39. Genesis 16

III. A. 2. continued

c)  Hagar (Genesis 16)

We now come to Abram’s most serious mistake – not his first mistake, but one that goes to the very heart of what faith is. I have tried to present an argument that both Noah and Abram had a particular trait in common, an attitude toward God that relinquished the impulse to step in and take over God’s work for Him. I have tried to argue that this is the essential core meaning of faith. In both men, in spite of personal failings of the kind we would label as sin, their basic faith in God manifested itself in their choosing to not take particular actions that would have been perfectly reasonable and to their own advantage, but which they held as being reserved for God alone to take. Now God had used that basic faith of Abram as the foundation on which to establish a Covenant. Now for the first time  God had joined a particular human family. And now Abram failed to live out the faith he had just demonstrated so vividly. God’s most basic promise to him had been the promise of a son, and now Abram decided to take the matter into his own hands and do what he could to get himself a son. He decided to try to fulfill God’s promise for Him.

The very first voice persuading him to waver in his faith was the voice of Sarai. As a barren woman she was expected by the culture of that day to give one of her maidservants to Abram as a wife in order to possibly obtain children that way. The cultural pressure for her to do this would already have been enormous; by the custom of the time, Sarai was long overdue in making the offer. If they had been in civilization, like Ur, rather than nomads, a court could well have forced her to give her maid to Abram as a wife. It was a legal question, and whatever children her maid bore to Abram would legally have been Sarai’s. It is possible that Sarai had already suggested to Abram that he take her maid as a wife, but that Abram had resisted the idea. Perhaps Abram had understood God’s promise as being a son to him and Sarai, and his faith constrained him from accepting her offer. True, the promises God had made about a son had never mentioned Sarai, but it could have been tacit, something about the way God had called the two of them together.

But whether or not Sarai had previously suggested Abram take her maid as a concubine or not, shortly after the Covenant was formally established she renewed the suggestion and this time Abram acquiesced. He would have rationalized it, of course. All lapses of faith are rational to some extent. He would recall first that God had never specifically mentioned that Sarai would be the mother. Then he would think about how she owed it to him to give him a son one way or the other; all his upbringing would have said so. Then he would think about her offer, that it wasn’t like he had asked her to make the suggestion. Then he would think how great a joy, a relief, it would be to have a son. The boy would still count as Sarai’s legally and that could be what God had meant all along. Besides, if God was opposed to the idea, He could equally well prevent the maid from getting pregnant.

I do not blame Sarai at all. It was not likely that she had been actually physically present when God had appeared to Abram those four times, but he would have talked about the appearances with her, if only to preserve them in the oral tradition. So far as she knew, she ought to have offered her maid decades ago, and now after this new vision perhaps Abram was talking about the promised son more than usual. Meanwhile, she had acquired a slave, probably while she was in Egypt pretending to be Abram’s sister, and so she offered Hagar to Abram as a wife and this time Abram accepted the offer. There was no particular sin in him taking Hagar as a concubine; God Most High had never told Abram that he couldn’t have another wife. Paul would later say that whatever does not come from faith is sin, and here we see how subtle that idea can be. There was no moral or ethical constraint on Abram that made it a sin to take Hagar; sin is a much bigger (and simultaneously, smaller) question than any code of moral rules, especially after the Messiah came. So Abram “sinned”, not because he did anything wrong, but because he knew this was not a way of trusting God.

God said nothing, as usual. Things might have gone all right, or at least peacefully, if Hagar had not despised Sarai. But Hagar had seen Sarai at her most vulnerable, pretending not to be Abram’s wife at Abram’s request, and barren. Hagar could not help thinking that something must be wrong with Sarai since even her husband treated her in such a way. A slave who despises her mistress and who then proves her own superiority in the most important way can hardly be blamed for gloating, though it was unwise. Perhaps she was counting on her value to Abram as the mother of the heir, but she underestimated both Sarai’s anger and jealousy and Abram’s devotion to Sarai. Though Abram had agreed to Sarai’s proposal, it is evident that he was having second thoughts already. It is evident that he did not really view Hagar’s child as anything like a fulfillment of God’s promise. He still had little attachment to the future child, at least not enough attachment to intervene between Sarai and her maid; and he didn’t do well with conflict.

