- Vested Interest
The Opposite of Cruelty: Mary, Hagar, and the Annunciation
Note: The texts discussed here can be found in Genesis 16; Genesis 21:8-21; and Luke 1:26-56. This is a long post. I tried to make it shorter, but I didn't have time.
i. Don't Be Afraid
The angel said to her, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
Don’t be afraid, the angel says. Angels are always saying this. Madeleine L’Engle once quipped that this tells us what angels must look like. As for me, I think it has more to do with what else they are always saying to us. "Don’t be afraid, Mary. Give birth to the child of God. Don’t be afraid, Joseph. Marry a pregnant girl, flout society, parent a strange child. Don’t be afraid, Israelites. Walk into the ocean with an army at your back. Don’t be afraid, Paul. Your ship will be wrecked and I will send you to stand before the emperor of Rome." They have to tell us not to be afraid, because they're about to tell us to do terrifying things.
Last December I had the opportunity to read the story of the Annunciation at Trinity’s Candlelight Carols service. And as I read this well-worn text over to myself, I heard again the messenger of God telling Mary: Don’t be afraid. But this time I heard it in a very specific context.
The stories around Jesus’s birth in the Gospel of Luke don’t emerge from a vacuum. Like much of this author’s sophisticated, literary writing, Jesus’s birth is meant to echo and resonate with other stories his readers would know, in particular the miraculous birth of heroes in the Hebrew Bible. Sarah and her son Isaac, Hannah and her son Samuel, Manoah’s wife and her son Samson—all of these are stories of birth against the odds, of children who are difficult to come by, marked by God, precious and full of potential.
But I didn’t think of Sarah, or Hannah, or Manoah’s wife last Saturday evening as I read. I thought of Hagar.
ii. Return and Submit
I’ve been thinking about Hagar a lot recently. Hagar is the slave of Abram and Sarai, whom Sarai offers to Abram as a surrogate when she expects to have no more children. Her story can be found in Genesis 16 and 21. It’s an ugly story: a story of systemic oppression and individual cruelty. The old woman Sarai hands this young woman over to the old man Abram, into sexual slavery. Hagar has a son, Ishmael. Then, when Hagar offends her, Sarai abuses the girl until she runs away into the wilderness, emptyhanded, with her small child. They’re sitting by a well, on the brink of death from exposure. But look! An angel of God comes to rescue them. And what does the angel say? Does he step in to make right the brutal cruelty of this girl’s life? Far from it: “Return to your mistress, and submit to her,” says the messenger of God.
Hagar was an Egyptian, a young person (a child, by today’s reckoning), a woman, a slave. Abram was God’s hero, God’s dear one, chosen as the ancestor to a great nation. Abram’s wealth gives him the power of life and death, of comfort and pain, over Hagar. This power comes from the god of this story, who has blessed him with wealth and chattel of all kinds; and Abram gives the power to Sarai. This is not a story about women pitted against women; Hagar’s suffering comes ultimately from the source of individual and societal injustice in the world described, the one who gave Abram the wealth to own slaves, the one who withheld children (and the economic security and status they bring) from Sarai. Her suffering, in fact, comes from God, and now God orders her back into the midst of it.
I believe that the Bible is the inspired word of a loving God, but my allegiance to the Bible is fundamentally expressed through a commitment to the truth. And I have to say here: The god of this story is not good. The evil that God causes in this story cannot be explained away or contextualized or metaphorized. I cannot reduce it to palatability by any of the exegetical tricks of my trade. If I tried to convince you that this is a good god, I would be re-enacting the abuse that Hagar has suffered; and I would betray the God who loves justice, the God whom I know from scripture and experience. So I must conclude that the being named as God here is not the God I know.
So then, where is God in this story? That’s the next step people of faith must always take when we find a story where God seems absent. We must ask the story, and ask ourselves, gently but persistently: Where do we see God—the real God, the God we know—at work?
iii. God has Heard the Child’s Voice
A few chapters later, the whole thing happens again. This time Sarai (renamed Sarah) has had a child at last: her golden boy, Isaac, the father of the nation of Israel. But Isaac plays with unsuitable people, as children do—namely the child of Hagar, Ishmael. So Sarah tells Abraham to send the two of them once again into the wilderness. It’s like a recurring nightmare: Hagar and Ishmael, alone in the desert, wandering until their water has run out. At last Hagar draws apart from her son; unable to save him, she cannot bear to watch his death. In extremity she weeps aloud; and she is answered once again by the angel of God.
Do not be afraid, Hagar. God has heard the voice of the child. Pick him up and hold him tight, for I will make a great people from him.
Don’t be afraid, says the angel. Don’t let your child go, even to save yourself the agony of watching him die. God’s messengers are always asking us to do what seems impossible. That’s the hint of God in this story for me: God is the one who tells us to face what is hard and not to be afraid, because God is in it with us. But if I'm honest, God is not easy to find. And it's still a deeply hard and unjust story, and it throbs under my skin like an infected splinter day after day, every time I read it. I can't make Abraham and Sarah value Hagar's life. I can’t make it right.
So then, in this hard and unjust year, in which I see vast power structures being used unjustly against women, foreigners, people of color, Hagar was the person on my mind when I read the story of Mary. I looked at Mary and I saw Hagar. Here, I thought, is another vulnerable child, whose life is in someone else's hands--in this case her betrothed husband Joseph. Here is another woman whose fertility is made to serve a purpose not her own. Here is someone else who must wander far and find shelter in uncertain places. And the more I read the story, the more the parallels shout out to me.
iv. He has Lifted Up the Lowly
I wonder whether, just possibly, the author of Luke also felt the injustice of Hagar's story like a splinter in his skin? Maybe that's why the story told in Luke reads so much like an inversion of the story told in Genesis. In Luke, as in Genesis, there is the miracle of an old woman giving birth: Mary’s cousin Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age with John the Baptist. But unlike the iterations of this miracle in the Hebrew Bible, John the Baptist's birth isn’t the main event; it's a side note, a joyful herald of the greater birth to come. In Luke, unlike in Genesis, the young woman and the old are not enemies, but beloved cousins and fellow mothers-to-be. Mary runs to her cousin Elizabeth to tell her the good news, instead of fleeing in terror or being cast out to die. In Luke, as in Genesis, God speaks to the husband through a dream; but this time the dream convinces him to protect and value his disgraced wife rather than abandon her.
And here's what for me is best of all: In Luke, Mary gets to decide. She’s not, after all, the victim of sexual violence; instead, she responds with passion to the passion of God, and she joyfully decides to be part of God's great work. Where Hagar is named Abraham's handmaiden (that is, slave) by the narrator, Mary names herself as the handmaiden of the Lord. Don't be afraid, says God. And, miraculously, Mary’s fear gives way to her joy and gratitude and pride. Her story doesn’t erase Hagar’s, but honors it. We don’t forget that Hagar existed, that Hagar suffered where Mary had joy, or that Hagar was abandoned where Mary was supported. But instead of raising her voice in sorrow, Mary raises it in song to the God who is on the side of the victim and the vulnerable, always, always.
“He has shown strength with his arm,” Mary says. “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
At "Vested Interest," church nerd Mary Davenport Davis explores all things liturgy and music at Trinity and beyond. Chime in with comments and questions!