An Economy of Idols
We live our lives within an economy of idols. Idols are elements of our identity that we elevate in order to create an elevated self, enduring self. We imagine that this constructed self, made from what our context has identified as beautiful or good, will rescue us, give us meaning, give us immortality, make us gods.
Up until this point in the Abram story Sarai has been a silent partner. She followed Abram out of the north. She silently endured being traded for cattle and slaves in Egypt as a possible wife for Pharaoh, but now in chapter 16 she says her first words in the book.
“Since the LORD has kept me from bearing children, go into my slave girl. Perhaps I shall be built up through her.”
Sarai could suffer being sold for cattle. Sarai had the praise and admiration of men even into 60’s because of her beauty, but to be childless in that world, was the only thing that mattered to her.
Sarai Was Not Alone
Most Americans derive their status and identity from personal accomplishment, for many women today childlessness is not like it was for these women. The first words of Rachel, the beloved wife of Jacob, would also concern her childlessness. Hannah, the mother of Samuel, was also without child. Elkanah, attempting to console her asked “am I not more to you than ten sons?” Clearly not.
Children and descendants were the way by which these peoples beat the age of decay. They would die, but their children would live on and remember then.
“The LORD Doesn’t See My Hurt”
It had been 10 years since the LORD had made promises to Abram, but no child had come. Sarai is sick of waiting. Sarai is sick of suffering. Sarai’s idols have made their demands and her self-image requires that this gap in her identity resume be immediately closed. A slave girl would do for Sarai what Yhwh was withholding.
This story is all about status. Hagar was likely acquired in Egypt in Pharaoh’s transaction for Sarai’s beauty that fell through due to Yhwh’s intervention. Abram’s attempt in chapter 12 to secure his future at Sarai’s expense now revolves once more with Sarai attempting to secure her future at Hagar’s expense. Just as Sarai was to be required in Pharaoh’s bed for Abram’s salvation, now Abram and Hagar would be joined in the flesh for Sarai’s. Just as Sarai heeded Abram’s command to make herself available to Pharaoh, now Abram heeds Sarai’s request to expose himself to Hagar.
What all parties will learn, is that none of this salvation seeking will produce the intended outcome. Idols are notorious teases.
So Abram enters Hagar (the text is simple and graphic) and she conceived. When she SAW that she had conceived Sarai became SMALL in her SIGHT.
Seeing is an important thing in this story. First Sarai SEES herself, not in the light of God’s electing call, but in the common status orientation of her context. Tired of not seeing results from God, she has decided she will take matters into her own hands, or rather put matters into Abram’s lap. In this plan Hagar is small, only a tool, only a means by which Sarai can use the cultural convention of addressing her infertility (she had no modern medicine, which tends to be our tool).
As a result of Sarai’s scheme, Hagar is now the one who gets to see. Since she has now conceived she now sees Sarai as small in her eyes. The irony of the word choice here is that it is the same word used in the cursing portion of the call. Hagar is now making Sarai small. Will she be cursed?
Blaming in Anger
Sarai’s second word is just as revelatory as her first. She was small in the eyes of the world because she was childless. How she was seen in God’s eyes was not important to her or real to her. Now she is small in the eyes of this slave girl who had been small in her eyes, so small to not even be seen as a person, so now she is angry. Her plot has now gone on to poison her relationship with Abram and she uses a standard line to condemn him.
Abram quickly backpedals, washes his hands of the affair and gives Sarai an open license to abuse Hagar, which she promptly does.
Sarai in none of this sees herself as she really is. When she refuses to herself as she is in the light of Yhwh’s call, she starts looking around to see herself in other lights. The inevitable outcome of this is abuse of others. Her pain initially was her own fault. Her infertility was NOT her fault, but her turmoil about it was and it was completely unnecessary. All of this, however, has now born bitter fruit throughout the family. Abram is now a passive pawn in her game, first abdicating to sleep with her slave, and now abdicating to permit the abuse of her slave. Sarai herself has now gone from victim to perpetrator. Hurt people hurt people and Sarai is doing the hurting.
