Shadow Sides 3: Hagar, used and abused

A series of posts looking at famous Bible people and how they’re a bit more like us than we may imagine.

We know that Abraham is a miracle father. He and Sarah are promised children in a seemingly impossible situation, and become parents at an absurdly old age. No wonder the son to whom they eventually give birth is named Isaac; it’s laughable if it’s literal. So laughable that little Hagar, a servant, is called into action. Sarah can’t see how the promise of a child is going to come true, so she suggests to her husband that he sleeps with Hagar to get her pregnant and become a second wife.

That may shock us, but it may perhaps be even more shocking to discover that the Bible doesn’t expressly condemn polygamy. Servants exist to be at the service of others, and Hagar’s life doesn’t appear to get any better; she’s used for her body parts and biological capability. Her body can do what Sarah’s can’t, and so becomes the classic female victim of a patriarchal society, passed from servitude to servitude because of her body.

She becomes pregnant, and then finds herself victimised by the woman whose idea this all was in the first place (Genesis 16:6). Even more unpleasant, God won’t let her run away somewhere safer (16:9). She can’t catch a break.

Or so it seems. This is where things starts to turn, and Hagar starts to get a glimpse of a the bigger picture. She is indeed to have a son. The description given of him in Genesis 16:11-12 doesn’t seem complementary, but the translation may be filtered through some misunderstandings. It speaks of him being the child who will stand out from the crowd, stand up and think and act independently.

In a moment of fleeing, Hagar’s been spotted by God, so she names the place for that truth (16:14). When you’ve been used because of biology, mistreated at the hands of the originator of the plan, being seen is significant. The see-er has seen past the obvious to who you are as a person, and the bigger picture of which you are a part. You are no longer just a womb; you carry within you the father of nations. God’s purpose through Abraham was always to do something for every nation; with Hagar and thus Ishmael in the picture, blessing will flow to what we now call the Arab nations. The conspiring, conniving abuse of the aged Jewish couple becomes the birth of whole nations.

What’s more, she’s the first to know. This won’t become apparent to Abraham (and Sarah) until much later. Isaac is born, as promised, and there’s no longer any need for Hagar and Ishmael – or so it seems to Sarah (Genesis 21). She insists that her husband sends Hagar and her son away; she can’t stand a reminder of abuse and unfaithfulness in her house. Out of sight, out of mind. Guilt encroaches on Abraham’s conscience, and it’s as he realises the extent of what he’s done that God steps in and sets his mind at rest. He may have used and abused a woman, but God will knit that into the birth of nations (21:12). In the economy of God, nothing is wasted.

Hagar is off into the wilderness again, this time sent away rather than running. She is hopeless to the point of death. At which point, the God who sees proves He is also the God who hears (21:17). Not for the last time in the Bible, water flows in the wilderness and hope is restored.

If you’ve been bullied, used, abused (and if you haven’t, then you’ll know someone who has been), then you’ll know how reductive is. You become an outlet for a person’s needs and whims. The book and film Room takes this to unforgettable lengths. A woman is kidnapped, given a life limited to one room – and used for sex whenever the captor wants it. This leads to a child, a son. When escape is eventually effected, the beauty of the boy doesn’t exactly eradicate the pain that’s an inescapable part of the family history, but it does harmonise it into something all together more remarkable. Which is the way of God; He doesn’t wipe evil out. He does something far more difficult, and much more creative – he takes evil, and weaves into the warp and weft of grace. He brings nations from a single cell.

Ever been astonished that someone who’s suffered can offer forgiveness? Ever been floored by the generosity of someone with very little – giving away something that is, in the scheme of things quite small but in reality is everything to the giver? This is grace, the work of God, writ small. God does it on the macro – at the extreme, taking the torture and murder of an Innocent and bringing redemption through it.

Have you been the bully, the abuser, the user? You need to repent. When guilt threatens to overwhelm, listen for the distant harmonies of grace that can be weaved. It doesn’t excuse you, but it does mean that your evil wasn’t the end of the story.

Bullied? Victimised? Used? Abused? It’s not the end. Let the master composer play a tune beyond compare.

Also in this series: 

Moses: frustrated and angry at God’s people

Paul: impure and limited

These posts are based on a series of sermons

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A story

I often write here about stories. They could be films, they could be books, they could be parts of  my own story. It’s because I like stories. Stories are a fundamental part of human existence. We are the only beings on the planet with the capability of telling stories to one another. Stories worm under our defences, help us walk in another’s shoes, see something from a way we haven’t seen before.

Large parts of the Bible are in the form of stories – histories, parables, gospels. They burrow away with truths that detonate in our heart and mind repeatedly days, weeks, months, years after encountering them.

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the debates we enter into as Christians would be changed for the considerably better if we stopped and listened to some stories for a while. Stories take debates out of the abstract and into the everyday. They give a theory a name, an idea, a face, an argument flesh and bones. It’s much harder to use rude names when you’re confronted with someone with their own name.

I was born and raised and remain one of those Christians who broadly fit under the label evangelical. I’m also, in many ways, what you might call an evangelical of a charismatic flavour. I’m not going to explain what those labels mean for me, now: that’s my story and that’s a story for another time. Part of that story is, though, that I grew up with a conservative view of homosexuality. That view of homosexuality remained static over many years; more recently I’ve tried to take a walk round the issue and examine it from different perspectives. It occurred to me that I’d never really examined other points of view on the subject; I’d simply gulped one in with the air I breathed. That can’t be good. As I walked I’ve learned that there are many other stories out there. I’ve learned that there are people in churches of the flavour that I like, who are gay; and they’ve received the message that they’re vile, hated by God and detested. That they can’t love Jesus.

I haven’t finished my wandering around this subject. I can’t say where that wandering will finish, if it ever does. I’m don’t want to call all conservatives homophobes; neither do I want to accept any lifestyle or choice or practice unquestioningly. But I do need to listen. Wherever I finish my wandering, I want to commit to always listening to stories, and always listening well.

So listen with me, will you? And before you and I opine, call people vile or abominations or detested or not-Christians, let’s remember we’re not talking about ideas. We’re talking about a person Jesus died for. A name, a face, a history, a person for whom their sexual orientation is just one part. An important part, to be sure, but only one part nonetheless.

Let’s start by taking 10 minutes to listen to this engaging, humbling, disturbing story.

What, then, shall we say?

We need more stories like this, don’t we? Stories of Jesus and grace and cross and iron nails and visions on beaches. Jesus often seems to do important things on beaches, doesn’t He? Who am I to call this man vile? Who are you?

You’re not, you say. You say you’re just repeating what God says.

Well, Jesus had many hard words to say to those who claimed to speak for God, didn’t He?

What, then, shall we say?

Let’s find a better story.