The Power of Naming

Worship Notes

The reading for this service is my translation of Genesis 16:7-14.  It is a literal translation and may not make a lot of sense at first reading, but should become clear as you read the sermon.

Sermon – The Power of Naming

During my last year of seminary, I ended up having to take about five Bible courses.  I wasn’t looking forward to it before the year started, but when you go to a non-UU school, that’s how it is.  So I took my first class and fell in love with exegesis. Exegesis is when you study a passage or story in depth, attempting to find out the author’s meaning.  You can do this for any piece of literature, but of course, we were doing this with Bible verses.  And I was amazed by the insights I gained into worldviews incredibly different from my own, by the facts I learned about earlier civilizations, and by the literary, mythological, and psychological meanings tucked into the stories.  The ancients lived in a high context society.  That means that so much of their culture was shared, writers could use just a few words to create multiple layers of meaning.

One of the Old Testament stories which struck me was about Hagar.  When I read that a slave and a woman had seen God, that God had blessed her with the promise of a multitude of descendents, and that she had dared to name God, I decided I had to know more about this passage, so I did an exegesis on it.  What I found was that Hagar’s story is so rich, each line yields those multiple layers of meaning, and scholars argue about what meaning is true.  The truth I saw embedded in that story included insights into the power of naming to make a person whole, the importance of seeing and being seen, of listening, of being present to one another, and of being in right relationship.

I am going to assume you don’t know the story of Hagar, because I certainly didn’t.  If Hagar is commonplace for you, please bear with my repeating what you already know.  Earlier, I read you the section of Hagar’s story I analyzed for my Torah class, but there’s more to her tale.  Hagar was an Egyptian slave who belonged to Sarah, the matriarch of the Hebrew people.  Her story starts when Sarah has had enough of being barren and decides to give her slave woman to her husband Abraham so Sarah could have children through her.

Sarah’s scheme works, and Hagar becomes pregnant.  However, life is not all rosy in the patriarch’s household after that, for now that she is with child, Hagar looks with contempt on her mistress.  Sarah gets angry with Abraham, Abraham basically washes his hands of the situation, telling Sarah that Hagar is her slave, she can do with her as she wants, so Sarah treats Hagar harshly, and Hagar runs away.

The next we see of Hagar, she is in the wilderness, sitting by a well on the road to Shur, which is in Egypt, so she is on her way home.  The Angel of the Lord, or Yahweh, finds her there.  Now, in this story, when the Hebrew text reads “Angel of the Lord,” it does not mean a messenger of God, which is what “angel” by itself means, but rather God himself – and, yes, we are talking about a male God here.  So here is God himself appearing in an earthly manifestation to a woman and a slave, and this God names this woman and slave: Hagar, handmaiden of Sarai, he calls her.

Up to this point, the only character who has bothered to use Hagar’s name is the narrator.  In fact, at least in the story of Hagar as we have been given it, neither Sarah nor Abraham ever use her name.  This is important.  In Egypt, at that time, if you didn’t have a name, you didn’t exist.  You weren’t a real person.  In fact, naming was an act of creation.  Hagar would have known this, for an Egyptian God, Ptah, spoke the name of all the things of the world and in this way caused them to come into existence.  In Egypt, if one wanted to honor someone who had died, one kept that person’s name alive.  If one wanted to dishonor him or her, one scratched out that person’s name wherever one found it.

Of course, this un-naming is part of the point.  Hagar is a slave.  In Mesopotamia, which is where we are in this story, a slave isn’t a real person.  What is so powerful in this narrative, then, is that Hagar’s existence is confirmed by the one who matters most in the universe: God.  This is exciting, for this is a God who takes a nothing, a slave, a female slave, at that, and remember, when this story was written down, being a woman wasn’t that much different from being a slave, so she is doubly nothing, and this God takes this creature and gives her a name, affirms that she is important, that she exists as a real human being.  Now, it is true that these ancient peoples understood the giving of a name to imply dominion over the thing or person so named, but they also believed that God had dominion over every creature already, including every human, thus being named by God is hardly a disgrace.

Indeed, Hagar has been named by one whose power diminishes that of her human owner.  She belongs to God, not Sarah.  So when God asks where she has come from and where she is going, and Hagar replies she is fleeing from her mistress, we might expect that God would cheer her on.  We might expect that God would say, “That’s exactly the right thing for you to do, let me help.”  Is this Yahweh not the God who will free the Israeli slaves from their Egyptian masters?  Is this Yahweh not the God who is on the side of the poor and oppressed, on the side of justice?  So it is with great surprise that we hear this God say: “Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her hands.”

