Her name is associated with faithlessness, but not her own. Her master’s. She came to Abram and Sarai when they faithlessly went to Egypt to escape famine. Apparently, they purchased a slave for Sarai while they were there, or maybe she was a gift to Sarai from Pharaoh. Either way, Hagar now belonged to the childless couple to whom God had promised a son, a nation, and a blessing. It was neither scandalous nor unusual in those days for a slave to act as a “surrogate” for an infertile couple. So, when Abram and Sarai fail to conceive the Promised Child, they see a way around trusting God to do what He had said He would, and they decide to try surrogacy. Hagar, it would seem, conceives with very little trouble. Now expecting Abram’s child, the child of promise, she can’t help but rub it in to Sarai, her beautiful and wealthy mistress. Sarai, however, will not stand for such insubordination, and insists that her husband do something about it. Abram, not wanting to get involved in the female spat, responds to his wife’s demands: “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight” (Gen. 16:6). Sarai decides what is good in her sight is to send Hagar away—pregnant and penniless.
Let’s press pause on our story, found in Genesis 16, for just a minute and take a closer look at what we know about Hagar.
- She’s Egyptian and a pagan (v. 1).
- She’s a servant, has no social status whatsoever (v. 1).
- She’s “used” sexually, albeit legally, for her masters’ purposes (v. 2).
- She’s not innocent—after getting pregnant, she “despises” Sarai (vv. 4, 5).
- She’s nameless to Abram and Sarai. In this entire account, never once do they use her name, instead, referring to her as the “maid.”
While Hagar is a sympathetic character, we realize that she’s brought a lot of her trouble on herself. Had she treated Sarai respectfully, she wouldn’t have been banished. Instead, she’d be rejoicing in carrying the son of promise for her master—from a human perspective, at least. (Of course, her son was never the son God promised, but that’s a different lesson for a different day.) The text makes it pretty clear that while she may not have deserved what she got from Sarai, she could have prevented it too.
Let’s continue with the story. Not surprisingly, the expectant mother needs to rest after walking apparently a great distance. She finds a spring of water in the wilderness and figures this is where she’ll die. Thankfully, someone has been pursuing her. No, it’s not the father of her child; it’s the Angel of the Lord, a preincarnate manifestation of Christ. For the first time in this account, her name is spoken aloud. “Hagar,” He says, “where have you come from and where are you going?” (16:8). Hagar tells him that she’s escaped from her mistress, and the Angel tells her to return and submit to Sarai (v. 9).
He goes on to give her both good news and bad news about her son. The good news is that, first, he’ll survive (never a foregone conclusion in that culture, especially when an unwed mother is on the run in the wilderness!) and, second, that he will give his mother many descendants. The bad news, though, is that her son won’t be a terribly diplomatic fellow. He’s prophesied to be a “wild donkey of a man” and that “his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him” (vv.11-12).
Somewhat surprisingly, Hagar rejoices at this news, and she blesses the Lord upon hearing it, giving Him an important, though obscure, name. Before we go there, however, let’s hit pause again and check out what we learn about Hagar’s Visitor from the second half of our account.
- First, He pursues Hagar—the pagan, not-so-innocent slave with no status and, as far as we know, no faith (v. 7).
- He calls her by name. Given Abram and Sarai’s avoidance of her name, this is significant. When Christ finds her, He knows and uses her name (v. 8).
- He also knows her “secret.” He tells her that she’s “with child” (v. 11), something that Hagar didn’t offer voluntarily. (To be fair, we don’t know how far along Hagar is in her pregnancy, so maybe it was obvious to everyone. But knowing the deepest secrets of a person’s life is something Christ demonstrates in another conversation with another thirsty woman—John 4:15-19),
- He calls her to obedience. He doesn’t condone Hagar’s misconduct in despising Sarai. He tells her to submit to Sarai’s authority. This will require a lot of humility from Hagar, but it will also save her life.
- He hears her (v. 11). He tells Hagar to name her son “Ishmael,” which literally means “God will hear,” and He gives her this instruction because He has “listened to [her] affliction” (ESV).
- Finally, He sees her. (v 13). Hagar is the first woman in Scripture to give a name to the LORD. She calls him “El Roi,” the God who Sees. Hagar must have felt invisible and used, like a utilitarian vehicle for a baby. However, she was specifically, individually sought out by El Roi. He saw Hagar, and He sees you.
Psalm 139 presents this truth in poetry:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn,
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea,
Even there Your hand will lead me,
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me,
And the light around me will be night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to You,
And the night is as bright as the day.
Darkness and light are alike [to You.] (vv. 7-12)
You may feel hidden and anonymous right now, but God sees, knows, and cares for you. It may have been weeks or even months since you were hugged or since you visited with anyone face to face. God sees you. You may carry a secret weight that you don’t feel you can entrust to anyone. God sees you. You may feel alone in the crowd, longing for koinonia fellowship. God sees you.
We must make one more point of application as well. Since we are called to conform to Christ’s character (Rom. 8:29), we must also be people who “see.” We often have tunnel vision for our own problems and concerns and lose sight of those around us. Our schedules and our hands are full, and we don’t take time to get our hands dirty in someone else’s mess. We may be held back by fear or pride to offer a smile or a kind word or to ask an “awkward” question; but if we want to imitators of our Savior, that’s the very least we can do. It’s a start, but let’s not stay there. It will be uncomfortable, and you might get shot down, but that didn’t stop Christ. Let us not “look on our own concerns, but every man also on the concerns of others” (Phil. 2:4).
Praise God that He sees us. Let us see others as well.