Sarai must have been harsh indeed for Hagar to resort to running away when she saw Abram would not protect her. The journey back to her home in Egypt would have been long and very dangerous for a woman wandering alone. Moreover, exiling Hagar after she was pregnant was probably illegal. In Ur the system of law punished of a female slave who mocked her mistress by having her mouth scoured out with salt. It was probably performed in a way that made it much more unpleasant than it sounds. The Code of Hammurabi, the best known of the ancient codes of law outside of Moses, dates two and a half centuries after Abram, but still probably summarized the customs of Mesopotamia and the Middle East that had been traditional before and during the time of Abram. In that Code a female slave who had borne children to her owner could not be sent away or sold. If such a slave were insolent, she could be branded as a slave, ensuring that she would never be free, but not driven away. Hagar had not yet borne the child, but in that age of under-population every child was valued, born or not. On the other hand, Abram and Sarai lived in Canaan, very far from Mesopotamia, very far from any civil law or authority. Sarai was almost certainly behaving scandalously and what neighbors they had must have been gossiping in the usual delighted way; but there was no one to enforce customs, no one to whom Hagar could appeal, if Abram was unwilling to help. It was the most sordid episode in Abram’s life.

Hagar got to Beer-lahai-roi. Its exact location is not known, but it is believed to have been as much as 130 miles southwest of the oaks of Mamre, along the principal route leading through Shur to Egypt. Hagar must have been traveling several days, perhaps a week, before the angel appeared to her. Genesis 16:7 is only the second time in the Bible to mention an angel, the first angel being the one that guarded the way into Eden. Thus the very first angel sent to anyone was sent to this woman, a despised Egyptian slave who had been driven away by her mistress. Usually angels frighten the people who see them, but this first angelic visitation did not have that effect. Hagar recognized the angel as supernatural, so her lack of fear did not result from mistaking the angel for a human. She thought the angel was God Himself. This is not surprising since, as an Egyptian, she was accustomed to believing in many gods and had probably heard little or nothing about God Most High until she had been bought by Sarai a few years previously. But at this point, all the biblical characters seem to have had some confusion over whether the angels were gods or not. This passage only tells us what Hagar thought about the angel without giving any hint as to the facts of the matter. Then Hagar was sent back to her mistress and told to submit to her. It would have been scary to do so, but having seen an angel would have reassured her that it would all work out all right. Returning would have been a humiliation in itself, and her humility probably mitigated Sarai’s anger somewhat. Sarai also may have been feeling somewhat guilty by then.

An important point that should be made here is that Hagar’s story became known. The angel gave her the name Ishmael – which means “God hears” – for her son; and then Abram used it. She had named the well where the angel came to her “Beer-lahai-roi”, which means “you are a God who sees me”; and the name stuck. Finally, her story was included in the Bible and therefore in the oral tradition at this point. She must have told Abram, unless God revealed the story supernaturally to Abram or to some future generation, which seems less likely.

Ishmael was prophesied by the angel to be a wild man and there was to be strife between Ishmael and his relatives, perpetuated through the generations. Ishmael was the ancestor of the present day Arabs, and certainly there has been strife enough between the Arabs and their close relatives, the Jews. The current strife between the Arabs and Jews continues the strife-ridden relationship between the two women, Hagar and Sarai, like a family feud, now going into a fifth millenium. Some say that the story was made up in later generations to explain the hostility between Israel and the Ishmaelites, but this explanation does not hold up at all. The Ishmaelites, while never particularly friendly to Israel, did not become serious enemies until about the time of the exile, nearly fifteen centuries later, much too long a time for such an insertion to have been made and gone unremarked. It also contradicts the long standing use of the place name, Beer-lahai-roi.

The Bible uses the relationship of these two women as both an allegory and a prophecy for the relationship of the two peoples in the future. There is a deep relationship between prophecy and biblical allegory. Events become allegories when God takes them into His purpose for revelation. He then inserts a prophetic element to draw attention to the allegory He is creating. In this way God was the first to use the old teaching adage: tell them what you are about to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them: first the prophesy, then the allegory, then the interpretation. Paul took up the allegory that is tacit in the story in the letter to the Galatians. He understood this bit of history as God producing historical events for the purpose of creating allegory.

In our modern interpretations of the events in the biblical history the closest we usually come to following Paul is in our tendency to draw morals or lessons from the events, but that is not what Paul did. He didn’t see this event as teaching us a lesson. And anyway what would the lesson have been? “Don’t make fun of your mistress or master”? It doesn’t take divine revelation to invent stories with morals, and if that had been God’s intent with the Bible then it was a cosmic waste of time. This event and others in the biblical narrative are allegories bearing the weight of revelation if we have the eyes to see it. When we reduce the stories to moral aphorisms then we miss nearly everything true about them.

