For those of you who were here when I started my sermon series of Old Testament Women of the Bible a little while back, you may remember I started with the figure of Eve. The Genesis chapter 2 storyteller explains that Eve was with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Genesis chapters 1-3 are meant to establish God as Creator of all there is and the special relationship God has with humankind. You also heard that although in Genesis chapter 2 the man was created first, the woman was created to be his helper. A better English word for helper is partner. The Hebrew term for helper is meant to imply a much more equal relationship, not a subservient one. Of course we know that in chapter 1 God creates both genders, male and female, equally in the Creator God’s own image.
I explained that often this story is studied or preached about by putting Eve as of secondary importance to Adam, except to say that it was her fault sin occurred through the eating of the forbidden fruit. We found out that both Eve and Adam were present when that wily snake tempted Eve to eat the prohibited fruit of the Tree of Knowledge while Adam said nothing and also ate of the forbidden fruit.
In conclusion, I explained that Eve and Adam needed each other and were to work in partnership with each other as all human beings should seek to accomplish. If you want to read the whole sermon, it is on our church’s website under sermon (by the way, I hope you check for information periodically).
Before I start with today’s Old Testament women, I’ll remind or tell you that the sermon series is based on the book “Preaching the Women of the Old Testament: Who They Were and Why They Matter,” by Rev. Dr. Lynn Japinga. Rev. Japinga is a pastor in the Reformed Church of America denomination and is the Professor of Religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She is also known for her work and teaching in the area of interfaith relations.
Sarah and Hagar are our main focus for this morning. You likely recall that the story of the Israelite’s beginnings center around Abraham and Sarah. Their story begins in Genesis, and some of which you heard in our scripture lessons for this morning, as God makes a covenant with Abraham. The Creator promised to bless Abraham with land and children if Abraham would uproot all his household, which would consist of many people, and all his possessions, also many, and move to a different place. Abraham and Sarah did just that.
If I would have given a regular title to this sermon, it would have likely been “A Long and Winding Road” because that is exactly what this story is. It has many twists, turns, setbacks, miracles and important points. It is often seen as an uplifting story of great faith and yet it also has significant ups and downs.
While Sarah, who early on was known as Sarai, appears several times in Genesis chapters 11-23, Hagar, her slave girl, is only mentioned in chapters 16 and 21. Both Sarah and Hagar are mentioned in the New Testament, twice for Sarah in the epistles of Hebrews and 1 Peter, and Galatians is the only time Hagar is mentioned in the New Testament. Obviously, their stories were known by the New Testament writers.
In this long and winding road, God repeatedly appears to Abraham and promises to give him land and offspring. Notably, God isn’t recorded as directly addressing Sarah, reminding us that these stories were written in a patriarchal society. Actually, it is very possible that Sarah didn’t even know of God’s promises to Abraham, although we can hope Abraham told her. Even if she didn’t know of the divine promise of a great nation from their offspring, she did know that she was a failure at the most essential task of womanhood in her culture and in that time, for she had no children. She was infertile, it appeared, and that was devastating to her.
Sarah devises a plan that wasn’t all that infrequent, as I understand it, in that culture. She gives her Egyptian slave girl, and the Hebrew does mean girl, to Abraham to impregnate so Sarah may have a child to raise as her own. As a slave and a young one at that, Hagar is most likely forced to go lay with elderly Abraham. In our western society today we would call that act rape. Sadly, back then it was considered acceptable. The well-known author and speaker, Phyllis Tribble, calls that portion of the story a “text of terror.” My guess is that few of us have thought of it in that way.
Next we find out that the slave girl, Hagar, has been impregnated, and at first Sarah rejoices. However, Hagar’s barren and much older mistress becomes resentful of her and her ability to give Abraham a child. Hagar, along this long and winding road, does become puffed up by her pregnancy and looks upon Sarah with contempt. As a young slave that wasn’t a particularly wise move. Sarah treats Hagar harshly as a result. Through the eons, how Hagar responds at this point has been interpreted very unforgivingly. Hagar has often been seen as unfaithful and is derided for her actions when she decides she doesn’t want to be mistreated by her mistress and runs away into the wilderness with seemingly no resources. In our society, we may likely acknowledge running away from abuse as understandable, but into the desert with no sustenance or water was not astute. An angel finds her in the wilderness and actually calls her by name, most unlike Abraham and Sarah did when they used the designation of “slave girl.” Hagar is given much significance by being directly approached by a messenger of the Lord even though many interpreters down through the ages have tried to diminish her importance, perhaps because she wasn’t of the nation of Israel. The angel instructs her to go back and submit to Sarah. Even though this would not be something we would recommend in a domestic violence situation today, Hagar faithfully agrees and returns to Sarah so she and her unborn child will live, although it is not a good situation. Incredibly, Hagar gives God a name which is Elroi meaning “the God of seeing.” The Lord sees her situation and down that winding road what happens to her is turned into a blessing. Hagar is the only woman in scripture to name God!
