Sermon Series: Family Stories
Sermon: “Dispatches from Exile”
July 20, 2008
Sermon: “Dispatches from Exile”
July 20, 2008
I can see it in your eyes: you are wondering what on earth my story is doing in your holy book. It’s a good question for you to ask yourselves: why is the story of this woman included? This woman who is a foreigner—an Egyptian, no less!—this woman who is a slave… or, was. What does her story have to do with us? You may well wonder. What have I to do with you?
I was born a slave. That is the usual way, though some become slaves because they are in debt, and others become slaves through warfare. Being a slave in the household of Hebrews is all I have ever known. But even though I was a slave, I knew I had a proud heritage: I was Hagar, the Egyptian. I was taught how to braid my hair and to apply kohl to rim my eyes, so that everyone who looked upon me knew: I had my own heritage, one which had nothing to do with this family who claimed ownership of me.
When I was thirteen I became a handmaiden to Sarai, the lady of the house. It is better to be a lady’s slave than any other kind… that is what my mother told me, before she died. In the tents, one doesn’t have to worry about sunstroke or being carried off by passing raiders. “Handmaiden” is a pretty way of saying that I managed all the aspects of Sarai’s life that were not so pretty. I cleaned up after her, her clothes, her possessions. At times, I even bathed her. If she did not wish to see her husband, she sent me with the news. As she became older I was often asked to rub her aching back or her sore feet. When I would do this, she would talk to me, almost tenderly. She would reminisce about her childhood, and tell me about the extraordinary promises, the enormous family and the great parcel of land, her god had promised her through her husband. I would try not to laugh… she was far, far past the age of bearing children, and her wistful dreams of babies seemed like nonsense to me. But she was my mistress, and I certainly never mocked her. I almost began to feel sorry for her. When she would speak tenderly to me, it was almost like having a mother again, for a little while.
One day Sarai called me to her tent. I could tell something was different. Instead of giving me a task, she had me stand in front of her, and she told me to turn, this way and that. She was looking very intently at me, appraising me, as if I were some kind of salable commodity… which, of course, I was. My heart began to beat hard and fast in my chest. She is going to sell me, I thought. I have displeased her in some way. “Is there anything I can do for you, my mistress?” I asked. Without a word she sent me out again. In my anxiety, I thought of my mother, but she was dead and unable to comfort me. I learned soon enough what was to happen. Sarai had gotten tired of waiting for her god. She brought me before the master, Abram, and told me that I was to go with him to his tent. You must understand, I was not consulted. I was told. This decision was of no concern to me, except that I had to obey my mistress’s wish. Apparently Sarai had decided that her house could be better built up by me than by relying on the long overdue promise of her god. My body was to be used, to bear her a child.
No one wants to be a slave. It is not a desirable state of affairs. But most days I am able to work hard, hold up my head with dignity, and know that at the day’s close I will have a meal and a place to lay my head. My life is still somehow my own, even though I am owned by another. But now… now my life was not to be my own. I was to be no more than a vessel, a container, like the pot one uses to draw water from a well. I went with the old man, my hands and knees shaking, trying not to weep.
After a few weeks had gone by I went to the cook and herdswomen, and told them my suspicions. They confirmed for me that, yes, I was seeing unmistakable signs. I went to my mistress with my news. I shall never forget the look in her eyes, a look of utter triumph. Well, I thought. This pleases her. She ran to the old man, to tell him, and they called for a feast. I served them their meals, and slipped away to sleep, so tired.
I will confess this to you: Being the vessel to carry the child was not what I expected. I had heard women complain about feeling sick and sore, and so I was prepared for unpleasantness. But what no one had told me was how marvelous, how miraculous the feeling. As the weeks passed, my body changed, and I was fascinated. The other slave women began to compliment me… my skin was shining, my hair was glossy. I, who had never commanded any notice, was told I was beautiful…not by Sarai, of course, or by her husband. I was told by my people, the other slaves. And I reveled in it. I had never before felt so powerful. I carried in myself a prize… a prize that was growing with each passing day, letting the world know of its presence. A prize my old mistress was unable to get for herself.
