Friday, December 23, 2011

Hagar's Prayer

(This sermon refers to several passages in Genesis, which are quoted at the bottom of this posting, for your reference)

The story of Hagar's expulsion by Abraham and Sarah is, to me, one of the most poignant in the Bible, and for additional, literary and cultural reasons, I find it fascinating, as well as touching.  A vulnerable woman,  foreign, enslaved, a mother - is rejected – ejected by people she knew from the community that protected her from ravages of the desert and the depredations of travelers from whom a single woman or even a single man, had little defense. They sent out to a death sentence, or possibly worse, in that unforgiving land with one loaf of bread and one skin of water.  Soon parched and starving, her choices more and more constrained, she resigns herself to inevitability and sets her son under the limited shade of a bush and removes herself some distance with the only hope left to her – to not live long enough to see her only child die.

Some of you, I know, have had to endure such heart wrenching experiences, yourselves.  Some of you have had to whisper that most fervent of prayers, “Please don’t let me outlive my child.”  A parent’s worst nightmare.  Some of you have been rejected – ejected by people you had known, loved, and trusted – a loved one like parent, spouse, or adult child who has cast you off.  Some of you have been abused by others in one form or another when you felt most vulnerable, and you took it when your options seemed severely limited.  Many of you have lost jobs, health, friendships and felt alone, abandoned, afraid. What happened to you?  What in Hagar’s terrible ordeal speaks to you?  

In the first version of the story, Sarah blames Hagar’s attitude for deserving subsequent harsh treatment.  Did you blame yourself, too?  Did you leave or consider leaving, only to return for more of the same treatment?  Why?  

In both versions, an angel appears and comforts Hagar by telling her of an ennobling future – that she will be blessed by a son, but he will be cursed as a warmonger doomed to fight his brothers.  In the first version, she returns to Sarah, for presumably more harsh treatment as she bears her son, and in the second version, her son and she never return, but strike out on their own.  She lives long enough to find him a wife, and in the final snippet, he lives long enough to father 12 sons who become the chiefs of the their own tribes.  In any of your travails, when have you encountered a personal angel – perhaps a mentor or friend or even a fictional character who said just what you needed to hear at a moment of your deepest despair? Alternatively, when have you been that angel to someone else?   I had an experience that combines both.  I had been fired from one job I hated and then laid off from a dot com and thought that maybe I’d be better off working for myself.   A man from church hired me for a writing/research project that helped get me started, for which I was very grateful.  Several years later, when I worked for another dot com, I was able to hire him for an IT project.  His wife told me years after that, that he needed that job at that time, as much as I had needed the one he gave me, a few years earlier.   I love the synergy that each of us was able to help the other at a time of need, without necessarily knowing how important it was at the time.  I’m willing to bet that you have been that angel for others, and that others have rescued you a time or two, too.  Please think about that, and be grateful for both. 

II          I’d like to talk about two other aspects of this story that are not as personally touching but that have long term cultural importance.   The first is literary.   The Bible is unique among discovered or retained ancient literature in the frequency of stories involving marginalized populations, like slaves, women, foreigners, and children who are named, pivotal characters.  If you think about it, most ancient literature is about gods and heroes, isn’t it?  Or kings and queens.  I don’t recall that Homer captured any touching moments with the slaves of Helen of Troy or Penelope of Ithaka, do you?  And that is a fair comparison, because those Greek stories were probably gathered together in written form near the time the Jewish tales were gathered into the books of Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers.  But the Bible tells stories not only of Hagar the slave, but Ruth, the Moabite daughter-in-law who loves her Jewish mother-in-law so much that after their husbands die, she travels with her out of her own country and back to Israel and works to support her.   So even if these stories don’t touch you personally, you can appreciate them as examples of a culturally distinctive literature. 

