Sarah, wife of Abraham, had no children. The pain of childlessness in that society was crushing.
Sarah had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarah said to Abraham, “Since I have been prevented from bearing children; go to my slave Hagar. Maybe we shall obtain children by her.” And Abraham listened to the voice of Sarah. So Sarah, Abraham’s wife, took Hagar her Egyptian slave, and gave her to her husband Abraham as a wife.
Scripture says, “as a wife.” That is important. Not as a concubine. Hebrew has a perfectly good word for concubine but it is not used here. The word is the normal word for wife. Hagar is not just a temporary surrogate womb, but a wife. Ancient law permitted an arrangement for a slave to bear an heir for a childless wife, but it was not expected that a slave would become a wife alongside the first wife.
Writer C. Zavis suggests that Sarah made this offer out of respect for Hagar. Sarah knew what it meant to be simply a “sex object” from her experience in Egypt and, later, with King Abimelech. She was determined that this not happen to Hagar. So Sarah initiated a relationship of caring, of sisterhood. She treated Hagar no longer as a slave, but an equal. In her generosity, Sarah pushed the boundaries of cultural norms.
This act of Sarah is amazing. It amazes me because it seems so close to the New Testament vision of the kingdom of God where, as Paul says, there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, but all are as one. Perhaps even God was impressed by this act of grace because we read that the Spirit of God promised both Sarah and Hagar that their children would be founders of great nations. The Bible is the story of God’s dealings with Israel, but when we read what God promised to Hagar we are reminded that God has hopes and plans for other people as well. Hagar’s son would not be dismissed from God’s wider family.
However, when Hagar conceived problems arose. Hierarchy does not disappear from our socially constructed psyche just because we take a step that direction. Sarah thought Hagar was becoming arrogant. Hagar perceived that Sarah was turning abusive. Finally Hagar fled, no longer feeling comfortable in that environment.
As Hagar wandered in the desert, broken and lonely, scripture says that “the angel of the Lord found her.” I find much comfort in the fact that the first time in scripture that an angel of the Lord appeared to someone it was when they were wandering in a desert, broken and lonely.
The angel asked, “Where are you coming from? Where are you going?” Hagar replied, “I am running from my mistress, Sarah.” Calling Sarah her “mistress” is a sign that the dream of equality and sisterhood had crumbled.
Yet God told Hagar to return and not remain alienated from Sarah. Why? Here is a key to this way of reading the story. Hagar must harden her will and return precisely because unjust systems do not disappear from our socially constructed psyches simply by taking one step. Let us suggest that God wanted to give Hagar strength to stay engaged. God sent her back to talk with Sarah, and to try to live the relationship they both had hoped to create.
Living an alternative model in society, suggests Zavis, is hard work. It takes a strong and resilient heart. It takes persistence and a willingness to stand in the fire.
So Hagar returned. And for 14 more years she and Sarah continued working at this new social relationship. But, eventually it failed. Living the kingdom of God is hard when we bump up daily with the realities and limitations of society. The forces of culture, racism, patriarchy, hierarchy, and empire all wage war against the vision of the kingdom of God. Eventually Hagar and Sarah succumbed to despair.
Sarah failed her own high ideals most miserably. She would not be the first person to find that her generous impulses outran her ability to keep up. She went back to calling Hagar a slave and demanded that Abraham send away both Hagar and her son. The issue this time was inheritance. Sarah did not think the first born of the second wife should take precedence over the first born of the first wife.
Scripture says Abraham was distressed at Sarah’s request. It felt wrong to him. Yet God told him not to worry, but to listen, really listen to Sarah. I am surprised that God would side with Sarah. Instead, I expected God to agree with Abraham. Perhaps Sarah, in making her initial generous gesture and living with it so long, had done all she could. No more needed to be asked of her.
Sarah is my sister. I, too, find life falls short of my highest ideals. I know what it is to have my good intentions run faster than my ability to keep up. At my baptism I pledged myself to follow the way of Jesus. Even though there are times when I don’t have the strength to persevere, I believe in grace and I still think it is important to make the effort, to aim for the ideal, and to attempt the kingdom way.
Perhaps all efforts to live out the goals of Christ’s kingdom are temporary. Efforts to establish peace founder. Intentional communities fold. Schemes for correcting social wrongs end up creating new problems. Perhaps every attempt to live the kingdom way is not measured by whether or not it is permanent. Sarah’s effort to live as a sister to her former slave might not be judged as failure, but as an inspiring reach for the kingdom of God within our human relationships.
An ordained minister, Bob Bowman is professor emeritus of religion at Manchester University, North Manchester, Indiana.