DESERT JOURNEYS 29
Monday 26th March 2018
Barren – such a harsh word. What woman would use it to describe her childless condition? Abram had received tremendous promises of future descendants, and yet, as the years passed, he and his wife Sarai were still childless.
Sarai herself attributed her childlessness to Yahweh; she was acutely aware of her husband’s impatient yearning, and as a last resort, offered Abram her Egyptian slave girl Hagar to be, not a concubine, but a wife to him.
Hagar conceived without difficulty, She was immensely proud and her status rose – she was potentially the mother of Abram’s heir. Did she brag and boast? We’re told she slighted her mistress; maybe she called her barren, and Sarai found her wifely status was threatened and the situation intolerable. She abused Hagar so harshly that the defenceless slave-wife ran away. She fled westward to the desert of Shur, presumably on her way back home to Egypt. There in the desert Hagar found a spring, and at the spring a “messenger” of the LORD visited her. Neither Sarai nor Abram are recorded as having spoken to Hagar – in their eyes she was a mere instrument, a tool to accomplish their purpose. Yet the LORD’s messenger did speak and called her by her name. “Hagar, maid of Sarai, from where have you come and where are you going?”
Hagar answers, admitting her status as subject to Sarai and her flight from her mistress. The messenger’s word seems cruel; Hagar is to return to her mistress and be subject to continued harsh treatment. But there is a promise also. Hagar is to have innumerable descendants and there are specific assurances about her pregnancy; she will bear a male child, call his name Ishmael “God hears,” and although Ishmael will have a life of strife, he will hold his own. Hagar, who is not recorded as being at all involved with God before this moment, there perceives the reality of her life story and boldly names God “El Roi” meaning “God sees.” She is the only person in scripture to give a name to God, to God who has called her by her name.
What do we learn of the different deserts in this record? How unwise it is to try to arrange things for God when nothing seems to be happening. Sarai tried to enhance her standing by using Hagar to bear a child for her, but it didn’t work out as she expected and had planned. Abram who foolishly let himself be tied in knots by two women who were at odds with each other weakly refused to take any responsibility for their different claims upon him. Both Abram and Sarai wavered in their trust in God.
And Hagar? The victim of the story, she tried to escape her appalling situation, even by risking a dangerous desert journey. But there she met God, found her role as a suffering servant, but also as a person pregnant with promise and possibilities. She sees beyond her suffering to a real encounter with God, and to the conviction that He knows her and has seen everything. She gains the maturity to accept that it is not God’s will to change her circumstances, but that He will be present to her in all the hardship she must continue to bear.
St Paul contrasts Sarai and Hagar, identifying Sarai (Sarah) as Abraham’s wife, the mother of the Free. Hagar he dismisses as the woman who symbolises bondage, as indeed she does. But which one of these two women reminds us more directly of Jesus?
The scriptural basis for this reflection can be found in Genesis 16