In the time of Abraham (and still in some respects today) the primary role of women was providing children to men — women gained power through childbirth. In this light, Sarah, unable to bear a child for her husband Abraham, struggles to fulfill her expected role as a woman. To satisfy her husband, Sarah offers Abraham her slave-girl Hagar as a mate. As a slave, Hagar has the least amount of power of anyone in this situation. She is never asked for her consent, and after Hagar conceives, Sarah becomes jealous of the Hagar’s power as a mother. When Sarah abuses Hagar, Hagar courageously defies the law and flees Sarah to run into the wilderness (16:6).
In the wilderness we glimpse God’s abiding commitment to the oppressed. God appears to Hagar, a woman without any status, to honor her bravery and promise that her offspring would be greatly multiplied. Hagar returns to Abraham and Sarah and births Ishmael.
When Sarah miraculously births Isaac, she reignites a struggle for power in her household. Sarah cannot stand seeing Isaac play as equals with Ishmael, and she uses her power to banish Hagar. Sarah’s behavior is a disturbing example of what happens when we live with a sense of scarcity, rather than God’s abundance. Of course, Sarah was acting in a system where she, like Hagar, experienced oppression. However, rather than identify with Hagar, Sarah uses the limited power she has to commit further violence against Hagar.
We would be remiss to overlook the truths this story illuminates. We, like Sarah, often cling to the strands of power we acquire rather than trust in the abundance of God. This abuse of power is clearly present in the racism that persists in the United States. Delores S. Williams, author of Sisters in the Wilderness, connects the experience of Hagar to black women in America today:
Black American women have a long resistance history that includes running away from slavery in the antebellum era. Like Hagar and her child Ishmael, African-American female slaves and their children, after slavery, were expelled from the homes of many slave holders (some who fathered these children) and given no resources for survival. Hagar, like many women through African-American women’s history, was a single parent (3).
Both the Genesis 16 and 21 narratives reveal the faith, hope and struggle with which an African slave woman worked through issues of survival, surrogacy, motherhood, rape, homelessness and economic and sexual oppression … Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living or herself and her child, with only God by her side (31).
Today’s reading is one of the many Biblical accounts of humans who struggle to follow God’s way of abundant and liberating love. This story reveals the challenges inherent in power and exposes the beliefs that have supported oppression for thousands of years. If we are willing to see ourselves in the story, this jarring passage might motivate us to address oppressive beliefs by acknowledging our history and developing identification, rather than distance, with marginalized people.
Prayer: Forgive us for the ways we have abused power. Grant us courage to follow your way of liberation.
Reflection: What are the various ways I hold power or authority? How can I use this to honor rather than oppresses others?
Art: Art from the cover of Hagar, Sarah and their Children by Phyllis Trible and Letty M. Russell.