By Bishop Todd Townshend
Last week we had a closer look at Eve and Sarah. This week we’re paying closer attention to Hagar and then we’ll shift to the next generation of characters by paying attention to Rebekah.
We’re in Genesis, Chapter 16.
Hagar was the Egyptian servant of Sarah, Abraham’s wife.
Sarah had been considered barren for a long time which was strange because God had promised to make of them a great family of faith. Sarah still believed this promise, although she was starting to wonder exactly how it was going to happen. Yet, for many reasons, she wanted to find a way to help God fulfill God’s promise:
They were getting older. And Hagar, her servant, her slave, was younger and “maybe this will work”, so she offered Hagar to Abraham as a second wife.
Hagar became pregnant. Celebration!
No, this didn’t fix anything for Sarah and some pretty serious tension now surrounded the two women. Sarah complained to Abraham about Hagar, treated Hagar harshly, and Hagar ran away. Hagar ran out into the desert.
She found a spring along the way and, there, God found her. A divine messenger appeared to Hagar, and the messenger told her to return to Sarah, so that she may bear this child who was to be called Ishmael. The child was already named. The child had a name and a future and it wasn’t going to end there in the barren dessert.
And, in this moment of listening to the divine message, Hagar responds by speaking to God. She becomes the first person to give God a name. She answered God by name, praying, “You’re . . .the God who sees me! (El-roi)
“Yes! God saw me; and then I saw God! And I’m still alive!”
She then returned to Abraham and Sarah, and soon gave birth to this son, Ishmael.
After a number of years, Sarah finally, finally, conceived and gave birth to Isaac, and the tension between the women returned. At one point, over some sibling mockery between the two boys, Sarah had enough and she demanded that Abraham send Hagar and her son away. And she demanded that Ishmael would not share in Isaac’s inheritance.
Abraham was greatly distressed but God told Abraham to do as his wife commanded because God’s promise would be carried out through Isaac; AND Ishmael would be made into a great nation as well because he, too, was Abraham’s child.
Early the next morning, Abraham brought Hagar and Ishmael out together. Abraham gave Hagar bread and water then sent them into the wilderness of Beersheba.
She and her son wandered aimlessly until their water was completely consumed. In a moment of despair, she burst into tears. She had to turn away from the suffering of her child, dying of thirst. But God heard her and God heard the voice of the little boy, crying, and came to rescue them.
Again, a divine messenger opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water. He also told Hagar that God would “make a great nation” of Ishmael.
According to Arabic traditions and the sacred scriptures of Islam, this water, provided by God to bring Hagar and Ishmael through this most dangerous and harrowing time in the desert, was gathered into something like a basin, and Hagar scooped it up and shaped it, as God would do, and it became a living stream. She used it to nourish herself and her child. He grew older and grew strong and they helped Abraham establish the place that became Mecca.
As Ingrid Mattson (The Story of the Qur’an: It’s History and Place in Muslim Life, p. 230) writes, Hajar (Hagar) is “the spiritual matriarch of Islam” who shows us that all struggle must be preceded by trust in God. The struggle—even when enslaved, and abused, and rejected—is to trust God to provide, and then to resist/struggle: use your voice to cry out for help, use your eyes to seek and to see, to use your hands to shape and to build, and to use your mind to recognize and thank, and plan, and praise the God who provides a future and a way to it.
There is so much more to say about the story of Hagar—much of which I did not know before studying it this summer—so I encourage you to dig deep into it. Of course, that is what I hope we will do with all of the scriptures—dig into it. As we will now do, too quickly, with the story of Rebekah.
In chapter 24 we are introduced to Rebekah who is to marry Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah.
At this point, Sarah has died, Hagar and Ishmael are off living in another place, and the last thing the very old Abraham can do to make sure of next step in the fulfilment of God’s promise is to find as wife for Isaac.
Again, providing water is another key element in the story and when the lovely young Rebekah brings water to Abraham’s servant, she is designated by God, and after some back and forth, agrees to marry Isaac. It says that Isaac loved her, really loved her.
Rebekah goes on to be one of the strongest matriarchs in the whole story. She has agency. She uses her voice. She is bold. Her children will identify themselves as “sons of Rebekah” in the years to come.
So, at this point, the story is passed on from Abraham to two separated lines: Hagar’s Ishmael on the one side, and Sarah’s Isaac on the other, with Rebekah as the mother of Israel. The story focusses on Rebekah and, after a long period of infertility, finally her sons, the twins Jacob and Esau.
Even before they were born, these two were literally butting heads inside her body. In one of a thousand “reversals” of the norm, the expected, that we find in the scriptures . . . God tells Rebekah that the younger one will overpower the older. The older will serve the younger. The struggle between brothers does not end with Cain and Abel. It keeps reappearing throughout human history.
When the twins were born, the first was Esau, who got his name because he was reddish in colour and hairy. His brother Jacob, which means “heel, came next, clutching tightly to Esau’s heel. Hairy and Heel.
When the boys grew up, Esau became an expert hunter while Jacob was quiet. One loved the outdoors, one preferred things inside the tent. Isaac loved Esau. Rebekah loved Jacob.
One day Jacob was cooking stew and Esau came in from the field, starved. “Give me some of that stew!” Jacob said, “Make me a trade: my stew for your rights as the firstborn.” Esau said, why not? What good is a birthright if I starve to death today?
So, he promised this to Jacob.
Rebekah, recognizing that Isaac was blind and nearing the end of his life, took the opportunity to plan with Jacob to defraud Esau out of his inheritance. The plan works, and Jacob receives the blessing of the firstborn.
Esau’s disappointment, when he realizes what has happened, turns to hatred and he makes a plan to kill Jacob, his brother. Jacob the heel, the sneak, who becomes the one who wrestles with God.
Next week, we’ll continue with Jacob to see if reconciliation between brothers is possible and then, finally, we’ll get to Joseph the Dreamer, the one with the colourful coat.
There is so much new revelation, so many new insights and disturbances, when these familiar stories are considered from the perspective of the women in them – when we intentionally read them from the angle of the one who has less power, the one who is enslaved in one way or another, the one who doesn’t normally get noticed or valued. One thing you see is that God notices them. Every one of these four women have their own personal engagement with God. Often with no men around to see it or mess it up. God is coming to the ones without whom God’s promises cannot be fulfilled.
God needs these women to be the fertile ground in which the promises grow—and it’s not just about giving birth to boys! It’s about giving birth to God’s promises. And they rise to the occasion. The matriarchs are every bit as central to the story as the patriarchs. And, as I’m being reminded this summer, more so.
Wil Gadfrey refers to Alice Walker’s definition, saying, “These women of the Bible are ‘womanish’ – not girlish, frivolous, irresponsible—they act like a woman: outrageous, audacious, courageous . . . grown up, responsible, in charge, serious. Beautiful and, finally, liberated.”
If you’re a Christian, it’s impossible to not think of other women of the bible who are like this. Like Mary, especially in her relationship to Jesus—whose life, death, and resurrection interprets every story. Or the moving story in this Sunday’s gospel about the faith-filled Canaanite woman. Her faith deeply moves Jesus. Her persistence, her understanding, her desire to reach out, to call out, to refuse to be written off. Jesus pays attention to ones like that. Thanks be to God.
I’m praying for all of you this week. Be at peace, in Christ.