I have been taking, in such limited free time as I have this month, a course from Hillsdale college on the book of Genesis that is about halfway done. Earlier today (as I write this) the third lesson of the course opened up and it had a lot to say about Genesis 16:1-12. Though the translation used by the instructor is different from the one I normally use, it is certainly a compelling and somewhat pointed translation that draws content and food for reflection out of a verse that one does not normally think of. The title of this entry is a paraphrase as I remember it from the lecture, and I will likely not have the book until after the Feast to look at, but I want you all to read through the New King James Version of this passage and see if you can spot what is translated as “I acknowledge your suffering, now go back and suffer” in the following passage: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.” So Abram said to Sarai, “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.” And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence. Now the Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” The Angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand.” Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” 11 And the Angel of the Lord said to her: “Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
This is a hard passage for contemporary sensibilities to understand. Twice in the Genesis account, Hagar finds herself despondently beside a well in the wilderness engaging in a conversation with the Angel of the Lord, presumably the preincarnate Jesus Christ, who gives her blessings but also some very hard words to modern ears. It is somewhat telling that Hagar is incorporated into Israel in her suffering as a slave to a cruel mistress in Sarah. It is intriguing that Hagar’s fate mirrors in many ways the fate of Israel at the hand of the people and rulers of Egypt. She is a slave, subject to the not always kind whims of others who view her as their property, to be disposed as they wish. She leaves slavery and finds herself in the wilderness in need of the help and blessing of the Eternal to have the water that is necessary to survive in that dry and inhospitable land where her son Ishmael was to become the progenitor of the mighty and powerful Arab people. And though contemporaries might be content to view her as the victim of history, her behavior here is certainly not wise. Having been raised from the status of slave to that of a secondary wife (many translations fudge it by calling her a concubine), she began to take on airs and looked down on Sarah because of Sarah’s infertility, which led to a predictable if lamentable outcome in terms of Sarah’s abusive hostility to being hit in her most sensitive spot.
Sarah herself does not come off well in this story either. It is well worth considering how differently she is viewed by the Bible and how she comes off to many people nowadays who think about this story in light of contemporary mores. The Bible considers her to be an example of a goodly woman who did not have to be afraid of her husband but was in fact a princess who retained her beauty and desirability long into old age. This story makes her out to be a tyrant of a slaveowning mistress who abuses a woman because that young woman can have children and she cannot. The way that she casually disposes of Hagar as a surrogate in bearing children for her husband Abraham, not seeming to care about Hagar’s own thoughts in the matter, come off particularly poorly. And yet Sarah is, despite the ugliness of this episode, an example of those who are faithful and who will enter into eternal life. The Bible does not fail to portray its figures in a light that is true to life, even when–especially when–that forces us to deal with uncomfortable matters about how slave owners can still be saved by God and heroes and heroines of faith, something that is entirely incomprehensible to many in our present generation of evildoers.
It should be noted as well that Abraham also does not come off particularly well here either. The translation that was being read from offers some startling comments that appear to be drawing explicit parallels between this passage and Genesis 3. The professor quoted the translation as saying that in the matter of Hagar Abraham heeded the voice of Sarah his wife. As a listener I could only take this to be a reference to Adam heeding the voice of Eve his wife in taking the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The professor did not draw this conclusion but I could not help but to do so when thinking of the similarity in the phraseology. Similarly, just like Adam, Abraham is keen on avoiding responsibility for the mess that he has helped to create, and his passivity reminds one of both Isaac’s own famous passivity but also that of Adam in placing Hagar–with whom he has just fathered a long-awaited child–into the tender mercies of his wife Sarah. Admittedly, he had no particularly good options here, once the decision had been made to deal with the long delay in Sarah’s bearing the promised firstborn son by fathering a son through a slave wife, but that is the whole point that solving problems like that by what seems expedient at the time usually has long-term repercussions that are painful and unavoidable, as our present world is still paying for this mistake in Ishmael having been a mighty nation but one whose hand is against everyone else’s where everyone else’s hand is also against them.
It is well worth considering, although we do not often do so, that God Himself does not come off particularly well here either, judging by human standards. The translation being read from today, in telling Hagar–a runaway slave who had suffered some serious abuse at the hand of her owner(s)–that her suffering is acknowledged but that she should go back to suffer, gives some very unpleasant truth about how it is that God operates. Repeatedly in the Bible, God acknowledges the suffering of His people but also tells them to endure suffering. We are used to thinking about this when it comes to ancient Israel, but it is also a consistent theme in the New Testament as well. Let me briefly provide two examples. 1 Peter 4:12-19 tells us: “Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy. If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified. But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter. For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? Now “if the righteous one is scarcely saved, where will the ungodly and the sinner appear?” Therefore let those who suffer according to the will of God commit their souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.” And similarly, John says in Revelation 6:9-11: “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”
Let us reflect upon this. It is our instinct, and an entirely understandable one, to avoid suffering and to view those who are responsible for suffering as the worst sorts of human beings imaginable. (In doing so, we must note parenthetically, we tend not to acknowledge the suffering that we bring to others but are especially sensitive to the slights we suffer in this cruel and unjust world.) Yet God told Hagar not to remain footloose and fancy free in the wilderness but to return to Sarah her (not entirely kind) mistress and to put herself under Sarah’s authority. God acknowledged her suffering as a young woman being tormented and bullied by a powerful mad woman but told her to go back into her role as a slave and suffer some more. And in not less fierce language we are told to glorify God in fiery trials because as long as we do not suffer as an evildoer, we are blessed because we suffer the reproach of cruel and evil and corrupt authorities, which have ever ruled over humanity and do so today. Similarly, those who are suffering the martyrdom of the end of the ages are told that they will remain unavenged until the full number of those consigned to the slaughter have been completed. This is hard to take. And yet God’s standards are not our own, and the sooner we realize that and accept that, the better things will be for us. For if we live in times of darkness and evil, at least we should do so to the greatest extent possible with clear vision as to the fiery trials that await us.