On Hunger and Hagar

Post Author: Rev. Kelly Boubel Shriver

We are excited to introduce another new column to our line up at Fidelia’s Sisters!  “The Real Word” is a place where we can honestly and beautifully reflect on the intersection of scripture and life.  Sometimes the way we read scripture changes the way we view the world, and sometimes the way we view the world changes the way we read scripture!  Did your understanding of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel change after your own experience of infertility?  Maybe the honesty of Ruth helped you to see a foreigner as family?  Tell us your story about the places scripture has touched your life, and those places where your life has touched scripture.  Submissions may be sent to [email protected]

Some stories feel too big.  Too unwieldy.  Too complicated.  The story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21 has always been a difficult story for me to wrap my head around.  It’s threaded through with issues of race and class, slavery and poverty, ownership over the female body, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  And in the midst of the human morass, God has some sort of role.  God is somehow a part of the story, blessing the child of Abraham and Sarah, allowing Sarah to act on her violent desires to do away with Hagar, meeting Hagar in the wilderness, sending her back into the abuse.  God is even named by Hagar, “El-Roi.”  She’s the only person in scripture to name God.  The story of Hagar is as rich as it is troubling and difficult to deal with.  There are a thousand different ways to speak about it.

But for me, I was reminded of a very simple aspect of the story, one I used to overlook.  Hunger and thirst.  It’s present throughout the story, and until a few years ago, I thought of it more as a plot device than a blood and bones issue.  In Genesis 21:14-21, Hagar and Ishmael are sent away by Abraham with a skin of water and loaf of bread.  When the water and bread run out, Hagar stashes Ishmael under a bush and walks away, so as not to witness the death of her son.  God hears the cries of the boy and shows up to save the day, offering a spring of water and a home in the wilderness, a future and a hope.  For quite some time I read this story and to my deaf ears thirst and hunger were merely present to push the story along, to incite God’s action.  Perhaps to add a little drama to the text.  Hagar and Ishmael, in my mind, were never at risk of truly dying to thirst or hunger; it wasn’t a real thing.  God would show up, of course!

And then I had a son of my own.

DSC_0009Almost three years ago, I gave birth to a beautiful little boy with a head much too large to fit through my body.  Thanks to the gift of a C-section, Enoch was born healthy and happy, 8 pounds 4 ounces.  Like most new mothers, I had come to the hospital fully prepared to breastfeed my little boy.  Oh, what joy we would share!  Awash in post-natal hormones!  He would latch and life would be a dream!  Of course, as many of you will already know, nursing is not easy.  It’s very, very difficult.  Especially with a first baby.  I tried to nurse, I tried so hard.  I tried different body positions for Enoch, I tried different latch techniques, I spoke with the lactation consultant and nurses.  But for those four days in the hospital, as I recovered from my C-section, I saw my little boy lose weight at an alarming rate.

I felt desperate.  All I wanted was to feed my baby, to offer him the food he needed from my breasts which were positively bursting with milk to give.  Everything began to feel hopeless.  It was that sort of post-baby crazy that really only comes about from a perfect cocktail of hormones, milk coming in, the anxiety of the hospital environment, and the very real fact of Enoch’s weight loss.  It felt like the world was coming to an end, because I couldn’t feed my hungry, thirsty little boy.  And I honestly don’t think that’s an exaggeration of how I felt in that moment.

A few months later, I was reading the story of Hagar for a class assignment, and I found myself overcome by the text.  Somewhere in the space of experiencing my own child’s hunger, I was changed.  The idea that a mother would leave her child under a bush, so that she didn’t have to experience his cries, it felt real to me.  I remembered feeling so powerless to care for my own son, so unable to tend to his most basic needs.  Hunger and thirst, they were issues I had known in my own bones, in my own breasts, in my own son.  They couldn’t be plot points for me anymore.  Not now that I had a son of my own, a child for whom I would do anything, a creature dependent upon me for food and water.

I started to see Hagar’s desperation, and I realized that my own experience was only a shadow of her own.  See, by the forth day in the hospital, the lactation consultant handed me a breast shield.   It’s this rubbery piece of silicon that kind of turns your boob into a bottle.  Enoch was able to latch like a champ, and he ate so much that first time he spit most of it back up again because his little belly wasn’t ready for such an onslaught of milk.  Enoch and I learned together how to make this feeding-thing work, and I was able to nurse him for well over a year.  Those first few days were terrifying and harrowing, but they weren’t an experience of real hunger.  There were OBGYNs and nurses, lactation consultants and pediatricians, there was formula and bottles.  Enoch was never in danger of truly going hungry.  But something about my own desperation in those days, it changed the way I saw Hagar.

I can’t read her story as flippantly as I used to.  Hunger and thirst, they aren’t just plot devices to me any longer.  On one hand, I feel almost silly telling this story.  My own privilege of giving birth in a beautiful hospital, filled with caring, competent professionals, it seems an odd and maybe even mocking place to compare to Hagar, alone in the wilderness with a child truly dying of thirst.  But at the same time, it was an honest moment in my life that changed the way I see Hagar.  It changed the way I read scripture, an intersection of the written and the lived word.  It was, in a sense, the Real Word.

Rev. Kelly Boubel Shriver is the pastor of a PCUSA community in Southeast Michigan.  When she's not around the church, you can often find her playing with her two sons, walking the dog, herding the ducks and chickens, or watching Doctor Who with her husband.

Image by: Kelly Boubel Shriver
Used with permission
3 replies
  1. Traci
    Traci says:

    Love the concept of this column, and so glad that you’re the one to start it off, Kelly. Thank you for sharing it. I’ve not yet even had a cup of coffee and I feel ready to start the day. That’s something!

  2. Sarah KG
    Sarah KG says:

    Kelly, what a beautiful reflection–brought tears to my eyes. C had a hard time feeding at first, too, it really is a scary feeling–but you’re right–a shadow of what true hunger is like. I can’t even imagine.

  3. Mihee
    Mihee says:

    Will never take these stories in the Bible for granted now (at least, try)…All the basics – hunger, fear, rejection feel so much more poignant with our stories – thank you for this glimpse…


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