A Biblical Look At Single Parents

So Karl has shared his sermon for Sunday over on his blog and so I’ve decided to share the sermon I’ve written for Sunday evening. The church I’m preaching at has an ongoing discussion about diversity going on at the moment and has looked at various aspects of that within services. I’m continuing that and posting the main chunk of my talk.

Hagar is one of the worlds earliest recorded single mothers. The Christian version of her story can be found in the Old Testament book of Genesis, a book which scholars agree was probably written around the 5th or 6th century BC. The key parts of the story I want us to focus on are found in Genesis 21 verses 8 – 21, but Genesis 16 verses 1 – 15 give us the first part of Hagar’s story.

Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl whose owner, Sarah, was a childless woman married to Abraham and desperate for a family. Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to be another wife and to give them a child.

What was it about Hagar that made Sarah choose her to be the mother of Abraham’s child? Earlier in Genesis we hear that Abraham was a rich man, Hagar wouldn’t have been her only servant. There was obviously something about Hagar which made her stand out and be seen as a suitable young woman to have the child. Whilst we don’t know we can probably conclude that Hagar was attractive, healthy, intelligent and from a good background. These are the types of thing that Sarah and Abraham would have thought important.

When Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s baby she became contemptuous of Sarah. She realised that being pregnant gave her an advantage over her mistress that she had not had in the past. Sarah felt angry that Hagar her servant was using the pregnancy to almost taunt her and went to Abraham to complain.

Abraham decided the best course of action was to absolve himself of responsibility and so told Sarah, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.”[1] Sarah’s response was to express her anger and put her slave back in her place. This results in her becoming abusive towards Hagar. At this point the pregnant Hagar realises that despite being pregnant with Abraham’s child she is not being given any protection from the older woman and so runs away.

An angel of God finds the pregnant runaway Hagar in the desert and talks to her, telling her to go back to Sarah and submit to her way of doing things. This angel also tells her that the baby is going to be a boy and that she is to call him Ishmael. The name Ishmael means “God hears”.

So Hagar returns and has her baby, Ishmael. A few years later, despite everybody thinking that it’s impossible, Abraham has another son who is born to Sarah and they call him Isaac. As Isaac grows up Sarah catches Ishmael playing with him and is reminded of the reality – that Ishmael as well as Isaac will get part of his father’s inheritance when Abraham dies. So Sarah goes to her husband and tells him that she wants Hagar and Ishmael out of their home and out of their lives.

Abraham feels he is in an impossible situation and very distressed, he doesn’t know what to do. At this point God pops up again and tells the man to do as Sarah says but not to be upset because he is going to make a great nation out of Ishmael. So Abraham gets up early in the morning, gives Hagar some bread and water and sends her away into the wilderness.

Hagar is then left in the desert, homeless, with limited resources to provide for herself and her son. It seems like all hope is gone when the bread and water run out and Hagar reaches a point of absolute despair and depression. She lays Ishmael, her son, down to die and walks away….unable to watch the death she now sees as inevitable. In this broken state she sits and weeps – totally distraught and apparently without hope.

At this point she hears the voice an angel again, asking her what’s going on and telling her not to be afraid. She is told to go over, lift up the boy and hold his hand. The story says God opens her eyes and she sees a well of water, enabling to fill her water container and give Ishmael a drink.

Hagar’s life changes at this point and we find out that Ishmael grows up to become a skilled archer who gets a wife from Egypt…….a wife who is found and paid for, (because they had a dowry system going on then), by his mother.

So what can we learn from Hagar and  what can be learnt from her story which may help us today in the twenty first century?

Firstly, Hagar was in a stable relationship with one person when she had her son. Now, it might not be the same type of relationship as modern ones but the fact remains Hagar is similar to many single mothers today because she was not promiscuous. The charity Gingerbread which supports single parents in the UK says that almost half of all single parents in England and Wales become single parents as the result of a marriage breakdown. Many of the rest are people who have been in committed, long term cohabiting relationships.

Hagar as we might expect was slightly younger than many single parents today. According to the information from the Office for National Statistics less than 2% of all single parents are teenagers and the median age of a single parent in the UK today is 38.1.[2]

Hagar had a relationship of some form with God. In the biblical story God’s messenger comes and speaks to Hagar and reassures her. Despite the stereotypes which exist and the low representation of single parents in churches compared to the wider population single parents can and often are people of faith too. That does not mean Hagar’s relationship with faith was an easy or uncomplicated one. There is much in Hagar’s story which does not sit comfortably with the contemporary reader. Why did God send her back into an abusive situation? How can Abraham and Sarah be so highly regarded in our faith when they did this to Hagar and her son?