Hagar, who was sold to Sarai because of Sarai’s beauty, was elevated to “wife” of Abraham because of Sarai’s self-salvation plan, has been abandoned by those with power who were supposed to protect her, and attempts to run back to Egypt.
Like a good shepherd, who goes out to find the lost sheep, the angel of the LORD pursues her in the desert. As we’ve seen so many times in the story already, the LORD has come to talk. Hagar’s affliction, like Sarah’s is self-inflicted. Hagar has had no options in any of this story, except the one indulgence of taking advantage of Sarai’s faithlessness and using that moment of power to exalt herself. That moment has now, like Sarai’s moment, cost her everything. One moment she was the bearer of Abraham’s child, now all is in jeopardy as she runs back to Egypt to likely return to slavery.
Just as the LORD’s saving action to Abram has been with words, so is his saving action towards Hagar. What changes with his words? Nothing, and everything.
She will be the mother of a great nation, just like Abram.
The God Who Sees
The question we are wrestling with during lent is how God can save this world. As we’ve seen in this story Sarai’s chief problem has been with sight. She’s only been able to see herself in the categories of her context. Sarai is beautiful, so her beauty is used by her husband and by Pharaoh for their own wellbeing.
She has assumed the judgment of her context that her value is dictated by her ability to produce children, more specifically male children. She has so fully embraced this vision of herself she willing to use others, namely Abram and Hagar to achieve the only self she imagines is valuable.
Once you embrace the habit of being subject to your neighbor’s judgment you face the possibility of being small in their eyes. Hagar, who has been the bottom figure in this whole sad drama, now finds an opportunity to exalt herself, to live “my wellbeing at Sarai’s expense”, just as Sarai did to her, and return the evil turn. Sarai ironically made herself open to this.
How does God’s electing love save us from ourselves? In this story we are invited not to see ourselves as reflected in the value economy of our context, but rather in the value economy of our maker and elector.
What Hagar finds in the wilderness is a seeking God who sees. He sees her not as the de-humanized slave valued for her service in the home or the bed, but as the mother of royalty and therefore royalty herself.
Narratives of Self-Assertion
Up until this point Hagar’s story it’s been easy for us to track with her. It was wrong for her to be made a slave either by her parents, or by her debt, or by virtue of being a people who were conquered. It was wrong for Sarai to order her into the bed of Abram. It was wrong for Sarai to despise her and mistreat her for doing exactly as she was told. All of this was wrong!
Our cultural narrative of self-salvation would then compel her to raise up and take vengeance so that she will be a slave no more. She ought to assert herself, throw down her enemies and stand upon who she really is.
Return to Your Slavery
What happens next is something that the Bible is regularly criticized for. The angel of the LORD tells her “Return to your mistress and suffer abuse at her hand.”
Now this just seems wrong. The God who sees KNOWS this is wrong. Why would he tell her to go back and suffer unjust abuse at the hands of Sarai?
First let’s remember what the LORD went out into the desert to do, to talk to Hagar. The LORD didn’t do any powerful signs or deeds. He just went out to talk. We have no indication in the text that He will threaten Hagar or somehow coerces her to do this. He is just showing her a path and inviting her to follow it.
What would have happened if Hagar had said “nuts to you! I’m going back to Egypt.”
I don’t know. I only know the path that she will take, and it will be a difficult one, but it will end in her becoming the mother of a nation, which in her eyes would be about the greatest thing she could imagine.
She is invited to voluntarily suffer abuse, indignity and injustice at the hands even of the hands of God’s chosen family.
The Path Through Suffering
What if instead of returning to Sarai’s abuse we armed Hagar with power, similar power to what Sarai had. Hagar could make Sarai her slave and humiliate and abuse her. Hagar could humiliate Abram, and make him pay. What would result from this turn of fortune? Hagar would feel better, and we would have a kind of movie story we enjoy, but abuse in the end would win. Hagar would simply be a user of people.
