Here’s the funny thing about the story of Hagar – it doesn’t seem to have any business being in the Bible. It doesn’t seem to contribute to the progression of the narrative we’ve been following.
Starting with Genesis 12, the story tells us how God chose a specific person, Abram, to be the bearer of God’s divine blessing. And after a few false starts and stumbles, will pass the blessing onto Isaac, who will pass it onto Jacob.
That’s what Genesis is about, Abram passing on that blessing through his offspring.
Now, he does have a kid with Hagar, but he is not going to be the bearer of God’s blessing, so it seems that there’s no reason for this story to be told. It’s simply a messy complication.
So, why does the author of Genesis spend a chapter and a half telling Hagar’s story?
It’s certainly not because she was important. In fact, she was just the opposite. An Egyptian slave girl was about as low on the social status pyramid as you can get.
In fact, Abram and Sarai never even call her by name. To them, she is simply, “that slave girl.”
If you remember, Abram and Sarai had been to Egypt, and when they left, Pharaoh gave them some parting gifts: sheep, oxen, camels, and servants. Hagar was probably one of those, numbered among the livestock as property changing hands. As a human being, Hagar was invisible.
In our culture, we’d say that she had been trafficked.
Her only value to Abram and Sarai was as a slave and then as a surrogate.
You see, the couple have been promised by God they will have a son and through their son, there’s going to be a great nation and eventually God is going to bless the whole world through their lineage.
But time has passed, and they are well beyond their child-bearing years, so Sarai thinks that maybe this promise God made was too big for God, and that she needs to solve God’s problem for him, so she decides to take matters into her own hands and tells Abram to go sleep with Hagar and make a child.
Abram just shrugs his shoulder and was like, “Well, OK”
Now, this may seem extreme and even adulterous to us, but back in those days it was quite common.
There were laws in place that dealt with the issue of barrenness, which included a wife using her maidservant in this capacity.
So, Sarai adds to Hagar’s job description, invoking the “other duties as assigned” clause to force her to get pregnant. Hagar was simply a means to an end for Sarai.
Well, indeed Hagar becomes pregnant and our scripture tells us she “despised her mistress”. In other words, Hagar began to rub it in a bit that she could get pregnant when her boss couldn’t.
So, once again Sarai goes to Abram and says, “Do something about this!” and once again Abram just shrugs his shoulders and says, “Your problem, not mine.”
Well, that doesn’t go over well, so Sarai begins treating Hagar harshly, so much so that Hagar is faced with a no-win situation: stay and put up with her harsh treatment and this dysfunctional family, or risk her and her baby’s life by running away . . . She runs.
End of story, right?
All Sarai needs to do is pick another maidservant for Abram to impregnate, this one a little less cheeky and a little more compliant, they have a kid, and the narrative just goes chugging right along.
No one was going to miss what’s-her-name. She probably wouldn’t last a day on her own anyway.
But after she runs away, the story follows Hagar out into the wilderness.
While on the run, an angel of the Lord comes to her.
Let me emphasize again that we’re talking about an Egyptian slave girl. By all accounts, she was a nobody; She was young, she was single, she was female.
Everyone around her would say God had no use for her, just as God had no use for a young, single, female named Mary, and yet, both women are visited by an angel of God and given extraordinary news.
Mary is told she’s going to have a baby named Jesus. Hagar is also told she will have a son, and that God would so greatly multiply her offspring that they will be too numerous to be counted.
And Hagar responds by naming this God she has encountered.
Now let’s hit the pause button a second here to recognize the magnitude of what’s going on here. There are several firsts that take place.
- Hagar becomes the first woman in scripture visited by a divine messenger.
- She is the first woman to be given the promise of descendants.
- She is the first woman to see and have a conversation with God.
- And she is the only person in all of scripture who gives God a name: El Roi, which means, “the God who sees me.”
Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, the nobody, the invisible, the person whose story we were thinking has no place in scripture, has been seen.
The slave girl that was never called by name by her owners is called by name by the angel of God who tells her she is going to have a child and his name would be Ishmael which means, “God hears”.
Then the angel tells her to go back to her owners . . . I’m gonna be honest, this part of the story makes my stomach tighten in a knot. Here is a woman who has been living in slavery, sexually taken advantage of and beaten by her owners and she finally does something that reaches toward her own liberation and healing and God tells her no, you need to go back to that abusive situation . . . and I struggle with that.
But theologians generally agree that this was the most prudent thing for Hagar to do since she was single, pregnant, vulnerable and had few chances of survival in the desert. So, as we struggle with the message of the angel to go back to Abram and Sarai, it is important to remember that Hagar is a woman with very few options and God helps her to decide between bad and worse.
