The Other Woman
Text: Genesis 21:1-21
I saw Hagar last week. She was foraging through a church dumpster. She was dodging ICE agents at the airport. She was harvesting crops from dawn to dusk on the Eastern Shore, praying that she would get paid this time. She was standing in line with her baby, hoping to get the last shelter bed for the night. She was weeping openly as she looked upon her dead husband and two-year-old daughter lying face down in the Rio Grande. (www.nytimes.com/2019/06/25/us/father-daughter)
I saw Hagar last week, but she has been around for quite a while. In the Antebellum South, Hagar was the poster girl for the happy slave. She said, “Yes, Massa” with a smile on her face and always looked like she was enjoying a wonderful life. In his 1867, post-Civil War book, A Defense of Virginia, Dabney, the personal chaplain to Stonewall Jackson, uses Hagar to offer a biblical defense for slavery. Dabney writes: “Had her subjection to Sarai been, as the Abolitionists say slavery is, a condition of unjust persecution, the Saviour’s instructions to her would doubtless have been: `Now that you have escaped the injustice of her that wronged you, flee to another city’. His remanding her to Sarai shows that the subjection was lawful and right” (Dabney, 113). Dabney sounds much like one of the patriarchs of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale. A good Hagar knows her place.
Dabney and Thornwell saw in Hagar the happy, obedient slave, but contemporary biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, sees Hagar much differently. Trible writes about Hagar: “All sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others” (Texts of Terror, p. 28).
Hard as you try to paint Hagar pouring out the last drop of water into her son’s, Ishmael’s mouth in the heat of the desert, she bears no resemblance to that oxymoron, a happy slave. Left with scant supplies provided by Abraham, Hagar knows that neither she nor her son is going to live. After the last provisions are gone, the only thing Hagar asks from God is: “Do not let me look upon the death of my child.” I wonder how many women over the ages, slave or free, have uttered that same wrenching prayer. I wonder if that prayed was uttered this week by the helpless mother watching the horror of her husband and daughter dying on the banks of the land of the free and the home of the brave?
In this ancient but all to current story from Genesis, Sarah is not painted with a flattering brush. She is a harsh, overprotective older mother who will sacrifice the lives of Hagar and Ishmael to secure Isaac’s future. Abraham is not painted as the confident patriarch, marching boldly out of Ur at the invitation of God. In this story, ever so pathetically, Abraham leaves Hagar and his firstborn son in the desert only after hearing God promise, “As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”
No wonder Trible and others call this story from Genesis a “text of terror.” Not only Sarah and Abraham, but in this story, God also behaves in a deeply disturbing way. As the story is told, Abraham alone hears from God that not only Isaac, but the slave child, Ishmael, is beloved of God. Hagar, the “other woman,” is not privy to this news. She sees only death ahead in the desert, death for her and worst of all, death for her son. The story may enjoy a “happy” ending, but for any parent, it comes at far too devastating a cost.
As I have wrestled again with this disturbing story, I wonder if this story is less about a “testing” God and more about an invitation for people of privilege to look again at how they steward that privilege. Throughout Genesis, God’s concern is not just for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, not just for the chosen ones through whom God’s future blessing will be spread to all the earth. God’s concern is also for the forsaken and discarded ones, the Hagars, the Ishmaels, the “other women” and the “other children,” many of whom are living in overcrowded and filthy cages on the southern border of our country, many of whom are crossing the Rio Grande to seek asylum, all of whom are also beloved of God.
If God can see beyond the jealousy of old Sarah and the timidity of old Abraham to deliver not only Sarah and Abraham and Isaac, but also Hagar and Ishmael, then what does that mean for those of us who consider ourselves descendants of Sarah and Abraham and Isaac when so many Hagars are weeping in the world and so many Ishmaels are left wanting for their next meal?
Beginning with the earliest stories in Genesis, Scripture has a profound respect for the poor and the outcast. Just read the Gospels. From the impoverished surroundings of his birth in a barn, Jesus himself knows the trappings of poverty. When asked to preach his first public sermon, he climbs into the pulpit and declares: “I have come to bring good news to the poor.”
Along with the poor, Jesus bursts religious boundaries to care for outcast Gentiles. Early in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus steers a boat into the restricted waters of Gerasa and brings sanity to a Gentile man who has lived all his life enslaved to demonic madness. Later, in Mark, when Jesus takes a sip of wine at the home of Simon the Leper, the religious authorities pull the disciples of Jesus aside and ask them, “Why does he eat and drink with this kind of person?!”
From the story of Hagar and Ishmael left to die in the desert but companioned by God to Jesus crossing forbidden boundaries and promising to make broken people whole, the biblical story shows us a God who treasures not just the children of privilege. And this God cares deeply that you and I do the same.
So, what does all this mean here in rural Covesville in the summer of 2019, thousands of years later? It may well mean that providing for those who are nearly falling off the edge or are in free fall is not the political platform of misguided liberals, it the divine platform of God and God’s Son. It may well mean that making sure that sick women and men with no legal papers get medical care and their children are not ripped from their arms at the border is not the untenable plan of bleeding hearts; it is the divine command of God and God’s Son. It may well mean that making sure violence against women and their children is stopped and reproductive justice for women is enshrined in law is not the naïve notion of those who need to grow up and stop crying; it is the divine cry of God and God’s Son.
As I said earlier, I saw Hagar last week. She was out of food and down to her last drop of water. She was standing on the Mexican shore of the Rio Grande with a look of horror and I could not bear to watch. So, I stepped inside out of the heat to grab a sandwich and drink a tall glass of cold, filtered water and then I flipped on the TV and turned up the volume to help me forget. That is one way that Hagar and Ishmael’s story can end, and, as we saw this week, too often still does.
I am grateful, though, and am so proud to serve a company of believers who, day after day, month after month, and year after year, refuse to let the story end that way.
It cannot end that way, my friends. God help us, it must not end that way.