Eventually, Hagar gives birth to a son and an angel again comes to her, once again showing her import and tells her to name her son Ishmael which, in ancient Hebrew, meant “God hears.” This extremely notable and rare divine promise to a female slave was absolutely unheard of and expresses God’s faithfulness to an unlikely biblical character. God works with all people, even the most improbable. Yes, the Almighty heard Hagar’s cries of distress in her situation. The reader of scripture finds out later that God will make a great nation out of Ishmael’s descendants even though he was not of the chosen people of Israel.
This story of infertility and fertility is not remotely over as it continues to wind around for about a whole decade later when God again appears to Abraham with the promise of land and offspring. This time it will come about through Sarah, even though she is said to be old. Chapter 17 verse 17 explains what we would expect to happen; Abraham “fell on his face and laughed.” What a funny image that is as it seems like he fell straight down onto his face! Actually, he probably fell to his knees and put his forehead to the ground. Anyway, Abraham bursts out in laughter for he and Sarah are old.
Abraham is supposedly about 100 years old and Sarah about 90 years. There has been and is much discussion about what age means in the Old Testament. Adam was supposedly 930 years old when he died, his sons, Seth and Lamech were 920 and 777 years old when they died and Lamech’s son Noah was 950 while his son Shem was 600 years old when he died. Some scholars wondered if it was possible that a year was seen as one cycle of the moon which we know as a month. Others mention how important numbers were to the Hebrew people. Perhaps they adjusted ages by certain mathematical equations such as multiplying them by a particular number for a certain meaning known only to them. Others say they were symbolic numbers. Still others go with the ages as recorded by authors of the early biblical books. The prominent problem there is that there is no evidence that the human body was ever created to live anywhere near that age. It is possible that Abraham was 55 and Sarah 45 years old and that would have been considered very old for childbirth a few thousand years ago. In fact, it still is considered an older age for childbirth by a woman for many people today. Ultimately, I don’t think the actual age matters, just that both Abraham and Sarah were considered old in their culture so that Sarah’s pregnancy seems very miraculous on both sides of the equation.
Just as Abraham laughs when God tells him he will bring to fruition a son with Sarah, so Sarah laughs when later, in Genesis 18, God and two divine messengers appear to Abraham. It happens when Sarah overhears their promise that she will conceive and bear a son.
In 9 months, or there about, Sarah does, indeed, happily give birth to a son who is named Isaac, meaning laughter. What I find interesting as we consider their laughter in these two stories, is that Abraham is not all that scorned by some scholars for laughing but Sarah has been interpreted as being unfaithful when she laughs at such an apparently ludicrous idea. Instead, we may realize that Sarah has given up hope. Into her old age, she thinks she is barren. God, as God can do, proves otherwise.
Again, the story has not quite yet ended concerning Sarah, Hagar, and giving birth. After Isaac is weaned, likely between the ages of 2 ½ and 4 years old, Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac and doesn’t like it. We don’t know how Ishmael, who must be a few years older, is playing with him. Is Ishmael mocking or harming him or is it innocent playing? The Bible is mute on this point. Either way, Sarah doesn’t like it and tells Abraham to cast out her slave girl and her son. Even though he is concerned because Ishmael is his son too, amazingly Abraham does send them out into the wilderness with very meager supplies. Soon their supplies dwindle and poor Hagar does not wish to see her son die and in her great sorrow begins to cry. Quite interestingly, Hagar, a seemingly insignificant person, an Egyptian, a slave and still relatively young, is once again taken care of by God’s angel who shows her where life-sustaining water is. There is no doubt Hagar has had a difficult life. Yet, at the end of that long and winding road, God’s purpose is fulfilled and everyone is taken care of. This sad story has a happy ending. We find out that Ishmael, although not having an especially easy life, takes an Egyptian wife, has many sons and becomes the “father” of a great nation, as God promised.
Remembering that Rev. Lynn Japinga is known for her work in interfaith relations, she points out that all three religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (through Ishmael) trace back their heritage to Abraham. Dr Japinga explains, “God chose Abraham and Sarah and the Israelites not because of their worth and not because God loved only them; (instead,) God chose to bless the rest of the world through the Israelites.” We know that none of the male and female saints of the Bible were blameless. They were human.
We have discovered that through the long and winding path of life, God can work with anyone, in any circumstance, in any time period in order that God’s purposes will be fulfilled. This may open our minds to knowing that God does and will work with anyone we may know of, near or far away, even though it may seem extremely unlikely to us. Our Creator God is amazing and awe-inspiring in accomplishing purposes that are intended for good for all of humankind. Alleluia! Amen.