What troubles you, Hagar?
by Isaac Villegas
What if you were Hagar? What if you were not one of the chosen? What if you were counted among the rejected ones? Hagar is on the losing side of God’s promise to Abraham and Sarah. Yet, for some reason, Hagar stays with God. She stays with God, even when God’s people reject her and her son.
What if you were Hagar? If you were Hagar, why would you have faith? And what kind of faith would you have, if you had any at all?
In our Bibles, when we think of slavery, we think of Pharaoh and Egypt. They were the ones who enslaved the Israelites; they were the slaveholders; they were the oppressors. In the bible, when we think of slavery, our minds turn to pages in the book of Exodus, where we read about God’s act of liberation for the people of Israel, a story that freedom movements throughout history have remembered again and again: from the early Christians who suffered persecution yet dreamed of exodus, to the civil rights activists who dreamed of freedom from racist America.
The story of Exodus is the story of the God who liberates, the God who sets people free from oppression, the God who sets Israel free from Egyptian slavery, free from Pharaoh. The story of Exodus is the central story for Israel, the story of the God of liberation. It’s the story of the God who takes the side of slaves, of victims, the God of the oppressed, not the God of the powerful, not the God of the masters.
Yet we forget that Abraham and Sarah were slaveholders, too. We forget about Hagar, an enslaved woman, a gift to Abraham from Pharaoh, a story we read about early in Genesis, in chapter 12, where Pharaoh shares some of his slaves with Abraham, as a gesture of gratitude, of repayment, for Abraham sharing Sarah, his wife, as a concubine for Pharaoh. That is one of those embarrassing stories of the Bible, an embarrassing story for Israel, yet somehow kept in the Bible, as part of the story of the matriarchs and patriarchs.
Hagar is a slave, a useful human being for people with power — useful for Pharaoh, who wields Egyptian power; useful for Abraham, who wields God’s power. Hagar is a victim, caught up in Abraham and Sarah’s desperate attempt to fulfill God’s promises. With God on their side, Sarah and Abraham feel entitled to use people, to use slaves, to use Hagar, to use her body for their purposes.
In this story, Sarah and Abraham don’t look very good. They look bad. They look like people we would usually think of as enemies of God. They act like people who God would usually punish, like people who God usually rejects, people who God unseats from power in order to let the oppressed go free. They look like the kind of people who need to be laid low in order to liberate slaves.
But that’s not what happens in this story. We hear Sarah command Abraham, saying, “Cast out this slave woman with her son,” she says, “for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Gen 21:10). Notice how Sarah refuses to use their names; she refuses to speak the names of Hagar and Ishmael; she refuses to let them have names, to acknowledge that she knows them, that they are bound together by relationships. Sarah renders them nameless. She refers to Hagar as a generic slave, more like an object than a person: “this slave woman,” Sarah says — “this” slave woman, not “your slave woman, Abraham,” not “my slave woman,”not “our slave,”but “this slave woman,” as if Hagar has nothing to do with Sarah and her family, as if Sarah can wash her hands of Hagar and Ishmael, as if there isn’t any history between them, as if they are strangers to her.
But Abraham can’t get rid of Hagar so easily. He doesn’t want to. Sarah’s command distresses him, it says. But God jumps into the scene and tells Abraham to listen to Sarah and to get rid of Hagar. “Whatever Sarah says to you,” God says, “do as she tells you” (v. 12). So, Abraham does as he’s told; he does the will of Sarah, and the will of God. He sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness, with some bread and water; Abraham sends them into the desert, to wander.
This is the story of how the child of Sarah becomes the heir of Abraham — how Isaac, not Ishmael, becomes the father of Israel. This is a story full of scandal, the scandal of injustice, of people getting away with slavery and abuse, all for the sake of doing what God wants, of doing what people think God wants, of securing a future that seems like the right kind of future, the one that God promised. Sarah and Abraham will do whatever it takes to get what they want, to do what they think God wants.
But what about Hagar? What becomes of her? Well, she survives. She’s a survivor, a survivor of slavery, a survivor of other people using her body for their own benefit. She doesn’t achieve some grand liberation. God doesn’t set her free by destroying her masters, Abraham and Sarah. God doesn’t liberate Hagar with a dramatic act, where slaveholders are punished and justice is restored. Hers is not a story of a spectacular Exodus.
Instead, God does a small thing, just enough to keep her alive, her and her son — not even an intervention, where God provides something that wasn’t there before, where God creates something out of nothing, possibility in an impossible situation. That’s what God does for Israel in Egypt, later in the story, when God sends plagues on Pharaoh’s house, and when God parts the Red Sea for the Israelites and drowns the Egyptian chariots. That’s what God does for Israel when they are slaves. But that’s not what God does here for Hagar.
Instead, God does only enough to give Hagar a fighting chance for life in the desert, for life on her own — only enough for her to fend for herself, to do what she needs to do in order to survive in the wilderness, to sustain herself and her son in the sweltering heat. “God opened her eyes,” it says in verse 19, “and she saw a well of water.” That’s it. God opens her eyes to see what is already there. God doesn’t save her with a powerful act of compassion or justice. Instead, God empowers her to provide for herself, for herself and her son.
After God opens Hagar’s eyes, she herself does all the action; she becomes the subject of all the verbs. Listen again to verse 19: “She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.” She went, she filled, she gave.
While Hagar does the hard work of survival, God does something — not quite liberation, but something nonetheless. God promises to be with Ishmael, the rejected son of Abraham. “God was with the boy,” it says in verse 20. Hagar and Ishmael can trust in God’s subtle presence — nothing flashy, nothing drastic, nothing earth-shattering, but there nevertheless, unseen perhaps, unacknowledged and inconspicuous. “God was with the boy,” it says.
Are you like Hagar? Do you see yourself in her life? Does it seem as if you have been rejected by God, rejected by God’s promises, yet somehow your faith survives: faith in a God who doesn’t split the Red Sea for us, who doesn’t destroy our enemies, who lets the slave-masters go unpunished, but a God who does a small thing, opening our eyes to what we need to survive, showing us what we need to make a life in a wilderness, what we need to wander in the desert — not quite liberation, not health and wealth and power, but just enough for life, just enough to persevere.
There is good news for Hagar, good news for us — that God is with her, that God is with us, and that God is with you. Nothing flashy, nothing drastic, nothing earth-shattering, but here nevertheless: God with you, unseen perhaps, unacknowledged and inconspicuous, but here nonetheless.
What does God do in the story? God hears the voices of people who cry out, like Hagar and Ishmael. And God opens eyes to see what has been missed, to see what is needed to survive, what is there, within reach, but hidden.
The beginning of the good news is there in verse 17: “And God heard,” it says. God hears us, and invites a conversation, calling out to us, just like God calls out to Hagar:
“What troubles you, Hagar?”
God knows her name, and God knows yours.