Speaking (or teaching for that matter) anywhere inevitably launches me into an intense season of self reflection and desire for change in my own life. Part of my personality requires that I not just speak eloquently, or knowledgeably about a topic, but give a message from a place of personal transformation and experience.
It is not enough to equip others with life giving truth. I need to participate in it.
A wise professor of mine once told me that whenever you read or speak on scripture, you need to be the “first convert to the text.” And convert I have been since digging into Genesis 16:1-16 in preparation for speaking at the Tablescapes event hosted at Springville United Methodist Church just two weeks ago.
Scripture Speaks Loudly
There is something about the Old Testament that compels me in a way the New Testament does not. The books that comprise the Jewish scriptures, communicate a journey of a people who have more often than not, struggled to live out what it means to be men and women of faith. Struggle, brokenness and conflict saturate the stories in a way that reflects the reality of my everyday experience of the world.
You’d think that would be depressing, but it isn't. It is powerful to see the real world reflected in the stories of people thousands of years removed from my own, yet intimately acquainted with the disappointments of my own story in my own day and age. And more importantly, amidst these stories is a God who sees and hears the raw reality of life and yet responds with hope, provision and promise. God is hero of the scriptures. The one who acts in faith when no one else will.
Take Genesis 16:1-16
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 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. - Gen 16:1-3
We’ve meet Sarai before, back in 11:29 when she’s listed as Abram’s wife and her childlessness is emphasized, not once but twice. Abram, if you remember, is the guy who is called by God to leave all that he knows to go to a new land pursuing a promise of a blessed future on behalf of the world (it is a pretty big deal, chapter 12 is a major turning point in the narrative of Genesis - but that story for another day). This couple responds with faithful obedience to go and yet find themselves struggling with the reality of their choices. First they encounter a famine in this new land which forces them to journey to Egypt. Second, the nephew they brought alongside their journey, abandons them when we decides to stay in a choice region of the land.
The story in Chapter 16 picks up 10 years after their faithful response. 10 years of hoping, yearning, and dreaming. 10 years of familial disagreement, disappointment and disillusionment. It isn’t a coincidence that the story picks up just after God hears Abram cry out “for I continue childless” (15:2) and God responds with gracious reassurance that their hope for a family is not unheard.
What happens when God’s promises don’t match up to our reality?
Here is a couple struggling with their infertility. How can God’s promises be true if the one thing necessary for us to fulfill it isn’t happening and time is running out. Sarai proposes a solution -- Hagar.
Wait, who is Hagar and how did she end up in the story?
Remember when Abram and Sarai had to journey to Egypt back in Chapter 12? Abram worries about his situation in a foreign land with a beautiful wife and so asks his wife to lie about her identity. Sarai, the “sister” is thus taken into Pharaoh's house as his wife. Let’s not miss the sexual implications of this statement. Sarai is sexually exploited for Abram’s gain at his request because he fears for his safety (12:15-16). The guy who is promised by God to have his name “made great” (ancient terminology for having street credit), is worried that God’s promises can’t provide in his current reality.
What happens when we exchange the truth of God’s promises for the anxiety of our own perspective?
They obviously don’t remain in Egypt. God intervenes and causes Pharaoh to do what Abram was unwilling to, tell them to leave. They go, but who do you think came with them? Hagar.
Here is the crazy thing about this story. Sarai, having experienced what is was like to be exploited sexually out of a fear that God cannot do what God has promised -- does the very same thing to her Egyptian slave Hagar. She wants to build herself up, but is willing to use another human being to do so. Abram did it her to her, and now she’s doing it to Hagar.
How often do we hurt others in the same ways that we have been hurt?
Do you hear the echoes of our broken world in this? The now cliche “hurt people, hurt people” is nothing new. It is a reflection of the human condition so evidently displayed in this story. It is the tragic element at the heart of so many conflicts. Humans respond naturally with reciprocity of harm, and yet, as God will show us in this story, that is not how it should be.
