Most of literature throughout history tells the stories of privileged people, the ones with money and power and titles. Yet God tells his story differently. Oh, yes, in Scripture we read the stories of kings and leaders, and men feature predominately—as is normal in stories from patriarchal societies (is there such a thing as a non-patriarchal society?)—yet again and again we read the stories and perspectives of the poor, of women, of the disenfranchised. For example, though 90% of the named people written about in the Hebrew Scriptures are male, nearly 10% are women, and this is actually a really good figure for Ancient Near East literature. Clues abound that tell us God is not in step with our human culture, which always privileges those with power and prestige and ignores or oppresses those who have neither.
We have much to learn from this aspect of God’s story. Just recently I practiced with the story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar.
Early in the Old Testament, the plot is developed around Abraham. Though he is not royalty, he is wealthy and grows wealthier as the plot progresses. Abraham has enough servants to amass a small but powerful army, and he is lauded by kings. If this story were told in a way normal to Ancient Near East form, there would be an episode in it told something like this: Abraham and his wife were unable to have children, so he slept with one of his slaves. When she conceived, it proved his wife was barren. He would have cast her aside, but he was told by his God not to. Abraham raised the child borne by the slave to be his heir. This child, named Ishmael, was strong in spirit, but eventually Abraham’s wife, too, bore him a son, and tradition was clear: the child of marriage superseded. So Ishmael was sent away but became the father of a great people, as did his half-brother, Isaac.
But Scripture does not tell us the story like this. We readers learn not only the names of Abraham’s wife and slave but also some of their feelings. Sarah is desperate about her barrenness; Hagar is emboldened by her motherhood.
This is not the only surprise. The second is the depth of insight revealed in the telling of their story. God clearly knows how they feel, and we, the readers, learn enough about them to feel conflicted by the intricacies of their relationship. A straight reading—through modern eyes—reveals a lopsided situation. A slave mistress, Sarah, frustrated with her own inability to bear a child, orders her slave woman, Hagar, to have sex with her husband in the hopes a pregnancy will result. When it does, though, Sarah is jealous of Hagar. Though she cannot send Hagar and the baby away—the boy is, after all, her husband’s heir—she abuses Hagar verbally and makes her life miserable. When, though, Sarah is able to have her own child, she uses her position of power to have Hagar and the boy Ishmael driven away, into the wilderness, where it can be assumed they will die of starvation or attack by wild animals.
This kind of a reading does not make me feel at all sympathetic toward Sarah, and my compassion toward Hagar is really aroused when she is seen, helpless in the wilderness, knowing she and her child will die. And God shows up, with so much concern and care that Hagar calls him “the God who sees her.” The tenderness for Hagar is breathtaking, especially when you understand and remember that societies, by and large, have never valued women like Hagar. We still don’t. Hagar is the street prostitute who dies of an overdose in a rent-by-the-hour hotel room. The troubles of her childhood and adolescence are unknown; she is merely one of the huddled, unnamed masses who never became anyone worth knowing. Yet God sees her, knows her name, speaks tenderly, personally, and directly to her.
So with this reading, and with our tendency to dualize all things, Hagar becomes the heroine of the piece. And Sarah becomes the straight-up villain.
But, in another surprise, she isn’t.
God, clearly sympathetic to Hagar, is also sympathetic to Sarah, and he reveals the troubles of her situation. We learn of Abraham’s failings toward her. Twice, to protect his own skin, he basically prostituted her. It was true that she was beautiful and desirable (hence his fear for his own skin), but we can infer that she worried about her inability to provide Abraham with an heir. Surely her beauty would protect her for only so long. Eventually he would set her aside because of her barrenness. What would she do then? And beneath this, she so longed for a child. This fear and desire grew to desperation, and it was in desperation that she pitched the idea to her husband of Abraham sleeping with Hagar in order to have a child.
And though Hagar is obviously a pawn in this situation and is mistreated, we learn she was emboldened when she had Ishmael and she taunted Sarah. Sarah’s emotions are presented as conflicted at this point. Her plan has backfired. She is not happy. She still wants a child. Her status in the household is precarious. She seems lonely.
God seems to know all this. Neither Hagar nor Sarah is presented as stock characters. They are real women. Both have struggles. Both have endured much. Both have been used. And though one is in a position of power in this story, God sympathizes with her struggles, while he also sees the deep wrong she has done to Hagar. He cares for Sarah; he cares for Hagar. His loves—for each women—are somehow not in conflict with each other.
This kind of depth and breadth of love is also seen in God’s relationship with Abraham. He sees Abraham’s love for Ishmael. He sees Abraham’s confusion over the right thing to do in this strange situation.
I am amazed by the complexity acknowledged in the presentation of this story. I am not allowed to simplify it and make one person a villain and another the sympathetic character. I am not allowed to cheer for one person against another.
This is incredible. God loves the princess; God loves the pauper; God loves the goody-two-shoes older son; God loves the wasteful, lascivious younger son; God loves the cheating tax collector; God loves the woman with the issue of blood; God loves Judas; God loves John. God loves the busy Martha and the more reflective Mary.
I could go on and on and on.
God sees into the hearts of every single one of us. He knows our pasts. He knows the ways we’ve been damaged and hurt. And he doesn’t take sides, choosing one of us against another. He loves all of us all at the same time and forever, somehow working through and past the hurt we’ve dealt each other and the snubs we’ve dealt him.
God loves. Period.
I want to extend God’s love. Period. Without determining who is more worthy of it than another, privileging neither the rich nor the poor, neither the more guilty nor the less.
Sometimes when I teach Bible stories to children, I point to each one of them and say, in turn, “God loves you!”
God is pointing, miraculously and mysteriously, at every human on earth and saying the same thing.