READ – Genesis 16
This week we find ourselves right in the middle of the story of Abraham and Sarah. Abraham is one of the central characters in the entire Bible – and is seen by many as the “father” of three major world religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity). After God’s good creation and the tragic rebellion of Adam and Even in Genesis 3, things go from bad to worse. Eventually, the state of the world becomes so corrupt, abusive, and unjust that God starts over by flooding the earth but preserving Noah and his family. But even Noah and his descendants show themselves to be infected by sin. So God comes down to an old, childless, pagan couple (Abraham and Sarah) in ancient Mesopotamia and promises that they will have a child from whose line will come a Rescuer to put things back to rights, bless the nations, and heal the world. Genesis 16 occurs ten years after God had made that promise to Abraham and Sarah. Ten years of waiting, wandering, and infertility.
Hagar is the first of a long line of biblical characters who meet and experience God in the wilderness. Think of Moses, the nation of Israel, Elijah, John the Baptist, or Jesus. In almost every story of someone going into the wilderness and meeting God, the journey proved to be identity-forming – and Hagar is no exception. God comes to Hagar with two questions: “Where do you come from” and “Where are you going?” In these two questions God is uncovering for Hagar to realities that are just as relevant for us today: who are we and what do we want?
1. THE MAID WHO BECAME A PRINCESS
Put yourself in Hagar’s shoes. Presumably she is dead to her family, place of origin, and history. She is the human property of another – and literally has no rights over her life, choices, of even her own body (as the story shamefully recounts). Hagar is an Egyptian, a woman, and a slave – an outsider according to her ethnicity, gender, and social class. She was seen only for her utility, noticed only as a means to an end, not an end in herself.
Does the Bible condone slavery, abusive treatment of women, polygamy? It’s helpful to distinguish between Prescriptive and Descriptive texts in Scripture. Prescriptive texts tell us to do something (e.g. the Ten Commandments). But Descriptive texts often give us an account without the narrator necessarily assigning a positive/negative value to the way the characters behave. Genesis 16 is a descriptive story. The treatment of Hagar is neither justified, nor condoned – and in fact, as the story progresses, leads to incredible heartbreak.
In order to understand how Hagar ends up in the wilderness, it’s helpful to understand what the dynamic was between Sarah and Hagar. Sarah was the mistress, the superior. As such she had absolute power over Hagar – even over Hagar’s womb. Hagar was the slave, the inferior. The culture that these two women found themselves in was a traditional culture. It was a culture that said to women ‘You are only as good or valuable as the children you can bear and the family you can raise.’ So you can understand Sarah’s difficulty. Not only has God promised her that the entire weight of the world is resting on her birthing a son, but Sarah’s entire culture would have been directly and indirectly communicating to her that she was nothing if she couldn't be a mom. Sarah tries to deal with this by using Hagar’s body. But what she comes to discover is that after Hagar has conceived – Sarah begins to feel deflated and worthless, and Hagar begins to feel inflated and superior. The tables have turned. Now Hagar sees her mistress with contempt, (literally, as little or small in her eyes). Sarah’s insecurity leads her to become angry and abusive; Hagar’s superiority leads her to see other people as small. They were both ultimately finding themselves and their identity in their motherhood status.
To our modern sensibilities, that sounds absurd and ridiculous. We’ve moved beyond traditional culture. But our modern world hasn’t moved beyond assigning people identity and value based on their achievement and performance.
Timothy Keller talks about three ways our identities are formed:
1. Look Out: this is the traditional way of forming one’s identity – finding your sense of self with how you fit into the tribe, or your ability to have kids, or raise a family.
2. Look In: the modern path to identity to is look inside yourself. We look to our desires (‘follow your heart’) or our achievements, academic pedigree, or love relationships. But in both traditional and modern cultures, we’re all ultimately trying to get someone to see, notice, and recognize us.
3. Look Up: what Hagar discover in the desert is that there’s a God who has already discovered her. She’s trying to find herself, but God has found her. The Christian gospel says that it’s not our past, present, or future achievements that determine who we are, but the achievements of Jesus our substitute through which we find a durable, lasting identity. And it’s an identity that shows us we are more priceless than the most precious diamond.
By my count, there’s 6 children God names while they’re in the womb of their mothers. In almost all 6 instances, the baby boys are royalty or princes. God names Ishmael, Hagar’s son. He’s saying, ‘Up to this point, everyone has seen and noticed you only for your utility, only as a slave, but I see you as a princess, as a queen.” Imagine what it might be like to live with that truth echoing in your heart?
2. THE RUNAWAY SLAVE AND OUR SEARCH FOR FREEDOM
It’s ironic, but because of her meeting God in the wilderness, Hagar turns out to be the most free person in this story. How is Hagar the slave the most free?
First, Hagar discovers a Master who will never exploit, abuse, or oppress her. Our notion of freedom is to be without limitations or constraints, to be free from authority, and to have limitless choices. But that contemporary idea of freedom isn’t workable. Freedom isn’t the absence of authority or constraints, but choosing the right freedoms to lose. For example, you will never experience the freedom of intimate, committed love unless you sacrifice some of your autonomy and independence. Hagar meets someone who loves her. God meets Hagar in an accessible way. God calls her by name. God gives her a question, not a command, and invites her into conversation. God starts by listening. God is the only character in the story who values Hagar as an end in herself. This is a Master she has never known before.
Second, Hagar discovers that her life is not her own, she must follow this Master’s plan for her life to make sense and for her to arrive at the happiness and freedom she is searching for. We’re all mastered by something or someone. Sarah was mastered by her culture’s evaluation of her. What are you mastered by? If you fail, will that master forgive you? Hagar finds that even though God is commanding her to return to Sarah, He is the Master who will care for her and give her a destiny.
2. THE GOD IN THE WILDERNESS
How could Hagar know for sure that this God she meets in the wilderness, the God of Abraham wasn’t going to manipulate or exploit her like Abraham?
The answer is wrapped up in the identity of this mysterious “angel of the LORD.” This “angel” is not any mere angel. In fact, many theologians and interpreters understand this figure to be “The Messenger” of the LORD – a preincarnate manifestation of the second person of the Trinity, who will eventually be named Jesus. Hagar understands from the blessing that this messenger gives her to her own naming of this figure, “El Roi” (The God who sees me”) that this is God Himself.
What do we know on this side of history that Hagar didn't? We know that God came to another maidservant, a virgin Mary, and promised her that she would bear a son whose name wouldn’t be Ishmael, “God hears your affliction,” but Immanuel, “God with us.” Jesus wasn’t content merely to hear our suffering, He wanted to enter into it and bear it. This Jesus gave up his freedom so we could experience ultimate freedom – from sin, shame, and people’s evaluation of us. Why? So He could be the Master who if we fail, he’ll forgive us; if we let him down, he’ll still love us. Jesus is the God who not only sees us, notices us, but dies for us. When you believe that truth, you become the most affirmed person in the world (‘the Son of God died for me!’) and the most self-denying person in the world (‘I am not my own, I belong to another and His will for my life’).
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
1. What about the sermon most impacted you or left you with questions?
2. What are some things that you are tempted to base your identity, worth, and value in? How are you learning to see this dynamic and repent from it?
3. How does the biblical concept of freedom at odds with our modern notions of freedom?
4. Is Christianity oppressive? Why or why not?
5. What might it look like to live this week with God’s voice saying, “I see you as a princess or prince?” What might change?
6. Is there an area of your life or heart that you’ve not been submitting to Jesus the Master? How might you work towards change? What could that look like?