After services a few weeks ago, a couple in our congregation approached me about a sermon they had read by a distinguished preacher at a local church. This minister is known for his accepting attitude toward other faiths and his open pluralism. The couple asked me about a sermon they had read by him in which he compared the Jewish people to Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar. “Is it not odd that Jews should be compared to Hagar instead of, for example, Sarah? After all Hagar was an Egyptian!”
What an excellent and timely question. Those who are familiar with traditional Judaism know that the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and Ishmael is read on the first day of Yom Kippur in Orthodox and Conservative congregations. You can read the story yourself in Genesis 16 and 21. In all honesty it casts an unfavorable shadow on Abraham and Sarah. You will remember that Sarah was childless for a long time. And so she offered her handmaid, whose name was Hagar, to her husband in the hopes that she might conceive a child in Sarah’s place. When Hagar became pregnant, she acted in a hostile way to Sarah who, with her compliant husband’s permission, drove Hagar out of the house with harsh punishments. With God’s encouragement, Hagar returned and bore a son to Abraham whom she called Ishmael.
The story picks up in Genesis 21 when Sarah gives birth to Isaac. She is worried that Hagar’s son by Abraham will contest Isaac for the birthright. Sarah solves this problem quite neatly by demanding that Abraham cast out Hagar and Ishmael. Abraham consults with God who tells him to mind his wife, Sarah. So once again Hagar, leading her son, is sent out into the desert with bread and water. (Abraham and Sarah lived in the vicinity of Beersheba in the Negev Desert. Any of you who have been to the Negev know how difficult it would be to survive there with just a little sustenance.) Having run out of food and water, Hagar is ready to give up hope. As Ishmael is ready to expire, an angel of the Lord intervenes, pointing out an oasis with water at the last possible moment.
Jewish Biblical commentators scrubbed Abraham and Sarah squeaky clean of any flaws of character. Only Nachmaindes (1195-1270) claimed that they sinned in their treatment of Hagar. The Midrash imagines that after Sarah’s death, Abraham remarried Hagar, now named K’turah.
Now to your question. What happened to Sarah and Hagar when the apostle Paul got a hold of them? In his Epistle to the Galatians (4:21) Paul is interested in proving the ephemeral character of Judaism and the covenant at Sinai. He wants to show that it has been superseded by a new covenant, namely Christianity. Paul’s reading casts Hagar as the symbol of slavery to commandments of Sinai, to Judaism. Sarah, on the other hand, becomes a symbol of the freedom found in the new covenant of Christianity. According to Paul, Christians are the children of a free woman and Jews, by contrast, are the children of Hagar, the slave.
While this reading of the Hebrew Bible’s version severely contorts the original story, it provides the Christian preacher with another text demonstrating the superiority of Christianity and justifying its supersession of Judaism. While your preacher’s sermon does not say so explicitly, it is from this tradition, I believe, that he is drawing.
Because first century preachers like Paul were attempting to build a new religion on the foundation of another, it was necessary to reinterpret the classic texts of Judaism. To be honest, this is how most new religions come into being. They are born from the reinterpretation of existing cultures and faiths: Christianity from Judaism, Buddhism from Hinduism, the Latter Day Saints from American Christianity and so on. It is futile to feel hostility or anger toward new faiths that reinterpret existing traditions. Rather let us regard your preacher’s understanding of the story of Hagar and Sarah as a Christian midrash on one of the classic tales of the Hebrew Bible.
To everyone in our congregation, Nan and I send warmest wishes for a shanah tovah u’metukah, a good and sweet new year.