I am incredibly thankful that in our culture, there are other options and resources available for vulnerable women – like the spring and our own Lullaby Ministry - but in this culture there were not.
So, she goes back to Abram and Sarai and gives birth to Ishmael, who becomes Abram’s first-born son.
Meanwhile, Sarai finally does conceive and has Isaac and now the story turns into what could be a crazy reality TV show.
- You’ve got two half-brothers, both of whom could make the claim as the first-born.
- You’ve got Sarai, mother of one of the boys, who despises Hagar, the mother of the other boy.
- And then you’ve got Abraham, the father of both boys, caught in the middle.
- Did I mention that he’s married to both women?
- Throw in a few chairs and you’ve got an episode of Jerry Springer.
- Is it any wonder the author of Genesis tells us the matter was “very distressing” to Abraham?
Well, Sarai once again takes matters into her own hands. Even though she finally got the son she was promised, she doesn’t want that Egyptian slave-girl and her boy hanging around.
So, she tells Abraham to send them packing, but there’s a problem; Abraham loves Ishmael. After all, Ishmael is his first-born son.
But God tells Abraham to go ahead and do what Sarai says, because God will take care of them.
So, for the second time, Hagar leaves the protection of Abraham’s camp and goes into the wilderness. Only this time, she’s not alone. Ishmael, her son is with her, and her well-being is tied directly to his.
Eventually, they run out of water, and it’s looking like they both are going to die in the harsh desert and the story appears to have come to a dead end. So, Hagar puts Ishmael under some bushes and departs, saying she can’t bear to watch her own child die.
But the God who sees is also the God who hears, and for the second time an angel of the Lord visits this invisible nobody.
I was talking once with a young mother where a bunch of kids were playing. In the middle of one of her sentences, there was a loud, blood-curdling cry. The mother stopped, tilted her head to the side, and got this look of intense concentration on her face. After a second she said, “Nope, it’s not mine,” and went on talking. It’s amazing how parents, even in noisy places, know the sound of their child.
God knows the sound of our cries.
The angel of the Lord says to Hagar, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy.” The angel reiterates the promise of blessing for Ishmael, and then opens Hagar’s eyes to show her a well of water, from which she gives Ishmael a life-saving drink.
El Roi, the God who sees, now helps Hagar to see, and when she does, God literally saves her life.
This dead-end story ends up being not such a dead-end after all.
I believe Hagar’s story is in the Bible as an important reminder that the God of Abraham and Sarah and Isaac and Jacob is also the God of Hagar and Ishmael.
A person’s worth to God is not determined by their status or birth order or usefulness. This story says to us that even the most invisible people in our world matter to God. The single, the pregnant, the vulnerable, the oppressed, the foreigner – God sees them. They matter to God.
When I think of the modern-day Hagar’s . . .
I think of people whose livelihood is dependent on taking care of others, and yet who are often invisible; factory workers, waiters and waitresses, hotel maids, custodians.
For many of us, these people only exist for their useful value. We only see them because they serve a purpose for us. And when they’re out of our sight, they’re out of our mind.
And that’s not to mention those in our world who are kept against their will as sex slaves or personal property. We’d like to think in our modern world those kinds of situations don’t exist, but in the United States it is estimated that there are between 15,000 – 18,000 people who are being held against their will. In fact, Florida is ranked third in the nation for the number of human trafficking cases.
And Tampa is home to the FBI Innocence Lost Task Force where last year alone, over one hundred children who have been sold for sex have been rescued in the Bay Area.
These stories and statistics are a reminder that there are Hagar’s all around us.
The same God that gave us life gave them life. The same God who hears our cries hears their cries.
The outsiders, those on the margins, the vulnerable, and those who don’t fit our definition of valuable, are also God’s children.
Hagar’s story gives us this jaw-dropping sense of God’s intimate interest and care for the invisible people in our world. God has opened their eyes and shown them the life-giving well of water that is the kingdom of God in their midst.
And guess what? The church is full of water bottles.
Scripture calls us “clay vessels.” God calls us to fill ourselves with the living water of Jesus, and then to go out and quench the thirst of the Hagar’s and Ishmaels of this world who are literally and spiritually dying of thirst.
Tampa is full of wildernesses places where the Hagar’s and Ishmael’s have fled to find refuge and hope.
We have that to offer, don’t we?
We have the means to say, “You matter to God.” People are crying out for hope, for justice, for a reminder that God sees them. They are dying of thirst. And there is water right here, sweet, life-saving water. “She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.”
Hagar and Ishmael mattered to God. Do they matter to us?