Thursday, November 20, 2014

Asking Questions (Part 2: with Hagar)

This post is the fourth in what will be my Explorations in Womanhood Series. Please understand that while I intend to write things that are consistent with church doctrine, this blog is not affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For this reason, I ask that you consider prayerfully interacting with anything published here.

Living Water by Elspeth Young

"But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give [her] shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give [her] shall be in [her] a well of water springing up into everlasting life."

John 4:14

If you read my last post, or have asked questions yourself, maybe, like me, you’ve concluded that growing in the language of personal revelation can be a challenge. But of course, it’s nothing to be disheartened over. Because we are the children of the Father of Lights, this language, the language of light, is innately within us. We were born to speak it.

Growing in revelation does require that we put our fears, our anger, our pride (and many other things) on the altar, if for no other reason than so that we can truly listen. But once those things are gone, what will fill the holes they’ve left behind?

Oh, I suppose their inverses. Faith, forgiveness, humility. But, if you’re like me, maybe it’s difficult to keep those virtues in their respective positions, especially when you’re again confronted with the problems that you responded to with fear or anger or pride in the first place.

A touchstone that continues to help me to maintain this balance is in 1 Nephi 11.  In this chapter, Nephi has one of the most amazing and hilarious (Something about all of the jumping around and the repeated, "Look!" "Look!" "Look!" always strikes my funny bone.) guided tours through the Plan of Salvation with the Holy Ghost. In verse 16, the Spirit of the Lord asks Nephi, "Knowest thou the condescension of God?"

And Nephi's response?

"I know that He loveth his children. Nevertheless I do not know the meaning of all things."

God loves His (and Her) children. This is like the opening statement in the textbook for Foundations of the Gospel 101. Basic City, USA.

And although it is an easy thing for me to remember conceptually, somehow it is consistently one of the first things that I forget in my heart. Because sometimes it seems like all of the evidence has stacked up to the contrary—particularly when it comes to His (and Her) women children. How could God love His (and Her) children and allow so many injustices?

Let’s consider another of Nephi’s quotables. This one is in 1 Nephi 19:23.

“…For I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.”

We’ve been taught repeatedly that likening the scriptures to ourselves is a surefire way to find answers; and it’s worked for me. But sometimes only after a lot of pain. Because occasionally, when I put myself in someone’s scriptural shoes, it hurts a lot. This seems to be especially the case when the character I am likening myself to is a woman.

Take Hagar for example.

Genesis 16 gives us an ever so slight glimpse into Hagar's life. She was Sariah's bondswoman, of Egyptian descent. She was given, by Sariah, to Abraham to wife. When Hagar conceived she despised her mistress. Sariah reacted to this by being hard on Hagar—so hard on her that Hagar fled the camp. She ended up at a well.

It is here that something interesting happens. According to the Joseph Smith translation, an angel of the Lord (It was God, Himself, in other versions) appeared to Hagar and told her to go back to Abraham and Sariah. This angel also prophesied to Hagar about the son she was carrying. And then Hagar named God, calling him, "Thou God [that] seest me."

We next pick up on Hagar's story 14 years later in Genesis 21.  Sariah felt that her son, Isaac's, birthright was threatened by Hagar's son, Ishmael, so she instructed Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. God confirmed to Abraham that it was, indeed, His (and Her) will for Abraham to cast out Hagar and Ishmael. So Abraham gave Hagar and her son a bottle of water, and sent them into the desert. After the water was spent, Hagar cast her son under a bush, and began to mourn his death. But, at the critical moment an angel's voice reached Hagar's ears and a miracle her eyes. The promises of her posterity were again reiterated, and her eyes were opened to a well of water in front of her.

Until recently, every time I read this story, all I saw was something to this effect:

Hagar knew oppression. She was a bondswoman, a slave, far away from her home country (Her name means “stranger” in Hebrew). That’s rough. But it gets worse.

Her mistress, Sariah, gives her in marriage to Abraham. And although this marriage might have advantageously altered Hagar’s social status, it’s likely that it was neither Hagar’s choice, or even that it would have been, had she been given the choice. So now she’s a plural wife.

In this union she conceives Ishmael, and 14 years later, Ishmaelthe baby who was simultaneously wanted and unwantedis the cause of her banishment.

People say that God doesn’t always intervene.  That sometimes He (and She) just lets nature run its course. But here God did intervene. God sent an angel, twice! When I realized this, I was comforted. I was comforted because God had comforted Hagar.

