18 Apr 2021
On March 6th just before International Women’s Day on March 8th, John Bell of the Iona community was doing the thought for the day slot on Radio 4. John Bell is a thoughtful, careful and deeply godly man, often self deprecating and funny, and my ears always prick up alert to the wisdom and challenge he may have to offer.
As ever he not disappoint.
Amongst other things he reflected on the cultural assumptions he had grown up with that men should always been in control. He observed, current macho leaders that week such as Trump, Jaier Bolsanero of Brasil and Vladimir Putin, had not covered themselves in glory, in relation to valuing and making space for the contributions of women within their various public institutions.
The Christian Church, along with a range of other Religious institutions, he commented, had often been at the very back of the field in challenging dominant cultural assumptions when it comes to gender
He admitted when he made a decision a few years ago to go through the bible and read only the chapters that mentioned women, it was a revelation that as a student of the bible he came across around 30 women of whom he knew nothing, and for him more significantly in the Gospels there were 23 identfiable women connected with Jesus whose faith, generosity, courage and defiance, stood in stark contrast with their male counterparts.
He wonders if it was because Jesus wasn’t an alpha male that women loved him and because He wasn’t an alpha male that men had to get rid of him.
Remember, John Bell urges us, the only person who tried to prevent the cruxifiction, was a woman, Pilate’s wife.
He challenges men to reflect upon International Women’s day not as a celebration from which they are excluded, but rather as an opportunity to ponder whether as regards the fuller profile of women in society, he and they as men, are encouragers or impediments.
Thinking on these reflections from a man of God on the place of women in the world and in our faith journey, on paying better attention as a church family to the contributions of half of God’s human creation, today we begin a series diving into the women of the Bible.
We will take up John Bell’s wise challenge and start our own journey into the bible’s chapters that speak of the women of scripture.
Some of these women will be familiar and some might be surprisingly new, but just as God sees and hears each one of us, in that spirit, may we expand our own seeing and hearing of what scripture has to teach us from the stories of the lives of the women of the Bible.
We’ll hear from Rahab and Jael, Anna and Hulder, Jehosheba, Dorcas Lois…I could go on there’s loads of women in here!
And today I’m going to kick off with Hagar!
Elizabeth Tracey in her Article Hagar: She who speaks with God gives a terrific brief introduction,
Hagar, the Egyptian slave and handmaid who lives with Abraham and Sarah, is one of the Abrahamic traditions’ primary women. She is the mother of Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael, and, through him, the matriarch of multiple Arab tribes, revered by Islam and acknowledged by Hebrew and Christian traditions (Gen 25:13-15). More strikingly, Gen 16:7-14 portrays her as a woman who knows the Hebrew God personally.
This is also an ongoing story of the precarious position of women. In the lives of Hagar and of Sarai, who God would later rename Sarah, their bodies are used as bargaining chips for the betterment of men.
Before they’d settled in Canaan, a severe famine had driven Abram -later renamed by God Abraham - and Sarai to seek refuge in Egypt.
We learn in Genesis Ch 12 that Sarai was in effect given to Pharaoh to stop him killing Abram
11 As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, ‘I know what a beautiful woman you are. 12 When the Egyptians see you, they will say, “This is his wife.” Then they will kill me but will let you live. 13 Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.’
14 When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. 15 And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. 16 He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.
Is Hagar one of Abram’s acquisitions from his wife being passed over to Pharaoh?
We are not told how she came to Abram and Sarai, but as Sarai was given to Pharaoh to protect her husband, so Hagar is given to her husband now to protect them both from the consequences of a childless wife
we read in Ch16 verse 3&4
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. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
There is a rabbinical Midrash – that is a Rabbi’s commentary on the powerlessness of Sarai and Hagar’s story, which says Hagar’s subordination to Abram was in compensation for Sarai’s subordination to Pharoah. In that interpretation Hagar had been a daughter of Pharoah
But as I say, Genesis tells us nothing of who Hagar is or what her life was before her enslavement within Abram’s household.
Even her name makes no sense – in Hebrew it means alien foreigner and it is in the masculine HaGar
In the ancient semitic texts and the Hadiths, Islamic texts – Hagar is known as Hajar, meaning Splendid or Nourishing. She is matriarch of a dynasty headed by her son Ismail who with his father Ibrahim rebuilds the kaada in Mecca
But in Genesis 16 and 21 her story is an element of someone else’s story. So no one bothers to ask, learn, remember, or record her (true) name.