Reactive depression plays a part in Hagar’s story. Again we often think of this as a modern phenomena but if we read Hagar’s story we can find that sense of desperation and hopelessness which reactive depression gives coming through.

However, in the ancient text the point at which she was ready to give up on life was not the end of the story. And I would argue this is often true for single parents who might be suffering from similar issues today. Many single parents and others might feel at some point in their journey that they’ve done all they can and used all the resources they have available. They might feel that they’ve come to the point where they want to give up….but for most this is just one point on their journey not a place where they find themselves stuck forever.

Hagar was able to move on from that point of utter hopelessness into a place where she was able to provide for her child and help him flourish into adulthood. The fact that the narrative ends by saying “and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt” is significant. It tells us that Hagar had gone from having no resources as her point of deepest desperation to having accrued the necessary amount to pay the “bride price” for her son’s marriage partner.

In Hagar’s story as we have said Abraham doesn’t come out wonderfully, yet neither is the man totally to blame. The reality of life and his wider relationships is such that the as Ishmael’s father Abraham is faced with a difficult and distressing decision. The choice to send Hagar away was not an easy choice or lightly taken. This was not simply a feckless man who did not wish to take responsibility for his child. Abraham did his best to ensure that Hagar’s immediate needs were met.

And this is something important to hold on to in our society. The fathers of children from single parent families are often portrayed within the media and by politicians and others as being irresponsible and not caring for their children. The reality is often far more complex and many fathers today are also faced with difficult decisions when relationships break down. They want to do the best for their children and their former partners but they may have a second family to consider or there may be other factors which make it difficult for them to provide in the way that they may wish to.

Whilst it is true that the majority of lone parents are far less likely to be educated to degree level or higher than other groups (only 11% of all lone parents with dependent children are graduates, compared to 23% for married/co-habiting parents with dependent children, and 20% for those without dependent children), they can be found across the full spectrum of educational backgrounds and have a range of abilities which go beyond educational qualifications.

Hagar as we have demonstrated would have had a range of positive attributes which made her the one that Sarah chose to give to Abraham as concubine. She would also have had, I suggest, a reasonable level of intelligence in order to have been chosen. There must have been something within Hagar which Sarah identified and wanted within Abraham’s offspring.

For Hagar, as with many single mothers today, another women was involved in Hagar becoming a single parents. Sarah was not essentially a bad woman, indeed she is viewed by Paul and others to have been a positive role model and is highly favoured in Christian tradition. But she was a woman whose life and decisions impacted on Hagar’s life in a way which was negative.

But it has to be remembered that Hagar also had an impact on Sarah’s life too. In the biblical passage it is when Sarah recognises that her economic future and security may be threatened that she gets Abraham to send the other wife away. In contemporary life it is sometimes the case that the payment of maintenance each month impacts upon the family income of my ex partner’s new family. In this situation tensions can be created which again put the continued relationship between the child and the absent parent, normally the father in jeopardy.

As a result of being cast out into the wilderness Hagar faced uncertainty regarding housing and how we were to provide for her child. Whilst Hagar came from a society where the nomadic lifestyle was part of their culture there were issues she still faced a level of instability she hadn’t previously. I know, living in a country with a welfare state system, the experience of contemporary single parents in this country is different to Hagar but many are still living on a low income struggling to survive at certain points in their journey.

Yet, as we have already seen whilst that was that uncertainty which required intervention to point Hagar towards the resources which were there and which could help her Hagar should not be seen simply as a poor victim to be pitied. She was a strong woman who was able to turn her life around from that point of hopelessness and raise her son into a strong and able young man. She was able, after having received that initial help to become an independent woman who was able to move on from the earlier experiences in her life. Sometimes it can be easier to label the single parent as a victim in need of ongoing support and as a drain on resources rather than recognise their strength and ability.

That is not to say we should fall into the opposite trap of labelling single parents as superheroes. Hagar was a fallible young woman who made mistakes and who was not always able to see the bigger picture around her. In short Hagar was simply a normal human being, as are single parents today. Being a single parent was just one part of her identity it was not her all defining one.

*Discussion Point (in pairs/ small groups and then feedback) – How do you react to Hagar and her story? What does this story tell you about single parents and God’s view towards them?

[1] Gen 16 v 6, Holy Bible NRSV, p13

[2] http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/content/365/Statistics (accessed 29/8/12)

About tractorgirl

Hi my name is Sally Rush: I'm a Christian, a mother, a community engagement officer, a listener, a dreamer, a partner, an experienced teacher, a friend, a daughter, a sister and so much more.

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