At this point, many commentators either condemn God’s action or scramble to find some way to excuse his cruelty.  Some scholars reject the authority of the Bible because of stories like these, or they may reject the authority of particular stories. Phyllis Trible, a white Christian scholar, calls this a “text of terror.”[ref]See her book: Trible, Phyllis, Texts of Terror:Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1984.[/ref]  She believes it reflects a male, patriarchal approval of the enslavement and subjugation of women.  She suggests that our response, as a society, should be to stand in solidarity with our abused sisters.  I respect Trible’s work and think it is insightful and informative, but I believe she does not go far enough in insisting that the Bible be on the side of the poor, the enslaved, the underdog, and in studying the story until the message of love and liberation is found.

What led me to that belief was an experience in my Torah class that was totally unrelated to Hagar’s story.  It was when my instructor was outlining various feminist responses to the Bible, and he mentioned the response of some committed Christians who argued that their God was a liberating and loving deity, and the biblical story about this God’s relationship with human beings always, always spoke to the message of love and liberation.  If a text seems to dispute this message, you need to look deeper rather than dismiss the text.  If a text has been used to justify the horrible things that have been done in the name of Jesus, you need to explore that text and see why those human interpreters are wrong.  So I decided that, even though I do not identify as Christian or Jewish, I would honor this text that is sacred to so many people and look for the message of liberation and love even when it seemed it was not there.

Now we all read into a text what we want to find.  I don’t know that there’s any way around that.  But we can attempt to use good scholarship and be as objective as possible and hope to find some truth that can stand on its own.

On my journey through this text, I discovered some amazing things, but one thing I saw was that the scene I read to you earlier had been created in a particular structure called a chiasm.  This is where the first line has the same elements as the last line, the second has the same elements as the second to last line, and so on until you get to the central line or lines which is where you will find the main message of the text.  What is even more exciting, for those of us who love language and writing, the lines that relate to one another often include what is called a reversal, and this is exactly how the Hagar story was written.  The lines not only connected, but they held opposite meanings.  Now tuck this into the back of your minds, please, because I’ll get to it, but first I want to take another side trip and look at some other people’s answers to the question of why God sent Hagar back to Sarah.

Jewish scholar Pamela Tamarkin Reis[ref]See: Reis, Pamela Tamarkin, Reading Between the Lines: A Fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible, Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.[/ref] suggests that Hagar got herself sent back because she answered only one of God’s questions: Where are you coming from?  But God also asked, where are you going?  Hagar couldn’t answer that because she had no plans, and God could see that, he could see inside of her, because Gods can do that sort of thing, and he realized she was not capable of being the matriarch of a people.  You see, Reis thinks maybe God planned to use Hagar instead of Sarah to give birth to the Israelites, but Hagar disappointed God, so he sent her back to slavery and, years later, God made Sarah the matriarch instead.

Black feminist author, Renita J. Weems, is also disappointed in Hagar.  Weems suggests that the handmaiden could not stop thinking of herself as a slave so that’s why she got sent back.  After all, what else did she know?  So when faced with a decision about where to go, she was lost.  “Hagar’s blessing was within her reach,” Weems writes, “but beyond her grasp.”[ref]Weems, Renita J., Just a Sister Away: Understanding the Timeless Connection Between Women of Today and Women in the Bible, New York: Warner, 2005.[/ref]

Indeed, this story about Hagar is a focal point of an historic distrust and animosity between Jews and blacks that still exists today in some communities and some individuals, for Hagar was not only a slave, but since she was Egyptian, she may also have been black.  Black or not, Hagar’s status as a slave is clear, so she symbolizes for many the relationship between blacks and other whites throughout history and today.  In my research on these few Bible verses, I came across some language that both reflected and probably caused pain, written by Gentile whites, blacks, and Jews.

But what if we could use this story not to inflame, but to heal?  Some authors, Weems included, call for reconciliation, but they tend to see Hagar’s story as a cautionary tale, as a warning to be careful what God you believe in or in what sacred texts you place your faith.  But there is more in this story, far more than I can talk about in one sermon, so enough commentary. Back to the story.

God tells Hagar to return to Sarah, but he’s not finished talking to her.  He tells Hagar that she will have so many descendants she will not be able to count them, and that she is pregnant now with a son whom she is to call Ishmael because God has heard her affliction.  That’s what Ishmael means – “God hears.”  God listens.  God sees.  God knows Hagar so well that he can name her.  He has heard her cries, and he responds by giving her a son who shall be wild and whose hand shall be against everyone.  So Hagar has to stay a slave, but her son will be free.  Is that all the consolation he gives her?  She gets to be the matriarch of a free people?  What about her own life?