So what is the allegorical meaning of the event? Paul said that Hagar and her son Ishmael were a picture of the people who are bound under the Law. They represented those who try to achieve God’s promise by their own effort, and Paul used Hagar’s status as a slave to make an equation between the two. Those who try to achieve God’s promise by their own efforts are in fact mere slaves, and this is what the Law makes people into, slaves who try to achieve righteousness by their own efforts.  Sarai and her son represented the people who live by the promise, for whom God fulfills His own promise without human aid. Sarai’s status as the free woman became an equality in Paul’s interpretation, an equality of freedom with those who do not seek to achieve righteousness by their own effort but let God achieve it for them.

Hagar was the mother of the Arab people, but in Galatians Paul used Hagar to represent both the Jews who had rejected Jesus and Christians who insisted on continuing to live under the Law rather than by grace. The allegorical meaning was entirely divorced from any ethnic reality, and in general the allegorical meaning of an event can be quite distinct from its cultural or biological context. Hagar didn’t carry this symbolism by being under the Law herself (since she wasn’t) nor by trying to please God by her own effort (since she didn’t). Her role in the allegory did not have anything to do with any choices she made herself. On the contrary, her role in the allegory arose from circumstances over which she had no control, that she was a servant and bound to obedience and that her mistress gave her to Abram as a wife. Her role in the allegory had absolutely nothing to do with her own goodness or badness. Sarai also had an allegorical role that had nothing to do with her choices but only with the circumstance and events in her life over which she had no control. Both women were out of line, Hagar for despising Sarai and Sarai for jealousy and physical abuse, but that is irrelevant. Their lives had allegorical meaning because God had assigned them to play particular roles in the drama He was putting on; it was not personal. That someone has a “bad” allegorical meaning in the biblical narrative does not mean that that person is a “bad” person. The biblical personalities are actors on the largest stage of all, asked to perform a role to help the rest of us understand something of God and His purposes, and sometimes good people are asked to play the villain. Hagar was not playing a villain here, but she was playing a role designed to illustrate what God did not want.

Thus Hagar allegorizes legalism in general, the legalism of Judaism, the legalism of Islam, as well as the legalism of Christianity when it forgets its first love. Indeed the power of allegory is the way it naturally extends to additional contexts. Hagar is in fact a symbol of religion in general, across the board. As the revelation proceeds we can discern an increasing tension between religion and faith, even an opposition between religion and faith. Hagar represents the condition of those who seek to fulfill God’s promises for Him, to make of themselves what only God can make of them: good people. She represents the people who follow a religion of human efforts that attempt to please God. In other words, she represents all religions. For if God fulfills His own promises to us, apart from – in spite of – any efforts we make, then religion of every kind collapses into worthless ritual.

I have made a point here of speaking of religion as being legalistic; by “legalistic” I mean a larger principle than merely the principle of obeying a set of laws. Legalism in its widest sense is the idea that one’s actions earn merit or demerit with God, that God’s favor can be earned or lost, deserved or forfeited, on the basis of what we do. Legalism is any religion whose foundation is human effort, whether it is disguised as the Ten Commandments or Karma or the Eightfold Path or the Five Pillars or human sacrifices. Christianity, when it deserts its foundation in God’s grace, becomes mere religion. Modern spiritual people are fond of saying that all spiritual paths are equally valid, and the Bible absolutely agrees: all paths are equally worthless. If people are to draw near to God, it is God who must move; nothing we do can get us anywhere near God’s vicinity. The Messiah did not come to found a religion; He came to abolish them all.

What the Messiah brought was not a religion at all, not a system of rules or steps to be followed in order to establish a proper relationship with God; what the Messiah brought was the end of religion, the end of human effort as the means for knowing God. What the Messiah brought was God Himself drawing near to us for once and for all. God’s call to Abram was a call away from religion and into grace. One of the reasons God called a nomad as His chosen one was that all the cities belonged to some god or other, some religion or other. God called Abram out of religion, though this did not become clear until later.

All of the true children of Sarai are recipients of God’s grace; they trust in the God who promises and then keeps His promises Himself. The true children of Hagar are those who seek to obtain God’s promises by their own effort. Grace so entirely distinguishes Christianity from everything else, that it cannot legitimately go by the name Christian when it abandons its commitment to grace. To abandon grace is to abandon the Messiah, who alone was simultaneously full of grace and truth, and who gave Christianity its name.

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