Rev. Diane K. Hooge
Some years ago, I found my way to the Hilton Hotel in Oakland, California for a clergy women event. The speaker was Dr. Reneta Weems, an Old Testament Professor from Vanderbilt University. She was the first African American woman to graduate with a Ph.D. in Religious Studies from Princeton.
Before Dr. Weems spoke, we had a get acquainted time around the tables. We were to fill out a card titled, “When I was eight…the foods I like, my home, my friends etc.” Now, there is a rasty side of me that does not enjoy this kind of process. I had gotten up very early, fought the freeway traffic and I was eager to hear the speaker. While I toyed with my paper, my table mates were writing volumes while I wrote one word answers.
As the answers began being shared, I softened and began listening…listening to what was behind the stories. These were stories that many women of color share, and I was the only Anglo woman at the table. In the mystery of that morning, I felt privileged to hear their stories. I remember one woman who took us to her Southern hometown community. She described her Saturday morning ritual of walking down the street to an educated black woman’s home. Every Saturday morning, this woman opened her home to the neighborhood children who would then walk respectfully to a back room which was dedicated to George Washington Carver. She shared with us that she learned things on Saturdays that she had never heard about in public school. Out of her Saturday experience, she made the commitment to become a teacher. It was hard to hear the stories of white neighbor moms who saw young African American women as second-class friends to their white daughters who lived in the big house, while they lived in the small house on the back of the property.
This morning’s scripture lesson is a back door women’s story. It has all the dynamics that come with the interplay of those with privilege and those without. It provides us with a keyhole view of a period of time in the life of a patriarchal culture within one of the leading families of our faith heritage. And, although this unsavory text is one that will not be found in the formal lectionary we usually follow, it is a story that needs to be told.
As with most stories, there are many layers. Walking in the front door of Abraham’s home—his tent—would allow us to catch a glimpse of the wealth that he had accumulated in land, herds and flocks. He is one of the socially and economically privileged. The number of shepherds in the fields and the servants in the home would further attest to his wealth, power and prestige.
The heart of the story is in the unwritten. We have to read between the lines and underneath the words where ethnic prejudice and sexual exploitation creates a story that could well be a parallel with newspaper headlines. The between the lines living takes us into the back rooms of the main house. What we can be sure of is that the unnamed help, or in this case slave, always better understands the ones in power than those in power understand the ones who serve. I can imagine that there were some conversations that had taken place so many times that both parties knew the script by heart.
Picture Egyptian slave woman Hagar standing in the kitchen preparing Hebrew Mistress Sarah’s morning bowl of yogurt and cereal while Sarah sits at the table over-stirring her mug of tea. Hagar is fully aware of what is coming next. Sarah starts off with the familiar deep sigh, and she then moves into the litany about having been shunned by so-and-so because of her barrenness. Sarah has been down this rocky, pock-filled road a thousand times lamenting the fact that she has never had the respect that her position in life merits as wife of Abraham due to her lack of having given birth. Her inability to provide the insurance policy of heirs made her a woman to be scorned. In her patriarchal culture she is considered chattel. Now she is entering old age and is way beyond tired of waiting for God to fulfill God’s promise of an heir. Since God hasn’t made good on God’s promise, she decides to fix the problem.
Hagar’s oppressive story holds the timeless truth of speaking to women who live out their lives in oppressive political regimes and patriarchal religious structures. The one in four women who are sexually abused in this country can identify with Hagar’s story. The invisible women who through no fault of their own find themselves working in the sex trafficking industry can identify with Hagar’s slavery position. And, I maintain that the oppressed mother’s in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are desperate, desperate women who believe that there is no hope…and the only hope for their children is to give them every penny they own and send them off with prayers that they will somehow find a place where there is hope for a better life. And, I suspect that when one lives in hell, anything is better…even if it means risking their children’s lives.
Sarah approaches Abraham and sets up the first surrogate birth story in scripture. As a slave, there are no safe boundaries, and young fertile Hagar, is forced to marry Sarah’s husband and produce a child that will belong to Sarah. What Sarah didn’t count on was what the pregnancy would do to their relationship. The structure that had defined their roles as mistress and slave had become blurred. The old rules were broken. Hagar gained power as she was doing the one thing that Sarah could not do…become pregnant. Sarah lashes out in anger; anger that spills over when one’s body has betrayed them; anger that oozes out because of the grief of lost youth; anger that burns deeply because of the loss of control; anger that rages against God who had promised a child. Hagar responded from a place of disordered empowerment. With her growing belly came a glimpse of power that she had never known. Following in the only modeling she had ever experienced, Hagar used her pregnancy to elevate herself and she fell into the trap of using her growing child as a weapon.
Out of her anger and fear, Sarah takes it all out on Abraham and blames him. Abraham is well aware that he is not about to own his role in having a trophy mistress. He points his finger at Sarah and makes it clear that he had nothing to do with this idea. It was all Sarah’s idea, and he made it clear that it was up to Sarah to handle the situation. He took refuge under the umbrella of the legal customs of that day; laws that made the personal slave of the wife subject to her control. End of discussion.
The next scene brings us to the brutal climax of the story. We face the embarrassingly seamy side. After a particularly nasty blow-up, we don’t know if Hagar was sent into the desert, or if she saw it as a refuge from Sarah’s abuse and fled into the desert. Pregnant with her child, Hagar heads out into the desert chasing the illusion of freedom that often comes when one is physically free but not mentally or emotionally free. Her encounter with the angel has a Sophia like quality about it—a feminine sense of the Spirit as she is sent back to face not only Sarah, but also her own victimization. There is the perception, again experienced between the words of the narrator, that she was not yet ready to be authentically free. This is an uncomfortable place for us in 2014. Was there no choice for survival but for Hagar to return? The angel asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” The angel is serving as a mentor, a guide, a life coach. In order to move to inner clarity, Hagar has to define a goal. She was so intent on fleeing that she had no clear end in sight. She may have been headed for Egypt, but that clearly had not served her well.
The tough news for Hagar was the guidance from the angel to return to Sarah. The good news was she was not left without hope. She was given a matriarchal promise parallel to the promise given to Abraham. She was given the promise of a survivor lineage that would come from this unborn child. She learned that she was carrying a son and that his name Ishmael means “God hears.” The unborn child received his name because of the divine hearing of Hagar’s misery. Her voice has moved the action of God. And the messenger of the divine describes the characteristics of her son. He will be wild, free-spirited and untamed. In her role as an unnamed slave girl, considered part of Abraham’s possessions, she names the divine as the one who sees me (el roi).
In the 21st chapter of Genesis, we learn that Ismael was 14 when Sarah gave birth to Isaac at the age of 90. Abraham was 100. The roles of Sarah and Hagar shifted as Sarah re-claims her role as the mother of the child of promise. The blended family did not mix well, and again Hagar is cast out, but this time taking her beloved son with her. And, this time she does not return. Hagar, clutching to God’s promise returns to Egypt with her son. He marries and God honors the promises made to Hagar and Ishmael.