Slavery. Forced marriage. Surrogacy without consent. It’s no wonder I never heard the story of Hagar growing up in church! Now it’s one I often turn to in my advocacy work for gender justice, because it speaks to the experiences of countless women and girls today whose lives are ravaged by domestic violence, labor trafficking, child marriage, sexual slavery, and other abuses.

When the story begins in Genesis 16, Sarai and Abram have been struggling with infertility for a decade. But Sarai sees a solution: she will have Abram take her slave Hagar “as a wife” (16:3), and she will become Sarai’s surrogate. When Hagar becomes pregnant, however, Sarai does not feel relieved; she feels threatened. The scripture says that Hagar looked upon her mistress “with contempt” (16:5), but I’ve often thought that this verse reflects Sarai’s insecurities about her infertility and her status as Abram’s wife. I imagine Sarai finds Hagar’s very being offensive.

Hagar’s pregnancy is not the root cause of Sarai's anger; it is merely the trigger. If we turn back a few chapters, we'll recall that Sarai herself was a victim of sexual coercion. While she and Abram were in Egypt, her husband worried that being seen with Sarai was a liability. She was too beautiful, he explained (Genesis 12:11). Being married to her put his life in great danger because Pharaoh would become jealous once he saw them together. If she did not want him to die, she had to pretend that they were not, in fact, husband and wife, but that they were brother and sister. If you love me, you’ll do this for me. What choice does Sarai have but to go along with Abram’s lie?

I try to imagine the impact this abuse has on Sarai. First, she is unable to conceive children. Then she is abandoned by her husband and forced to marry Pharaoh (Genesis 12:15-19). If Abram could offer her up willingly to another man as if she were a commodity to be bought and sold, what purpose would she have in Abram’s life if she cannot be the mother of his children? Feeling powerless over her own body and life, Sarai yields what little sense of control she does have against Hagar, the only one inferior to her. The abused becomes the abuser, and the cycle of violence continues. 

When the abuse escalates, Hagar escapes into the wilderness and heads back to her home in Egypt. Even though she is pregnant and vulnerable to any number of dangers, Hagar risks everything in search of freedom. While on her journey home, an angel of the Lord appears to her and asks where she is going. When she explains her situation, the angel tells her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her” (Genesis 16:9).These words baffle me. Return? Isn't this the part when God is supposed to bring deliverance? What sense can be made of this?  

How do we cope with a story in our sacred text in which God instructs a woman to go back to a situation of abuse? 

When I reach this part of the story, I have two knee-jerk reactions. First, I try to find a way to explain it. Perhaps God knew that more dangers awaited her in Egypt, and that returning to the house of Sarai and Abram would spare her even more violence. But this explanation feels rather trite and dismissive.

Second, I try to turn quickly to the next few verses when the angel promises Hagar that she will survive the experience and that her son will grow up (Genesis 16:10-12). Yes, Hagar has to return, but she is not without hope, right? When I step back, I realize that both of these responses are rooted in my deep discomfort with the reality that God would tell Hagar to go back to her abuser.

“Return to your mistress, and submit to her” (Genesis 16:9). The angel’s words remind me of many stories I’ve heard from survivors of domestic violence. When they confided in a pastor about the abuse, the pastor told them that they needed to stay in their marriages despite the violence done to them. “Return to your abuser, and submit to him.”

When we encounter situations or texts beyond our comprehension, we yearn to make sense of them somehow because sitting in the discomfort of not knowing is painful. We read a biblical story of abuse and we exclaim, “That was another time! That was a different culture!” Similarly when we encounter a survivor of domestic violence, we tend to wonder what she did to make her abuser angry or why she can’t find a way to escape. In our efforts to make sense of these experiences, we do and say things that harm those who most need our support and love.

Hagar calls God El-roi, “the God who sees” (Genesis 16:13a). 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.

Katey Zeh, founder of Sacred Worth Consulting in North Carolina, is a strategist, writer, and educator who works with nonprofits and faith communities. She is currently working on a book titled Women, Rise Up! that focuses on biblical women resisting systems of oppression.

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