Barbara J. Campbell, Pastor
The story of Abram and indeed the entire history of the Ancient Near East takes place on a relatively narrow strip of land which runs from Mesopotamia in the north to Egypt in the south; from the land of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the empires of Babylon and Assyria to the land of the Nile River and the Pharaohs.
In between was arid land, a land with no great rivers and no great empires, only a narrow coastline and banks of the not so mighty Jordan. This land was the important crossroads, however, for the northern and southern empires so both sought to control it.
The story goes that Abram was born in the northern end of this “Fertile Crescent;” in Mesopotamia, but immigrated into the Promised Land when God promised that he would find a future and heirs even in that dry place. As author Bruce Fieler writes, “Removed from enriched land, Abram must summon the power to fertilize. To do this, he turns his life over to God.” Bruce Fieler traveled throughout the land of Abram gathering information for his book and he is guided by a man called Rumi who tells him, “Abram leaves the land of rivers; to go someplace new, where he has to create a new world.” (pg 61)
When drought strikes in Abram’s new homeland he is forced to immigrate again, at least for a while, into the land at the southern end of the Fertile Crescent; in Egypt and the land of Pharaoh.
The story has it that Abram protected himself and his family in Egypt by having his beautiful wife Sarai pose as his sister and submit to seduction by the pharaoh. When the Pharaoh was suddenly besieged with plagues, and discovered that Sarai was really the wife of Abram, the family is banished back to the arid, waterless, yet Promised Land.
According to Midrash, Hagar was one of the daughters of the Pharaoh. When Hagar saw the miracle of plagues that God had inflicted on her father, she said, “It is better to be a slave in Sarai’s house that a princess in my own” and left Pharaoh’s palace to become the hand-maiden of Sarai. The name “Hagar,” perhaps stems from this movement into the tribe of Abraham as it means literally this is the reward.
Sarai from Mesopotamia and Hagar from Egypt become the context which surrounds the rest of Abraham’s story, as God’s promises are fulfilled in the birth of his children, and the struggles of parenthood are told to reflect our relationship with God.
No one walks away looking very good in this story. As we move along it seems like we just get deeper and deeper into disrespect, fearful jealousies and loyalties, and the cruelest of human mistreatment. At one point it even seems like Yahweh acts ruthlessly.
The control of water or at least access to water and the bearing of sons, has always been what life is all about in that land. Access to water, of course, in an arid part of the world is a matter of life or death. Having sons born into your family was also a matter of life after death, for many, as it was believed to be your only security while on earth and hope of living through the lives of your children after your death.
Fieler’s desert guide, Rumi, puts it this way, “In the desert you had nothing. You were moving all the time. You had no house, no land. The only relationship you had is with your son, his son, and his son, – a chain. You must connect with something, so you connect to your family.”
The story of Abram and Sarai begins as a story of being childless. Finally, Sarai did what most women would have done in her situation, she looked for a surrogate mother for the child of her husband, Abram; for a child that would become essentially her child, and she chose Hagar. With this arrangement, however, the tensions between Sarai and Hagar mount and we are left trying to figure out just who the good guys and the bad guys really are.
When Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child she began to look down on Sarai; she perhaps felt more in God’s favor than Sarai must have been and began to rub Sarai’s nose in it, so to speak. Sarai runs and tells her husband Abram that he’d better deal with Hagar’s disrespect and he disassociates from the whole situation telling Sarai to take care of the matter herself. Sarai does just that mistreating and abusing Hagar so badly that Hagar flees into the desert wilderness to escape from Sarai.
This part of the story is told in language that reminds us of a greater conflict between Hebrews and Egyptians yet to come, except that the roles of antagonist and victim are changed.
Here it is the Hebrew Sarah who “afflicts” the Egyptian Hagar. The very same word will be used in the biblical book, Exodus, but in that story it will be the pharaoh in Egypt who “afflicts” the Hebrew people. Here the Egyptian Hagar flees into the desert wilderness to a place called Shur, the very same place that the Israelites flee into immediately after crossing the Reed Sea.
