Hagar and Ishmael

Genesis 16:1-6 Commentary

Comments, Observations, Questions to Consider

Hagar is revered by 2 billion people walking the earth right now as a “mother of the faith.” Perhaps no other woman besides Mary herself has as many people who honor her. But what are we to make of Hagar’s story?

The apostle Paul in Galatians 5 uses Hagar as an allegory, and the point is powerful theology but pretty negative on Hagar. Almost like the comic strip “Hagar the Horrible” without the Viking beard. J But Hagar in Genesis 16 wasn’t a sermon illustration. Hagar was a real person. And God’s interaction with her has some incredible- and beautiful- contours to it.

For instance, the Lord calls her by name. Commentaries say this only known instance in ALL of ancient Near Eastern literature where a deity addresses a woman by name. I wasn’t about to read Gilgamesh or Enuma Elish, but just double-checking through the Old Testament, sure enough, not Eve, not Deborah, not Sarah, just Hagar hears her name in a personal address. Not only does the Lord speak her name, He wants her to engage in a conversation. “Where have you come from? And where are you going?

This Egyptian serving girl is getting the same kind of one-to-one attention that Abraham has gotten. And we wonder: could the God who just made his covenant to form one special nation, also care about this representative from a different nation? From the nation of temptation no less?

Hagar’s response shows she’s stunned– stunned God noticed her. The gods Hagar grew up with, the gods of Egypt, would never notice a slave girl. In order to get Egyptian gods to notice you, you had to be high up on the priest ladder, you had to coax and feed and flatter and forfeit. So Hagar reacts in a way utterly unique in Scripture. Hagar becomes the only human-male or female- in all of the Bible to give a name to God.

Hagar names Him “El-Roi.” This naming only underscores what has been clear throughout the entire passage. This story is all about eyes, about vision. 1) A wrong vision that prompts the mess, 2) A “God vision” that enters the mess, and 3) the new vision that results.

The wrong vision starts immediately with Sarah. Her eyes are locked onto her womb. Not surprising, for her culture says children were a woman’s worth, THE sign that God approved of her, that she was a legitimate and certified person. But Sarah has the added tunnel-vision of the promise given to her husband.

That’s the rub actually: nowhere yet has God specified that this promised child was going to come through Sarah. We’ve just been assuming it. And now it’s been ten years since the promise, 120 months of anticipating and ovulating, and still the same sunken belly.

After being broken down 120 times, Sarah gives in to the one recourse a woman in her position had— a kind of adoption. A barren woman with servants could give a servant to her husband as a lower-level wife and then the children born to that surrogate mother could be adopted by the head wife. This was a socially acceptable practice at the time. The Code of Hammurabi endorses it. Leah and Rachel will adopt sons this way later.

So broken-down Sarah says: “Behold, look here, my slave-girl, perhaps I may be (literally)“built up” through her.”

But once second wife Hagar becomes pregnant, she lifts her eyes and–as the Hebrew puts it — Sarah “became of light-worth in Hagar’s eyes.” Hagar knows she has everything her culture has ever said certifies a woman. She has everything Sarah’s ever wanted. And as far as anyone knows, Hagar is carrying The Promised Baby.

It’s striking: here you have such different women– Sarai- old, rich, free, barren, the covenant insider. And Hagar- young, poor, fertile, in bondage, the outsider. So different. But their eyes are exactly the same. They both find their worth in the womb. Hagar had it and flaunted it, she felt superior, weightier than light-worth Sarah. Sarah had her eyes on the same place, and what follows isn’t pretty. Sarah flips out and Abraham chickens out, saying literally “See, your slave girl (not my 2nd wife) is in your hands. Do to her as your eyes see fit.”

We aren’t told the details but we know Sarah’s sin of commission was so harsh and Abraham’s sin of omission so cruel, that it forces a pregnant woman to flee to the desert.

Hagar flees over a hundred miles away from Abraham’s camp in Hebron to the parched backyard of Egypt, the region of Shur. Few places on the planet are as forbidding for humans as this place– an unending roll of yellow sand and gravel. No water, period. No wonder Shur means “The Wall.” No one passes. Surely not a pregnant woman, alone– forsaken by her husband, with no one to look after her, no one seeing her, no one to hear her cry.

But Someone does see her and gives her water, and more than water. He calls her (shockingly!) by name and promises her a son. The Lord promises her son much of the same blessing given to Abraham. Both offspring will be so great they can’t be counted, and just as Abraham’s offspring is promised suffering (Gen 15:13), so Hagar’s offspring will suffer too.

What floors Hagar is not the promised son, or the blessing, or even the suffering. She’s floored that God sees her and He sees it all. Every blow Sarah inflicted, every blind eye Abram turned, every injustice Hagar suffered, the God of the universe and the God of Abram saw it all. God cares for those who are outside His people and He hears their cry and sees their tears.

