The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
Meeting You Where You Are- Genesis 21:8-21
She is the only person to name God in the whole Bible. Everyone else learns God's name by hearing it from the Divine. This woman gives God a name based on her experiences with God. The name came to her... well, God came to her during the first time that she was living in the wilderness. The wilderness is not the place that you'd expect a pregnant woman to be trying to live all on her own. She had run to the wilderness when she felt that her home, well, the home of the people who enslaved her, was no longer safe. You see, this woman, Hagar, was a slave and she found herself in conflict with the woman who enslaved her. Mind you, the event that incited the conflict was not an event that she had much control over. The woman who enslaved her, a woman who was called Sarai at that point in her life, had grown impatient waiting to have a child of her own. She gave Hagar to her husband, Abram, in hopes that Hagar might be able to become pregnant, ensuring the fruitful future that Abram had assured her God had promised him. Genesis does not record how Hagar felt about this new arrangement, probably because her feelings on the matter didn't really count. As a slave, she had little control of what happened to her own body.
Hagar did end up becoming pregnant, which was what Sarai had initially hoped for. Scripture records that this pregnancy did not make life easier for Hagar. Genesis states that Hagar looked upon Sarai with contempt, which, quite frankly, is understandable. Sarai grew frustrated with Hagar and instructed Abram to do something about Hagar's attitude. Rather than protecting Hagar as a second wife, Abram washed his hands of the situation, telling Sarai that Hagar is her property and her problem to deal with as she saw fit. So Sarai did. We don't know what all she did, but we do know that it was harsh, harsh enough that Hagar would run away into the wilderness to escape her.
Genesis tells us that this is where an angel of God found Hagar, residing by herself by a stream of water. A scholar I read this week, Delores Williams, notes that when these ancient stories say that an angel of God has visited a person, an angel isn't an entity separate from God. Instead, we should understand an angel's presence as the very presence of God, wrapped up and squeezed into a form that humans can comprehend. When we read this story, we can interpret it most fruitfully by understanding that God is present at the spring with Hagar, wondering what she is doing all by herself out in the woods. Hagar responded to God, explaining that she had to run from Sarai's harsh treatment. She seemed to be trying to return to Egypt, the country of her birth, because the place where God found her was right on the border.
God's response to her might be surprising to those of us who remember later biblical stories, like that of Exodus, where God frees slaves from their torment. In this story, God told her to go back to Sarai. Williams, whom I quoted just a moment ago, suggested that we read God's primary motive has finding the strongest way for Hagar to survive. In this case, her survival was mostly likely assured if she returned to Sarai. She could give birth with others to support her. There was even a chance that her child, if a son, would be granted the authority that came with being a first-born son, even though she herself was a slave. God promised her she would have son and that her children and grandchildren would not be enslaved as she had been. Instead, they would become numerous and as free as the stars, though her son's life would likely be marked by strife. Still, if she returned, she would survive, and her child would survive to be a free warrior.
With this promise in mind, Hagar returned to Sarai, but not before doing one more thing, the thing she will do that no one else in the Bible will do. She said to God, "You are El-roi," that is, the God of Seeing, or the God who Sees. The legacy of her encounter with God would be so powerful that the well that would be built at the spring where she talked with God would continue to bear her name for God long after she was gone. Generations would call the well "Beer-lahai-roi," the Well of the Living One Who See Me. God saw Hagar in distress and made a covenant with her, promising that she and her son would survive and making a way for them to survive. This would not be the last time Hagar would encounter God in the wilderness. God would see her and her son again. God would offer them survival again, too.
Our second reading from today is the recounting of the Hagar's second encounter with the God who sees. Between the first wilderness story in chapter 16 and this second wilderness story here in chapter 21, much has happened. Most important for our reading about Hagar and Ishmael are the following: Sarai and Abram are now known as Sarah and Abraham; They have also hosted God at their camp (like Hagar encountered God at hers); and Sarah has born her own promised son, Isaac. Also, God has had to save Sarah from a scheme involving Abraham trying to save his own skin by pretending she was his sister. Along the way, Isaac and Ishmael grow together as brothers, both beloved by their father. This family still lives in a system that prized first born sons over all other children. Ishmael is the first born. Sarah wanted her son Isaac to have that status and protection. To protect her own comfort and privilege, she did something unconscionable. She sent Hagar and Ishmael back out into the wilderness.
Abraham might have been able to stop her. The story says that God told Abraham not to, though. Isaac needed to be the first born son. But, God assured Abraham that Ishmael would be saved. Hagar probably could have done with the same reminder, because she seems terrified in this story. Abraham sent her off with minimal food and water. After running out of water, she becomes bereft and can no longer even look at her son, because she knows she cannot provide for him. In what I think is one of the saddest parts of the whole Bible, she lays her child down and steps away from him, unable to bear seeing his final moments in life. Her God who sees is also the God who hears. God hears her weeping and hears the pain of the child and God responds: "What troubles you, Hagar?" Then, God reminds her that her care for her son will not be squandered. "Go and hold him in your arms. Remember, I said I'd make sure he survives." As soon has she has her son in hand, she sees a well that will save them. She is able to give her son a drink.
God stays with them and helps them to create a new life in the wilderness. Hagar is able to raise her son into a strong man who can then provide for them both. Hagar eventually finds her son a wife, an Egyptian woman like her, and their family grows. They don't seem to repeat the harmful patterns of the family that pushed them away. They are confident in the God who sees, and who shows them how to survive in the midst of turmoil and conflict. The wilderness would become a place of growth and new life, a place where they could count on God's presence and providence away from a system that deprived them of safety, agency, and love. They may have found themselves outside of the privileged family narrative of Abraham and Sarah, but, they never find themselves outside of the reach of God's love. God saw them where they were and was with them.
I think we have a great gift in Hagar's story, even though it's a story that complicates any heroic portrayals of Abraham and Sarah, and maybe even complicates our ideas about a freedom-loving God. Many people have experienced something like Hagar did. They can hear their own stories of exclusion, grief, and abandonment in hers, and know that they, too, have a place in God's family. I bet they can also hear some of their story in her creativity and strength in creating a new life, with God and her son, in the wilderness. I mean, isn't good that we are reminded that wild places are often places of rebirth and renewal? And, isn't it powerful to read of this God who sees everyone, especially the outcast, and provides for them... This God who meets you wherever you are, but especially in the midst of the most dire of straits, and can show you a new way to sustain yourself and the people you love. Are you listening for this Wild God in your wilderness places? Are you ready to be seen like she was?
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
Kathryn M. Schifferdecker: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3259
Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.