Let’s return now to why God would send Hagar back to slavery.  Many commentators mention the practical issues: Hagar doesn’t know where she’s going; she’s pregnant and can’t live by herself in the wilderness; in those days, you were nothing if you didn’t have a family, so how could a lone woman survive even if she made her way back to Egypt?  I would argue that all these issues are valid, but they aren’t enough.  This is a God who can do anything.  I submit that God sends Hagar back to Sarah because the two women are bonded in some important ways and need to reconcile.  This is a story about relationships, mostly abusive and unequal relationships.  However, God has given Hagar a name.  She is now a person, and not just a person, but a matriarch of an entire people.  She has dignity.  So God sends this new woman back to Sarah to submit under the latter’s hands.  Okay, I know, I still haven’t explained why a loving, liberating God would do such a thing.

Let’s return to our chiasm, that form in which one line is the opposite of another.  The line that matches up with God’s sending Hagar back to Sarah is the one about Ishmael’s hand being against everyone and everyone’s hand being against his. Ishmael’s is a hand raised in animosity.  If I am correct and we have a chiasm with reversals, meaning that the matching sentences mean opposite things, then we have Hagar going back to slavery, instead of freedom, under the hands of Sarah that are opposite animosity.  I admit that God is telling Hagar to return to slavery, but not as a non-human. She is now a dignified person, capable of reconciling with her mistress, and Sarah’s hand, being the opposite of animosity, would be in peace.  Perhaps God can’t do anything about the choices Ishmael will make in his freedom, but he can instruct Hagar on how to live.

Slavery is an evil thing, and we would hope God would come down strongly against it, but in the face of human institutions that God cannot change, for that is up to us, he can point out that pure freedom is pure individuality, and pure individuality is wrong relationship.  If we all cared only about ourselves, if we were all free to do just as we pleased, if we were all individuals who did not acknowledge our interdependence, our world would fall apart.  We need relationships.

Letty Russell, a white, feminist scholar, regrets that Sarah and Hagar did not put their relationship to rights because Sarah did not repent.[ref]Russell, Letty, “Women Quilting: A Biblical Pattern,”[/ref]  I suggest that God sent Hagar to repent first.  That’s what’s called an imaginative reconstruction.  I don’t know it; I’m making it up.  There’s no telling if Hagar did as God told her to, and no knowing how Sarah responded if she did, but I imagine that the two women understood the need each had for support in the face of a world that was quickly becoming more and more patriarchal, so they bonded.  Unfortunately, when we see them next, twelve years later, Sarah succumbs once more to jealous emotions, stops using Hagar’s name, and sends her into the wilderness.  Perhaps if the two women had been able to maintain a healthy relationship, their two sons — Ishmael, who became the father of the Muslims, and Isaac, who became the father of the Jews — perhaps these two men would have been friends, and maybe the world’s history would have been different.  But the women couldn’t do it, so why should we expect the men to?

But even if everything had been wonderful between the women, and even if it had stayed that way, why should Hagar have to be the one to go back and submit to Sarah?  Why didn’t God tell Sarah to go into the desert and apologize to Hagar?  Isn’t it up to the more powerful in a relationship to be the first to ask forgiveness?

For this I have no answer.  I don’t know if there is a right way to begin the process of reconciliation.  No matter how we do that, no matter who goes first, if we are to truly heal a broken relationship, we must both become vulnerable.  The possibility of being re-injured exists, and abusers have over and over asked for forgiveness and then abused again.  But I am not talking simply about forgiveness.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same.  You can forgive someone without choosing to continue a relationship with that person.  In fact, it is often safer and better for us to work on forgiveness while we are far away from a person who has abused us.  But if we believe reconciliation is best in a particular situation, then we must accept the vulnerability that brings us back into relationship.

The tragedy in this story is that whatever peace the two women found with one another, it didn’t last.  While we should be careful not do demonize Sarah, we should also remember that she was a slaveholder.  We cannot use this analysis of Hagar’s story to condone the ownership of one human being by another.  Indeed, if slavery is our topic, we must exegete this passage differently.  But, although you might not realize it given the breadth of ideas I’ve touched on so far in this sermon, slavery is not our topic today.  Today’s topic is naming, seeing, listening, and relationships.  We talked some about naming.  Let’s look now at seeing and listening.

