeland. I had to leave my parents and my siblings, my friends, everything I had ever known in my 12 years of life to go with them.
I suppose that as the life of a slave goes, being owned by Abraham and Sarah wasn’t too bad, at least at first. They were kind enough. They were also enormously wealthy. I can’t even begin to tell you how much livestock they had. Other things, too – the finest clothing and jewels. They lacked for nothing.
Or so I thought at first.
Then through my own grief and homesickness I began to notice an enormous sadness about Sarah. And I realized what was missing – children. There were plenty of them around, but they were all children of slaves or Abraham’s nieces and nephews.
The great Abraham and Sarah themselves had no offspring.
Another slave filled me in on their situation. For years, they had both longed for children, but year after year Sarah’s womb remained empty.
It is amazing that Abraham stayed married to her. Even a wealthy woman is judged by her capacity to produce children – or more specifically, a son. Everyone knows that the inability to conceive is a sign of God’s disfavor.
But Abraham has stayed faithful to Sarah. Even more amazing, he claims he and Sarah have found favor with God, that God has promised that they will have descendants more numerous than the stars.
But that promise was made a decade ago, and Abraham and Sarah were old even then. My fellow slave told me that when Abraham first heard the divine promise that he and Sarah were elated, hopeful that their dreams of a child would come true.
As the years passed, Sarah became more and more despondent. She seemed obsessed with her barrenness, and about who would inherit Abraham’s fortunes when he dies.
Then came the fateful day when everything changed for me. Early one morning Sarah came into my tent and ordered me to go with her to Abraham. My heart almost stopped when I heard what she said to her husband.
“You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children,” she said to him. “Go into my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And she shoved me toward Abraham.
Did anybody ask me how I felt about this? Did anyone think maybe I didn’t want to be with that old man? Did anyone consider whether I wanted to bear a child and then give it to another woman?
Of course not.
I stood still, holding my breath, hoping that Abraham would refuse. But, as usual, he did what Sarah commanded.
And right away I conceived.
I have to admit I was a bit smug. Here Sarah had been trying unsuccessfully for decades to get pregnant, and I conceived right away. Just who do you think has favor with God?
I know I shouldn’t have let Sarah see how I was feeling, but I couldn’t help it. She had been so cruel to me. She acted like she was jealous, when the whole thing was her idea. I couldn’t help gloating a little that I was pregnant and she wasn’t.
Right away she went to Abraham complaining. And did he stand up for me, the woman who was bearing his child?
“Your slave girl is in your power,” he told his wife. “Do with her as you please.”
Even now, I can’t bring myself to talk about what Sarah did next. All I can tell you is that I realized there was no way I could stay there any longer.
So I ran away. The unknown terrors of the wilderness were preferable to the known horrors of life with that woman.
It didn’t take long for the enormity of what I had done to sink in. I was sitting by a spring of water, weeping, wondering where I would go and how I would survive when I heard a voice calling my name.
At first, I thought it was Abraham or one of his people, coming to capture me. I wondered what punishment I would receive, if they would even let me live.
But the voice was much too kind to be Abraham or one of his minions, and none of them would address me by name, anyway. With them, it was always, “hey you,” or “come here, slave.”
Suddenly I knew, don’t ask me how, that this voice was an angel of the Lord. My heart lifted. Maybe this divine messenger was here to help me and my unborn child.
But my hopes were soon dashed. The angel said the last thing I wanted to hear. “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”
Well, this was an angel from Abraham’s God, after all. Why would I think that this God would help a runaway slave?
But then the angel said something else. “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.”
Where had I heard those words before? Oh yes, that was what God had supposedly said to Abraham. Was God making me, a woman, a slave, the same divine promise?
And then there was another promise. This child in my womb is a son, the angel said. His name will be Ishmael, which means “God hears.” There were other frightening words – that my boy would be at odds with all his kin.
But somehow I was comforted. I felt like my prayers had been heard. And somehow I knew it wasn’t just an angel that I had seen; that it was God’s own self present with me.