Down the centuries Peoples of African descent have often self identified as Hagar’s Children; the Egyptian enslaved woman, a part of Abraham’s covenant story, though Ishmael and yet othered, regarded as foreign. As we all reflect on the accepted findings of the Church Of England’s report into its own institutional racism this week called From Lament to Action, looking at the life of Hagar, as we begin our Bible journey amongst Scripture’s women, feels timely.
Servants and slaves often lose their given name and become named according to how they are regarded by those in power over them. Thus Hagar the foreigner.
My great-aunt Dorothy was in service in Lincolnshire in the early 1900’s and recalled that a kitchen boy might be called Tom because all the kitchen boys were called that , or a scullery maid Daisy because that name went with that role
Similarly cook was cook, nanny was nanny and all coachmen might simply be John Coachman regardless.
It saved the employer having to remember their individual name.
Names can often tell us as much about the namer as the named and from what perspective we are supposed to view the named.
I wonder what Hagar’s name was according to those who loved her.
I wonder what her mother named her?
So Sarai is childless and offers Hagar to Abram as a surrogate to produce a child in her stead. nAbram impregnates Hagar. Then Hagar is physically abused by Sarai who believes the slave is looking at her with contempt.
Verse 4 of Ch 16 tells us
4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.
When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.
The word despise here suggests that Hagar looks down on Sarai, the implication being ,because she’d got pregnant when Sarai could not..
Or could it be that what Hagar resented Sarai for, was her enforced sexual enslavement to provide Sarai with a child, a child that would never belong to its mother. A mother robbed of choice.
In her fantastic Book Womanist Midrash, Professor of the Hebrew Bible, Wilda C. Gafney tells us, Hagar’s attitude towards Sarai is framed with the Hebrew word q-l-l, meaning to curse, or hold as worthless, or light, little nothing.
The sex slave and the infertile woman, both judged by the world on their biological productivity, both living precarious lives, both about to be blessed by God, yet one exercising her little bit of power over the other more powerless still than she.
Do we not also hear echoes from the baby Moses’ life in the this story – the child raised by another more powerful; and then of the Exodus itself, Hagar an enslaved Egyptian fleeing
6 ‘Your slave is in your hands,’ Abram said. ‘Do with her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai ill-treated Hagar; so she fled from her.
The cruel rule of Israelite mistress, the enslaved Egyptian fleeing into the wilderness,
as later enslaved Israel would flee the cruel rule of Egyptian Pharaohs, fleeing into the wilderness.
When the Angel Of The Lord finds Hagar in the wilderness, her intention is pretty clear. She has runway to escape the cruelties of slavery and a violent mistress; so the angels response to her plight must have been as shocking as the fact of his appearance
‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ 10 The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’
In both cases those fleeing enslavement cry out to God and He hears their cries and responds, calling on those in need to trust in his vision for the lives, a vision not immediately clear.
For Hagar , I have to go back and be beaten, give my body to be used by my owners?
For the Israelites, we have to wander in the desert who knows where for who knows how long?
We too, in the wilderness of this pandemic are perhaps in that same place of un-knowing, of saying, what Lord, are you kidding, what am I doing? Where am I going, what’s the vision, I don’t see it?
And yet God sees Hagar and Hagar names the God who sees her, as no one else has seen her, who knows her, as no one else knows her, who has a plan for her future beyond her imagining. Verse 10…
10 The angel added, ‘I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.’
‘I’ says the angel not, the Lord says, but I. Hagar, a nameless woman, a foreigner, a fleeing enslaved Egyptian, in the wilderness, alone, encounters God in angel form. Genesis ch 16 verse 13 is an extraordinary moment in Scripture.
Hagar names God. Hagar names God
13 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[c] the One who sees me.’
Hagar calls the name of the Lord who spoke to her. By literally calling God “He sees me” (El roi), Hagar speaks of the mutual seeing for both her and God.
Suddenly she is a person seen and seeing, in a personal relationship for the first time in this friendless land – for her most intimate relationship, it turns out, is with God.
Remember later Moses in the Desert, where in Exodus 33:20 God says to him 20 , ‘you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.’
And yet God shows his face to Hagar and she lives, and though he tells her to return and submit, She won’t return defenseless or with the same status. She will return with strong promises received directly and personally from God.
