The Bible is full of great and fascinating characters. We all love to read of the faith of Abraham and the boldness of David. We should take note then when God interrupts these well-known tales to give short stories about seemingly minor characters. In the text, we must learn never to overlook what God has asked us to see.
A fine example of this sort of story is the tale of Hagar. The story begins in Genesis 16, sandwiched in between important accounts of Abraham. Abram is called in chapter twelve, travels in Egypt in chapter thirteen, rescues Lot in chapter fourteen, and covenants with God in chapter fifteen. He will receive circumcision in chapter seventeen and meet the Lord at Mamre in chapter eighteen. Chapter sixteen sticks out then by breaking up the flow of an important Hebrew story. It is not a chapter about Abram. It is not even a chapter about Abram’s wife, Sarai. It is a chapter about Abram’s wife’s slave, Hagar.
We are introduced to the two central characters in verse one. Sarai is rich, free and barren. Hagar is single, poor, and bonded. Sarai determines with Abram to have a child by way of Hagar. Sarai speaks, Abram listens, but Hagar has no voice. For Sarai, Hagar becomes a means to an end. “Perhaps I will be built up in her,” she says. Hagar is not a person but a tool, a stock animal existing to benefit to Sarai.
After the child is born in verse four, Sarai finds she has lost some of her status in the household. Instead of being built up, Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress.” Sarai blames Hagar for the consequence of her own choice. “Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.” We might imagine how sad it was for Hagar, so far from home in Egypt, to get a glimpse of the good life as the mother of the master’s heir, only to be chased away in disgrace.
The remainder of chapter sixteen is the story of Hagar and her child, alone in the wilderness, even more alone than she had been in the tent of Sarai. Just here, the Hebrew canon offers us several surprises. In verse seven, the angel of the Lord appears to Hagar by a spring of water in the wilderness.
This is the first time in the Bible that an angel appears to a human in this way. Not to Adam, Noah, or Abraham. To Hagar, the angel of the Lord appears.
Not only does he appear, but he speaks directly to Hagar. This is the first time anyone in the story speaks to Hagar, and she is even called by name! She is neither cattle nor a possession. She is a person with a name, and haven been spoken to as such; she now finds her own voice.
Verse eight is the first time Hagar speaks in the story. What Hagar has to say tells us much about her in a few words. “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” That was not the question. She was asked, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” She knows where she is from, but not where she is going. How much despair must have filled her heart, knowing only a life of servitude and now knowing no destination but “away.”
The angel gives her a destination though perhaps not what she expected. The end of the road was back to Sarai, but Hagar is promised that she will find a blessing there. Her son is blessed, if strangely. “Wild donkey of man” is an odd blessing, but better than death in the wilderness. At the chapter’s end, she will name the son Ishmael, which means “God hears.”
Before leaving the text, we ought to notice one more first. The God of Israel is given many names in the Scriptures. He is El Shaddai, “god of the mountain.” He is El Elyon, “god most high.” He is El Berith, “god of covenant.” He is El Elohe-Israel, “god of Israel.” He is Elohim. He is Yahweh, the great I AM.
But the privilege of offering the first name given by a mortal to God goes to Hagar. Not Adam, Noah, or Abraham. Hagar is the first person in the Bible to “name” the Lord. She calls him El Roi, “The God Who Sees Me.” God is the only one in this story who dignifies Hagar as a human being made in His image. He sees her when no other does. “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”
Can We See?
What we learn about God and ourselves in this story is the trap of not seeing. When we look at the poor, the powerless, or the disabled and see nothing of value, we have stopped seeing as God sees. We have stopped seeing as Jesus sees.
Do we remember the story of Jesus’ meal with the Pharisee? Jesus sat down to eat in Luke 7, and in verse 37-38 a woman who was a sinner anoints the feet of Jesus and “wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head.” The Pharisee overlooks the extravagant act of love and sees only Jesus coming into contact with a sinner. He sees no person of value, no soul needing love. Jesus responds with a short parable and then asks a question familiar to us if we remember Hagar.
In verse 44 he asks, “Do you see this woman?”
When Sarai looked at Hagar, she saw a slave. When the Pharisee looked at this woman, he saw a sinner. Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” Are we able to see and appreciate the lost, the needy, the downtrodden, and those considered to be the least among us? Jesus sees her plight, sees her sin, and sees her love. He offers hope to her despair, honesty to her sin, and forgiveness to her love. Jesus addresses her directly. He treats her as a person. He sees her.
The onlookers who cannot see, ask, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” Hagar could tell you.
He is the God who sees.