Have you ever feared being replaced? It’s a common fear. Perhaps you work in a department that is considering downsizing in the pandemic. Perhaps you are anticipating saying goodbye to an adult child who is getting married or forming a new relationship or moving out and who is currently making space for a new nuclear family, more distant from yours, physically and/or emotionally. Perhaps you recently gazed into your young child’s eyes and fear the time when she or he no longer comes to you for hugs or the need to crawl into bed for cuddletime. Perhaps you, like Woody in the movie Toy Story, fear being replaced by the newest and latest “model,” machine, or love object—or by someone who can do what you currently cannot or will not. Perhaps you fear being replaced by the able-bodied and those with impunity or immunity. Perhaps you fear your own death or diminishment, or being forgotten by those who carry your name in their hearts. Perhaps you are presently entangled in some mess that makes you feel as if your dreams or aspirations, needs or security have been suddenly replaced, subsumed, or erased by the powers-that-be.
If you have ever experienced this particular anxiety or dread, you may resonate with today’s scripture.
Likewise, if you have ever been the recipient of someone’s over-arching anxiety or fear or plans to banish or exile you, you may find a witness in today’s story. If you’ve been loved and then hated simultaneously for who and what you are or what you can provide, then you may especially resonate with today’s drama.
Because drama it is. Abraham has two wives: one is Sarah and one is Hagar, Sarah’s slave-girl. I stress slave-girl, not woman…because Hagar was brought into the Abraham and Sarah’s lives on purpose and at a young age. At Sarah’s bidding, Sarah “gives” this slave girl to her husband as a wife. Abraham sleeps with their servant, Hagar, to produce the heir that Sarah could not. At that time, Hagar was fruitful; Sarah was barren. So begins a difficult triangle and a hard, human mess that is also a well-known part of our American history. Of course, there is jealousy and contempt; human emotions being what they are. To make matters worse—there is abuse of power and treating another human being like an object, as a convenient means to another end. Sound familiar?
Life only gets more complicated with children which is where our passage for today picks up. Sarah laughs and eventually does bear a child in her old age, the child we know as Isaac. And now, having this long awaited for heir, Sarah essentially convinces her husband to exile Hagar and her young son, Ishmael. Seeing her son, Isaac, playing with Ishmael in the sandbox was just too much for Sarah. She decides on the spot that there is no way that the off-spring of this slave-woman, her slave-woman, shall inherit anything of her husband’s. In some ways, this slave-woman (say her name: “Hagar”) reminds Sarah of her history, her willingness to affirm Abraham’s infidelity, and her jealousy of that arrangement. So, like numerous Pharaohs will do centuries later, Sarah decides that it would be better for Hagar and her progeny to be exterminated, which is essentially what banishment to the desert without protection is. Abraham—though distressed by this—does nothing to counter his first wife, but indeed, banishes Hagar, his slave and 2nd marital partner to the wilderness, which is a desert, just to be clear.
At this point, we should pause because it is clear that Sarah and Abraham are not willing to share what they were willing to share before, when Sarah and Abraham wanted to use Hagar as a means to an end, whether surrogate womb, sex slave, or some weird mix of both.
Leaving aside the huge problems of rape, human property, and abuse of power, perhaps we might venture to understand Sarah’s feeling threatened by the favored presence of another woman. Perhaps we might understand her fears of being replaced, even if we do not condone her actions, nor support her hatred of her own slave-girl, a girl that she and her husband willingly used for their own purposes and to boost their own future and fortune.
And what of Hagar, the young slave mother? Perhaps we can understand what it might be like to be at the whim of another more powerful force that has complete say over whether you will spend the night in the bedchamber or in the desert. Perhaps we can understand the sheer fright of being cast out or cast aside as worthless, replaceable, or no longer held in esteem. Perhaps we can understand if we’ve been dis-inherited by our family of origin, our community, or our nation. Perhaps we can understand the rage that might simmer just beneath the surface in the victimized, the used, and the abused.