I was at peace briefly. But then the entire construction collapsed in on itself because I had a belief about God. I believed that He (and She) must show Their love in rational, acceptable ways. And as I continued to process what Hagar went through, I didn’t know how to accept God’s mode of intervention.

The two major decisions that alter Hagar's trajectory in these stories (her marriage to Abraham, and her forced exodus) seem to have both been made by Sariah.  But upon further investigation, one discovers that both of these decisions were ratified by God.

And if that isn't perplexing enough, when God had the opportunity to release Hagar, to free her from these extremely undesirable situations, He (and She) didn't. God told her to return to Sariah. To go back into oppression. She stayed there for 14 years before God released her. And, as previously mentioned, the release from oppression wasn’t initially very faith-building for a future reader named Amber either.

As I have begun to realize this I've conjectured that maybe God couldn't free Hagar. Maybe the time she lived in was just too hostile to women. Or maybe by virtue of her being pregnant, it was too late. But then I remember that God sent an angel to Hagar. Which seems to confirm that anything is possible. And isn't that true about God?

What trouble I had gotten myself into because I had “likened the scriptures" to myself.

I decided to believe that God loved Hagar.

And with some time, just like Hagar, my eyes were opened.

Of course God loves Hagar. Why else would He (and She) send an angel to her twice? I love the way Diana Webb, author of Forgotten Women of God, puts it:

"Since there are so few annunciation scenes in the scripture, and since each is so significant, we can see what a great honor God pays to Hagar in Genesis 16. He has been especially mindful of her afflictions, and he tells her so. Hagar is a different woman from the one who has fled into the wilderness. She now knows that a power higher than herself notices her and that knowledge transforms her. She is now free in a way that returning to slavery can never eradicate. She is important to God, and that gives her a new sense of self-worth... Hagar has learned that God has a plan for her... She will tell her story to Abraham and Sariah and teach them things about God that they need to know: That God does indeed hear the cries of the suffering, the downcast, and the abandoned; that every human soul has dignity and worth. Hagar's new knowledge is empowering. If God is with her, she can survive anything." (pp. 141-142)

But why would God send Hagar back into oppression? I assume it must be for many of the same reasons we all must pass through trials. To grow, to be perfected. But in Hagar's case there was also something about "to fulfill among other things, the promises."

Typically “the promises” are associated with the Abrahamic covenant. Namely, that from Abraham would spring many nations. Hagar, while not really understood well among Christians and Jews, is revered as being the spiritual ancestress of the Muslim people.

Hagar was a righteous, favored, and strong woman. Hagar, named God, ‘Thou God [that] seest me.’ Nowhere in recorded scripture has anyone, much less a woman, given God a title. Fittingly, the spot where her first annunciation occured was called Beer-lahai-roni, which means “the well of him that liveth and seeth me.”

This may be the first time a woman at a well has appeared in the scriptures. I think we’re more aware of another of these moments. Consider the Samaritan woman who lived during Jesus’ day. Consider his teachings to her about that well, and about the Living Water that she also sat beside.

In both of Hagar's most pronounced deserts of life—not just literal deserts, but figurative ones—a well of water figures importantly enough that it is mentioned in the ancient text.

The Living Water was there for Hagar.

In a beautiful and tender moment of parallelism, my eyes, just like Hagar’s, have been opened to the well in her story.

As I now read Hagar's story with this knowledge in hand, her story changes for me. Admittedly, it still doesn't completely make sense. But there is a strength I derive from it. It seems to me that Hagar did change after her first visit with the angel. She became someone who no longer victimized herself. She became someone strong, someone who could endure. Knowing that you are beloved of God, and that you are watched over by Jesus Christ, can do that for a person.

And I guess that's Hagar's secret. She put her knowledge of God's love before the rest of the mess.

If you'd like to learn more about Hagar, try this great article at Women in the Scriptures (where I found the quote from Diana Webb), or this really phenomenal essay, "Hagar in LDS Scripture and Thought."


  1. Oh, I love your thought about Hagar being the first woman at the well. There are so many incredible interactions with women at wells throughout the scriptures and it is very interesting to think that it could tie back to Hagar and being "seen" by God. Love it!

  2. Hoping for more words from your beautiful brain/heart this new year. I'm so grateful for who you are and your willingness to honestly share with others. It's impacted my life more than once.