To say Hagar is remarkable because of her insight about God isn’t the first way we usually think of her. Is Hagar one of those Old Testament Biblical figures you know because she was exiled from a home where her child was fathered by the head of the household? That was largely the context I knew of this slave who seemed a secondary figure to the great Abraham in whose tent she lived and bore his firstborn son, Ishmael. But not anymore!
Hagar is not only an important figure to the fulfillment of promises in the Abraham cycle of stories but the only figure in the entire Bible who makes a name for God. (More on that later!) To appreciate her story, a word on the structure of Genesis. This Book of Origins (Greek for ‘genesis’) divides neatly into two parts: Genesis 1 – 11 covers the pre-history stories that include the creation of the world, humanity, sin, language, national boundaries, wars, Cain and Abel, the flood, the destruction of Sodom, etc.
Genesis 12-50 begins part 2, the creation of Israel, through the narrative lens of Abraham and his family. Those ancient editors (J, E, and P) wove together multiple authors to tell Israel’s understanding of God and creation in Genesis, wasting no time to announce the extraordinary promises God would make to Abraham, the father of Israel.
Gen. 12:1-3 sets the stage for the 39 chapters that follow and are the touchtone promises referred to throughout coming chapters. Not only will Abraham receive land but heirs, an almost impossible dream considering Sarah is barren. Sarah decides to take matters into her own hands for how God’s promise can be fulfilled: through her slave, Hagar.
Hagar was an Egyptian obtained when Abraham and Sarah first visited Egypt and the Patriarch tried to pass off Sarah as his sister (Gen. 12:13)—not one of his shining moments! In return, Abraham received both cattle and slaves from the appreciative Pharaoh, with Hagar among them. With no thought of how she’d feel being ripped out of her homeland and joined to a clan she didn’t know, Hagar left her country when Abraham’s scheme was exposed.
Fast forward ten years and they’ve all been living together in Canaan when Sarah hatches her plan for God’s promise to be fulfilled, an idea that must have seemed logical given the increasing ages of Abraham and Sarah and no baby on the horizon. Gen. 16:2 explains that the descendent is to be “from his body” so Sarah must assume that the heir doesn’t have to come from her. Besides, the ancient world’s custom was for slaves to serve as surrogates for parents who would then gain legal custody for the child.
Biblical interpreters often fault Sarah for her actions while others view it as a way that God worked through Sarah to bring the promises to fulfillment.
Yet as the story is related in Gen. 16, the focus isn’t on Sarah but Hagar. The linguistic repetition of language like ‘her slave’ and ‘your slave’ underlies Hagar’s lowly status, clarifying that she doesn’t have choices but must do what Sarah tells her, typical of relationships in the ancient world where Abraham is head of the family, Sarah is head of the household, and Hagar is a slave to both.
Hagar had no say in being a sexual surrogate for Sarah with Abraham nor does anyone ask Hagar if she’d like to go along with this arrangement. She has no control over her life, including her body.
Gen. 16:2 underscores Hagar’s lowly position with harsh verbs such as ‘took’ and ‘gave’, indicating there was never a question of Hagar being asked if she wanted to participate in this arrangement. But the change happens from here on. Once Hagar conceives, she moves from Sarah’s slave to Abraham’s second wife, hinting that Sarah’s plan has backfired. She no longer has a servant but a true competitor in another wife!
Desperate against Sarah’s assaults of jealousy, Hagar flees to the wilderness as so many Biblical figures do: no help, no food, no shelter. Yet it is there, in a desperate state, she has her encounter with God. Genesis 16 is an astounding chapter, relaying not only God’s care for this non-Israelite but Hagar’s important role in the fulfillment of the Covenant as the mother of what will be the Ishmaelites, part of “all the families of the earth (that) shall be blessed”, as Gen. 12:3 promised. (Note that Gen. 16:11 switches from prose to poetry, a device to draw attention to the specialness of the divine message.)
In this divine encounter Hagar glimpses the nature of God as she learns of her son’s name, “Ishmael, ” which comes from the Hebrew verb, ‘to hear’, meaning “God hears her cries”. What an encouragement to those who feel beaten down, victimized, or almost drowning in lack of any kind. This is the God who hears every voice and cry for help.
And here is the remarkable part. Hagar doesn’t just accept this divine appellation, but responds with her own naming, designating God as “El Roi” (“the God who sees.”) This is the all-seeing and all-hearing infinite God taking care of His own that Israel’s prophets will later glimpse and Christ Jesus bring into even fuller view. Hagar becomes the only person in the Old Testament to name God, using her own experience to find new language to describe the divine presence.
Hagar’s next question reveals her Egyptian upbringing where, to see a god, meant that you had died. “Have I really seen God and remained alive…”? (Gen. 16:13). She glimpses how differently this God is from what she earlier knew.
What if we took a lesson from Hagar, and name God as we experience the divine – an appellation that might be completely unique to our own experience, but grows out of the kind of heartfelt encounter that, like Hagar experienced, is life-changing. Please share any thoughts you have about this.
Thank you, remarkable Hagar, all these centuries later, for your talk with God and sharing that tremendous insight for us centuries later.