He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. -- Gen 16:4-6
Sarai gets what she wants. Hagar is pregnant, they are going to get the hoped for heir. By all accounts she should be thrilled, right?
Perhaps this is the beginning of the personal issue Sarai is going to face with Hagar. I can imagine the pain and possible bitterness that Sarai could feel at the immediacy of results when Abram is given a new partner. Perhaps it is that pain that makes her sensitive to her status as the the first wife. She may not be able to birth children, but she still has her status.
How does bitterness blind us to pain and perspectives of others and ourselves?
You have to hear the irony in then Hagar’s response (who up to this point isn’t consulted by the couple determining her future, nor is ever spoken of as anything other than “slave”) -- she “despises her mistress” better translated as “she made smaller her mistress.” Here the Hebrew root qalal has to sense of demeaning or belittling. In other words, where Sarai’s goal was to be built up through her slave, her slave in reality tore her down.
Perhaps that is what the real problem was. Not that Sarai couldn’t have a child. Underneath it all, was a painful self consciousness that something in her person wasn’t good enough, able enough, capable enough to fulfill God’s promises. Hagar’s reaction cut her down to the most tender and sensitive of spots.
How does our community respond to conflict?
How should Sarai respond? Talk to Hagar about what is going on in her heart? Diagnose the real heart issues that are result in the anger? No. She goes to Abram. Not Hagar. Not God. Abram.
This is a major issue in the story. If you haven’t caught it, even here, Sarai and Abram continue to speak about Hagar, but never to her. She is referred to by her function and not her person. There is a real breakdown in the fabric which holds this family together.
Conflict inevitably draws a much wider circle than the initial disagreeing parties. Human tendency is to spiral conflict to draw an ever wider circle of those it affects.
How is passivity enabling?
Abram, as the patriarch of the family should step into this space to restore relationship, and yet he doesn’t. HIs remarks to Sarai remove him for working alongside. His passivity enables Sarai to move from exploiting Hagar, to abusing her.
Let’s not sugar coat this. Sarah likely beat a pregnant woman to the point that she left any sort of safety to flea back to Egypt. No matter what Hagar may have said or did, as a slave she was not enjoy the same protections that Sarai and Abram, as matriarch and patriarch of the family did. Rather than use their power for good, they both abused their authority to build up their house on a foundation of exploitation. Building upon the suffering of other humans is never a successful strategic plan for God’s people.
God doesn’t passively watch the situation and allow it to go unchecked.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered. Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” -- Gen 16:7-9
Isn’t it powerful that the one person who speaks to Hagar is God? He calls her by name. God enters into a conversation with Hagar, rather than about her.
I am reminded that, from the very beginning, God has been the one desiring to restore and reconciling relationship. The echoes of the same question “where are you” are heard throughout the Old Testament. They are the reminders that we serve the One who first sought us.
How does the process of reconciliation begin?
This is the powerful truth about conflict. It doesn’t break because we will it it. It breaks because, even when we weren’t looking for it, God was showing us the way. Restoration begins with God’s choice reconcile us back first to God, and then each other.
That reconciliation first begins with a conversation.
Hagar, where are you coming from?
Why does God need to ask that? Shouldn’t God already know the answer? Yes. But maybe God needs Hagar to know something. The question is asked because God wants her to know “I see the situation. You have a legitimate reason for fleeing. I know you are hurting. I see you.”
What happens when we let go of our legitimate right to be angry?
There are times when God is so radical that I feel uncomfortable. This is one of those moments.
God, while fully and completely acknowledging Hagar’s pain and position, pushes her to see past the immediacy of her reality towards a greater perspective. God asks her to exchange her very legitimate right to be angry for promise.
Breaking the cycle of fear, anxiety, conflict, and harm begins with the choice to let go. Let go of the hurt that grounds us in bitterness and anger. Let go of the disappointment that the ones who should have known better, didn’t choose the right thing when it was most needed.
Christianity is compels us to Christ like surrender of those very things.
