We regard Abraham and Sarah as great figures of faith–and they were. But at times they also failed greatly. The Abraham story chronicles the tension between faith and fear, between God’s promise and the threat’s to God’s promise. Sometimes Abraham responds with faith. Sometimes he didn’t. But God remained faithful, because what God was doing in Abraham was bigger than just Abraham. God was using Abraham as a channel of blessing for all peoples–a blessing ultimately fulfilled at the cross. But when Abraham’s faith failed, life got messy.
Hagar was at the center of that mess.
Hagar was an Egyptian slave who belonged to Sarah. It’s possible Hagar was one of the the slaves acquired during Abraham’s near-disastrous sojourn in Egypt–the one where Abraham lied about Sarah being his wife, Pharaoh claimed her, and God himself had to step in to rescue her. But it’s ten years on from that now. Ten years since God had first promised to make Abraham a father of many nations. Ten years of month after month of disappointed hopes, and Sarah was tired of waiting.
So Sarah came up with an alternate plan: give Hagar to Abraham as a wife so she could have children through her. Though we instantly see this as adultery, Abraham and Sarah probably didn’t. Some ancient Mesopotamian bridal contracts contain the provision that if a wife is unable to bear children, she can give her slave to her husband as a surrogate. The slave can then be sold after she bears a child.* By giving Hagar to Abraham, Sarah may have been invoking the terms of her bridal contract.
We don’t know what Hagar thought of this situation. Perhaps she welcomed it. Going from slave to wife was a significant jump in status. Regardless of Hagar’s opinions on the matter, she probably didn’t have a choice. She was a slave, and her masters had the right to do with her as they saw fit. What we do know is that after Hagar conceived she “despised” her mistress (Genesis 16:4). Again, we don’t know exactly what happened here. If I had to guess, Hagar started looking down on Sarah. After all, she had done the one thing Sarah could not: conceive. Perhaps she hoped that her status as mother of Abraham’s heir would giver her precedence even over Sarah as the most favored wife. Perhaps she openly taunted Sarah. What we know for certain is that when Sarah’s plan didn’t work out the way she wanted, she blamed Abraham: “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.” Abraham told Sarah to do as she wished, and Sarah mistreated Hagar until she fled into the wilderness.
And that’s where things get interesting. I wonder what Hagar knew about Abraham’s God? If she had been with Sarah and Abraham since Egypt, she had seen Abraham at his highs and lows. She watched as Abraham build altar’s to this strange unknown God with no image and no name. She knew God helped Abraham be victorious in battle, refused a lavish gift from the King of Sodom, and offered a tithe to Melchizedek. She knew, surely, that God had made covenant with Abraham and promised him blessings beyond imagination. But how did Abraham and Sarah’s treatment of Hagar affect her view of their God? Somehow I imagine that when Hagar made tracks toward Egypt she was wasn’t just leaving Abraham behind–she left God behind too.
But God didn’t leave her. God found Hagar beside a spring in the wilderness. God told her to go back to Sarah, but God also promised to “increase your descendants so much they will be too numerous to count.” Her son would live in hostility with his brothers, but he would live. God told Hagar to name her son Ishmael–God hears. And she did. But she also named God, calling him “You are the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13). Turns out this God wasn’t just Abraham’s God–he was willing to be Hagar’s God, too. God was not indifferent to her hurt. God heard her cries. He saw her tears. He met her in the wilderness, and God kept her promises to her. Ishamael also became a great nation, and God was with him as he grew (Genesis 21:20). God saw Hagar, and he cared for her.
Maybe you identify with Hagar today in that you’ve also felt the wounds that can be inflicted by God’s people. I’ll raise my hand and admit it–I’ve played Sarah’s part in this story before. And sometimes I’ve played Hagar’s. Maybe you’ve been scarred by a church conflict, or spiritual abuse, or Christians who couldn’t seem to move past your past. Maybe you shook the dust off your feet at the church doorsteps and decided if that’s how God’s people were you didn’t want any part of him either. Maybe you hung on, but you’ve suffered in silence–clinging to God with all your might but not willing to trust his people. Hear this: there is hope. God is not indifferent to your pain. He hears your cries. He sees your tears, and he is willing to bind up your broken spirit. God doesn’t waste your tears. They are precious to him. No matter what has happened, know this: God sees you. Run to him–he’s waiting for you.
*Angel, Hayyim. 2013. “Sarah’s treatment of Hagar (Genesis 16): morals, messages, and Mesopotamia.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 41, no. 4: 211-218. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed April 21, 2016).
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