Religion has been involved, both subtlety and obviously, in all sorts of conflict and violence throughout human history. There is no avoiding the fact that in the wrong hands religion can be a force of great harm. And this includes Christianity. If we consider the sins of the Christian past critics have plenty to work with – witch-hunts, Crusades, Christian support of slavery just to name a few.
The Bible can also be a very divisive book, remember the sins of the Christian past were nearly always supported by scripture. Believers can find ways to use God to justify just about anything. Today I want to look at a passage that jumps into my mind when I think of division in the bible, Genesis 16. This passage is used too often (even once is too often!) as tool to degrade people of Muslim faith and basically just be racist towards people of Arab descent.
It opens with a plea from a woman named Sarai to her husband, who we know as Abraham. We have met Sarai well before this but up until this point she has been a silent partner of Abraham. We hear nothing from her when Abraham refuses to publicly recognise her as his wife in Egypt and then, somehow, manages to trade her for livestock and slaves as a wife for Pharaoh. She makes no remarks as she follows Abraham on his long wandering nomad existence. She is silent as Abraham goes off into battle against foreign kings and rulers.
Sarai wants a child, as does Abraham. And she has waited so long, I’m talking decades!, without seeing her dream come to fruition. It most have been especially tough because Abraham had been hearing God say some pretty spectacular things. Things like ‘I will make you into a great nation…’ and ‘a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.’ I wonder did Abraham tell Sarai of these visions and words from their God. It must have given hope but in the long term I’m sure it increases the pain. The feeling of worthlessness. The questions of why.
Sarai and Abraham wanted a child and, certainly, Sarai is not content. And honestly, who can blame her. So, fed up of waiting, she takes the initiative. Sitting Abraham down, she explains to him that he should, and pleads with him to, sleep with their servant and try to conceive a child that way. Abraham quickly agrees before she changes her mind, or at least that’s how I imagine it went.
I know this all seems odd to us, in our culture and with the rules we have as a society around relationships and marriage, but this isn’t as big a deal then and there as it is now and here. In Near Eastern practice at that time, if Hagar had a baby, the baby would count as Sarai’s child. On the face of it, Sarai’s suggestion is entirely logical. In hindsight, it’s not. In what is possibly the most simplistic description of a sexually act ever recorded we read that Abraham ‘went in to Hagar, and she conceived.’
Let’s talk about Hagar. She has not had a say in any of this. She has not been wining and dining Abraham, she has not pursued him at all. But her course in life has been decided by those with power over her, all because Hagar is a slave. Isn’t it kinda ironic that the first named Egyptian we meet in the Bible is a slave! Also, it’s possible…even probably… that Hagar is one of the traded slaves that Pharaoh gave Abraham in his trade for a planned marriage to Sarai in Genesis 12.
As a slave she has no status in the community. However, when she gets pregnant it appears that Hagar tries to improve her status in the community by looking down on Sarai, lording it over her as such that she could have a child with Abraham when Sarai couldn’t. Sarai is not backing down though, and what ensues is a chasm of division, a household full of hostility. And honestly, both sides are to blame.
As the aggression increases Hagar eventually gets to the point when she has had enough. Dehumanised and abused, sexually and perhaps physically and verbally, she flees south, she is heading to Egypt. She is going home. She wants to feel safe. On route she comes across the Angel of the Lord. The first recorded time in the Bible that anyone speaks to the Angel of the Lord, the first time anyone sees the Angel of the Lord is Hagar…the Egyptian slave!!
The Angel of the Lord knows that Hagar is a slave and knows how slavery dehumanises the person, knows how slavery has dehumanised Hagar. Nonetheless, he tells Hagar to return to Sarai. But this is not all he does. He promises her a multitude of descendants (eh, is this not very similar to what Abraham was promised?!?!). It appears that God is coming alongside Hagar to console, comfort and encourage her. He has heard her affliction, her pain- he has seen how she suffered at Sarai’s hands. He tells her that her baby will be a son, who she should call Ishmael, and then she is given a promise that appears hugely inappropriate. He says that her son be a wild donkey of a man.
A wild donkey of a man!! Seriously?
Let’s stop for a second. If you were pregnant or your partner was expecting, and the obstetrician told you during the scan that the baby appears to be a wild donkey of a man, would you be happy about that? You’d probably make a formal complaint, right? But Hagar is delighted and she happily returns to her slavery with Abraham and Sarai in part because of it. So, what are we missing, what are we not understanding? What do we lose in translation?
In English, the translation produces a very negative image: being wildly, uncontrollably stubborn. This can, and has, then be used to degrade people of Arab descent or Muslim faith, which is said to have come from Hagar and Ishmael’s family line. This problem is due to language differences but also due to cultural differences, there aren’t too many wild donkey’s in Ireland. In Hagar’s world, they were free. What God is promising Hagar is that her son would never be a slave. He would be free, like the beautiful wild donkeys that roamed the desert in her world.
This promise to Hagar is one of hope. The Angel of the Lord appeared to personally hand deliver a message of liberation and freedom for her son and his descendants. And this is how Hagar understood it because Hagar responded in hope. As the Angel of the Lord disappears, Hagar realises she has been talking to God and names him, “El-Roi,” which means: ‘God who sees me.’
The Lord names him Ishmael, meaning ‘God hears’ and Hagar responds by naming God ‘The one who sees me’. So it must never be forgotten that God sees and hears, not only his people (i.e. Sarai and Abraham), but also the others. Hagar had personally interacted with Abraham’s God. This God had sought her out and had cared for her and gave her an almost identical blessing to the one he gave Abraham.
This is not a story about how division began, although it is a story full of division. Ultimately it is a story about how our God bridges that division. How he hears and sees all sides, how he doesn’t seek hostility but meets people where they are at, how he can come close to anyone – regardless of their faith and bless them.