Did she have that ability? Did her experience as a slave make her more generous towards others?
No. When she had the opportunity she made Sarai small in her eyes. Sarai then saw herself in the eyes of her female slave and hated this new vision of herself.
How can God change the world through calling Abram?
Through a long and torturous turn of events, even despite Abram’s selling his wife for slaves and livestock in Egypt, and Sarai using her slave for a fertility proxy God brings things to the point of revealing himself to this slave girl, and inviting her into the quality of the life of the trinity. Hagar, along with Abram, Sarai, and Lot, is now invited into God’s salvation through suffering. Through suffering Hagar will be redeemed and will be the mother of a great nation. Abram’s election is already proving to be contagious, all the way down to a servant girl.
It would seem unfair of God to tell Hagar to submit herself to this abuse. What would it cost God for Hagar to be abused by Sarai?
We receive this story in a Christian church. When we see God’s invitation to return to the woman who abused her, to serve her and open herself to further abuse, we catch a glimpse into a much greater person of royalty who will submit himself to the abuse of the untrusted.
People sometimes associate “the angel of the LORD” with Jesus in these Old Testament stories because the text has a funny way of slipping from “angel” to “LORD” as this one does. This “messenger” likely looked pretty much like a man, no halo, no wings, but there was obviously something about him that brought Hagar to the conclusion that he was God.
Under No Compulsion
This messenger asks nothing of Hagar that he himself was unwilling to undertake. One would come from God to be abused by us and in histories greatest single act of irony this absorption of unjust abuse would set us free.
What we have is a series of failures that illustrate our bondage to idolatry. Abram sells his wife out of fear and greed. Sarai abuses Abram and Hagar out of fear and insecurity. Hagar flees out of fear. It is all undone by Hagar’s courage to absorb the abuse of her mistress on the basis of a promise from a messenger. Hagar’s moment is not unlike Abram’s initial moment and many moments to follow.
The misery in this story is predictable and common. What fuels the disastrous decisions by Abram, Sarai and Hagar is what fuels us. What idolatries hold on to us? How do we see ourselves and attempt to construct our selves through the images and mirrors of our contexts? How do our self-salvation strategies that usually involve advantaging ourselves at the expense of others continue to bind us and contribute to our misery?
Abram and Sarai had by the promise of God already had deliverance from their fears available to them from the moment the promise was given. If they could have seen themselves through the electing love that the LORD had offered them they would not have had to do what they had done.
Abram would not have had to sell his wife for security and prosperity in Egypt. Sarai would not have had to try to secure her own future through using both Abram and Hagar to try to secure a son. Hagar would not have had to make Sarai small in her sight by virtue of the fertility that was a gift from the creator God in the first place.
This entire drama is emblematic of all of our stories.
The LORD’s call and promise to Abraham was sufficient to deliver them from their fears, but they acted without faith and suffered for it.
Each of us has received far more than Abram, Sarai and Hagar. Do we believe it?
Hagar embraced the promise “The God who sees” offered to her, and voluntarily returned to her mistress. She would continue to suffer at the hand of Sarai and Abram but would eventually receive her reward. She would again be afraid, and again in the wilderness suffer from despair, but this seeing, seeking, saving God would find her and deliver her. She would not die from the sufferings she voluntarily assumed.
The pattern and the story is clear to us. We also are miserable because of how we see ourselves through our context and the ways we attempt to advantage ourselves at the expense of others. We refuse to see ourselves in the electing love and call of God.
We too have received the call, to believe, to be a blessing to the nations. We have received the electing love of God and are invited, today, to see ourselves in that light more than any other lights. When we embrace this vision, we, like Hagar, like Christ, can turn to serve others sacrificially regardless of their moral merit.
If this is true, won’t we, can’t we, endure more suffering this world has to offer, knowing that what we suffer for the sake of the call will lead to greater glory?