I realized there was something wrong one day when I brought Sarai a meal. Her eyes followed me carefully as I entered the tent. I bent to place the dish in front of her, and she swatted it away, lamb and grain scattering on the ground. “Mistress, what is wrong?” I asked. Before I understood what was happening, she had advanced on me, and replied with a sharp blow across my cheek. I stumbled backwards, putting my hand to my face, and she hissed one word: “Out.” I knew better than to speak again, and I ran from the place.
The next days and weeks were much the same. I was unable, completely unable, to please my mistress. I brought her food and it was too cold, too hot, spoiled. I brought her clothes and they were wrinkled, stained. I cleaned, and I did that poorly. I broke things, I lost things, or perhaps I had stolen them. Each episode ended with her hand on me, blows to my face, my arms, my back. Finally she grabbed a camel’s whip that had leaned outside her tent and lashed it at me. It tore through my garment and cut my legs. That was when I ran.
We were encamped at that time in the hill country, south of the land of the Jebusites. After less than an hour of walking I was in true desert country… nothing but scrub bushes and the occasional snake as far as the eye could see. But I did follow a kind of whispering sound to a spring, and I collapsed there, my back aching, the sand stinging the wounds on my legs, the bruises on my face and arms still tender to the touch. At last, the unwept tears came, and once they began, I howled. So this was my end… to die in the desert, with the prize still inside me, my own dream of this baby unrealized, thwarted. There would be no prize-baby to nurse, no grateful family stroking me and thanking me. I had found my way to the only place a slave is truly at home: in exile, far away from comfort, safety or love.
I must have drifted off to sleep, because a terrible, tearing thirst awakened me. The spring rustled beside me, and I groped towards it, leaning to cup my hands, and drank all the water I could. Then I leaned back and looked at the stars glistening in the desert sky. The whispering of the spring grew still louder, until I realized it had taken on the sound of a human voice.
“Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” An apparition stood before me, a figure that moved and swayed. I was not alarmed. My people speak with the dead all the time. I assumed it was my mother.
“I’m running away,” I whispered, barely loud enough for me to hear myself. “From my mistress, Sarai,” I added, a little louder.
The apparition said something shocking, and completely unacceptable. “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” I leapt to my feet. This was not my mother. I opened my mouth to hurl every curse and insult I could imagine, but was stopped. The apparition… which was, apparently, quite solid after all… reached out a brown, wavering hand, and placed it on my belly.
And I knew in an instant all sorts of things. I knew that the god who had made promises to Abram and Sarai was now making promises to me, too… a promise that my children would be so many they would be beyond counting. A promise that the child would live. A promise that his name would be Ishmael, God hears. Sh’ma, Yisroel. Hear, O Israel. The Lord your God the Lord is one. Ishmael. God hears.
God heard my weeping. God heard my howling. God heard the altercations between my mistress and me. This God of Abram and Sarai’s… could this be that God? The God who hears?
You know the rest of the story. I returned to my mistress and lived in an uneasy truce with her for another 14 years, until her own child… yes, her God had fulfilled that unlikely promise after all… we remained with her, my son Ishmael and I, until her son had reached the age of safety, three years, after which the baby has a real chance of living to adulthood. And then… we were not needed any longer. Neither the prize nor the vessel was wanted in the household of Abram and Sarai.
Into exile we went. But also, into freedom. The apparition came again, assuring me that the promise still held for me, for us. And here we are, and all the things the apparition said to us are true. My son is a fighter, he lives by the bow. I am raising him to be an Egyptian, but I don’t think any one nation can hold him. He is free. And if Sarai’s god tells the truth, he will be a nation every bit as great as the child of her flesh.
Do you still wonder why my story is in your holy book? You, who have been enslaved in Egypt? You, who have seen strife amongst your own kin? You who know what it is to be afflicted, and to have God meet you at a spring and offer you water and hope? We are not so different, you and I. Our stories are two sides of the very same coin. We both have the ear of the God who hears. We both have our beloved children, children of promise. You can’t tell your story without mine, and I can’t tell my story without yours. We are not so different. In fact, I begin to suspect we are the same, one family, whether we realize it or not. Thanks be to the God who hears. Amen.