In a world where people can get written-off or over-looked or treated as a number or a diagnosis or a consumer or a label or just a means to an end, to be noticed like this brings a lump to our throat. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He’s watching me.

Hagar is told to return. How can she? She’s in the backyard to seeming safety, to her own people, to Egypt. The text suggests that the only reason she can is because in this new vision of God seeing her, Hagar’s own eyes have been changed. She’s not just a womb anymore. Her worth is not about one-upping her mistress anymore. She is the woman who has been noticed by God, heard by God, found by God, protected by God, given drink by God, her son named by God, and both she and her son are given great promises. As she keeps her eyes on this El-Roi and His grace, everything changes.

P.S. The story ends with this mention of the well. The place of the Wall becomes the place of the Well. (I can’t resist.)

It may provide a homiletical angle to note when it comes to women, wells have a Biblical pattern attached to them. Every time a woman is at a well in Scripture, she encounters her beloved. Rebekah is proposed to by a well. Rachel meets Jacob. Zipporah meets Moses. Could it be that here-Hagar too, has met her true protector, her true husband?

We can’t help think of another outcast woman, who had no real husband, who also met Someone at a well who really saw her. There at the well in Samaria, Jesus noticed a woman who was an outsider. He told her how He could give her water, but more than water, Living Water. The Samaritan woman returned, like Hagar, to the very people who wanted nothing to do with her. And we hear her confessing, “Come and see, come and see a man who knew everything about me,” yet He noticed me, talked to me, offered me drink.

Perhaps both these outsider women came face to face with a true husband’s eyes. One who, like Hagar’s son, would also be cast outside the Father’s house, and on the cross, with “everyone’s hand against him,” would become unseen by the Father, so that we would always, always!, be seen and wooed and embraced by God.

Textual Points

1) The textual language, ironically, foreshadows the Exodus. The Hebrew “anah” (to afflict) is used of Sarah’s treatment of the Egyptian slave Hagar and also in Exodus 1 of the Egyptian treatment of Sarah’s children, enslaved in Egypt. Both are told that “the Lord has heard your misery.” Both “barah,” flee, to the wilderness. (Gen 16:6; Exodus 14:5)

2) The language also clearly bring us back to Genesis 3 and the temptation in the garden. Remember how Eve saw the fruit, took the fruit and gave it to her husband? Remember how Adam “hearkened to the voice of his wife” –the exact phrases are used here when Sarah sees Hagar, takes her and give her to Abram, and Abram “hearkened to the voice of his wife.” The text is flashing us a warning: “Fall ahead! Prepare for a mess.”

Illustration Idea

Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer is about a movie addict, who believes a person is nothing until he’s either been seen on-screen or by seen by someone who’s been on-screen.

Once “the movie-goer” actually bumps into a movie star, William Holden. Holden asks “the moviegoer” for a light. And in offering a light to a movie star, the moviegoer feels like: “He has won title to his own existence. He’s legitimate now … a citizen, like Holden, two men of the world they are… He turns down the street shedding light as he goes… Now everyone is aware of him.”

What is that thing that we have to have to make us feel legitimate and important? Whatever it is, our eyes turn to it and focus on it, like a movie-goer’s to a screen. Is it on the scale and mirror to give worth? Our work? Our kids? Our Instagram following? What are our eyes locked on to? This question plays into the conflict between Sarah and Hagar.

But deeper–if the movie-goer felt getting noticed by just a “movie star” would certify him as important, what is it to have not just a “star” but the One who holds the galaxies Himself noticing you? You are certainly certified, certainly important, certainly worth more than many sparrows.

St. Thomas Aquinas has been called one of the top three Christian minds ever, even named a “Doctor” of the church. He wrote some 80 books—all massive. In fact, his “Beginner’s Theology” book is over 3,500 pages. When Thomas was still writing his masterpiece in the prime of his life, he had a vision of the God who was seeing him. Afterwards, Thomas said to his stenographer, “After what I have seen, all that I have written is straw.”

The very thing that could build Thomas up, his life’s work, suddenly doesn’t have the same power after seeing the One who sees him.

If we are to get out of the chains of what our culture says will make us or break us, out of the chains of self-reliant Egypt, the chains of our work, our looks, our reputations, our trust fund, our kids’ success, all of that has to become straw to us compared with Him.

We have to turn our eyes off the blessing and onto the Blesser. (Cf. Matthew 6:21-23)

Lora A. Copley is blessed to be a wife, a mother to four children and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church. She serves as a director for Areopagus Campus Ministry, a ministry of the CRC classes of Iowa at Iowa State University.


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