When we last left our story, Hagar had been given a name and a legacy, the legacy being a multitude of descendants who would live in freedom.  God has seen her enough to name her, and he has listened enough that he heard her anguish.  Now Hagar names God.  “You are El Roi,” she tells him, which means the God who sees.  Now, as we know from the hymn we just sang, God is not simple, so God has many names.  Later in the Bible, he will call himself El Shaddai.  He is Yahweh, Allah, Ganesh, Ptuh, and he is also aspects of reality, like Mother, Tailor, Father, Washerwoman.  All the ways we can imagine God, God exists.  But right now, in this moment, Hagar sees God in this way, as El Roi, and thus she honors his incredible vision.

Then Hagar says a sentence no modern scholars appear to understand.  Literally she says something like what I read to you: “Also here see I after he seeing me?”  It is a question and appears to reflect Hagar’s amazement at being alive after she has seen God, for there is a tradition that one can’t look on the face of God and live.

I am going to get imaginative again.  I think there’s something in Hagar’s sentence about the power of being seen.  God sees her, but what does that mean, to see?  Now because it’s God, and because the God in this story has abilities and traits way above anything humans could ever conceive of, I imagine that to be seen by this eternal being is incredible.  I suspect that if God sees us, he looks so deep inside us, he sees things we never knew were there.  For we humans have many names, as well, and yet God sees the totality of all our being and all our names, and he sees it with love and liberation, because he is a God of love and liberation.

So Hagar feels loved; and Hagar feels liberated.  Perhaps she feels so liberated that even slavery means nothing to her any longer, although I realize that is a potentially dangerous thing to say, in part because it is easy to misconstrue or misrepresent.  The point is, God has seen her in her broken and fearful and amazing and beautiful totality, and to be seen by God is an experience that never completely goes away.  And when she says “Also here see I,” she means that her vision is changed, as well.  She is seeing in a new way, and she asks the question because wants to know, is this true?  Is this real?

Because of her experience, it seems she knows now how to see in an entirely new way. That is my imaginative reconstruction.  Hagar was seen and now she can see, perhaps not like a god, but with greater vision and understanding than before.  And I submit that if we, as human beings, are able to look upon one another with love and liberation, we, too will be liberated, and the power of our seeing will be magnified.

This sentence is also about listening.  Listening, seeing, it is the same.  In fact, what I said about reconciliation and about relationship are both part of the seeing/listening, and about the naming.  In the end, the seeing, listening, naming, relationship are all about being present.  God is completely present.  That may be what it means to be God, to be present to every single event in every single life at every single moment, truly seeing, truly listening, truly there.  If we could give one another even a tiny piece of that presence, what an amazing gift that would be.  And so we get back to naming, for that is the gift.  When we are truly present to one another, when we truly see the other, we help the other find his or her own true name.

Interestingly, Hagar is not a real name.  It’s just a word.  Some people think it means “to flee.”  I am of the camp that believes it means “stranger” or “sojourner.”  Perhaps both.  Like all of us, Hagar is a stranger and a traveler in this world.

As I was doing research for this sermon, I discovered that there are two Jewish names that mean the same thing as Barbara: one is Sarida; the other is Hagar.  My name means “foreigner,” which is enough like sojourner that I claim that, as well.  Like Hagar, Barbara also means “stranger.”  Thus I stand before you, a sojourner and a stranger.  I have been told that I am difficult to get to know, perhaps because of my introverted nature.  But my middle name, Eleanor, means “light.”  I like to think that if you can get past the stranger in me, you will see the light.  During the next six months, I hope we will learn to see the light in one another.  I hope we will learn to truly know one another, to be present to one another, and that by so doing, we will help one another find our true names.

Reading – Genesis 16:7-14

7] And the Angel of Yahweh found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, the fountain of water on the road to Shur.  8] And he said, “Hagar, maidservant of Sarai’s, where have you come from and where do you go?”  And she said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”  9] And the Angel of Yahweh commanded, “Turn back to your mistress and submit yourself under her hands.”  10] And the Angel of Yahweh said to her, “I will so multiply your descendants that they will be too abundant to count.”  11] And the Angel of Yahweh said to her, “Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son, and you shall call his name Ishmael because Yahweh has heard your affliction.  12] And he will be a wild-ass of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in the presence of his brothers.”  13] And she called Yahweh who spoke to her, “You are El Roi,” for she said, “Also here see I after he seeing me?”  14] Therefore the fountain was called the well of the living one who sees me.

First presented at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis.  Copyright 2006 by Barbara E. Stevens.  Permission granted to quote from this sermon for non-commercial purposes is given provided proper attribution is made.