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"Seeing Hagar" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on June 21, 2020 by Kathy Miller

Seeing Hagar

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

Genesis 21:8-21

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So, she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” So, Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-Sheba.

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.” And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.


The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Seeing Hagar

As many of you know, most Sundays our scripture reading comes from the lectionary—a selection of texts that repeats every three years. While I didn’t have many opportunities to preach prior to coming to Covenant, I did have the opportunity to preach on this morning’s selection of texts when they came up in the lectionary cycle three years ago. Like this year, I immediately gravitated toward the Genesis passage. Because that was a different church, theoretically, my job this week could have been quite simple—pull out the previous sermon, dust it off, make some small edits, and sermon done. Except. When I read my sermon from three years ago, I realized I could no longer preach it.

While it was a good sermon that ultimately argued that Hagar’s story is one that reminds us that we are not God’s only story (that God is involved with more people than just us), my sermon three years ago began by recounting the story that leads up to this morning’s text. And, as I am wont to do, I began with Sarah. If you remember, Sarah is Abraham’s wife, she’s the one that Abraham twice passed off as his sister to high-ranking officials who then tried to wed and bed her; she is the one who when she is told she will bear a child long after she is physically able, laughs; Sarah is the mother of Isaac, the boy whose father (her husband) almost sacrificed him on a mountaintop. I have always sympathized with Sarah and what her life must have been like, and respected her ability to laugh in God’s face.

And so, three years ago, when I preached on this passage, I began by retelling the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar in this way:

“Years after God had promised Abraham a child, Sarah remains barren and decides to take matters into her own hands. Giving in, once again, to the seemingly obvious reality that she is barren, Sarah sends her slave-girl, Hagar, to sleep with Abraham and bear a son on her behalf. When her plan succeeds and Hagar becomes pregnant, the dynamic between Hagar and Sarah changes. The Hebrew text seems to deliberately leave vague who is at fault for this change, but the end result is that Hagar feels so mistreated by Sarah that she runs away into the wilderness. It is here than an angel of the Lord finds her and tells her to return to Sarah and that her offspring will be so numerous they will not be able to be counted. With that, Hagar returns, Ishmael is born and life goes on.”

It’s a reasonably good summary of the biblical narrative, especially if your point of connection is with Sarah. But when I reread the sermon this year, I realized how privileged my interpretation of the text was.

When reading biblical texts, we all approach them from our own experience; we all bring to them our own knowledge and questions—there’s no avoiding it, nor should we necessarily want to—much like with life, our knowledge and questions, experiences and preferences are what make us who we are, they enable us to see the world in a particular way that is unlike how anyone else sees the world. Our knowledge and questions, experiences and preferences are a gift. But when reading the Bible, much like when living our lives, if we stop there, if we only see the text or the world through our own lenses, our own prisms of experience and bias, knowledge and skepticism, we only see a fraction of what the text (and the world) has to offer.

When I was doing my doctoral studies in Christian Spirituality, a significant amount of my coursework and comprehensive exams centered around biblical studies. While I had studied the Bible in seminary, what I had studied had been the stories and the text itself. In my doctoral work, the focus was on the lenses through which we read and study the text. In academic language, these are referred to as criticisms, and there are more of them than you can keep track of—from historical criticism to source criticism to narrative criticism and beyond—each with its own questions and methods, each designed to help us move beyond our own prisms and look at the text from a different angle, a different point of view.

Womanist Criticism approaches scripture from the perspective of women of color. While the discipline takes many forms, one of the most prevalent is to read the scriptures from the perspective of marginalized women. So, in the case of this morning’s scripture, womanist criticism almost always begins by reading the text from Hagar’s point of view.

Now, I don’t know for certain, but I would wager that a womanist interpretation might take umbrage at my retelling of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar’s story from three years ago. I suspect that a womanist theologian or biblical scholar might rightly take me to task for the ways in which I minimized Hagar’s experience and the wrong that is done to her, particularly by the matriarch in the story, the woman with the power, the woman that I, as a white woman, so readily identify with.

Because let’s be clear, when I wrote that after years of trying to conceive Sarah eventually gives up and sends her slave-girl, Hagar, to sleep with her husband, I was sympathizing with Sarah. Sarah came first in my sentence and when Hagar is mentioned, I diminished her and distanced myself from her by referring to her first as a slave-girl, and only after by her name. Even worse, I simply glossed over the fact that what is happening in this brief summary is rape. Abraham is raping Hagar and Sarah is not only condoning it, she is orchestrating it.

Worse, after Hagar is raped and becomes pregnant, Sarah abuses her so badly that Hagar decides she is better off running away, pregnant, into a desert, by herself. The Hebrew word used to describe Sarah’s treatment of Hagar is the same word that will be used to describe the Egyptians treatment of the Israelite slaves, the treatment that was so horrific it impelled God to act, to liberate the Israelites. These are not just sideways looks and catty comments. Sarah is abusing Hagar, almost certainly beating her. So much so that Hagar decides death would be better. Because going into the desert pregnant and alone was certainly a death sentence. But when I described this part of the story three years ago, I merely commented that “Hagar felt mistreated,” and when I commented that the Hebrew text is vague about why Sarah is abusing her slave, the unspoken implication was that Hagar might have deserved it, which is what many scholars have intimated and concluded for centuries. Finally, when Hagar is instructed by God to return to the people who have raped her and abused her, which by the way is a whole other sermon, I glibly commented that Hagar returned, Ishmael was born, and life went on, as if Hagar was just over-reacting.

