Flight vs. Freedom: Calvin on Hagar (Gen. 16)

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"Hagar, servant of Sarai." So the angel of the Lord addressed the Egyptian slave (Gen. 16.8) who had the great misfortune to be drawn into Abraham and Sarah's scheme to assist the realization of God's promise (Gen. 16.1-6). Upon the surface, this address -- and especially the appellation "servant of Sarai" -- may seem fairly innocuous. But Calvin discovers profound truth in these words.

"By the use of this epithet," he writes, "the angel declares that [Hagar] still remained a servant, though she had escaped the hands of her mistress; because liberty is not to be obtained by stealth, nor by flight, but by manumission." By addressing her as "servant of Sarai," in other words, the angel makes it clear to Hagar that her goal -- namely, riddance of a jealous and harsh master -- is not really within her power to obtain. She remaines a "servant of Sarai" no matter how much distance she puts between herself and Sarah; all she has really secured by her flight, then, is culpability for that flight. Calvin reinforces his reading of the angel's intent in so addressing Hagar by highlighting biblical texts which, to his thinking, confirm the responsibility of servants to remain subject to their masters, however "unjust" such masters might be (cf. Eph. 6.4).

Calvin's point is fair (though arguably curious in light of his previous claim, with reference to Gen. 12.5, that slavery as such constitutes a violation of the "order of nature"). The subsequent point he draws from God's address to Hagar is perhaps less (exegetically) obvious or persuasive, though may be more practical to at least the majority of present-day readers. "Moreover," Calvin continues, "by this expression God shows that he approves of civil government, and that the violation of it is inexcusable."

Given the absence of any obvious reference to "civil government" (or the Christian's responsibility toward the same) in the text, Calvin's transition to this subject seems strange. It's tempting to dismiss this as a random effort on Calvin's part -- largely unrelated to the biblical text in hand -- to reassure civil authorities (say, Geneva's small council or the French crown) that he and like-minded reformers (and their followers) posed no threat to any given state (i.e., that they were not Anabaptists). But as he continues, the logic of Calvin's transition becomes clearer (if not more compelling).

Calvin views the relationship between Sarah and Hagar -- the relationship, that is, between master and servant -- as paradigmatic for the relationship between "lawful authorities" of every kind and their rightful subjects. Thus he ultimately discovers in Hagar's flight and God's corrective to her assumed success in "shaking off the yoke" of Sarah's authority a lesson not only for other slaves (though he judges, somewhat prematurely as it turns out, the "barbarity" of slavery to be largely "abolished" in his time), but also civil subjects (in relation to civil authorities) and children (in relation to their parents). "If the flight of Hagar was prohibited by the command of God, much less will he bear with the licentiousness of a people who rebel against their prince; or with the contumacy of children who withdraw themselves from obedience to their parents."

Calvin is not blind to the reality that "lawful authorities" of each named kind regularly abuse, to some extent or another, the power they lawfully hold over others. "They who have proudly and tyrannically governed shall one day render their account to God." But abuse of authority provides no license to disregard or disobey the same: "meanwhile their asperity is to be borne by their subjects." Elsewhere Calvin qualifies this point ever so slightly by reminding his readers that obedience to God trumps obedience to human persons and institutions. He thus provides some space for (civil) disobedience, but only that which is entirely passive in form, and likely to lead to persecution if not martyrdom.

In sum, then, we gain a rather practical exhortation from Hagar's example: "Whenever it comes into our mind to defraud any [authority] of his [or her] right, or to seek exemption from our proper calling, let the voice of the angel sound in our ears, as if God would draw us back, by putting his own hand upon us." When tempted, in other words, to offer our parents, employers, and/or civil authorities anything less than proper obedience, or otherwise to challenge our station in life, let us hear the words "servant of Sarai" spoken over us and repent of our own rebellious flights (whether real or metaphorical in kind).

But if we stand to learn, from Hagar's flight, a lesson on proper submission to "lawful authorities," we also stand to learn something about Almighty God's tender and fatherly care -- even for the runners -- from God's dealings with Hagar. Calvin discovers tenderness and grace in God's response to Hagar in at least three regards. Grace is evident, first of all, in the gentle, questioning approach the angel of the Lord takes towards Hagar. "Where have you come from, and where are you going?" the angel asks, obviously knowing the answers since he has just addressed her by name ("Hagar") and station ("servant of Sarai"). These questions are, of course, pointed, and intended to produce repentance, but nevertheless tender in comparison to more direct words which might justifiably have been spoken.

Grace is evident, secondly, in the angel's subsequent affirmation to Hagar that "the Lord has listened to your affliction" (Gen. 16.11). Hagar's plight with Sarah, in other words, is fully on God's radar screen, and he will take up her cause. Calvin deems God's interest in Hagar and her predicament all the more remarkable since "we do not read that Hagar, in her difficulties, had recourse to prayer." In other words, God heard Hagar's complaint even when such wasn't directed to him in the form of petition. "It is therefore to be observed," Calvin reasons, "that there are two ways in which God looks down upon men, for the purpose of helping them; either when they, as suppliants, implore his aid; or when he, even unasked, succours them in their afflictions."

But God's tenderness and grace is most evident, thirdly, in the instructions given to Hagar to "return to your mistress and submit to her" (Gen. 16.9). This is counter-intuitive, of course. How can it be gracious to send Hagar back into the storm (as it were) -- back into the hand of a master who resents her and has mistreated her? The profoundly gracious nature of this command stems from the true identity of that specific home towards which Hagar is here (re)directed. As Calvin explains, "that house ... was then the earthly sanctuary of God." In other words, the command issued to Hagar to "return to your mistress" was really a command to return to the bosom of the Church, the peculiar object of God's love and recipient of his promises. By sending Hagar back into "the earthly sanctuary of God," God was essentially situating her as an heir and beneficiary of those things he had pledged to Abraham -- namely, a Seed who would come to rescue God's people from guilt and sin, and a heavenly land in which God himself would be the principal joy and delight.

To put it another way, God sent Hagar back into slavery in order, ultimately, to make her truly free. Armed with that perspective, one suspects Hagar returned to her rather unsavory circumstances with much joy and confidence in her God (cf. Gen. 16.13).

Posted August 17, 2015 @ 1:44 PM by Aaron Denlinger
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