Hagar the Egyptian

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
Third Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)
21 June 2020

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Sometimes the lectionary offers us a set of biblical texts that welcome us into a space where we can explore and celebrate the sacred love at the heart of the universe.

This is not one of those days!

Other times the Bible invites us to struggle with the text, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the LORD by the Jabbok River in Genesis 32.

That is the kind of Sunday we have this week.

For sure there are ways to avoid the struggle.

We could get lost in the baptismal theology of Romans 6. A preacher can easily spend 15 or 20 minutes in there, sound very religious and avoid engaging with reality. But that is not the call of the Spirit which I discern this week.

I am drawn to the figure of Hagar.

The black slave ‘owned’ by Sarah and Abraham, and used by them as a surrogate mother to provide them with a child so their dreams of a future could be secured at the cost of her present suffering.

As I searched for a graphic to place on the front page of this week’s liturgy book, I was captured by this haunting image of a homeless mother and child cast adrift by a world which has no compassion for people like her or her child:

 

homeless-mother-and-child

Let’s focus on that image for a moment.

Look at the young woman … and her child.

Hear again the harsh words of the woman of privilege (Sarah, ‘princess’ in Hebrew):

“Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (Genesis 21:10)

 

For the women here today: Would you choose to be in the position of that young woman?

For the men here today: Have we stood by the women we love?

For all of us here: Do we see our children and grandchildren in the face of that child?

 

The story of Hagar

As the Bible tells the story, Hagar was a young Egyptian woman who had become a slave within the household of Abraham and Sarah. We are not told, how that happened.

Slave!

Abraham and Sarah owned slaves?

And that is OK by us? And by God? Really?

And the irony of a Hebrew family with an Egyptian slave!

Life is complicated.

Truth is twisted.

Justice is crooked.

 

As we know from African slavery in the USA and indigenous slavery in our own land, female slaves are sexually abused by their ‘owners’ – by the people who presume to imagine that they can possess another human being.

It wasn’t just the women.

The boys and the young men were abused by privileged ‘owners’ as well.

 

Hagar is given a task to fulfil for her mistress, Sarah. Go and have sex with the old man, Abraham, and get yourself pregnant. But the baby you conceive will not be yours. It will belong to me. I am your mistress. I am your owner. You are nothing. Just a baby machine. Do as I say.

If you do as I tell you then will be safe. We will protect you.

A familiar lie!

 

BTW, Hagar was probably black.

And it is clear that black lives seem not to matter—at least in the eyes of people of privilege—as much as white lives. Our lives.

And all this is in the Bible!

 

But it does not end with the enslavement and sexual abuse of a young woman of colour from Egypt.

 

When the privileged mistress does have her own child, then both the slave girl and her child are expendable. Worse, they are a threat to the privilege of the ‘owner’ and her child.

They need to go.

Where?

Who cares, just get them both out of here!

I don’t want to see them, either of them, ever again!

 

And all this hatred from a woman who had once claimed that child as her own …

 

Abraham is no paragon of virtue, even though the Bible excuses his lack of compassion. Worse still, the Bible shifts the blame to God.

How many times have we seen racists claim divine sanction for their hatred?

How many times do people of privilege claim that their power over others is a gift from God and not something they sought to attain for themselves?

 

 

Where is the Good News?

In the corner of this ‘text of terror’ there is a small scrap of good news.

Both Hagar and her son, Ishmael, survive their expulsion … because God intervenes to save them. The child grows and his mother finds him a wife from Egypt. In the tradition he becomes the ancestor of the Arabs.

But God mostly does not intervene to rescue people when they are abused and exploited.

The injustice is neither addressed nor redressed.

It just happens.

 

As Jesus people, where do we find good news—healing, salvation—in such a terrible tale?

As we wrestle with Scripture, what news of freedom and liberation and hope do we find in such a story?

How long has Hagar had to wait for the crimes against her to be recognised?

And not just Hagar the Egyptian, but all the black women and all black boys who have been abused and exploited by people of privilege in our culture, in our society and even in our religion?

Justice for Hagar comes when we see that what happened to her was not OK.

Redemption for Hagar and her child comes when our hearts break at their treatment.

Restoration comes when we honour Hagar as a great woman in the story of faith.

Good news is found when we stand with Jesus and proclaim the words of Isaiah 61:

 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;

he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,

to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

to proclaim the year of the LORD’S favour …

 

 

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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