Yoder-Short: Messy situations, then and now

Aug 5, 2019 by

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The timing of information entering our thoughts can create loud clashes. The same week I was rereading the story of Hagar, I heard a plea to not compromise on God’s Word, to hold on to the Bible as our moral authority. Has this person considered the story of Hagar?

Jane Yoder-Short


At first glance, the heart-wrenching Hagar story is not the kind of moral authority we want. An abused slave woman is forced into pregnancy. Hagar runs away, only to have an angel of God tell her to return to her abuser. Our modern ears have heard enough. No obvious moral authority here, unless we want to justify abuse and slavery. Is there any moral insight to be gained? How do we hold on to this Bible?

The Hagar narrative begins with God promising Abram and Sarai descendants. As they age beyond childbearing, no offspring have arrived. Sarai moves to correct God’s lack of action. We understand this. We too lack patience. When things aren’t going as anticipated, we move into action. We take control. According to the customs of the day, Sarai can claim her slave’s child as her own. She gives Hagar to Abram to fix the childlessness problem.

Pregnant and mistreated, Hagar runs away. Who can blame her? When the angel appears and tells her to return to her mistress, her abuser, we cringe (Gen. 16:9). We try to remember it is a different world; try to remember Hagar has limited options. Living in the desert isn’t a good choice for a pregnant woman.

The angel does offer some hope. Hagar is to name her son Ishmael, meaning “God hears.” At least God hears the person who is abused and marginalized. Hagar then names God El-roi, “the God who sees” (Gen. 16:13).

Life becomes more complicated after Sarah conceives and Isaac is born. Questions arise as to who will inherit the wealth, who will claim the family lineage, who has the power. Who belongs, the 13-year-old Ishmael or the newborn Isaac? Sarah fears Ishmael will win out. She tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Off they go with a little bread and some water. All seems lost, but God hears the voice of the boy and shows up. There is water and a promise that Ishmael will prosper.

We long for a better story, where sexual exploitation doesn’t happen, where differences are bridged, where the rich and poor find commonality. Even those who long for clear biblical authority aren’t campaigning to treat people as Sarai treated Hagar.

Mennonite Church USA keeps trying to make space for differences, but questions linger. Who is going to define the Mennonite identity? Who is going to claim the family inheritance? Who belongs? Sometimes we lose patience. Longing for new life, we manipulate things. Some of us feel pushed out. Others run away, thinking we know best. To be like Sarai and take things into our own hands can create messy situations.

At MennoCon19, we felt hopeful. The Spirit was moving. We heard the cries of the immigrant children. We saw the marginalized and the outcasts with fresh eyes. We made space for differences. People who long for clear biblical authority and those who hold more organic biblical convictions danced together. Can we trust the breath of the God who sees to pull us together?

When we long for a clear moral and biblical compass, it might be helpful to remember the Anabaptist focus on Jesus. Centering our moral compass on Jesus untangles the clashes that happen when we run into pregnant and abused biblical characters.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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