There are a bunch of women in the Bible who had relatively naff lives before they came good. Rahab was a prostitute and a foreigner, but she picked the right side, had faith and ended up in the line of Jesus. Tamar was rejected multiple times and prostituted herself to her father in law before being restored and honoured. Ruth was a foreigner who endured loss and penury before marrying Boaz.
But there’s a woman in the Old Testament who had a pretty rubbish time of things and there’s no happy ending. In the midst of it though, there a moment of pure wonder.
Hagar was a servant girl to Sarai, bought in Egypt by Abram. When Sarai does not conceive a child, she gives Hagar to Abram (Genesis 16:1-2 and note they had not yet had their names changed by God to Sarah and Abraham). Abram agrees, sleeps with her and gets her pregnant, upon which, Hagar starts to despise Sarai. Understandable don’t you think? Her body had been given to Abram for his use as a surrogate mother, through no choice of her own. She had no power and no control over her own body or her fate. And it was at Sarai’s instigation. I think I’d have some deep emotional cuts too. Pain, injustice, despair, hopelessness, anger, betrayal…..
Sarai mistreats Hagar and Hagar flees. But in the desert, she meets an angel of God (Gen. 16:7-14). The angel prophesies over her and convinces her to return to her masters, which she does. The child she bears is Ishmael.
When Sarah and Abraham’s child Isaac is weaning, Sarah gets Abraham (because they have now been re-named) to expel Hagar and Ishmael. They head out into the desert and soon run out of water. Hagar can’t bear to see her son die and so walks away from him and just weeps. God sends another angel who encourages her and saves their lives with a well.
They settle around the Arabian desert and Ishmael has 12 sons and, in line with the angels’ prophecy, they become a great nation. However, they are not a great nation of the Bible or in the line of Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus says that the dynasty was anchored in Nabatea which encompasses parts of modern Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia among others, including the Sinai peninsula. Sounds pretty amazing, but Nabatea was conquered by the Romans and so the descendants of Hagar and her Ishmael only now exist in history books.
So when you pull the focus back to the longest view, Hagar has an imprint on history and Ishmael does pretty well for himself and his family. But in the narrative arc of the Bible, the Hagar’s story seems fairly incidental. In fact Paul, in the book of Galatians, uses her as an example of that which is old and superseded in comparison to what is new and ultimately God’s plan.
“For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” (Galatians 4:22-26)
What a legacy! Poor Hagar. I really feel for her. But…..but….let’s go back to that time when, in despair and pain, she fled to the desert.
In Genesis 16:11 the angel of the Lord says to her “You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.”
Hagar gives God the name El Roi “the God who sees me” because, she says “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13).
As a woman, this resonates deeply with me. For me, Hagar’s legacy is not a dynasty in the Arabian desert, or a sign of the old covenant of slaves to the law. Hagar’s legacy is a meeting in the desert with God. The angel of God had told her to name her child Ishmael, which means “God hears”. Then, she doesn’t focus on who she has met, her focus is on the fact that he sees her.
For a lot of women, this is what we yearn for. To be seen. To be heard. To be understood.
Hagar was alone. She was in the wilderness. She had been used and mistreated. Her past was marked with suffering. Her future was uncertain.
There are many of us who could empathise with this. Most of us have lives that wax and wane between pretty ordinary, to quite good, to relatively rubbish and back to OK again. Many of us have pasts that have been marked by unspeakable pain. Many of us are facing a future that fills us with fear. But what marks us, as it marked Hagar, is an interaction with the God who sees us.
He hears us. He sees us. He has a future for us. He has a part for us to play in his plan. If this is all I can say for my life – that I have seen the One who sees me – then the rest of my life pales in comparison. My life will play out as God wills it. Who knows what will happen? Maybe my boys will have a million kids who end up founding a dynasty somewhere. Maybe I’ll end up being an example of something old and superseded. But if my life carries the same legacy as Hagar, then I am happy. I have seen the Bod who sees me. Who sees me.
Not all of us will be a Tamar or a Ruth or a Rahab. Most of us are a Hagar. Living ordinary lives. But we have met the God who see us.
He sees us. He hears us. He gets us. It is a wondrous and beautiful thing to be seen and known by him that made everything and holds everything.