Reimagining Hagar – invisible slave

Today I am continuing in my irregular series where I reimagine* the stories of some very interesting ladies in our bible. In the previous post I reimagined part of Sarah’s story, before they set out for Canaan. But now I move on to Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave, who is a foreigner, a stranger with no rights. I try to look at her life with Sarah and Abraham through her eyes.

I hope this creative retelling of Hagar’s story helps you to see her in a new light. I hope it also shows you how different people in the bible might experience God. And perhaps you could try it for yourself, when you are reading your bible. To take one of the characters in it, and imagine what life might have been like for them. Fill in the gaps with your imagination. You don’t have to write it out like I did. But take a few minutes after your normal bible reading to try this, prayerfully. But for now, let’s dive into Hagar’s story.

Hagar

I ran away. I could not stay. Not there, not with her.
She pushed me into his tent. She let him break me.
Only so that she could take my child… No!
That manipulative, spiteful, haughty hag will never have my son!

For most of my life I have been invisible. My mother was a slave in Egypt who died before my seventh year. And I never knew who my father was. I grew up in the slave quarters of the palace and was trained to clean for the wing-eyed people. But the wing-eyes did not like to see us; so we cleaned mostly at night and slept during the day. I remember that when I heard sandals clapping I had to run and hide, so no important people saw me. I worked in the palace until about my 12th year. That was when a foreign lady called Sarai came to the harem of the Pharaoh and I became her body slave.

Lady Sarai was terrified back then. She was obviously foreign and knew little of what went on in the harem. I saw how skittish she was, and I felt sorry for her. I tried to make her more comfortable, to help her by teaching our customs and explain how things worked in the palace. I don’t think she understood much of what I said. Anyway, it didn’t last long. There was a sudden scandal and she was banished from Egypt. As her slave I had to go with her and left the only home I had ever known.

On the way out of Egypt I was the foreigner among these people. I became even more invisible because I was different and couldn’t understand their strange tongue. Lady Sarai and her family lived in tents; they’re nomads, so they move around a lot. That took some getting used to, since I have only ever lived in one place. There is little need for a body slave in those tents. She rarely called for me, except to get her breakfast in the morning and prepare for bed at night.

Ten years later and so many things here still seem strange to me. But nothing is as strange as their god. How can they only have one? Back home we had so many. The most important one was Ra; who is the sun. But the sun alone does not provide life, so we offered up some of our food to Hapi, for the Nile floods and good harvests; to Anubis for the protection of the dead; to Aker who rules the earth; to Shu who lives in the wind. And there were so many more who make our lives possible. This family does not worship any of them. Instead; they say they worship the one true god, Elohim, who made all the other gods. I’m not sure I understand what that means, or how that works. But then again, no god has ever paid attention to me, so I have never given them much thought.

A few months ago Master Abram came back home acting weird. He said he had spoken with Elohim. How do you even talk with a god? If you ask me, master Abram is seeing things. Apparently this Elohim has promised him a great family. I was hanging up laundry to dry behind Lady Sarai’s tent as he came by to tell her. I giggled to myself. Lady Sarai is old, everybody knows that past a certain age children are no longer possible for women. She cannot have child. So I guess Master Abram must have drunken too much wine or had a fevered dream.

That night though, I saw her go to his tent for the first time in months. She did so night after night. But a few weeks later I heard soft sobs and I saw why when I washed the blood from her sheets. The tears, however, gradually subsided and something in Lady Sarai changed after that. She grew harder, I guess. I saw her looking at the other women in the camp, the maids, the wives of servants, their daughters. She always had a look of longing for the children, but now I could see those eyes had grown cold, angry. More and more often that steel, gaze would fall on me. She was angry that her god had not given her the child he had promised to her husband. But there was something more behind those eyes. A darkness I couldn’t quite place, until two moons ago….

Two moons ago I heard her call “Egyptian!”, and wanted me to help her get ready for bed. As I helped her undress she stared at me, which was weird. She usually pretends I don’t exist. I thought she almost wanted to ask me something a few times, but then thinks better of it. I guess she was still shaken from the horrible fight I saw her have with Master Abram earlier. They were far away but I caught words like Elohim and Egypt…. At the time I secretly hoped it meant we might be going back home. But no, I soon found out they had been fighting about me, and I would most definitely not be going home.

When Lady Sarai is finished for the night she seems nervous. She tells me to walk with her to Master Abrams tent, something she has never done before. But I’m a slave. I cannot ask why, I cannot say no. So I silently follow her as she leads me into her husband’s tent….

I wish I could forget what happened in that tent….
I wish I could forget what she demanded of me.
I wish I could forget how I fell as I tried to run

I wish I could forget how she tied my wrists to the tent polls
I wish I could forget that she left me there.

I wish I could forget how he broke me.
I wish I could forget…

They both broke me that night, but I could not let that show. These are proud people, who care little and they punish their slaves easily. I had no intention of calling extra attention to me. But unfortunately I wasn’t invisible anymore, at least not to Lady Sarai. Instead I was like a magnet to her eyes. She followed me everywhere. Her eyes barely left me when I went to relieve myself. But she never spoke to me, except to bark orders. Her ice cold gaze, however, held me hostage.