I spoke to this God and named him El-Roi, God who sees, because I was so amazed that God had seen and come to me.
Later, others would write that I was the very first person in scripture to receive an annunciation, a birth announcement from an angel, and that I was the only person in scripture brave enough to name God.
I must confess that I wish that this God had led me through the wilderness to a new and happy life, instead of ordering me to return to my old one. But I was strangely comforted and resigned to doing what God ordered.
And so I returned to Abraham and Sarah and gave birth to Ishmael.
God answered my prayers in another way, too. I knew that legally this child of my womb belonged to Sarah. But in truth, Sarah took very little interest in my boy.
She couldn’t nurse him, of course, and she had no interest in walking the floor with him at night, or comforting him when he cried. She left all those things to me, her slave.
I was happy to oblige. Ishmael may have been forced to call Sarah “mother,” but his true maternal bond was with me. And I was comforted knowing that he would never live a slave’s life, that Abraham would always recognize him as his son.
But then one day everything changed. We had all noticed that Sarah had gained weight, but what old woman doesn’t? Then she announced she was with child!
No one believed her at first. Why would we? She was almost 90 years old. Who ever heard of such a thing? But soon it became obvious that it was true, that old, barren womb was the bearer of life.
As soon as Isaac was born, I worried about Ishmael. Abraham still treated him as a son, but Sarah refused to pay him even cursory attention. If she saw Abraham talking to him she became furious, calling her husband away from the boy.
I warned Ishmael to stay away from Isaac and Sarah as much as possible, but Ishmael loved his baby brother. One day they were playing together, laughing, when Sarah appeared. She snatched Isaac away and ran to Abraham.
I knew right away there would be trouble. And sure enough, later that evening Abraham approached me. My heart sank at the expression on his face.
“You and the boy must go,” he told me, refusing to look me in the eyes. Then, he added, “Don’t worry. God will be with you.”
Right; that would be the God who sent me back for more abuse and oppression. Somehow that is not so comforting.
Abraham gave us a skin of water and a couple of loaves of bread, then escorted us to the wilderness.
One moment I was the mother of an important son; the next my boy and I were exiled with only a little bread and water.
We wandered in the hot sun for days. I kept thinking we would come across people who would take us in, or at least stumble across some water, but there was nothing.
Soon the food was gone, then the water. The heat was scorching. Ishmael was hot with fever, his lips parched, his voice cracked when he begged for water that I did not have to give him.
My son was dying. I probably was, too, but I didn’t care about that. All I wanted to do was protect my boy. If I couldn’t do that, my own death would be welcome.
Finally, Ishmael could not go on. I found a bush to shade him, and made a nest under it, trying to make him as comfortable as possible. Once I laid him down, I stepped away. I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer anymore. I couldn’t bear to watch him die.
Through the long night I heard his cries of pain. My own voice was raised in prayer to a God who I was not sure was there.
“Turn to me and have mercy upon me,” I prayed. “Give your strength to your servant; and save the child of your handmaid. Show me a sign of your favor.”
Then I heard another voice. “Do not be afraid,” it said. Was I dreaming? I looked around and saw no one, but the voice continued.
“God has heard the voice of your boy.”
My boy, Ishmael, whose name means “God hears.” God has heard him!
“Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast, for I will make a great nation of him.”
I ran and embraced Ishmael, whose fever seemed to have broken. Holding my child, I turned, and before me was a well of water that I hadn’t seen before. We drank.
I didn’t know what would come next or how we would survive, but somehow I was sure we would. The God who sees had heard our cries.
Suddenly, I felt stronger, and knew that although life may not be what I wished, I would be able to cope with whatever came our way “because you, O Lord, have helped me and comforted me.”
Phyllis Trible says that “Hagar is Israel, from exodus to exile, yet with differences. And these differences yield terror.
“All we who are heirs of Sarah and Abraham, by flesh and spirit, must answer for the terror in Hagar’s story.”
And we must be aware of the Hagars in our midst today.