written by Mary Thorpe
Never mind the nastiness of Sarah, that jealous woman who had to wait over 90 years to get what she wanted. Never mind Abraham tossing out Hagar and little Ishmael (well, maybe not so little, because he’s older than the precious Isaac by thirteen years.) Never mind being sent back home, which in Hagar’s case would mean traveling across a desert toward Egypt. Never mind that God – GOD! – says it’s alright for Abraham to do that, because Ishmael will have a lot of good things happen to him when he grows up, assuming he survives the trip back home.
Never mind that ugly, impenetrable stuff. It’s in the Bible, so there’s got to be some good in it somewhere, even though we dense human beings can’t understand it. I can hear my Aunt Vera saying “it’s all part of God’s plan, dear,” as she crocheted yet another toilet paper roll cover.
No, we’re just supposed to think that God’s consolation prize – Ishmael will sire a nation – suffices. We’re supposed to think that the angel and the well and all that “I heard your call” language papers over the difficult, uncomfortable part.
But the story of Abraham is one uncomfortable part after another. The great patriarch:
- who uses Hagar to have a child at the prompting of his barren wife (Hagar has no say in the matter)
- who then tosses Hagar out into the wilderness to satisfy his wife because Hagar is getting a little pushy in Sarah’s eyes
- who passes off his wife as his sister to avoid a ruler’s wrath (twice, by the way: Gen 12:10-20 and Gen 20:1-7)
- who is ready to murder the precious, promised Isaac until stayed by an angel’s hand, because that is what God required of him…
…and yet he is the one deemed righteous. He certainly responds to whatever God asks of him. He moves when God says move. He provides hospitality to traveling strangers. He leads his people. Imperfectly, but he leads. And silently, he thinks “I’m not to blame for my misdeeds. I did what I had to do. I did what Sarah pushed me to do. I did what helped keep me alive, helped keep my heritage alive.”
Sarah doesn’t exactly cover herself in glory, either. “It’s Hagar’s fault, her fault, the fault of her boy.” The unspoken “I’m not to blame for forcing her to birth a child because I couldn’t.” She doesn’t even use Ishmael’s name. Being in a position of relative power doesn’t bring out the best in people, as we’ve seen over and over again.
And then there’s Hagar. A rape victim. A slave. A mother who could not control the destiny of the child she bore. An “other” who had no power or status in Abraham and Sarah’s world, with a child whom she feared would die now that they were cast out. She who is thinking “why am I and my son being cast out? I’m not to blame here.”
I think of so many mothers who have no power or status – we know to our shame that this is still true – who worry about their children, children who are cast as “other” as their mothers are. Will this precious child of my body live? Will he thirst and die in this climate of arid hatred? Will my daughter be treated as chattel, as a disposable object, as I have been? Will the game be stacked against these precious ones?
In this passage from Genesis, it starts out as a bad Jerry Springer script, takes a turn into The Amazing Race with strategic angels helping out, and ends up somewhere in the vicinity of a Lifetime happy made-for-TV movie, with Hagar in Paran, a nice Egyptian wife for Ishmael, that very gifted archer, and a nation that springs from his loins. All tied up with a bow. Happy ending.
But I wonder if Hagar had nightmares. Nightmares of being forced to lie with her master. Nightmares of death by heat exposure and thirst even after finding her new life in Paran. I wonder if Ishmael remembered the little brother he played with, who ended up with all the love of the father who loved Ishmael less. I wonder if the pain, the humiliation, the loss, the separation, the bitterness stayed with them.
And who could blame them?
We do not hear the voices of Hagar and Ishmael again. But there are voices in their heads, and those voices do not go silent, they do not let them escape the pain. There are voices within the heads of those who are suffering now as Hagar and Ishmael suffered, and their pain now demands those voices speak aloud. It is not for us to speak. Their voices have waited too long. Speak pain. Speak truth. Speak change. Speak…
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The Rev. Dr. Mary Brennan Thorpe is Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Virginia. She is an iconographer, musician, learner of new things, wife, mother and grandmother. Right now she does these things on her sunporch, her office during this time of pandemic. Her book “On the Emmaus Road: A Guide to Transitions in Ordained Leadership” will be published by Church Publishing in late fall, 2020.
Image is Jean-Francois Millet’s unfinished painting of Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert, in the public domain.