Yesterday morning I shared in a stimulating and challenging Bible study on Genesis chapter 16. Thanks guys!
Genesis 16 recounts a painful story of family dysfunction, abuse, jealousy, shame, and injustice. It is not a pretty picture; but sadly it is an all too familiar tale.
Sarai who is married to Abram is suffering from the desperate social stigma of having failed to produce off-spring. Heartbroken at what she perceives to be her failure, Sarai offers Abram her Egyptian slave-girl Hagar in the hopes that, through Hagar as surrogate mother, she may be able to “obtain children”.
When Hagar becomes pregnant she loses respect for her mistress and looks “with contempt” upon Sarai. Sarai is deeply offended by her slave-girl’s attitude, blames her husband, and curses him for the “contempt” she has received. Abram gives Sarai permission to treat Hagar in any way she desires. Sarai, using her position as privileged wife, “oppresses, afflicts, humiliates Hagar.” (Genesis 16:6) Hagar flees into the wilderness hoping to escape the abuse she is suffering at the hands of her mistress.
Hiding in the wilderness Hagar is “found” by an angel. Here is where this depressing story gets difficult.
The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ (Genesis 16:9)
The English translation fails to adequately convey the shocking nature of the angel’s command to Hagar.
The Hebrew word translated in Genesis 16:9 as “submit” is the same word used in Genesis 16:6 to describe Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar. The angel is telling Hagar to go back to Sarai and be “oppressed, afflicted, humiliated” by her.
According to the story, there is no evidence Sarai was ever rebuked or corrected for her abuse of her slave-girl. Sarai does not appear to have been instructed to change her abusive behaviour towards her slave-girl.
While it is true that Hagar has wronged her mistress by treating her with “contempt”, Sarai holds all the power in this relationship. Hagar is utterly vulnerable. Her situation is hopeless. She is trapped between almost certain death in the wilderness and obedience to a messenger of God which means returning to submit to abuse at the hands of her mistress. Hagar is about to bear a child. She has no visible means of support. She is utterly alone. She is an outcast, cut off from her own people and rejected by her owner. Hagar’s only realistic choice is to return to the painful situation she has fled.
Clearly, there are situations from which vulnerable, powerless people must flee. But, may it not also be true that the only way the dysfunction of blame, jealousy and recrimination with which we are so familiar will ever comes to an end is when someone breaks the cycle of violence by refusing to operate out of the same consciousness which caused the abuse?
Could it be that this is what Jesus was getting at in the painful instruction he gave to his followers in Matthew chapter 4?
‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (Matthew 4:38-41)
This is not a prescription for the conduct of maintaining social cohesion through the legitimate enforcement of law and order. But it does point to the costly way of the cross where we discover that, when we can surrender our demand to be treated justly, we connect with the true, deep, inner strength of being that is the presence of God in our lives. When we find this place of strength, it is possible we will also find the power to respond in a truly transformative manner to the afflictions we perceive in our lives.