Liberating Hagar

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Hagar gets the short end of the stick.

Sunday School lessons describe her position as a servant, waiting hand and foot on Abraham and Sarah in Canaan. When barrenness got the best of Sarah, she eyed Hagar who was ripe for the picking. So she sent the servant into Abraham’s tent. This is how Ishmael, the firstborn, was conceived.

Instead of a mite of gratitude, Sarah showed contempt for Hagar. She dealt harshly with her, the text says. It is a foreshadowing of how Egyptian taskmasters would one day deal harshly with Hebrew slaves—the same words, the same dynamic. No wonder Hagar took her son, broke out of the Patriarch’s camp, and escaped out into the desert.

The arid freedom presented immediate risks to their survival. But for a few short days she breathed free. The God Who Sees—that is how she named the God who saw her slavery and her short-lived liberation. She walked back to camp where she was free to eat, but it must have been hard to leave her freedom behind.

The God Who Sees must have seen the misery of Sarah, too. Her barrenness was broken with the arrival of a son of her own. Isaac was the firstborn as far as she was concerned. Sarah resented Ishmael (and his mother). Fast forward to Abraham sending her and Ishmael, maybe reluctantly, out of the camp for good. With only a skein of water and loaf of bread, they left. Free again, but vulnerable still.

Crying in the desert over her son—hungry and dehydrated and drained of all hope. The angel had previously said her boy would grow to be a wild ass of a man, but here he is dying before her eyes. The Bible, as interpreted by some, says that he almost died, but then lived on beyond the horizon of the Holy Land to stir future trouble.

But if I’m honest, the Christian tradition I grew up in functionally left Hagar and her son for dead in the desert. The focus stayed on Abraham, Sarah and Isaac. If Hagar was remembered at all, it is as an enslaved woman and the mother of a menacing son.

Could Hagar ever be free to thrive beyond the desert and death?

***

But this is not the sum of Hagar’s story. The Jewish tradition tells of an intriguing possibility, that Hagar was the young daughter of a Pharaoh, and he gave her to Abraham and Sarah to settle an awkward misunderstanding. She went from being a royal daughter to an enslaved girl, another victim of patriarchy.

This storyline segues into the more familiar narrative. The young girl was in service to Abraham and Sarah. And because men weren’t the only ones who perpetuate patriarchy, we watch Sarah exploit Hagar for her own purpose. She needed a child to hold any sway in her society, and she got it by using the womb of her slave girl. Sarah dealt harshly with Hagar—taking another woman’s child as her own, holding her in contempt, and eventually tossing her out into the desert to die.

While Sarah is a victim of a patriarchal society, I cannot unsee the ways in which she was both complicit and cruel. She contributed to the enslavement of Hagar, an impediment to her freedom. I wonder what the story would look like if Sarah had compassion on Hagar, if she dealt kindly and moved in a subversive solidarity with her. How different it could have been for these women and their sons.

Could Hagar ever be free to walk in partnership with Sarah, the pair subverting patriarchy together?

***

The most vibrant strand of Hagar’s story glistens in the Q’uran, of all places. It is there that we learn that her time in the desert was catalytic. With her son on the cusp of death, she ran with determination between two hills looking for help. She scanned the horizon for a caravan and kept her eyes open for a distant well or some kind of an oasis. She ran back and forth seven times, shouldering the heat and her heavy heart. But she found a well called Zamzam. With the well, Hagar is saved. With the well, she is also able to save her child. 

Hagar and her son trekked onward across the desert and found a city. She also found a wife for her son. This is what fathers do, but here the mother does it. She does what patriarchy says is off limits to her as a woman.

Ishmael went on to father twelve sons—a full clan! He was, as the angel foretold, a wild ass of a man. But that doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. He was not trouble; he was in fact free, as the metaphor intends to communicate.

Hagar saved her son, secured a wife for him, and found a city. She is known in the Q’uran as the matriarch of Islam, mother of a faith. Her name is revered. According to Islamic tradition, Abraham visited her and Ishmael often. He did not abandon them. He traversed the desert time and again to see them, to be a father to both Ishmael and Isaac.

Reading Hagar’s story through the lens of the Q’uran has allowed me to see her redemptive arc. She survives, she subverts the patriarchy of her day, and she stands a pillar of her people. Where my own tradition left her for dead, my Muslim sisters show me that there is more to her.

I’m inclined to think that it takes all three Abrahamic traditions to tell her full story. We must braid together elements from each to reveal the complexity of a woman once Pharaoh’s daughter, enslaved to a foreign people, exploited by men and women alike before her epiphany in the desert. Then she finds her place, where her voice and wisdom create a new home.

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SheLovelies, there’s a lot we can learn from Hagar’s story. Who do you identify most in this story? Who do you identify least with?

Hagar names God “The God Who Sees.” Can you remember is a season of hardship and misery where you encountered “The God Who Sees”?

 

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Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley is co-director and chief storyteller for Communities of Hope, a community development enterprise in Burundi. She is also the author of Adopted: The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World (Eerdmans).
Kelley Nikondeha
Kelley Nikondeha

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