Mean Girls - Hagar and Sarah

Genesis 16

Sermon delivered by Minister Shirley Lin on 20th March, 2007 at Taiwan Theological College and Seminary; Translated by Janet Sue

Before I begin with the sermon, I’d like to share a little bit of my nervousness with you. Writing this sermon was quite difficult for me, because I am not used to preaching for such a long time. In America, we generally spend only around 10-15 minutes on our messages, because our services generally comprise of different components, and because studies have shown that the average person’s attention span is only 12 minutes. This has happened since the invention of the television and we watch our shows in 12 minute segments. For me, writing a 30 minute sermon is even more difficult than listening to a 30 minute sermon. But I digress.

The Bible is a pretty extensive collection of stories and teachings. My personal Bible is around 2,000 pages. There are many stories, events, teachings, and prophecies in the Bible. Sometimes, when we read stories, we often forget about certain characters because we put all our focus on the main character and what is most important to the telling of the story. Remembering the forgotten stories is something that scholars today have tried to do. Even in fiction, people are starting to consider the voice of the forgotten.

Welcome to the post-modern era, where the emphasis is on our individual voices, especially the voices of the marginalized. Because the Bible contains so much information, there are many voices in the Bible that are pushed to the margins, causing these to be forgotten or ignored.

The story of Hagar is one such voice.

You may be wondering why the story of Hagar is in the Bible at all. She was not even a nobody. She was a slave, which means she was not a person but an object that belonged to someone. Not only is it in the Bible once, but the story is told twice. Does this mean that this woman, who is mostly forgotten, is actually someone important to our faith? Though I am disturbed by certain things that are written in the Bible, I am still a firm believer that whatever is in the Bible, it is there for a reason and therefore serves a purpose. Therefore, the story of Hagar must have some importance to my faith; to our faith. All we have to do is find the voice and hear what it is saying.

The history in the beginning of Genesis is broken into different eras. The first is primeval history, which are typically the myth stories from Genesis 1-11. This would include the Garden of Eden stories, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, etc.

The second is the Historical memory of Israel, which begins with Abram, being called into covenant by God. God renamed Abram to Abraham, “Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you. "I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you."

Hagar’s story is intertwined with the story of Abraham. She had been in Abraham’s clan for awhile, and remained fairly anonymous, because she was only a foreign slave. She worked for Sarah rather than Abraham, so it is likely that Abraham didn’t even know who she was.The problem for Hagar began when Sarah gave her to Abraham as a wife because Sarah was unable to have children.

In chapter 16 of Genesis, Hagar is portrayed as a haughty slave woman. Her ability to bear a child for Abraham caused her behavior to change, to become prideful and mean. She teases Sarah for being barren, which only stirred up trouble for herself. Eventually, Sarah went to Abraham to seek justice, and Abraham allowed her to do with Hagar what she willed. She casts Hagar out, but in the end, Hagar returns to the tribe, because this was the will of God.

Chapter 20 tells a different rendition of the story. In this chapter, Sarah is the unreasonable person. When she saw Isaac and Ishmael playing and laughing, she became angered and went to Abraham to banish Hagar.

Though these two versions are slightly different from each other, we can certainly make two important conclusions regarding this story, which I am sure are pretty obvious to all of you as well. First, we know that Hagar is the mother of Ishmael. This baby boy, though he did not become the father of the Jewish faith, was blessed by God and was meant to eventually become the father of a great nation. Now, we know that this great nation is the followers of the Islamic faith. It is one of the largest faiths in the world. Therefore, as the mother of the patriarch of a great nation, Hagar is indeed an important character. She is arguably as important as Sarah, who is the mother of a patriarch of Judaism.

The second thing is that Hagar encountered the divine. What is interesting about Hagar was not that she was the first woman to receive a theophany, but the first person to do so within the historical memory of Israel when the angel of God appeared to her in the desert. Even though she was a foreigner, and a slave, the God of Israel nonetheless appeared and offered protection to her. More than that, she was the only person who actually NAMED God. She not only had the audacity to do something not even Moses, a great Jewish leader, was able to do, but she was unharmed. God accepted her name and blessed her offspring. Thus, despite her lowly status and her foreign heritage, Hagar was still given a special position in God’s eyes. This demonstrates for me not only God’s great mercy, but also the extent of God’s love to care for all of his creatures.

