Perhaps the most challenging part of Hagar’s story for me takes place when she flees Sarah’s mistreatment and escapes into the desert. There, an angel of the Lord meets her. The angel calls her by name. She is seen and known and we expect an amazing and miraculous “happily ever after” for her! But then it happens. The messenger says “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” …What? What in the world?! This is the exact opposite of what I want and expect God, the Great Liberator, the God of freedom and justice, to say! At best, it is incongruent with what I know of God and at worst, God is siding with the oppressor.
I would be lying if I said this passage doesn’t make me extremely uncomfortable. I want to find a way to make it okay. I’ve tried to explain it away in my mind by telling myself that maybe God knew that it was more dangerous for Hagar in the wilderness and that going back was better for her. Or I’ve tried to rush ahead a couple of verses and say to myself, “Yes, but Hagar has hope because Ishmael will be free!” Minister and gender justice advocate Rev. Katey Zeh writes about this, saying that both of these responses are inadequate and are actually rooted in our own discomfort with the reality that God would tell a woman to return to her abuser.
Rather than allowing this problematic piece of the text to be glossed over or explained away, we have the responsibility to grapple with it. We need to sit in the discomfort and reflect. How are these unhealthy messages still being shared with victims of domestic violence today? How are our scriptures being used to justify violence? How do we as a culture still tell people to “return and submit” to situations of abuse? What subconscious assumptions do we make about victims of abuse and how might those assumptions play into the cycle of abuse?
In the scripture, Hagar calls God El-Roi: The God who sees. In the words of Rev. Zeh, “Today God is calling us to be the church that sees the sacred worth of those struggling to escape situations of abuse. When we read Hagar’s story, we have an important opportunity to reflect on and better understand the disturbing realities of domestic abuse—that for those whose lives are wracked by violence, bringing an end to the cycle of abuse is never simple or easy. As we imagine Hagar’s pain as she makes the journey back to her abuser’s home, we can practice the sacraments of presence and compassion in the face of injustice. With open eyes and open hearts, we can work toward a more just, peaceful world for every child of God.”