Hagar: God’s Perfect Promise, not His imperfect people

An angel appearing to Hagar and Ishmael. Giovanni Francesco Barbieri (Il Guercino) c.1653

Few Bible stories test my commitment to reading the Bible as redemptive history like the story of Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16 and 21. Or, more accurately, Abram’s rape of Hagar, which Sarai instigates. These are horrifying texts of terror. I read them, but I really don’t want to. Ugh I really don’t like this story, so that definitely means I have to get to grips with it. Ready or not, here we go.

As it happens, though, there’s a more deeply-rooted reason for my discomfort than I realized. Abram’s rape of Hagar is not just a story about the abuse of women, though of course it is that. As if that weren’t enough. More fundamentally, it is a re-telling of the Garden of Eden, another episode in humanity’s attempt to reach the heights of heaven using human hands. I’ll explain what I mean.

Just before our story begins, God makes a covenant with Abram, a promise of land for his descendents, a material symbol of a heavenly reality (Gen. 15:18-21). Sadly, the speedy shift in the text from promise to corruption, in just a few verses, shows just how quickly God’s people forget His faithfulness. Again.

Like the story of the fall of mankind in the garden, the rape of Hagar starts with a woman, not Eve but Sarai, soon-to-be Mother of Israel, symbol of the people of promise. And like Eve, Sarai lacked faith (see also Gen. 27:5-17). After all, she and Abram had no children yet. Perhaps God had forgotten her (v. 2). So she convinces Abram to claim God’s promise another way, her own way, through sex with a slave, Hagar the Egyptian.
NOTE FOR LATER: Egypt would have its revenge.

What follows are two rejections, two times that Sarai banishes Hagar to the wilderness, two comforting visits by the pre-incarnate Christ. And the birth of Ishmael between. It’s a complex narrative that I’ll come back to again soon (spoiler alert: donkeys!).

Fortunately, in Galatians 4:21-31, Paul tells us how to read the text. What he reveals is this:
Where the figure of Sarai points us to the New Covenant of Grace in Jesus,
Hagar symbolizes God’s people in slavery to the Covenant of Works.

21 Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law? 
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. 
23 But the son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. 
24 This is allegorically speaking, for these women are two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. 
25 Now this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 
26 But the Jerusalem above is free; she is our mother. 

In other words, Hagar represents death in Adam, and Sarai represents life in Christ. Okay, God. I think I get you. After all, our focus is on what You are revealing through each person in Your story of salvation.

But this is still bad news. It’s painful to come to terms with the fact that God would use Abram’s rape of a slave to tell His story.

But I need and want to wrestle with this. Where does my uncertainty come from, really? After all, if there’s a problem, then the problem is me. And here it is: At its deepest level, the text confronts us again with the idols of our own heart, the source of all sin. The text is saying,

“You facilitated the rape of Hagar. Her suffering is your fault.”

This is the truth of why this text troubles and terrifies us. We apply ourselves to the text, and the text condemns us. Is that going too far? I think not.

God confronts us again in His promise to Hagar in the wilderness, when He tells her to return to Sarai and submit herself to her authority. Really, God? Return to her rapists? This seems beyond cruel.

But here again the text corrects me. God is here calling Hagar, symbol of the Covenant of Works, to return to His promise for His covenant community. The promise of a New Covenant of Grace.
(NOTE: Relationship rules are NOT the point here, and let me be clear. God doesn’t want you to stay in an abusive relationship).

The angel appears to Hagar in the desert
Paolo Veronese

The brutal story of Hagar recalls the fall of all mankind in Eden and prepares the way for the division of Israel, King Saul and King David, the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, death in Adam and life in Christ. It tears us open. It exposes and accuses us. It lays us low. It focuses and fixes our eyes away from the idols we make of men and onto our Father’s faithfulness.
His Perfect Promise, not His imperfect people.

More on Monday …

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