It amazes me to think that behind the central Judea/Christian story of God’s saving grace in scripture; behind “our people;” the “chosen” tribes of Israel being rescued out of their slavery and oppression at the hand of the Egyptian Pharaoh; is the story of an Egyptian princess being rescued by God from her slavery and affliction at hands of our ancestor Sarai.
The affliction of Hagar happens very close to home. This affliction is about the internal struggles within families; with those closest to us. The affliction of Hebrew slaves in Egypt is huge in scope; the story of a nation subjected to warfare, captivity, and slavery which eventually finds its freedom and the blessing of land and future.
Is it possible that the Bible, when read as a whole, does not present some people who are consistently righteous and favored in the eyes of the divine and other who are not, but rather reveals that all of us are going to be afflicted and all of us are going to do our share of afflicting others.
Is it possible that scripture is not about pointing out who the bad guys and good guys are, but who God is? And especially that God is a God who takes care of all humanity and all creation with the same grace and love?
I’m wondering how it might have changed the Church’s history and message throughout history if we had embraced that view of scripture from the very beginning? What would be different if we didn’t continue to read scripture as a book about who God loves and doesn’t love; who’s saved and who isn’t?
When God’s messenger comes to Hagar in the wilderness, she receives a promise as great as the one given to Abram. Even though Hagar is told to return to Abram’s household; the place of her affliction, she is still promised innumerable children and that the son she is carrying will be given a name to remind her always that God hears her prayers; the name Yishmael, “God hears!”.
Hagar is told that Yishmael will be a Bedouin, as the messenger says that Yishmael will become like a wild ass. Wild asses roamed the deserts in herds, as did Bedouins. And, like most Bedouins, she is told, his life would bring him into much conflict; more affliction giving and getting perhaps; clearly, a reminder that sometimes we just have to live with our afflictions and trust that God still cares for us and promises us many blessings.
Hagar, who received little attention in Judea/Christian tradition, is actually the recipient of many “firsts” in scripture, according to Fieler. She is the first person in scripture to receive a messenger of God. While everyone else refers to her only as a “handmaiden,” God’s messenger is the first to call her by name. She is the first and only woman in scripture to receive the personal blessing of descendants. And she is the only person in scripture, male or female, to name God. She calls God, El-roi, God of my vision.
I’m most intrigued by the messenger in this story. Author Everett Fox notes in his translation and commentary called The Five Books of Moses, that messengers of God in Genesis always seem to be quite human. The Greek word angelos usually gets translated as angel in English translations, but it also means messenger. Were these actually messengers from God who appeared in human form or were they humans who became God’s messengers in their interaction and relationship with certain people they met? Did God speak through human messengers, perhaps?
I’ve had many human messengers from God, encouraging me, warning me, reminding me of God’s promises and blessing. I wonder who the human might have been who went after Hagar as she fled into the wilderness and encouraged her to return to Sarai’s tent to save her life, the life of her child, and receive God’s blessing. Was it another slave? Was it someone Abram had looking out for Hagar? Could it have been Abram himself.
Have you ever known yourself to be acting as God’s messenger? Perhaps we never see ourselves that way, even when that is the role we play. But God forbid that we should ever choose an easier path or a more convenient moment whenever we might be given the opportunity to speak for God.
Did you read about how last week physicists found the particle called Higgs Boson that they had been searching for for 48 years; the one particle in our physical universe that had to be present in order for things to have mass, that explains why things have substance, when they interact with it. It’s been humorously called the “God particle” by popular media.
A retired pastor friend, emailed after the discovery, “Isn’t that sort of like God? God is present in all the universe, and when you interact with God, you are given substance. Nothing else gives you substance, not what happens to you, not what you do, not what others think of you. It’s God’s interaction with you. You aren’t responsible for the substance of your existence: it’s a gift from God.
In a way you are a God particle, a tiny manifestation of the holy mystery that holds everything together. Like the Higgs boson, it turns out you’re more than just a figment of the world’s imagination. You’re proof of the existence of God.”