Yesterday, in the post Waiting On God, we looked at Genesis 15, in which God informs Abram very clearly that Abram will have an heir that will develop into a very large nation. We discussed Abram’s subsequent decision in Genesis 16 to take his wife’s servant, Hagar, and impregnate her, in an effort to bring about the promise God made to him.
Today I want us to focus on Hagar. People often have a very negative view of Hagar, regarding her as the subpar-Sarai who birthed the “wrong son.” If we look closer at the life of Hagar, though, we see a far different picture.
At the beginning of Genesis 16, we learn that Sarai is unable to have children, so she instructs Abram to take her servant, Hagar, and see if she will provide him children. I should note here that having a servant bear children on behalf of a couple was not abnormal at the time; in fact, we see the same scenario with Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s servant Bilhah in Genesis 30. Abram also takes Hagar as his “wife” (ishah), which was common as well. Sarai then remains the principal wife, and Hagar becomes a second-tier wife.
Abram impregnates Hagar, and we learn that Hagar begins snubbing or “no longer respecting” Sarai. Sarai confronts Abram about Hagar’s behavior, and Abram tells her to treat Hagar however she wishes. And this is where the text gets violent: Sarai acts so harshly toward Hagar that Hagar runs away, into the desert.
Imagine that: Hagar is a pregnant servant with nowhere to go, and Sarai treats her so harshly that she decides running away into the wilderness is safer than staying in her home. Her treatment was that unbearable.
And then, when Hagar is as lost and abandoned as she’s ever been, God shows up. “Hagar! Sarai’s servant! Where did you come from and where are you going?” The Lord visits her and asks the questions that all of us need to ponder when we’re feeling lost and afraid: Where did you come from? Where are you going?
She explains her predicament, and God tells her to return to Sarai’s house, promising to give her innumerable heirs.
God then discusses Ishmael. He says, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You will name him Ishmael because the Lord has heard about your harsh treatment.” The name Ishamel (yishmael) means “God hears.” It’s as though Ishmael, who God describes as being “a wild mule of a man,” will also testify to God’s witness of Hagar’s harsh treatment simply with his name. The trials of Hagar will never be forgotten, so long as Ishmael’s name is known.
Hagar then calls God “El Roi,” meaning “God who sees” or “God whom I’ve seen.” Frankly, both translations work: God saw her torment and struggle, and Hagar also saw God while in the wilderness. She then returns to Sarai and Abram, and births Ishmael.
I don’t know why we so often brush over this story. The encounter between Hagar, a lower class servant who is hurt and afraid, and God happens in such an intimate and powerful way. God sees and hears her pain, witnesses all of it, and in the end extends promises and hope to her while she is lost in the wilderness.
God finds Hagar, the lowly servant of Abram and Sarai, in the midst of her deepest moments of pain and sorrow, which gives us hope that God can find us as well. God doesn’t only care for those with status, fame, perfection, and chosenness — God cares for all of us. He witnesses our struggles and frustration, knows when others treat us harshly, and is willing to sit with us when we’re hurting.
So may we turn to God today. May we bring our burdens before Him, knowing that He already sees them and hears them. May we know that God is powerful enough and compassionate enough to hold all of sadness and grief. And may we let Him sit with us today.