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 21:14-21
Another woman-in-jep story for this Sunday's lectionary text. A lot of people have done a lot of complaining about the way the lectionary is structured, the lack of stories about women and children, the way what we pick and choose shapes the story we tell-- which is, of course, the story of the interpretation of scripture. It matters which stories we tell.
It matters which stories the ancient people of YHWH told, as well. I think it is remarkable that this story was told at all. Hagar-- an Egyptian, an outsider to God's covenant (which may lead us down the rabbit hole of wondering whether women were parties to God's covenant... but we won't go there today). Her story is told, not just here, but earlier, in chapter 16, where she is taken, used as a vessel to contain Abram's seed and to build up Sarai's house. The chapter is filled with references to eyes... Sarai says, "You see that the Lord has prevented me from having children;" when Hagar saw that she had conceived, her mistress was trifling in Hagar's eyes. That episode ends with a pregnant Hagar running off into the wilderness alone to escape Sarai's harsh treatment.
But God lures her back with tender words and promises, at the heart of which is the harsh command to submit to her mistress. But something in Hagar is simply grateful that God has seen her distress; she calls God by name, the first person in scripture to do so: "You are el-Roi," she says; it means God-who-sees.
But here she is again, five chapters later, once more suffering at the hands of another woman whose jealousy and insecurity are, surely, byproducts of her own decision to use her slave as a birth surrogate. And this time it is God-who-hears, echoed in the boy's name, Ishmael. Sh'ma, Yisroel. Now hear this. I have a separate but nearly equal covenant for you, too, Hagar.
It matters what stories we tell ourselves. The ancient Israelites and Jews today still tell this story of the mistreated slave, because-- guess what? They know something about being mistreated slaves in Hagar's home country. They preserve this story, and we do too, with all its awfulness, because... it's good to be reminded what we are capable of. It's good to be reminded that our stories and the other woman's stories are not, in the end, all that different. It's good to be reminded of the God who sees and hears, not just our complaints and suffering and despair, but those of others, as well.