Confronting Sarah


kelley nikondeha -confronting sarah-3

Hagar is misunderstood. And misrepresented. Her outline is sketched in contrast to Sarah, Abraham’s wife and would-be matriarch of Israel.

In Sarah’s shadow, Hagar is a slave girl from Egypt who caters to her whims. But she also serves at her point of deepest woe—barrenness that denies her the glory of a child, the respect of her community and guaranteed position in the future of God’s people. When Sarah cannot conceive, she sends in Hagar.

Having no say in the matter, Hagar goes into Abraham’s tent and disrobes. Her body belongs to him now, the fruit of her womb ceded to Sarah in due time. But motherhood blossoms insider her and reminds her that she is not only a slave, but also a woman.

Her belly grows round with life. Instead of pleasing Sarah (this was her plan after all), she wilts with bitterness. She lashes out at Hagar by increasing her labor. Both women suffer under the circumstances.

The slave decides the day and time of her own exodus, fleeing her mistress. She finds herself in the wilderness alone … but free. There she encounters God. And the good news—she will bear a son and he will be a strong man, one with the capacity to fight off oppressors. She will be fruitful and birth a multitude—or a nation. But the bad news is that God sent her back to Sarah, back to slavery. But not before Hagar named God—the God who sees. The God who saw her affliction, saw her seed, and saw their future. Was that enough to survive on?

But Hagar returns. She births Ishmael. And years later, Sarah, by a miraculous intervention in her old age, conceives a child of her own. Abraham named him Isaac, because certainly there was much laughter around his arrival so late in life, against all the odds. He was the son of promise who would birth a new kind of nation; those who would be blessed to be a blessing to others.

As Isaac grew, so did Ishmael. No doubt Ishmael looked more like a man with every passing day. It occurred to Sarah that he threatened her own son’s position as heir. And so to protect her son’s inheritance, she cast Hagar and her son out. Abraham tried to soften the blow with a loaf of bread and a skein of water, but it was no match for the desert that awaited them.

Once the provisions ended, so did their energy to carry on. The mother put her child under a tree, trying to protect him from the glare of the sun. It was his burial, she supposed, since no resources were on the horizon. She sat nearby and lamented the loss of her son, the end of hope for them both.

The narrator tells us about Hagar, the Egyptian woman beset by hardship. In a world of patriarchy, she is an object to be given from one man to another, her body at the service of her mistress, her child for the taking by another mother. And with the flick of a wrist, and a paltry amount of bread, she could be sent to her inevitable death. She had no one to defend her. Even the God who saw her once, sent her back and seemed absent in her moment of bereavement.  

We are meant to see her humanity, to ache with this mother as her son dies in the desert. We are meant to ask hard questions of Abraham and Sarah both. How could they use her like that? How could Sarah send out a mother and child to their death? How could Abraham think a loaf of bread made up for anything she’d suffered or was about to endure?

I keep returning to Sarah. She, too, was trapped under the weight of patriarchy. She lived in a world that expected fertility to confirm her value. Her barren belly was the stigma she could not shake, the shame she wore despite her stunning beauty and position as Abraham’s wife. With a single pregnancy, a slave could rise about her in the eyes of the community. It was a cruel world.

But Sarah participated in that system in her own way. She was so concerned about her own son, her family’s future, her own reputation that she couldn’t see Hagar’s plight. Preoccupied with the welfare of her own child, she didn’t lift a finger to help Hagar survive her own struggle with patriarchy. Sarah only saw her as a threat and her son an obstacle. And so this woman of privilege added to Hagar’s hardship.

The story could have gone another way. Sarah could have made room for Hagar, even shared a little kindness. She could have walked in some small measure of solidarity with her. She could have embodied the blessing—pushing beyond the ethnic and cultural boundaries—and been a blessing to Hagar. I think the narrator wants us to imagine other possibilities. Maybe even God wanted Sarah to do the right thing by Hagar, God wanting Sarah to break the cycle of abuse for a fellow woman so they could both taste freedom.

But that isn’t how the story goes.

We are like Sarah too often—fixated on the well-being of our own children, our own family’s fortune, and our own standing in the community. We don’t see the ways our choices cripple other families. We want to choose the best school, not caring that our choice might weaken the public school that our neighbors’ children attend. We want to live in safer communities, and so leave the streets more vulnerable for others who cannot afford to move. We vote with only our pocketbook in mind, wanting lower taxes but not considering or caring about the resources that will dry up for low-income families in need of health insurance, food assistance and other support amid hard times.

But we are invited with Abraham and Sarah to leave Ur and the ways of that empire. We’ve been given an invitation to create another kind of space. The rules can change. We can be blessed in order to be a blessing and embody a new orientation toward others like Hagar and her son.

Instead of abusing and afflicting the other under “the way it’s always been,” we can choose to start anew.