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“The first time in history that a woman used a belt was when Ishmael’s mother started wearing one to conceal her pregnancy from Sarai” (The Book of Sayings About the Prophets).
The first angel of the Bible was sent to comfort a slave-mother, Hagar, who was chased away by her mistress. Having realised her infertility and the crisis of the Promise, Sarai looks for a solution of her own: “so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.‘” (16:2) Therefore Sarai “took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband” (16:3).
As she is getting to old age, Sarai cannot believe in the reality of the call and finds a way out provided by the law (which is there also in Hammurabi’s code in Babylon), which, however, is a diversion from the promise. But when Hagar “knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.” (16:4). Something did not work in this solution that had seemed simple: that baby will not be ‘Sarai’s son‘, but will always be only Agar’s (and Abram’s). Every child is a gift and a mystery, a promise coming true. “Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” (16:6) Hagar runs away into the desert and it is there, in the place that is always loaded with symbols, that an announcement is made to her: “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” “…you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.” (16,10-11). Hagar returns to Abram’s house and the humiliations continue. And when Sarai (who, in the meantime becomes Sarah) gives birth to Isaac from her already dried womb, she will say to her husband: “Get rid of that slave woman and her son“. Abraham obeys Sarah, and the choice “distressed Abraham greatly“. (21:11)
After this second time she is chased away, Hagar does not return. She leaves the scene but never the book of life where the many Hagars still cry out loud because of being chased away and yet they talk to God. He “…then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.” (21:14-16) In this desperate crying all the cries can be included of the slave women of the world of yesterday and today, of all the women who are humiliated by other men and other powerful women, the tears and silences of the victims, of all the migrating people and the refugees across the deserts and the seas. But in that desert Hagar meets YHWH again: “God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.” (21:17)
There are many messages that reach to us from these chapters that are so full of beauty, humanity and pain. The first one is about conflicts and the ways of resolution. Sarah never recognises Hagar as a ‘you’: according to the text she does not call her by her name but always only ‘slave woman‘; it is only JHWH that calls her Hagar. Without recognising the other person there is no way out from any conflict. Sarah’s status, her being a matriarch and a mistress, here wins over the solidarity among women that is born many times and is realised surpassing differences in status. The conflict is interrupted (but not resolved) by the use of mere power, and so with the expulsion of the weaker one who becomes a victim. Sarah’s non-solution is still very commonly practiced in our institutions and companies. But it is not the only way these episodes of Genesis talk to us. Once they reach Canaan, on return from Egypt, Abram enters into conflict with his nephew, Lot: “But the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together” (13:6). Goods and abundance, that is, the promise of JHWH become the basis for a family conflict. But Abram finds a solution: “Let’s not have any quarrelling between you and me…for we are close relatives. Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left” (13:8-10). Here Abram avoids the conflict by a generous move: he lets Lot choose the better land (13:10). It isn’t a rare thing that the goods we are given by our vocation (the task, the land, the success, the talent…) become the reason for conflict and rivalry with others who accompany us on our journey. And when the territory (the company, the project, the community…) is too small comparing to the abundance of goods and talents, salvation may come from a separation, from taking two different roads.
But the difficult, paradoxical and tragic questions of these narratives are not exhausted at this point. Sarah means princess. The name of Hagar, however, reminds us of the movement of migration. Hagar is Egyptian, perhaps (according to a certain midrash) daughter of the Pharaoh, and Egypt is not only the image of exile and slavery – it is also the place where Sarai emigrated with Abram after they found famine in the promised land, where she was entered in the harem of the pharaoh who, once he discovered the plot against him (she was not the sister but the wife of Abram) sent them away (12:19). Then also Sarai was a migrant, slave woman, victim and someone who was sent away. Hagar, as far as she is concerned, is a slave woman and a victim, but she is also the one to whom the first angel is sent, and, just like the great kings and prophets, she gets to talk to God, and a great descendance is announced to her. Sarah and Hagar swap roles at this point, one appears in the position of the other. Victims and slave women are still there, just like masters and powerful people, but these wonderful chapters of Genesis want to tell us something more profound.
In the comedy-or-tragedy of life the masks worn by personalities are always many, and every person hides more than one personality. But most importantly, Hagar’s story tells us that if we want to capture some of the mystery of the Bible and life it is indispensable to read salvation history from the perspective of Sarah and Isaac, but also from that of Hagar and Ishmael. They will only open up if and while we read them, and this way we may be given the ‘intelligence of the Scriptures‘.
Genesis, and in a certain sense the whole Bible is filled with the tension between law and prophecy, obligations and freedom, institution and charisma. The laws-and-institutions of primogeniture and patriarchy are recognised and it is on these foundations that the people and the Law are constituted. At the same time they are re-dimensioned, blurred and sometimes even rejected by preference given to non-firstborns (Abel, Jacob, Joseph, David…), to slave women who talk to God or a patriarch who is obeying his wife. The horizontal plot of the patriarchs and kings is interwoven by the vertical warp of the cast-off of yesterday, today and always. It is in their spaces that the ‘needle‘ of history passes through, creating the texture of life. The book of history can be read from the perspective of the fathers and ancestors, but everything is given a greater truth if we try to place ourselves also in the position of those who were defeated, if we look at the interrupted paths with attention and pietas.
The exercise to be done for recognising this inextricable and vital weave of Sarah-Hagar and Isaac-Ishmael, however, should not keep us from another, more important spiritual exercise: to try to make a choice and decide which aspect we want to give the first place. It always does matter if the first take on our lives and cities is that of Hagar or Sarah. If Hagar’s eyes are the first to take a look it will be easy to see that the most fertile perspective of the world is not that of the princesses and the powerful, but the one that originates from the biblical and existential peripheries. The ones inhabited by Hagar, Noemi, Dinah, Mary and their many sisters yesterday, today and always.
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 13/04/2014