Hagar, not a man, husband, or patriarch, also receives a covenant blessing (Gen 16:10).
It is the first Divine annunciation to a woman, a promise of a child and of a dynasty
As the church of England has to come to terms with the conclusions on racism in From Lament into Action this week, and the place of Women in positions of authority continues to be novel and a point of contention for many in the Anglican Communion, we would perhaps do well to turn from man made traditions and look again at the examples of God himself.
The linguistic interpretations and translations that we rely so heavily upon in our understanding of scripture, can be fragile and permeated with the biases and prejudices of the translators and deseminators of The Word. I draw our attention to the words of Paul in relation to Hagar while addressing the young church in Galatia. Chapter 4
Verse 25/26 Paul writes
Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother….
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’[f] 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.
Paul differentiates between the Matriarch and Patriarch of Arabia and the Muslim world Hagar and Ishmael, and Abraham the Patriarch of the Jewish world, saying as descendants of Abraham who was Free the followers of Christ have inherited that freedom, but those descended from the enslaved Hagar and Ishmael remain in their enslavement..well that’s whole other sermon for another day, but I would say isn’t it interesting that actually , Ishmael is indeed the first son of Abraham, in the union with the foreigner , the enslaved, the powerless woman – yet she is the first person in the canon God is named by and to whom God predicts a child and a dynasty, to whom God speaks directly.
Isn’t it also interesting that the longest conversation between Jesus and another person recorded in the Bible is with the foreign woman from Samaria
What is it with God? With Jesus interacting with those considered at the bottom of the social heap - the women, the foreigners.
Paul is working to shore up the courage of these new Galatian converts, to say our version good, other faiths bad, ignoring the fact of Ishmael’s father being Abraham and the fact of the cruel treatment of enslaved Hagar by ‘free’ Sarah. Being a slave becomes the problem, rather than the violent treatment meted out by Sarai or the use of Hagar’s body, to solve a problem of infertility for Abram and Sarai.
I wonder how it would be to give birth to your son and watch him grow up raised by your owner?
Again when we look at the promise God makes to Hagar about the future of the child she carries, translation and the effect required influence what we read.
In the earlier Samaritan Torah written in the ancient Hebrew from before the Jewish nation’s captivity in Babylon, the verse describing Ishmael reads
He will be a FRUITFUL MAN; his hand will be with everyone and everyone's hand will be with him, and he will live among all his brothers."(Genesis 16:12 Samaritan text)
in the later Masoretic Hebrew scripture it reads
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
towards[b] all his brothers.’
There is a transliteration confusion of Pere meaning wild donkey and Para meaning fruitful, Para is used by the angel in ch 17 regarding Ishmael’s descendents
And The single Hebrew consonant that has been translated as against, according to the Langenscheidt dictionary, can also be translated as: in, at, on, with, to, among, towards, because of
The Samaritan Torah promise feels very different, more blessed and hopeful for Hagar and her descendants and must give us pause to think about how that text has blighted expectations for the relationship of Arabs and Jews, the descendants of Ishmael and Isaac right up to the present day across Palestine and the Middle East.
Did God in angel form promise Hagar a fretful antagonistic son or a fruitful neighbourly son?
Humanity lays the differentials on God’s creation - it is our job as God’s children to see each other in the fullness of whom God made us to be.
Hagr named God El Roi – God sees and her son Ishamel God Hears.
God spoke to the women, to the poor, to the foreigner, to the downtrodden.
God used for his good purposes, the denyers, the persecutors, the murders, the prostitutes, the invaders, – all are God’s children.
There is so much more to say about Hagar, there will be with every woman we encounter no doubt.
I hope in this exciting series we may start to share in new stories, refreshed revelations into the lives and contributions of some of these overlooked women whose stories we perhaps have not given enough attention, whose richeness of experience with God, we have not yet received the full benefit.
The demand on us to keep praying, to keep listening, to keep paying attention, to be super alert in reading scripture to context, to worldly bias, to focus on the actual examples of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit in Action, these demands are imperitive to the clarity of vision we receive, to the guidance we follow.
I hope we take from Hagar the confidence to trust in God’s vision for our lives however incredible it may seem to us.
I hope we take in, the knowledge and comfort that whoever we are and however we are regarded by the world, God sees us, God hears us, God know us and God is with us always.