This story is significant theologically, too.  Although there are earlier stories in which God talks to Adam and Eve and Noah, this is the first in which an angel speaks to a human.  Not only is this inaugural conversation with a woman, but to a foreigner- not a Jew, and a slave.  The angel of God recognizes her and calls her by name!  So this is a powerful episode in the evolving sense that Judaism was moving from a  localized tribal religion, as in my clan has its family gods and your clan worships different gods, to a definite monotheism.  This angel or this god recognizes outsiders like Hagar, and she acknowledges him, even naming him, I see the God Who Sees me.  Finally, you probable recognized the phrasing with which the angel tells her she is pregnant as the same language the gospels of Matthew and Luke used for the annunciation of Jesus’ imminent birth.   The birth of Christ is foreshadowed by the son of a slave.     

It is for such reasons that this story, like that of the exodus from Egypt, were two that particularly resonated with Jewish and Christian slave populations throughout history.  The god of the slave holders was also the god of the enslaved, and miracles were available to them, too. 

III        The final point about this story that I’d like you to know is how this story may contribute to some of the antipathy between the Jews and the Arabs today.  You noticed of course that Ishmael’s destiny is described rather unattractively in the first version as “A wild-ass of a man he will be, against every man, and every man against him, setting himself to defy all his brothers.”  The final anecdote simply says, “He set himself to defy his brothers.”  Well, why would that be the end of the story, particularly for a man whose name means, “God Hears?”  It is because of his sons.  Remember he bears 12 sons who become 12 chieftans.  Well, where do Ishmael’s sons live?   You may not be up on your ancient geography to know Havilah and Shur, but you know what is east of Egypt:  Arabia, on the way to Assyria, which was the empire along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers of contemporary Iraq. Havilah is associated, traditionally, with the area of southern Arabia, around Yemen.   So this Bible story depicts the progenitor of the 12 tribes of Arabia as a “wild-ass of a man, who sets himself to defy his brothers.”  Who is the only brother we know?  Isaac, whose son, Jacob fathers the 12 tribes of Israel.  Now Biblical literalists tend to interpret this as meaning that the Bible foresaw inevitable conflicts between the Israelites and the Ishmaelites, or Arabs, and it is Ishmael’s fault.  Others believe that such Bible stories were written after such conflicts existed, as a way of explaining and often justifying old feuds and hatreds.  There are many such stories in the Bible that defile the forefather of enemy tribes and nations in this way.  My favorite, because it is so awful, explains that the Israelites hate the Moabites and the Ammonites because their forefather was Lot, who had incest with his daughters, after they fled from Sodom and Gomorrah, and the ensuing babies grew up to found Moab and Ammon. 

Interestingly, though, the Muslim Arabs themselves have an entirely different version of this whole story, and it intersects at some points with ancient Jewish oral traditions, outside the Bible.  One element is that Hagar was not a slave.  She was an Egyptian princess whom Abraham married, along with Sarah, at a time and culture in which polygamy was not only legal but encouraged.  Her son, Ishmael, is listed 12 times in the Koran, as one of the prophets.  In the Muslim version, Abraham doesn’t abandon them to the desert but takes them through the desert.  Ishmael does cry from thirst and Hagar runs seven times between two hills to find water.  God hears the cries and creates a miraculous well.  Today, when Muslims go on their hajj, they recreate this story by running between two hills in Mecca seven times and then drinking water.  They also circle the Kaaba.  Tradition teaches that Adam built it, but Abraham and Ishmael rebuilt it on its old foundations.  Another difference between Jewish and Muslim stories is the sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible.  In the Koran, Abraham dreams that he was to sacrifice his son.  The boy is not named, but Muslim tradition holds that it was Ishmael, not Isaac.   This tradition is reinforced by the sacrifice of a lamb during the Hajj and elsewhere in the world.  Other oral traditions, in both Judaism and Islam tell of later interactions between Abraham and Ishmael, for example, how Abraham remained involved enough in Ishmael’s life to encourage him to divorce a first wife and keep a second one, and tell how Abraham gets together with both son and six more that he has by a third wife, after Sarah died.  

Since Ishmael is the forefather of Arabs, various tribes trace their lineage back to his sons and to himself, Mohammed, himself, included.  The name of Mohammed’s wife is the same as one of the wives of Ishmael, making them a prophetic couple foretold.

