Abraham – Hagar and Sarah (Notes)

(Genesis 16, 17, 21; Galatians 4)

As we have looked at different ways of reading and interpreting Scripture, we often approach the Bible, or course, unlike any other book. However, the Bible is, in the first instance, simply a work of literature before it becomes history, prophecy, allegory or a moral lesson. Each of the narratives related in Scripture has a setting, characters, conflict and resolution. C.S. Lewis begins his book Reflections on the Psalms, by stating that “There is a . . . sense in which the Bible, since it is after all literature, cannot properly be read except as literature.” Later, he observes, however, that just as in the Incarnation “human life becomes the vehicle of Divine life” so “Scripture is the taking up of literature to be the vehicle of God’s word.” (p.116). In other words, read Scripture as literature but don’t forsake its divine purpose.

Literary Reading:

This week we are going to look at the story of Sarah and Hagar. Please read Genesis 16:1-16, 17:15-21, and 21:1-21. First, read this story as if you stumbled upon it in a magazine or a collection of short stories. Think about the setting for the story and the causes for the enmity between Sarah – the matriarch of the family who was born in Ur of the Chaldeans – and Hagar – her fertile Egyptian maid. Think about the characters involved, and the one with which you identify. Was Hagar simply the dutiful servant-girl who did what she was asked and suffered from Sarah’s jealousy, or did she provoke the situation by either suggesting that she bear Abraham’s child or by lording her fertility over Sarah? Where does Abraham fit in with this conflict – he seems to be simply hiding in the shadows, and merely reacting to Sarah’s actions. And where is God? Why doesn’t he intervene here?

Moral Reading:

In addition to looking at the story as merely literature, what are the moral lessons presented within this narrative? Up until now, Abraham has been the model follower of God, but in this story, he finally stumbles. What is the wrong that Abraham committed that caused all of the problems? What lesson can we draw from the story? How do we know the difference between God saying “Go!” and God saying “Wait!”?

Islamic Historical Reading:

As an aside (no reading required), just as the Jews trace their lineage through Isaac’s 12 grandsons, the Arabs trace their lineage through Ishmael’s twelve sons. Genesis 25:12-18. The Quran considers Ishmael a prophet of God, and an ancestor of Mohammed. Quran 19:54. Islamic tradition further holds that when Sarah cast out Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness (Gen 21:15-21) they went to Mecca where Ishmael later built the first mosque. Hadith 4:583-84. Therefore, of any story we will read in Genesis, this story may have the most modern application. (Although Isaac and Ismael, unlike their descendants, apparently remained on good terms, and came together to bury their father. Genesis 25:9.)

Allegorical Reading:

In Galatians 4:21-31, Paul combines the allegorical and covenantal methods of interpreting the Old Testament. Paul says that the story of Hagar and Sarah, and their two sons, is an allegory of two covenants – one covenant born from a slave and the other born from a promise. In reading this passage from Galatians, outline the allegory of which Paul speaks. Also, in the allegory, what groups of people does Paul say are descended from which mother, and how does this part of Paul’s allegory turn the historical account of Hagar and Sarah upside down?

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