Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
Today’s reading is a rare passage in the Bible where the focus of the narration is women. It’s not found in the three-year Lectionary cycle, so we may be unfamiliar with it.
Sarai’s infertility is the one piece of additional information we learn at the start of Abram’s story (Gen. 11:30). Ten years have passed since God’s promise to create a great nation (Gen. 12:2, 15:4). Even their great wealth (Gen. 13:2) has not brought them fulfilment.
How did Sarai feel? Infertility was then considered a divine curse. Did God’s promise feel like a cruel joke? She grew impatient and contrived a human solution.
This passage does not paint Sarai in a good light. Despite the good intention, feelings turn sour, Sarai blames Abram for the mess, the women’s relationship becomes abusive and Hagar flees. The angel’s words to Hagar are a very poor example of pastoral care: we would never advise the return to an abusive relationship!
The angel repeats to Hagar God’s covenant promise to Abraham: Ishmael would have numerous descendants. In Islam, Ishmael is considered be a prophet and an ancestor of Muhammad.
Hagar’s conversations with the angel (here and Gen. 21) are unique experiences for a woman in the Hebrew Scriptures.
One thing I treasure about Genesis in the accounts of Abraham-Sarah, Jacob and Joseph is that God had long-term plans for them which spanned decades. These Biblical characters had to endure and be patient.
Even though aged 48, I am still called “young man” at URC gatherings, I recognise the decades God has been forming my call to the ministry. We live in a very fast-paced world, where a week can seem a long time. Indeed, in Galatians 5:22, we are reminded that “patience” is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.
Wait for the Lord, whose day is near. Wait for the Lord, keep watch, take heart.
(Source: Jacques Berthier, Taizé Community)
Walt Johnson, Ordinand at Northern College and Member at Wilbraham St Ninian’s URC (Chorlton, Manchester)