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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 no