The first thing you need to know about Hagar, you can’t: her name. Whatever name her parents gave her is erased from the story. This enslaved woman is known as Hagar, from a Semitic root meaning “the stranger.” “The alien.” “The sojourner.” This is not the only way in which Hagar resembles the victims of the Atlantic slave trade, who were also stripped of their names.
It’s important not to deemphasize the slavery aspect of this story. Many translations use the word “servant” to refer to Hagar, and the Women’s Bible Commentary actually calls her a “maid,” as if she went about in a starched white apron like an actor on “Downton Abbey.” But Hagar is enslaved. And like American slaves of African descent, Hagar’s enslavement extends to her sexuality. She has no rights to her own labor or her own body. Her infertile mistress, Sarah, will use Hagar’s body to try to give her husband a son.
A little background to today’s reading is in order: God has told Abraham that he would become a great nation, a blessing to all the world. Sometime after this promise, Abraham and Sarah travel to Egypt, where the pharaoh is so enamored of Sarah’s beauty that he takes her as a wife, since Abraham has told him that Sarah is only his sister. Yet when God makes Pharaoh’s household suffer a plague, the pharaoh realizes that Abraham and Sarah are spouses. Tradition says that Pharaoh gives his own daughter, Hagar, to Sarah to compensate for rape or attempted rape.
Years later, not a single child has been born to Abraham and Sarah, much less a great nation. So Sarah decides to help God out, by giving her personal slave to Abraham as a second wife, a surrogate for Sarah herself. In due course, Hagar conceives Abraham’s first child, at which point she also realizes she’s not as powerless as she once thought: Hagar the slave has the greatest power a woman at that time could have, the power to bear new life. To Sarah, who is still barren, this is unbearable. She abuses Hagar to such an extent that Hagar runs away.
In the wilderness, an angel appears to her and asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” But Hagar can only answer the first, that she’s run away from her mistress, Sarah. So the angel tells her to return to Sarah, presumably because there is no way for a pregnant woman to survive in the wilderness alone. It is not yet time for Hagar’s liberation. The angel also gives Hagar the first annunciation in the entire Bible, telling her that she will have a son, father of countless descendents, and call him Ishmael, which means “God hears,” “for,” as the angel says, “God has heard your suffering.” Hagar becomes the only person in all of Scripture to give God a new name. She calls God El-Roi, God Who Sees. When Hagar was outcast, invisible to human eyes, unable to see a way forward, God saw her and God opened a way for her, a way for survival and a way even to flourish.
So Hagar returns, has her child, endures Sarah’s abuse. Yet the situation becomes even more intolerable when Sarah later has her miracle-child. Having taken Hagar’s labor, bodily autonomy, and dignity, now Sarah takes even what is rightfully owed Hagar’s child: an inheritance from his father.
Most mysterious here is God’s response to Abraham when the man is distressed at the idea of casting out his firstborn. There’s only the briefest mention of Hagar’s well-being, merely the reminder that, because Ishmael is a son of Abraham, he will also become a great nation. But then we remember that God has already spoken to Hagar face-to-face. God has already given Hagar an annunciation and an assurance, even before the annunciation to Sarah. Apparently God doesn’t find it necessary to share Hagar’s private business with Abraham. I rather like the idea that God keeps God’s conversation with Hagar private, that God gives Hagar back a little of the dignity Sarah has stolen from her.
Yet Hagar, like so many other biblical characters—like any of us, really—doubts. When the water Abraham has given her runs out, she despairs. She puts her son in the shade under some scrub brush, goes a little way off, and “lifts up her voice and cries.” How could she not? Though she was born a princess, she has lived life as a slave. Though she has received a promise, she has lived without power. Though she has seen and been seen by God, her recent life has been one of toil, abuse, and anxiety.
“She lifts up her voice and cries.” As the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann points out, the cry of the outcast is a powerful thing in the Hebrew Scriptures. If there is conflict between a rich person and a poor person, and the poor person cries out to God, God takes the side of the poor. If a government causes misery, and the miserable ones cry out to God, God judges the rulers harshly. The God who hears the cries of the oppressed hears Hagar, opens her eyes, gives her water. The God who hears the cries of the outcast raises Hagar’s son to adulthood, and makes of him a great nation, giving him a descendant, Mohammed, who will inspire an entire religion. Hagar—or Hajar, as she is known in Arabic—will be the mother of Islam.
