Through the Bible: Hagar and Ishmael

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So obviously this story is really important. It’s not even just important to Christians and Jews, this one is important to the Muslim faith as well. This is one of those exciting cross-over stories. Growing up, it is definitely one we heard talked about fairly frequently and the message was simple. Abram doesn’t trust God. Sarai doesn’t trust God. If you’re from a particularly “men must lead the house” sort of tradition, it’s a good example of what happens when you let women lead. I wasn’t from that tradition but there were… undertones. It was also sometimes used as a weird lesson in why plural marriage didn’t work, two women didn’t get along with each other sort of thing.

But I will be honest and say this was not like many of the stories for me growing up. I felt really, really bad for Hagar. It didn’t seem fair. I have a feeling I will be far more grossed out by this story now but growing up I was just really troubled by it. What had she done wrong? She did everything she was supposed to and okay so she “despised her mistress” but… but why didn’t Abram step up? Why was he willing to let his child die? Why was he so weak and awful? I did not like this story as a kid.

This is supposed to be a story about God’s grace, that’s how it was taught to us. God has mercy on them. Let’s see how that comes across now, shall we?

Hagar and Ishmael

16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slavenamed Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,[a]
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward[b] all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen[c] the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi[d]; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne.16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Response: Okay so… so this is still kind-of an awful story. Hagar is Sarai’s Egyptian slave, which for some reason I had never picked up on before but which I assume means that it’s very possible she acquired her after their last trip through Egypt when her husband pimped her out and they piled them up with stuff to make them go away. Stuff including people, most likely.

I’d like to note that there’s actually no evidence here that Sarai knows anything about God’s promise, which is something we were always taught. That Sarai was being impatient and trying to fulfill God’s word in her own way. But it doesn’t say that. It just says she wants a family and God is keeping her from having it so here, use this woman to give me a family. Maybe Abram was thinking of the promise and maybe he wasn’t. The promise is nowhere in this story. It was just made so you can imply it but there’s no talking about it.

So he sleeps with her and she becomes pregnant and she “begins to despise her mistress.” What does that actually mean? Does Sarai feel inferior to her? Is she taking it out on her? Is Hagar excited to have a place in the family, looking forward to legitimacy and goes too far? Who knows. But Sarai isn’t having it and she goes to Abram and says she’s done and he says yeah, whatever. I want no part of this.

And then Sarai abuses her slave until she runs from her. It says mistreats but let’s call it what it is here. She is abusive. She is so abusive that Hagar feels it is better to run pregnant into the desert and face who knows what, then stay in this camp another day. That is… well, reading between the lines, that is pretty horrific. And Abram apparently just watches and waits. He is certainly not a safe place for Hagar; she has no more safe places. She belongs to Sarai. She is not his responsibility.

So she runs. And as she runs, the Lord finds her and tells her to go back to her abuser. He tells her to return to the woman abusing her and to submit to her. And he once again makes a prophecy, this time over Hagar’s descendants. Once again, it is weirdly less than comforting. Don’t worry. You will have limitless descendants. And your son will be born and he will be wild and he will be in conflict with absolutely everyone he ever meets. Isn’t that awesome?

And Hagar… I find this a little heartbreaking, to be honest. Hagar is so happy. She is so happy because someone has seen her. Because she has been called by name and she has been acknowledged and seen as a person. Now, of course, it would be very easy to argue that’s a bit tenuous. Actually she was just seen as the mother of her son, not so much as a person herself. But all I can think in reading this is that the woman who just left this hellish situation feels so blessed to have been called out by God himself, probably feels that she hadn’t been seen in a kind way in months or maybe years. And God uses that to send her back to the woman who will abuse her and the man who will let it happen. Maybe something worse would have happened if she had kept going. Maybe there was a plan. I don’t know. But this feels like using someone. It doesn’t feel like compassion to me.

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