It doesn’t seem fair, and it isn’t. It shouldn’t have to be Hagar (the one who was abused) to have to reach out in reconciliation to her abusers, but this is what God asks of her.
The economy of God’s Kingdom is built on net deficits. Where grace extended and received is always underserved and yet always offered. Inviting Christ into conflict compels you to respond the same way that Christ world - letting go, surrendering the very right to be angry for the goal of reconciliation.
The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. 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 toward all his brothers.” 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 the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael. -- Gen 16:10-16
God’s reconciliation, begins with a conversation and ends with tangible provision for Hagar’s future: descendants. As we already know with Sarai’s situation, having kids (or not being able to) is a big deal in this time and society. Children, specifically male children, are the only means by which a woman can provide for herself in the future.
God’s promise of a son is good news for Hagar. Not only will it provide for her future, but also it is phrased in a way which should draw your attention. Don’t miss the intentional link of this promise to the one given to Abraham back in Chapter 15. Hagar is a matriarch in her own right. No matter what she make endure if she chooses to return home, her identity is no longer what is was -- the slave girl.
Notice also that Hagar gives a name to God - “the God who sees me.” Hagar is the only human in the Old Testament who gives a name to God, rather than receive a name given by God. Not only that, but she speaks of being the one who has “seen the One who sees me.” This is another big deal! Hagar made it to the very short list of the those in the Old Testament who are said to have seen God. The only two members of the list include Moses and Isaiah - heavy hitters in the Jewish scriptures.
The person Sarai and Abram could only speak about, is spoken to by the Living God. The slave girl is chosen to leave a sacred legacy.
God hears and sees suffering, and does not allow it to go unchecked. God provides for the powerless in a powerful way, but does it in a way that invites Hagar to actively participate instead of passively receive.
How does God call us to see a hope and future unconditioned by our reality?
Hagar’s choice, at the end of this scripture, is ultimately to take God at God’s word and return to Sarai. She goes with a promise that, in the end, does not immediately bear fruit. While we have no way of knowing how Hagar is treated when she returns, we do know that Sarai eventually kicks her out (Gen 21:8-21) following the birth of her own son. Reconciliation of their relationship never seems to happen.
Hagar, like so many of us who have reached out to end conflict, but never see the benefit of that decision in her life, seems like she is in much the same place. But she isn’t.
Hagar is able to see a hope and a future unconditioned by the reality which surrounded her when she returned home. Seeking God’s perspective grounds us in the hope that the brokenness so readily viewable today, is not the last word. There is hope. There is freedom, if only we have the eyes to see and hear.
Here is the part that really messes with me when I read scripture. I never know who I am going to resonate most with whenever I read it. We’ve met and fleshed out three very different persons: Sarai, Abram and Hagar. We’ve unwrapped the layers behind each of their motivations and actions. We’ve outline the perspectives of each in comparison to God’s reconciling model.
I don’t know who you resonate most with, for me the answer is ever evolving, and that is a good thing. We grow, change, adapt and learn. We do not stay the same people, and so stories can never be read in the same way.
I love that scripture invites us to participate into a dialogue, it presses in different ways on my heart. It is an invitation ask the same questions the text asks of its characters, of myself.
Speaking at Springville UMC, granted me the opportunity to read these people and hear their questions in a new light. Since then, the days have been ripe opportunities to really see and hear those in my life, both those rough relationships and rewarding ones. Scripture is alive when we allow it to do this.
For those of you who were there at the Tablescapes event (or just interested), I have attached a downloadable copy of my slides from that message. I pray that it may be used to help you press into theses stories, characters and questions.
Kris and I are blessed with opportunities to speak at events and serve on staff with Emmaus Ministry through our partnership with brothers and sisters in Christ who are part of our support team. If you’re interested in equipping others with scriptural training, growing disciples through intentional one-on-one discipleship or serving the local Central Florida community, please consider partnering with us in ministry and join our support team.