Sept. 17, 2017 // Narrative Yr. 4.2 // First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Words Can Do That: Naming God #1”; Genesis 16; Genesis 21:8-21
One of my favorite Baptist preachers once described the story we just heard as a textbook example of family system dysfunction. The 2,000 BCE edition. This is a story, he said, about that time Sarai scapegoated her slave girl, Hagar, by triangulating the patriarch Abram into her rage, and God enabled the dysfunction. Take this one to any good family therapist. This is family woundedness acting out and writ large in our faith story. In this story, power and blame become entangled with the complications attendant on the phrase “God’s promise.” When that happens, sometimes I find the most helpful thing is to try on each character, try to see from the perspective of each person in the story. (Pause)
See, for example, the situation from Sarai’s perspective: Sure. There was another way. The ancient Hebrews did practice a two-tiered marriage system. A pilegesh, a low-status or secondary wife, could also have children for the patriarch. This made good economic sense, especially if the first wife didn’t have many babies. But in those situations, while the children could help the family’s livelihood, they did not receive an inheritance. They were welcome and expected to work for the family business — the vineyard, the farm — they received food and board as fine as the rest. But when Pop died, they did not get any share in the assets. Sarai knows that for God’s promise a few chapters earlier to come true, Abram’s child must be a full heir. So she takes initiative. They aren’t getting any younger. So Sarai uses the means available to her, a surrogate, a slave she owns. When she gives Hagar to Abram, she also gives her equal status as “his wife.” It’s “isha,” the word for wife, not a concubine. When Hagar gets pregnant, what Sarai isn’t counting on is further shame. Gratitude maybe, some deference or just a little respect. But the slave girl starts to talk back, loudly denouncing Sarai’s superior status. On top of all the judgment and shame Sarai is already living with as a so-called “barren woman” in her time and place, forfeiting not only her status but also voluntarily sharing the title of wife as well as her husband’s bed? Well, maybe this is just the last straw. How dare she? Sarai makes Hagar pay. She abuses Hagar in the same way — with the same verb — that later storytellers describe how the Egyptians abused the enslaved Israelites until God sets them free. (Pause)
We can imagine seeing the situation from Abram’s perspective. (I confess this one is a little harder for me, as I am not a patriarch.) I can imagine Abram saying “I don’t understand God or women.” Am I blessed or not? I’ve received a promise, but decades have passed with no sign of fulfillment. Why can’t these two women be happy? Both of their sons will become nations. What can I do? God is in charge. I throw up my hands. (Pause)
But can we see the situation from Hagar’s position? We can start first with her name. She was called “Hagar.” But “Hagar” is not an Egyptian word. It’s Hebrew. The scholar Wil Gafney tells us, it’s Hebrew for “the foreign thing.” It’s not even “foreign woman.” And it could have been. Had her name been forgotten? Or was it just one more violence perpetrated by colonizers and enslavers who have for millennia taken someone’s name and replaced it with their own word? Hagar’s very womb will be colonized for the hope of the nation, Gafney writes. When she becomes pregnant, she could see Sarai was no better, was just as imprisoned by this system as Hagar, and now still childless, maybe even a little worse off. So she tells it like she sees it. And then she gets it. Sarai abuses Hagar until she flees. Out in the desert, despairing, a divine messenger attends her. Is this the same deity who shrugged divine shoulders when Sarai wanted to kick her out? Maybe Hagar is not so sure. So she calls this divine presence by her own name, a name born of her experience of God. You are “El Roi,” God Seeing Me. I’ve seen God. More than anyone else in this story, Hagar seems to question the dissonance of word and deed, both human and divine. And her naming of God intentionally integrates language and experience: You are God who has seen me. She becomes the only person in Hebrew scripture to name God in this way. (Pause)
There will be other namings in the next few weeks. Next week, Abraham will call a place, “God provides.” And then there will be Moses and the burning bush, when God gives Moses God’s own name. But in this story, Hagar, the foreign woman, names God.
Hagar, Sarai, Abram… We human beings keep playing out our entangled oppressions. This story is not an old story, it is very current. The motifs follow us through human history. “If the predominant image of Egypt in the Hebrew Bible is of slavery,” writes Safwat Marzouk, “we find a reversal in the story of Hagar, as Sarah, ancestor of the Israelites, afflicts an Egyptian woman. Though this reversal does not undo the oppression that the Israelites experienced in Egypt, it destabilizes the idea of Egypt as only a site of oppression.” In fact, this story destabilizes the idea that there is ever only one site of oppression, that someone is only every oppressor or oppressed. This story destabilizes the idea that “us” vs. “them” is ever an adequate word… in religion, in politics, or in family. Hagars broke glass in St. Louis last night because they are still being treated as “the other” whose bodies are commodities at best and dangerous usurpers at worst. Abrams issued their judgments from court benches, excusing the regular violations and even executions of these “others” by saying, “Well, you know how Egyptians are… and women… we can’t be responsible for every instance of abuse.” And Sarais asked, “How dare you speak to me that way? After all I’ve done for you?” This triangle of human relations plays out in many times and places in our human community. And maybe St. Louis is on my mind most because of how racism in the United States — our original sin — is so much on my mind this year, 2017. It feels like this is the year we all realize how racist our families are… and that we are a part of them. But each time I recognize the pattern of violence and pain and blame, I wonder, I ask: Where is God in the story? Is the God we’re worshipping the one enabling the violence, the scapegoating, the pain? Or is God the one who shows up in the desert and whom Hagar names?
Where is God? Where in our experience? And where can we imagine God being today?
I imagine that out in the wilderness, someone is crying. And a messenger appears to say: This is where I AM and Will Be. There is no “other.” It’s not “us” and “them.” Even if the the suffering one is fleeing those I’ve called and blessed. I see you. See me. And name me as you will.