The story of Hagar is inevitably loaded with feminist commentary. What is most striking to me about this story is the way women relate to each other. I noticed that the way in which women interact with each other have not changed, even after thousands of years.

Back then, there was intense competition between these women. Even though their daily interaction was probably minimal, as soon as Hagar was able to give Abraham what Sarah was not able to, intense emotions pitted one woman against the other.

Why is it that women are always in competition with each other? And why are these competitions always so sinister in nature? In both instances, the story involved women on women violence. Neither of these women needed to disturb the other. Sure, they could have peacefully coexisted. They could have even been friends. However, once a man and potential inheritance was involved, these women became bitter enemies. The women in this story were reduced to bitter rivals, rather than sisters.

This kind of behavior from women to women has not changed much. Even in the 21st century, women cannot but help comparing ourselves against other women, competing against other women, fighting for our way up to the top rather than giving each other a helping hand.

The movie Mean Girls was an attempt by Hollywood to make such a social commentary. This movie took place in a high school, where the new girl, Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady, was trying to find her footing after returning to the United States from Africa. When she entered into high school, she was in for the shock of her life. She did not know the proper social rules and regulations and became a pawn in a game the social outcasts tried to play on the popular girls to dethrone the most popular girl in school.Though there were different instances of girls bullying each other and manipulating each other on the way to becoming the most popular, prettiest girl, one scene in particular stood out.

Toward the end of the movie, Cady entered into a math competition. Both teams were comprised of 3 boys and 1 girl, were tied going into the final round. Each team had to choose one opponent to do a sudden-death round. Both teams chose the girls. As Cady was walking toward the podium, she began to tear her competitor away, criticizing the other girl’s looks and clothes. “Ms. Caroline Kraft seriously needed to pluck her eyebrows, her outfit looked like it was picked out by a blind Sunday School teacher, and she had some 99 cent lipstick on her snaggle tooth. And that’s when I realized: making fun of Caroline Kraft wouldn’t stop her from beating me in this contest. Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier, calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter, and ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you.”

In the end, it was her knowledge that won the game and not her competitor’s inability to put on make up and wear fashionable clothing. This begs a question for us as well. Why do we, as people, not just women, tear each other down in a superficial way when our lives depend not on how well the other person does, but how well we ourselves do?

Are we like Sarah, so insecure of our own abilities and position that we must make others feel smaller in order to feel that we will be taken care of and we’re important? Are we like Hagar, who is so smug that we achieved something that others have not, that we must mock our competition so that we can secure our own sense of superiority? Or are we like Abraham, who washed his hands of the situation instead of getting involved even though this issue involved his family because it was easier to give into his wife than doing the right thing?

When we work together, the benefits outweigh the negatives. We are all more, combined, than we are individually. I remember a story of an old man with seven sons. None of his sons liked each other, and they definitely did not get along. The old man was saddened by this situation, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He knew he was dying of old age, and he did not want his children to continue to fight. So he called them to his bedside. The sons came and sat in a circle around their father.

The father handed each son a chopstick. “Break this,” he said, and they did it with ease. This time, the old man handed his sons 7 chopsticks. “Break this,” he said. His sons were not able to do so. “You see,” said the old man, “you are like this chopstick. By yourself, you are weak, but together you are strong.” We are all stronger when we are in community with one another than when we are all alone. This is one of the lessons that we can gain from Sarah and Hagar.

In this case, Sarah was trying to secure a future not only for her son, but for herself as well. It is only if she had an heir that she would have someone to take care of her and provide for her needs if Abraham should die before she does. She wanted to make sure that her son Isaac would be well off and did not want to share Abraham’s fortunes with Ishmael. But simply because she felt that she had no other options but to take her enemy out does not mean that she behaved properly.

As Christians, we must be able to see ourselves in Hagar, even though we may not want to.
If we are to be true to being followers of Christ, we must refuse to discard those who are suffering. After all, Hagar was the one who was persecuted and suffered under the oppression of her masters. When Jesus, the Messiah, came to the earth, Jesus did not come to rule over his kingdom. Rather, he preached obedience to God, endurance of suffering, and steadfastness in our beliefs. While the Bible makes no reference to Hagar’s faith, she is clearly the one who suffers.