Now I suspect that some of you are thinking that I am making too much of this, that the mistreatment of Hagar, while not ideal, was not uncommon in that time. And, after all, our story comes through the lineage of Sarah and Abraham, not Ishmael and Hagar, so reading from their perspective is entirely reasonable. But here’s the thing, it’s not that reading the text the way I did three years ago is wrong, it’s a valid interpretation of the text, but it privileges a particular perspective. And in doing so, it fails to see and take seriously the use and abuse of a human being. A human being who, by the way, is the only person in the whole of the Bible to name God. A human being who, though an outsider, sees God face to face not once but twice. A human being who, even if neither of those things were true, still deserves to be seen, still deserves to have her experiences named for what they are. Even this morning, I am privileging my own experience over Hagar’s, recounting my epiphanies rather than lifting up her story—a story worth reading and knowing.

So, although our time is short, allow me to tell you (or if you already know remind you) a little bit about Hagar and why she is a character whose story we should all know.

What we know about Hagar from scripture is that she was Egyptian and she was Sarah’s slave-girl. How she came to be Sarah’s slave-girl isn’t known and is a matter of speculation since, at the time, Egypt would have been the reigning power in that area and thus it seems unlikely that they would have allowed one of their own to be taken as a slave. So, what we can infer is that, likely, either Hagar was given as a gift by Pharaoh when Abraham and Sarah were in Egypt, or she had to sell herself into slavery for economic reasons. Either way, she likely has already had a hard life before she comes into Abraham and Sarah’s story.

We also know that Hagar was likely not her name. In Hebrew, Hagar means The Stranger, and so likely the text is referring to her not by her name, but by her status. Some people speculate that Hagar was the same woman as Keturah, the woman Abraham married after Sarah died, but there is nothing in the text to suggest that that is the case.

So, Hagar is an Egyptian slave, an outsider, with no power and no family of her own. When we first encounter her in Scripture, back in chapter 16, Sarah is handing her over to her husband to be raped in hopes that she will become pregnant so Sarah can claim the child as her own, thus fulfilling God’s promise. When Hagar does become pregnant, the power dynamic between the two women seems to shift slightly and Sarah begins to see Hagar as a threat. And so, she beats and abuses her until finally Hagar runs away to the desert.

What the text says next is that God found her in the desert and asked her what was wrong. Hagar, though not a member of the privileged family, mattered enough to God that God went into the desert to find her. God is not responding to a plea from Hagar, likely Hagar has already given herself up for dead. God seeks and finds the stranger, the outsider, the one beaten, raped, and abused, and God promises her both life and a future. God also promises Hagar almost exactly the same thing God promised Abraham—that her offspring will be so numerous that they will not be able to be counted.

And then there is the very first annunciation story in the Bible, in which God appears to a woman and tells her that she will conceive and bear a child, a son. And that son will be named Ishmael, which means God will hear, because God has heard Hagar’s affliction. And Hagar responds by naming God El-Roi, the one who sees. God will give God’s name to more than one person in the Bible, most notably to Moses, but no one else in the Bible gives a name to God. That level of familiarity and privilege is reserved only for Hagar.

And when, fourteen years later, our text for this morning takes place, and Hagar and Ishmael are exiled, sent into the desert to die (because that is what is inevitably going to happen to a single woman and her child in the desert), God appears to Hagar again, reiterates the earlier promise, and opens her eyes so she can see the water she needs to survive.

Sarah and Abraham may not have seen Hagar, we may not always see Hagar, I certainly didn’t three years ago, but God sees Hagar, God hears Hagar, and when God names her son, Ishmael, which means God will hear, God says that God will continue to hear those who are unseen and unheard.

Hagar’s story is not one that paints the characters we tend to identify with in very good light. But it is a story that is included in our scripture, and it is one given enough unusual elements that it seems clear that it is meant to garner our attention. In this moment in our national life when riots and protests are everywhere drawing our attention to the ways in which human beings in our midst have been used and abused, I can’t help but think that perhaps Hagar’s story is meant to remind us that we always need to strive to view the texts and our world from perspectives other than our own. I can’t help but think that Hagar’s story is meant to open our eyes, that we might see that we are not blameless in what is happening, that the people and authorities and institutions that we most easily identify with are the same ones that have used and abused other human beings. And that when we gloss over that fact, when we fail to name what has been done and what continues to be done, when we fail to see beyond our own perspective, we are part of the problem. So, may God open our eyes that we might see.



I found the following sources particularly helpful in exploring the Hagar narrative from a new perspective:

Gafney, Wil. "Smashing the Biblical Patriarchy." The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. March 12, 2017. Accessed June 16, 2020.

_________. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.

Lyon, Jodie. “Sermon: The Invisible Woman, based on Genesis 21:8-21.” Oconee Street United Methodist Church in Athens, GA. June 22, 2014.

Marzouk, Safwat. "A Postcolonial Reading of Hagar: A Christian Egyptian Perspective." Bible Odyssey. Accessed June 21, 2020.


Peecook, Emily. "Hagar: An African American Lens." Denison Journal of Religion 2 (2002).


Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.


"Unsung Heroes: Hagar's Story." Registered Runaway. December 27, 2012. Accessed June 16, 2020.


Shelly, Patricia. “Hagar and the God-Who-Sees”: Reflections on Genesis 16:3-13. The Conrad Grebel Review 11, no. 3, 1993.


Wormack-Keels, Renee. “Woman-Rising: A Sermon on Genesis 16:1-16 & 21:1-21.” Part V of VI in the Sermon Series “400 years of Africans in America,” The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ in Columbus, OH. August 25, 2019.

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