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Three stories in the past couple of weeks have been on my heart as I meditated on this text. One was the acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez, the man who shot and killed Philando Castile. I have not been able to bring myself to watch the video Castile’s fiancée, Diamond Reynolds, made of the shooting, but I’m still haunted by the cry of Reynolds’ daughter after the shooting. As you can read in reports and transcripts of the video, the four-year-old tried to comfort her mother, saying, “I’m right here with you,” and “Please stop cussing and screaming, ‘cause I don’t want you to get shooted.” Reynolds’ presence of mind to film everything, and her child’s awareness of her mother’s danger, bear heartbreaking witness to the burden of Blackness in the American criminal justice system. I think of the African Hagar crying out for her lost son, Philando, for the trauma suffered by his fiancée, for the lost innocence of a four-year-old child.
Another story: Nabra Hassanen, a seventeen-year-old Muslim girl, a Black girl, went missing. Her body was found a day later; she had been killed with a baseball bat. The police have decided not to call the murder a hate crime, though the killer initially targeted the group of young Muslims who were returning to their mosque after sharing a pre-dawn meal at IHOP. Whatever the killer’s motivation, it is a heart-rending truth that Muslim women, especially women of color, are often the targets of Islamophobic rage. I think of Nabra as a daughter of Hagar, a child for whom Hagar raises her voice and cries out to God, as so many of us do on hearing of a young life brutally cut short.
A final story, a story of hope in the aftermath of tragedy. You may have heard that it was a group of young Muslims that first raised the alarm of the fire in Grenfell Tower, London, eleven days ago. But few have heard of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association that’s been undertaking so much relief work. Forty young Ahmadi Muslims (Ahmadiyya Muslims are a sect of Islam, much like a denomination in Christianity) have each donated about six hours a day taking care of survivors. Young Ahmadi men have cooked meals, and many of the young women, who are doctors and psychologists, offered free medical care and counseling. This is not just a response to the Grenfell Tower disaster; it is what the Ahmadiyya Muslim Youth Association do: every year the Association holds courses on disaster relief and emergency response. For them, helping people is a way of life. I think of Hajar, the mother of Islam, inspiring in the hearts of her daughters and sons love for those who, like her, lost everything they had.
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This morning we sang, The God of Abraham praise, the God of Sarah praise.” But I say we also sing, “the God of Hagar praise.” Because her God saw and heard her while she was outcast. The God of Hagar praise, because her God consented to be named by a woman. The God of Hagar praise, because her God is with those who suffer violence, and whose children suffer violence, at the hands of the powerful. The God of Hagar praise, because her God frees the slaves and cares for the orphans. The God of Hagar praise, because her God shows up at dead ends, where there is no way forward, and makes a way. The God of Hagar praise, because her God is the giver of water in the desert, the giver of hope to the hopeless, the champion of the abused and outcast.
The God of Hagar praise, because her God sees. God sees the homeless children. God sees the Muslim children. God sees the Black children. God sees the suffering of the mothers who fear for their sons’ lives, if those sons should encounter the police. God sees the mourning of the parents of a Muslim girl, a girl who loved justice, and was murdered. God sees the fear of parents who bring a child who is not white or Christian into a majority white and Christian nation, a nation that sees that child as “other,” as suspect, as dangerous.
And God sees us when we minimize the pain of the oppressed. God sees us when we benefit in ways small and large from a system that privileges people who look and worship like us. And God sees us when our eyes open, when we affirm that the lives who differ from us matter. When we affirm that Black lives matter, that Muslim lives matter, that poor lives and survivors’ lives matter.
At an interfaith gathering, I once heard Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, a Modern Orthodox rabbi known for his work in Jewish-Christian dialogue, say, “I believe the Jews are the chosen people—but I believe it’s multiple choice!” This is arguably a biblical viewpoint, according to the story of Hagar. The story of the Bible from here on out will concern itself primarily with the lineage of Abraham’s other wife, Sarah, and his other son, Isaac. But Genesis 21 affirms that God also chooses and cares for Hagar and Ishmael. The prophet Amos will one day claim that Ethiopians, Philistines, and Arameans are just as chosen and dear to God’s heart as Israel.
So the God of Hagar praise—because hers is a God who believes in multiple choice, who affirms the diversity of all peoples, in all their specificity, and who nurtures those of every faith who prize justice and self-giving love.