As Christians, we are called to identify with the ones who suffer, because Christ was the one who not only identified with human suffering, but took the burden upon himself on our behalf. As her story unfolded, we see that despite her trials, Hagar was never alone. The fact that God sent an angel to console Hagar demonstrates the openness and greatness of God’s mercy. There are no borders to God’s love. It is not restricted by location, by ethnicity, or by status. God loves all people and is just to all. God maintains his promises to Abraham and at the same time, takes care of Hagar and Ishmael.

At this point, we must stop and ask ourselves, where was Abraham in all of this? Why did he, as the patriarch and head of this family steer clear of the conflict that was brewing? Abraham told Sarah, his wife, to do whatever she saw fit. He did not bother to defend Hagar, his child Ishmael, or even try to resolve the conflict. He just chose his wife over his slave. If he had wanted, he could have resolved the conflict. But he chose not to.

God understands the human condition. This is why God sent an angel to Hagar in the desert. God knew already that Isaac was going to be the patriarch of the great nation of Israel. This God would not take away from Sarah or Abraham. However, God wanted to make sure that Hagar knew that even though the world is imperfect, that God would be fair to her. She would be granted exactly what God had promised. Her son was Abraham’s descendent, so too will he be the father of a great nation. It would just be a different great nation than the child of Sarah. But they did not have to be rivals. They could have been working together, supporting each other, comforting each other, and providing friendship to each other. Yet they chose to duke it out. All because they were insecure about their promises?

As humans, we have an inherent understanding that we are not perfect; that we can never be what God wants us to be, because we are sinners through and through.This inability to be all that we can be stirs up insecurities of our worth. It is easy to see, then, why Sarah had become so insecure. In a time when bearing a son that could inherit your husband’s wealth was your only guarantee of a comfortable life in your old age, she wanted to be absolutely sure that her son is the one that will get the inheritance.
And Hagar… well, she was a slave. She had no rights. In fact, she was not even technically a person. By having a son, she had found a way to be seen as more than a slave: she was the mother of her master’s heir. Of course this would make her gloat. She had something that Sarah didn’t have. She was a slave no longer. It seems rather silly in retrospect, because our God is a just God. God never forgot about Hagar.

Despite their bitter rivalry, there was no difference in the end. Each of their sons received the blessing of God. In God, there is no zero sum gain, because God does not make empty promises. God’s power is so great, that even when we think that something is impossible to accomplish, God is there to make things happen. Perhaps had they been able to get along, to raise their children, their descendents would have learned love and acceptance.

Even today, the descendents of Hagar and Sarah are fighting each other to gain the most profit, which is a shame, because the place considered Holy Land for the majority of the world’s faithful is, in reality, unholy, violent, and cruel.
Women have long been considered to be the peacemakers in the world. Perhaps if we were not too busy fighting each other and supported each other instead, we can influence others to do the same.

Another big picture question that we must ask is: why do men wash their hands of responsibility and act as though the affairs of women do not matter or affect them? Abraham basically washed his hands of the whole thing, even though both of these women were technically his wives and the mother of his children. I’m sure that many of you men out there are thinking, “these are women’s issues. It has nothing to do with me.” Perhaps, this is what Abraham thought as well. We must remember that simply because God condoned it does not mean that Abraham took the best course of action.

God picked up the pieces that Abraham left behind, but wouldn’t the situation have been better had Abraham tried to create peace in his household? The reality is that this lesson is for everybody. We all have mothers and grandmothers, possibly sisters, aunts, and cousins, not to mention friends. The wellness of one contributes to the wellness of all, because we belong in and with our families, regardless of what the family may look like.

Once Hagar bore Abraham a son, she became, in essence, his family. To turn his back on her was not the best he could have done.
The family structure is the foundational block of our social structure and our lives. It is given to us solely through God’s grace. To allow it to fall apart because of petty disagreements and envy is shameful. Moreover, as Christians, we have been accepted into a new family. This is a family that extends beyond blood ties, beyond marriage, and beyond earthly relationship. Christ called us all into community with each other, as His faithful servants, to live together as brothers and sisters, and most importantly, to love each other and even our enemies. In the sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught that “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Sons of God.”

Where is a better place to start than with the women around us? The Hagar story serves as a hopeful tale, allowing us to see that there is nothing that God’s powers cannot do. There is indeed enough to go around, for us all to share and use. Once we can find a way to peacefully coexist, we can live out our lives truly as Christians, and as brothers and sisters in the faith.