1. Who is Hagar?
Her story is not well-known, even to people who have read the Bible all their lives.
Who is Hagar?
A woman, first of all. And that immediately means, in the world in which she lives, that Hagar is one of the no-accounts, a person with little status, little power, little hope.
Who is Hagar?
She is a foreigner, an Egyptian separated against her will from her homeland, her family.
Who is Hagar?
She is a slave, maid to her mistress Sarah, who is the wife of Abraham. As a slave, Hagar cannot come or go as she chooses. Her needs, her wishes, are not given serious consideration. Hagar will do as she is told, like it or not.
Who is Hagar?
An outsider in terms of social position, gender, race, and age. She is one of the oppressed. She is victim.
Hagar’s story begins with a promise. Not a promise to her, because she is a woman, a slave, a foreigner. But a promise to a man named Abraham. God makes the promise to Abraham that he will be father of a great nation, with descendants as plentiful as the dust of the earth, as the stars in the heavens (cf. Gen. 12:2, 13:16, 15:5). Yet, after the promise is made, time passes, and still Abraham and his wife Sarah have no child born to them. Here’s what the Bible says happened next. (Genesis 16:1-6)
You see how it is with Hagar, don’t you? When the master and the mistress of the household decide that Hagar can be used to bear them an heir, Hagar is not consulted. She is simply told what her role will be.
We hear Hagar’s story and we shake our heads. Yes, we think, she did not have an easy time of it, but things were different then. Maybe it wasn’t all that rough on her because as a slave, she would have expected to do what she was told.
It is one thing to hear a story like Hagar’s; it is a different thing to experience it ourselves. Listen to Hagar’s story but to imagine that you are Hagar. You are Hagar and this is your story.
"I will give you so many descendants that no one will be able to count them. You will have a son and you will name him Ishmael, because the LORD has heard your cry of distress."
What a strange thing to say. He is addressing you, not as if you were slave at all, but as if you were a free woman, the mother-to-be of a great nation. You raise your eyes, but the stranger is gone. And you think, "Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?" You name the place El-roi, which means "the God of seeing." It must be God’s will that I go back, you say to yourself. And so you go, not because you want to, but because … because this is what you must do. (Genesis 21:1-2, 8-21)
Hagar returned, gave birth to a son, named him Ishmael, and surely must have delighted in watching him grow. How her mistress treated her upon her return and how she treated the baby we are not told. But when Sarah herself had a son, it wasn’t long until the old animosity flared up again, hotter than before. Now Sarah gave Abraham a direct order: "Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave shall not inherit along with my son Isaac…"
So he does.
The Bible tells us that Abraham was distressed because of his son Ishmael. At least that much is to his credit in this most distressing of stories, because, let’s face it, not much else Abraham does here is worthy of praise.
What we hear next is especially distressing, for now the Bible says that God sided with Sarah and told Abraham to send the slave woman and her son away. And God also told Abraham that a great nation shall come from Ishmael, because the boy is Abraham’s offspring. Not Hagar’s. Abraham’s.
What kind of story is this, in which God joins Abraham and Sarah to oppress a slave woman and her son?
What kind of story is this, where the best God seems to come up with is an almost reluctant rescue mission in the wilderness after hearing the mother weeping?
It is a distressing story, because from the beginning of the story to the end, Hagar is powerless. She is an innocent victim of use, abuse, and rejection.
I wonder if you felt even a little of what she must have felt when the story was told with you as Hagar. But whether you felt it or not, you may wonder why her story was included in the scripture. Of what importance is Hagar’s story?
2. Hagar’s story is important.
She is the first person in scripture visited by a divine messenger.
She is the only person in scripture who dares to name the deity.
She is the first woman to hear the announcement that she will bear a child, a forerunner of Mary who will also hear an angel tell her that she will bear a child.
Hagar is the only woman in the Bible who receives a promise from God of descendants.
She is the first woman in scripture to cry for her dying child.1
Hagar’s story is important for another reason, important because so many women in history find their stories in hers.
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 …2
Hagar’s story is important because she reminds us that injustice is sadly still alive and well in our day, as it was in hers.
Racism and ethnic hatreds flourish in this country and around the world.
Hagar’s story is important because if we have any feeling alive in us at all, we are touched, moved by her story.
It’s why our young people started and maintain the food bank.
Moved enough to say, "This must not be."
Women and men and children are not created to be abused but to live lives that are free and fulfilled. All are made in God’s image and deserve to be treated with dignity.
3. Hagar’s story is a story of God’s amazing grace
We experience the grace of God in a meaningless life.
I believe the problem with the church today is that we have taken grace for granted. We are so used to hearing about grace. We are comforted by songs like “Amazing Grace how Sweet the Sound”. We discuss grace as a good Bible study topic. But how often do we really contemplate God’s grace…for us…right now. I mean think about it…each breath we take is an example of God’s grace. Each time we wake up in the morning we experience God’s grace. The birth of a brand new baby is an experience of God’s grace. And…knowing life in all its fullness is an experience of grace. We should be going through our days overjoyed with what God has done for us.
My story, your story. In the wondrous mystery we call the love and grace of God, each story is heard and known, treasured and blessed and remembered.
Who is Hagar? God knows.
Who am I? Who are you? God knows. God cares. Now and forever.