I can’t help but ask some questions as I read the narrative of Hagar and Sarah in Genesis 16. First of all, how long had Hagar been in Sarah's service before being made a mistress to Abraham, Sarah's husband?
We read in Genesis 12:10-16 that, after journeying into Canaan, Abraham and his family leave the Promise Land for Egypt due to famine. The Egyptians are captured by Sarah’s beauty and they praise her to Pharaoh. He, believing Sarah to be Abraham's sister, takes the woman for his harem. Pharaoh deals well with Abraham for Sarah's sake, giving him large gifts of servants and livestock. The LORD, in his holiness, inflicts Pharaoh’s household with plagues until Sarah’s marital status is revealed and the woman is rejoined to her husband.
Most commentators place Hagar among the Egyptian servants yoked during this period in Egypt. If so, she meets Sarah in Genesis 12:16 and journeys along until she is made known to us in Genesis 16:3—a span of some ten years!
Ten years is a long time to serve someone. How did Sarah treat Hagar in those years? Did Sarah's demeanor reflect a fear of the God who inspired Ephesians 6:9? Was the mistreatment in Genesis 16:6 a new dynamic or was Hagar unsurprised? We are left to wonder.
And what of Hagar? Who was this Egyptian woman? What was her story? How long had she been enslaved? Ten years with Abraham's family? Longer? From birth? Had she ever known freedom and the care of a family? Had she, in her captivity, found some sense of belonging among the free and enslaved peoples of Abraham's band? Was her contempt for Sarah in Genesis 16:4 a new experience or had her heart nursed the feeling for years? Again, we are left to ponder.
I do however find it reasonable to consider the following: if I, like Sarah, had the choice of many able servants and wanted to obtain children through one, I would most likely select one that I trusted. If so, when we read of Hagar's scorn and Sarah's abuse in Genesis 16:4-6, we can only mourn sin’s disastrous effects and observe once again the wisdom of God’s boundaries: He made one man and one woman for marriage (Matthew 19:4-5).
And God proves not only His wisdom but also His grace as the story continues. Hagar conceives a child with Abraham. Her contempt for Sarah due to her mistreatment urge her to flee from the camp. She is found by the angel of the Lord at the well leading to Shur—the northeastern border of Egypt. The angel of the Lord tells Hagar to return to Sarah and to submit to her. Hagar obeys, showing that her submission was ultimately to One higher than Sarah (Ephesians 6:5).
The angel's instructions are followed by gracious words: the Lord had heard Hagar’s affliction. She would bear a son named Ishmael (meaning God hears). God would immeasurably multiply Hagar’s offspring (Genesis 16:7-12). The well is named Beer-lahai-roi meaning: the well of the Living One who sees me; and Hagar exclaims: "Truly here I have seen Him who looks after me" (Genesis 16:13-16).
Other questions beg to be asked at this point: What was Hagar’s view of Abraham’s God prior to this divine encounter? Had she always seen Him as the Living God who sees? Or did she wonder about this image-less and invisible deity, so elusive compared to the engraved idols of Egypt? If the latter, how amazing to witness the opening of Hagar’s eyes. Those who trust in mute and blind idols become as unseeing as their gods. But those who look upon the God of Israel in trust are given eyes to see the Living One who sees them. Hear the words of Psalm 115:2-9:
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell. They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield.
Hagar flees again in Genesis 21:1-14, —only this time, she is sent away. As she and her son stumble around in the desert, dehydrated and near death, the God of Beer-lahai-roi shows up as living water. The LORD hears the cries of Ishmael and comes down to Hagar in her grief to provide water and life to her and her child (Genesis 21:15-19).
And here, we catch a glimpse of redemption. The Living One who hears and sees comes down to save. Salvation is of Him and not of our own. He is not mute and blind but is living. He is mindful of the afflicted wander who looks to Him. So let us look to Him, confessing our poverty, our need, and our hearts that wander further than we often dare to admit.
Let us pray for Him to come down and see about us today--give us eyes to see Him and ears to hear and submit to His Word, and remind us again of His persevering power and enduring love for His own (John 1:16; Colossians 1:11). May our eyes rest alone on the Living God who sees us—for He is our help and our shield!
*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!