If the story ended here, with Sarah and Abraham casting out their own progeny and distancing themselves from the woman who cooked, cleaned, slaved, and provided a marital partner (though never seen as an equal partner) for Abraham, then we actually wouldn’t have much of a story. Uncomfortable as it is, God appears to condone the exile—which I am not about to justify in any way, shape, or form. That little bit of writing must be challenged—Abraham imagining that God would condone this exile or make Abraham feel better about his choice (an adult choice) to ban not just his mistress but the child as well, as if that made everything out of sight and out of mind, blessed by God as it were.
No, the beauty in this passage is that Hagar and her son, exiled in a hot and relentless desert, do not perish. When their meager resources are gone—the little bread and water they were given by Abraham—Hagar kneels and prays. Despairing, she prays that she won’t have to look on the death of the child.
What parent has not prayed something similar in the wilderness? Perhaps your child was sick with a fever or a chronic illness. Perhaps your child was entangled in addiction or an abusive relationship. Perhaps you, too, prayed “do not let me see him or her die. Do not let me see this awful thing. Do not let me feel so helpless. Let it be me instead.” Perhaps you have uttered these very words.
God hears the boy in the wilderness and hears Hagar calling. I think that it is interesting that God reassures Hagar, not that God hears only her, but that God hears the child. Of course, you could argue that it is the same thing. When the angel of God calls to Hagar and asks, “What troubles you, Hagar?” we might think that God clearly is disoriented and being ridiculous. I want to imagine Hagar handing God a list. “Really, God?” she shouts, “Can we start with when you sent me back to that man, Abraham, when I was pregnant and on the run? Can we start with how Abraham thinks that he owns me, that he feels he is entitled to me, as well as my son? Can we start with the hard life that you have given me?” But, no, God is there to reassure Hagar that that neither her son, nor she, will die. And a well of water appears right there in the desert. A promise of a great nation appears right there in the desert. A woman of confidence, conviction, and a future blooms in that desert. Hagar’s eyes are opened to these things.
When will our eyes open? And where is our well of water? In what time, have you felt banished and exiled and crying out to God for your people to be heard? This story is both a warning for the privileged and those who misuse their power to see how the cries of the oppressed and the needs of dis-inherited, disenfranchised children and refugee causes are not forgotten. It is a reminder that God sees what we oft refuse to see and the long arc of justice bends in favor of those who have been abused and ill-treated. And it is a reminder to the Hagars and Ishmaels of this world that water shall come to slake their thirst and restore them to community. God will see; God will lift them.
But perhaps we are each a little of Sarah, a little of Abraham, a little of Hagar, and a little of the children playing in the desert sandbox. We have an inheritance to be shared with each other. We might consider treating each other gently, acknowledging that we might each have a fear of being replaced in our lives—a fear of not getting what we think that we deserve, and a fear of being left high and dry in a wilderness without a friend in sight, and a fear of angels not caring enough to ask what troubles us in these times. We might recognize that, in this story, our black and brown sisters and brothers often see God’s providence and provision, and they, too, champion Hagar’s most earnest prayer and plea not to look on the heartless and preventable death of their children.
But rather than asking God to provide the well in the wilderness, perhaps we might try to BE that well in the wilderness: a well of compassion for those who are entangled in our human mess, a well of justice for those who are crying out, a well of advocacy, and a well of sustenance for those who are cast out and afraid.
That may seem a tall order in a pandemic and within our own human dramas that are being played out at home and on the news.
Still, we are called to try to do our part. Still, we called to try to understand and gain perspective in the process.
However, perhaps today it is enough to see that we are not alone in the wilderness, that God’s angel hovers near, asking us to share our troubles, and reassuring us that God hears the cry of our children and the cry of those whom we have tried to disown or disregard. Maybe it is enough, for now, that we have these stories to challenge, question, and direct us, when we consider how in the world we got this way. Maybe it is enough to know that our biblical ancestors were just as complicated, just as distressed and fearful. Maybe it is enough to know that God did not leave Hagar and Ishmael in the desert alone, and will not leave our side either.