I hope this isn’t more than you ever wanted to know about Hagar.  You can tell that I find it a rich and provocative story for personal, literary, and intercultural reasons.  I hope that next time you hear her name, you will be less inclined to think of Hagar the Horrible cartoon figure and think of Hagar the tragic or Hagar the first woman in the Bible to engage an angel in dialogue, or Hagar, whose story shows the evolution of Judaism, from tribal religion to monotheism, or Hagar, the Matriarch of the Arab people. 
The following Bible passages are from the Jerusalem Bible English translation
Genesis 16
Abram’s wife Sarai had borne him no child, but she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar.  So Sairai said to Abram, “Listen now!  Since Yahweh has kept me from having children, go to my slave-girl.  Perhaps I shall get children through her.  Abram agreed to what Sarai had said.  Thus, after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan for ten years, Sari took Hagar, her Egyptian slave-girl and gave her to Abram as his wife.  He went to Hagar and she conceived.  And once she knew she had conceived, her mistress counted for nothing in her eyes.  Then Sarai said to Abram,”May this insult to me come home to you!  It was I who put my slave-girl into your arms, but now she knows that she has conceived, I count for nothing in her eyes.  Let Yahweh judge between me and you.”  Very well, Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is at your disposal.  Treat her as you think fit.”  Sarai accordingly treated her so badly that she ran away from her.
The angel of Yahweh met her near a spring in the wilderness, the spring that is on the road to Shur.  He said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”  “I am running away from my mistress, Sarai.” She replied.  The angel of Yahweh said to her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”  The angel of Yahweh said, “I will make your descendants too numerous to be counted.”  “Then the angel of Yaheweh said to her, “Now you have conceived and you will bear a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for Yahweh has heard your cries of distress.  A wild-ass of a man he will be, against every man, and every man against him, setting himself to defy all his brothers.” 
Hagar gave a name to Yahewh who had spoken to her:  “You are El Roi”, for she said, “Surely this is a place where I, in my turn, have seen the one who sees me?”  “This is why this well is called the well of Lahai roi, it is between Kadesh and Bered.    Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave to the son that Hagar bore the name Ishmael.  Abram was 86 (years old) when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
 Genesis 21: 9
 Now Sarah watched the son that Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, playing with her son, Isaac.  “Drive away that slave-girl and her son,” she said to Abraham; “this slave-girl’s son is not to share the inheritance with my son, Isaac.”  This greatly distressed Abraham because of his son, but God said to him, ”Do not distress yourself on account of the boy and your slave-girl.  Grant Sarah all she asks of you, for it is through Isaac that your name will be carried on.  But the slave-girl’s son I will also make into a nation, for he is your child, too.”  Rising early next morning, Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and, giving them to Hagar, he put the child on her shoulder and set her away.  She wandered off into the wilderness of Beersheba.  When the skin of water was finished, she abandoned the child under a bush.  Then she went and sat down at a distance, about a bowshot away, saying to herself, “ I cannot see the child die.”  So she sat at a distance; and the child wailed and wept. 
But God heard the boy wailing, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven.  “What is wrong, Hagar?” He asked.  “Do not be afraid, for God has heard the boy’s cry where he lies.  “Come, pick up the boy and hold him safe, for I will make him into a great nation.”  Then God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well, so she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.    God was with the boy.  He grew up and made his home in the wilderness, and he became a bowman.  He made his home in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother chose him a wife from the land of Egypt. 
Genesis 25
Abraham gave all his possessions to Isaac.  To the sons of his concubines Abraham gave presents, and during his lifetime he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastwards, to the east country.  … Abraham breathed his last, dying at a ripe old age, an old man who had lived his full span of years, and he was gathered to his people.  His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah. …
 These are the descendants of Ismael, the son of Abraham by Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant.  Nebaioth, Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, NNaphish, and ledemah.  … Twelve chiefs of as many tribes.  The number of years Ishmael lived was 137.  Then he breathed his last, died, and was gathered to his people.  He lived in the territory stretching from Havilah to Shur, which is to the east of Egypt, on the way to Assyria.  He set himself to defy his brothers.  

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