Today we continue our Lenten journey with the story of Hagar which is found in Genesis chapter 16. She is an Egyptian “handmaid” (some versions of the bible refer to her as a “maidservant”) for Sarai. Sarai’s name is later changed to Sarah by God, and, since she is better known as Sarah, that’s how I’ll refer to her. Sarah is the wife of Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham), and in Genesis 11:30 we are told that she was barren, a critical point for what happens with her handmaid, Hagar.
Here are the facts as reported in Genesis 16: Sarah convinces Abraham to have sex with Hagar. Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham, and then Sarah and Hagar start having problems in their relationship. Sarah “deals harshly” with Hagar (16:6), and Hagar runs away.
This story is near the top of my favorite bible stories, and I believe there is a lot more going on than what meets the eye. For starters, “maidservant” or “handmaid” (different translations use either word) are such benign terms. In today’s understanding, Hagar was a slave, owned by Sarah. Genesis 16:4 recounts Hagar’s reaction when she became pregnant by Abraham. The common view is that, “typical of women,” Hagar was flaunting her pregnancy which greatly upset Sarai. Let’s remember that Hagar didn’t have any say in what happened to her, which, in modern-day terms, would be considered rape. Hagar is a #MeToo woman. Back then, wives, concubines and slaves were property. And, because Hagar was Sarah’s property, anything that was Hagar’s was legally Sarah’s, including Hagar’s children. And, to add to the abuse of rape, she is now pregnant. Try to put yourself in Hagar’s shoes. If you were a slave and your owner forced her husband on you and you got pregnant, wouldn’t you, too, be angry with your owner? The translation in English says that Hagar “looked on her mistress with contempt,” but the actual Hebrew has the force of “she despised the sight of her.” To reciprocate, Genesis 16:6 recounts that Sarah treated Hagar “harshly.” The Hebrew actually could be interpreted as Sarah violated or abused Hagar. So now we have rape resulting in pregnancy, and abuse by her owner. Who wouldn’t try to run away from this situation?
Now we get to the reason I love this story, and it’s one of the more moving exchanges in the bible between God and a human. This part of the story is in Genesis 16:7-13. The Angel of the Lord, which we understand to be God for reasons I won’t go into here, follows Hagar and speaks words of comfort to her. God tells her to name her child Ishmael, which means “God hears.” In return, Hagar gives God a name … El Roi, the God (El) who sees (Roi). Imagine that! The first name given to God was given by a woman! While this isn’t the end of Hagar’s story, this is where I will stop, because I want us to be sure we have understood what just happened.
In this story we get a glimpse of the God we worship. Ours is not a God who causes our pain and suffering, but a God who is with us through it all. Ours is a God who will relentlessly pursue us, even when we are running away from our lives. God hears us when we cry out in our anguish. God wanted Hagar to remember that point so much so, that God named her child “God hears.” God “gets” us like no one else because God truly “sees” us like no one else. That is why one of the many names for God is El Roi … God-Who-Sees. The same God who pursued Hagar in the wilderness, who spoke gentle words of comfort to her, who truly saw her for the beautiful soul she was, is the same God who pursues me and speaks to me and sees me … if I will only wait, notice, listen.
Spend some time this week with this story contemplating these aspects of God.