The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him. And Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as God had commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him. Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.’ And she said, ‘Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.’
The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.’ The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son. But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named after you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.’ So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, ‘Do not let me look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.
God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. -- Genesis 21:1-21 (NRSV)
A tale of two mothers, each fiercely devoted to their children, one the owner and the other the slave, one old and barren and the other young and fertile. The younger slept with the owner's husband, as her owner wanted her to do, and a son was born of that union. The elder also slept with her husband also bore a son of their union. Suddenly, instead of no heir for the husband, now there were two, which was one too many, at least for the elder. She had the younger woman and her child sent out to the desert to live or die, it didn't really matter which, so long as the woman and her son were not in her camp and claiming the normal inheritance rights of the first-born. So out they went and, at the point of death, were saved by God. The two women never met again, although the two boys met as adults.
It sounds almost like a soap opera with twists and turns and improbabilities by the score. Of course, improbabilities in the Bible were pretty much the norm, so it's hard to be surprised at anything that happens. What could be more improbable than a 90-year-old woman getting pregnant and not only surviving the pregnancy and birth but having a live child. Sarah certainly beat the odds on that score. Still, now there was a problem of making sure her son, Isaac, would be Abraham's heir, not just a second son, probably dependent on the generosity of his older half brother, Ishmael. Even though it was the second time Hagar found herself in the desert (the first being when she ran away from the camp before Ishmael was born), it didn't make it any easier. This time she had another person, not just a promise, to give her concern.
I wonder how many Hagars there are in the world today, women cast off and left to sink or swim on their own and with their children to be cared for, fed, clothed, housed and educated? There are literally millions of women, single, divorced, or widowed, who are responsible for caring for themselves and their children only on the salaries they make at whatever job they can find and hold. In these times, jobs are scarce and even women with higher education often have trouble finding something that pays more than minimum wage. Programs that supported many of these women -- school lunch programs for their kids and access to reasonable cost day care or medical care -- are being stripped away in the name of "balancing the budget" of the country. Should the woman not be able to earn a living, she is forced onto welfare and labeled as lazy, unwilling to work, a government sponge, and taking benefits to which she is not entitled (in the minds of many). Meanwhile, those who have jobs, have good incomes and a lot of power to toss around, slash government programs that would benefit these daughters of Hagar and their children while enjoying all the benefits themselves.
I don't know what Hagar really did after God showed her the well that day in the desert. Did she have to become a servant to someone in a tribe nearby? Did she go to Egypt in a caravan or find a husband somewhere who would accept a woman not only not a virgin but with a child in tow? I can only hope that her life was at least halfway comfortable and pleasant, although I can imagine that it might not have been.
The question remains, though, who are the daughters of Hagar in our world? Perhaps they are not daughters by blood but certainly daughters by circumstance. Hagar is a single mother finding herself struggling to survive and provide for her kids, however the situation came about. What are our responsibilities to them as human beings and as Christians? Are we keeping them within the camp, supporting them and their children, or are we casting them out to fend for themselves? Some of the fault may lie with the women themselves and some of it may have been circumstance, but what about the children? What is our responsibility for them? What do we risk by ignoring or isolating them? What is a generation worth?
I have to remember my days as a Hagar in the desert with a child to support. I had help, and without it things would not have worked out well at all. What then do I owe to today's Hagars and Ishmaels? Will it be to be just a memory or will it be a suggestion (or even spur) to action? What can I do?
It's easy for me to see the story of the good Samaritan in this, only this time we see it from a woman's perspective and seeing the back story rather than the result. Looking at it that way, I can put myself in that story because I've been there.
I got help from strangers, as I hope and believe Hagar did. Now what do I need to do to pass it on to a younger generation? What do any of us need to do? And what can we do, individually and collectively?
I think the world might be a better place if we did something instead of dismantling the already threadbare safety net. I think God would heartily endorse the effort to strengthen and support it. That in itself should be encouragement enough.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Tuesday, January 31, 2012.