Her eyes grew even more cold and hard, when my monthly bleeding didn’t come and I started feeling sick. I started to feel small under that sharp gaze. I knew I received something she hadn’t; something she wanted more than anything. I knew there was envy, anger, pain, betrayal and tears behind those eyes. But when I was near her, I felt small, I felt that I was the source of her pain and somehow she made me feel guilty for something she had done.

Sometimes, though, when I was alone, I would think to myself. I would think about the child inside of me. The new life that I am carrying. A new hope, a future. I dared to dream of different life. I dared to hope. And in those moments I would smile to myself.

Lady Sarai saw one of those tiny smiles, and … she exploded. Slapt me and she screamed a storm of insults and accusations at me. That I did not give her the proper respect. That even tough I was carrying his child she was still his wife. That I should not think that I would ever replace her. That I had ruined her life. And then she said “You are still my slave, so your child is mine. When he is born I will raise him according to the promise Elohim made Abram.”

I tried to protest. She could not have my child, my only source of hope and light. But when I tried to open my mouth she slapt me so hard everything went black. Hours later I woke up where I had fallen. So….

I ran away. I could not stay. Not there, not with her.
She pushed me into his tent. She let him break me.
Only so that she could take my child… No!
That manipulative, spiteful, haughty hag will never have my son!

I wandered through the desert. I didn’t even think about where I was or what I needed. I just had to leave that place and those people. I couldn’t stay any longer. So I did not pack …. I was so thirsty. I started to cry, when I thought to my self: ‘I am in the middle of the desert, without food or water. I have no idea where I am, or where I am going. I don’t know how to survive on my own. And to cap it all off, I am with child.’

Slowly I dry my tears and continue walking. And in the distance I see a spring that is almost like it isn’t really there. It’s shimmering in the heat, I’m not sure I can trust my eyes anymore. I go to that spring anyway. Because somehow I know that there is water there. And in that water is my salvation. That water is life. I stumble to the spring. When I get to it I am so desperate I simply fall on my knees and start scooping water into my mouth.

“Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

I steady myself, sitting on my knees at the pool of water; thoughts racing through my head: Am I hallucinating? Is the heat getting to me? But I would never be dreaming that somebody would call on me by name. The Master and Lady never have. I doubt they even know what it is. They only ever call me one of three things: slave, egyptian, or egyptian slave.
So who does know me? And why are they calling me?

I turn around. There is somebody there, but also not there. It looks like a man, but also not like a man. I know that I would recognize him anywhere; even many many years from now. But if you ask me to describe him I know I never could. I think that I should be afraid, but I’m not.

I know this Man-who-is-more-than-a-Man, though I don’t know how. I know I have never seen him before. And yet I have seen him in every dream I have ever dreamed. I have met him in every prayer I have ever prayed. Every song I have ever song was to him. And I know he comes to tell me something, to give me a message.

I am stunned. Then I remember that he has asked me something. So I tell him. I cannot stop myself, I tell him everything. I tell him about Egypt, about my mother, about Lady Sarai and Master Abram, and finally I tell him about my child. I tell him.”I ran away. I could not stay. Not there…”

At this the messenger tells me that my child will be a son, and that he will have many many descendants. That I will call him Ismael, because “Elohim has heard me.” Which is when I realize that I am speaking to the god Lady Sarai has worshiped.
I am speaking with a God. Wow…. My mind races to comprehend it. It is too much….

But Elohim is not finished. “He will be wild, and will have conflict with many people, including his own family.” Again, I struggle to comprehend. A God is telling me about my child… no… about my son. My son will become the father of a great nation, of many people. He will know a lot of conflict. I think to myself that I have known conflict, many other people have conflict. Life is conflict. So Ishmael will have life!

Elohim is still not finished. He tells me to return to Lady Sarai and Master Abram. That my son, is not only my son but Master Abram’s as well. That He has made promises to Abram and that I must go back. I start to protest, that I cannot go back. But Elohim silences the words before they even leave my mouth. He looks at me and tells me he will be with me and my son as we return to that wickedly human family. But return I must and Elohim never explains why.

Again I struggle to comprehend what is happening or what is being said. A God is speaking to me. A god is telling me to go back. To return to a place where I have been used, abused, beaten and hurt in so many ways. A god is telling me to return to a place, and a people, where I was invisible.

At that moment I realize no longer am invisible. Elohim sees me. He has seen my pain and my suffering, my hope, and my tears. And he has promised to stay with me, so I am forever seen. “You are the god who sees” I say to him. I don’t know why, or how. But in my deepest I know I can trust this god. So I get up, I turn around and I start walking back to where I came from…

* Reimagining Bible stories

For this way of reimagining a story I combine two traditional ways of reading scripture, Ignatian Contemplation and Midrash. Ignatian contemplation is really a way of prayer with the bible, where as you read you imagine yourself in the story. Midrash on the other hand is a Jewish Rabbinical practice in which you look for unusual words, curious plot twists, or contradictions in the biblical text and use these textual anomalies as a window for interpretation or re-imagination of the back-story to the brief biblical tales.


Resources

These resources have helped and inspired me in writing Hagar’s story:

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