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Genesis 21:8-21

Reading this story, in virtually any time period and place, should make us uncomfortable. In both Genesis 16 and here in 21 Hagar is subjected to abuse, manipulation, de-humanization, and contempt. The story of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac could have been told without the details of Hagar and Ishmael’s mistreatment; it easily could have been “wiped clean” as to not make anyone feel uncomfortable or guilty, and still showed how God fulfilled his promise to make a great nation from Abraham and Sarah’s offspring. But instead this story is told in all its heart-wrenching details so that we, like its Israelite audience, may be witness to the mistreatment of others and somehow still find God in the midst of it.

Let us begin with the characters. Every good story has a hero and yet searching for one among the human characters in this story leaves us lacking. Abraham and Sarah, the renowned patriarch and matriarch, the ancestors of our faith, would seem like the logical choice for hero and heroine. But it is very difficult to root for them in this story. Sarah quickly becomes the villain as she harbors jealousy and envy against Ishmael for merely enjoying Isaac’s birthday party. It’s not difficult to imagine that same resentment festering in the older son in Jesus’ parable in Luke 15 as he waits outside, refusing to enjoy the festivities because of some perceived injustice. Sarah’s words are harsh and cruel: “Cast out this slave woman with her son!” By refusing to use their names she is refusing to acknowledge them as human beings, completely ignoring the fact that Ishmael is Abraham’s son as well, a son whose conception occurred because of Sarah’s demands. All Sarah can see is a threat, fueled by her fear and hatred.

Even though Abraham becomes known for his outstanding faith and “the father of all of us” (Romans 4:16), within the story of Hagar and Ishmael he does not spark much empathy within readers. In Genesis 16 we see him quickly acquiescing to Sarai’s plan to conceive a child through Hagar, showing little patience for God’s promises to come to fulfillment. Then, Abram encourages Sarai’s abuse of Hagar after Sarai is angry that her plan has been successful. Even here in chapter 21 when (now named) Abraham is distressed “on account of his son” (Ishmael), he does nothing to stop the abuse.

The protagonist in this story is the Egyptian slave-woman Hagar. Enslaved since she was a girl, Genesis 16: 1-16 tells us that she was brutally used by Sarai and Abram in order to conceive a son to carry on Abram’s lineage. Having no choice in what happens to her, she was impregnated. Then Sarai, the very person whose decision brought this about, rapidly turns on her and abuses her in a fit of jealousy and rage. Although the story doesn’t give us many details about this abuse, it was severe enough that Hagar decided her odds of survival were better in the barren wilderness than under her abusers’ household.

That is when God finds her. He appears to Hagar in one of the most powerful theophanies in the Bible, making promises to her that echo the covenantal blessings given to Abram. Like Abram, Hagar is also promised a son (named Ishmael because “God has seen your [Hagar’s] affliction”), a multitude of descendants, a renowned lineage, a mother to nations. But she cannot be the matriarch of a multitude if she dies in the desert, so God instructs Hagar to return back to abusers with the promise that one day all will be made right. With faith that arguably outmatches Abram’s, Hagar declares God to be “the God who sees me” and makes her way back to her owners.

In Genesis 21 the focus of abuse has shifted from Hagar to Ishmael. Sarah directs her rage and jealousy at him, doing whatever she can to ensure that he will be cut off from receiving any inheritance or recognition as Abraham’s son. Hagar, along with Ishmael, makes another journey to the desert, this time at Abraham’s command with nothing more than a little water and bread. It doesn’t take long for their provisions to run out and for the threat of death to sink in. This time in the desert looks to be Hagar’s last. We are given heart-wrenching details as this loving mother cries out on behalf of her dying son.

Where is God in this story? While the human characters in biblical narratives continually fall short of “hero” status, God is often recognized as the one who enters into the story to “save the day.” God first shows up after Abraham becomes distressed about Ishmael. The air is thick with conflict and Abraham seems to be frozen with indecision. God doesn’t give Abraham instructions on mediating the conflict, but instead seems to unjustly take Sarah’s side and commands Abraham to do what Sarah has demanded. In what world is this fair or just? How could God possibly “give in” to the villain? In every story worth its salt, good is supposed to fight evil and win. Instead our “hero” seems to join forces with evil to destroy the innocent.

But yet for the second time, God finds Hagar in the desert and comes to her. God sees Hagar and speaks directly to her, calling her by her name. He provides immediate rescue for her and Ishmael and then repeats his promise to make a great nation through them. While we remember best the multitude of descendants from Abraham, let us not forget that Hagar is given her own legacy, becoming the matriarch of nations. Hagar is the only woman to receive this kind of covenantal promise, which is particularly striking considering she is a non-Hebrew slave.[1] As Thomas Römer observes, this story shows us that “Yhwh is not only the God of Abraham and Isaac, but also the God of Hagar and Ishmael.”[2] He is a God who both sees and hears the pain and suffering of those in captivity.

We can–and should–be outraged at this story. The irony of an Egyptian who is an abused slave is not lost on an Israelite audience whose ancestors were slaves in Egypt. In this story the patriarch and matriarch of the Israelites are the slave owners, abusers, and oppressors. An Israelite audience would have recognized themselves as descendants from these slave owners, abusers, and oppressors, but yet they resisted the urge to white-wash their history. Instead they give voice to Hagar’s pain, compelling readers to long for justice on her behalf. We, too, are meant to empathize with Hagar and Ishmael, to feel outrage at their mistreatment, oppression, and injustice. And then we are meant to take that same focus and place it on ourselves, searching out any fear, jealousy, or resentment that causes us to de-humanize others.

We hold the convicting truth of this story alongside our quest to figure out what God is doing here. In this search I am reminded of the prophet Habakkuk and his challenge to God to explain why God allows evil to take over. Habakkuk is rightfully filled with indignation because God has allowed the most oppressive empire in the world, Babylon, to unleash its evil, abuse, and corruption over everyone. Habakkuk calls God out for His hypocrisy. He confronts God saying, “Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing; [so then] why do you look on the treacherous and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13, NRSV). Habakkuk continues with a tirade that questions God’s goodness and justice. As the BibleProject’s video on Habakkuk explains, God hears Habakkuk’s complaints and addresses them. God says that is using Babylon as a tool to bring the Israelites back into covenant with him. Even so, Babylon will ultimately be taken down and destroyed. God explains that even though he uses corrupt kingdoms, he does not endorse them; all nations are accountable to God’s justice.[3]

God seems to be doing something similar in our Genesis passage today. God shows up, sees and hears Hagar, and reassures her that He will make a way for good to be born out of abuse, injustice, and evil. His promise to make Hagar an unparalleled matriarch of a multitude is in the making.

In the midst of evil and injustice, God is committed to both creating good and keeping perpetrators accountable. When confronted with stories like Hagar’s, we should both express our outrage and despair and also put faith in God’s ability and willingness to redeem anything– and everything. Our people– within both our congregations and our communities– so desperately need to see God’s goodness in the face of rampant injustice, corruption, and evil. We have questions about how God is working in abusive and corrupt situations, questions of how God can allow evil, death, and destruction to have their way. The Bible doesn’t shy away from this. Hagar’s story is a testament to God’s faithfulness in the heart of abuse and desperation. Let us give voice to this suffering and by doing so, find God’s presence before us.

[1] Susan M. Pigott, “Hagar: The M/Other Patriarch,” Review & Expositor 115, no. 4 (2018): 513–28; 517.

[2] Thomas Römer, “The Exodus in the Book of Genesis,” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 75 (2010): 1–20; 14.

[3] BibleProject (2017). “Habakkuk.” YouTube video. Retrieved: April 6, 2023.