We will return to Abraham and Sarah’s story next week and the way God resolves His promise to them. But before we get to that part of the story, we need to look at another woman who struggles to be seen and heard. This is Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant.
So after Abraham had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.Genesis 16:3-6
Hagar is little more than a pawn in Sarah’s plan. Sarah views her as a means to an end, as her proxy for providing Abraham a child. In this regard, Sarah doesn’t truly see Hagar. Hagar is simply a servant, a non-person in Sarah’s eyes. There’s irony here: even though Sarah doesn’t feel truly seen, she is simultaneously guilty of not really seeing Hagar, of overlooking her as someone made in the image of God. To Sarah, Hagar is a thing to be used rather than a person to be loved.
Sarah’s plan shows us that one of the most unloving things we can do is use another person for our own purposes. When we don’t see others as fellow image-bearers, we’re liable to use them, to treat them as objects, as non-persons. This is one of the deep dangers of pornography — the objectification of another image bearer, reducing a person to simply an object used for gratification. The same could be said of gossip and slander when we reduce someone to a “thing” to be talked about rather than a person to be treated with dignity. Sarah is guilty of this same kind of reduction of Hagar. She simply uses her.
But Sarah’s plan backfired…because it actually worked, at least insofar as it provided Abraham with a son. Abraham takes Hagar as his wife, which elevates Hagar’s status considerably. Now she answers not to Sarah but to Abraham. And in a typical case of the oppressed becoming the oppressor, the Bible says that Hagar despised Sarah once she became pregnant. In this context, to despise means “to look down upon.” Hagar becomes arrogant: “I have a child and you don’t; I have done what you could not.” And this is Hagar’s great mistake. She vindictively looks down upon the one who never truly saw her.
And at this point, things spiral quickly: Sarah complains to Abraham about Hagar; Abraham demotes Hagar back to servant status, putting her under Sarah’s charge; and Sarah mistreats Hagar. The word “mistreat” is an interesting one. The deeper meaning here is this: “to degrade.” It is the same word that is used in Exodus to describe the terrible conditions of slavery the Israelites faced in Egypt. Here in Genesis, Sarah mistreats and degrades Hagar, the Egyptian; by the time we reach the Exodus story, the tables will have turned yet again as the Egyptians will mistreat the children of Israel.
As a result of this mistreatment, Hagar decides to run. And then something remarkable occurred.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.Genesis 16:7-8
Shur was a place in the wilderness on the way to Egypt. It seems that in her distress, Hagar has decided to return to her homeland. Picture this pregnant woman all alone out in the wilderness trying to make it back to Egypt. She has already traveled many miles and she has many more miles to go before she makes it back home.
What do you think was going through Hagar’s mind at this point? Her life has taken a dramatic turn because of this plan Sarah concocted. Did anyone ever consider what Hagar wanted? She never asked to be married to Abraham. What if there was someone else — one of Abraham’s herdsman, perhaps — that she hoped to marry? What if she wasn’t ready to be a mother just yet? No one in the whole story seems to show even the slightest interest in what Hagar wanted. She is simply a means to an end. And the minute her circumstances changed, she started dishing it right back to Sarah only to find herself back on the bottom again.
I wouldn’t blame Hagar if she was asking, “Does anyone truly see me?” I would guess that’s why she chooses to return home, “Maybe back home they’ll see me and hear me.”
And this is where the angel of the LORD finds her.
Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said 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. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand will be against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”Genesis 16:9-13
The angel of the LORD is an interesting character in the Scriptures. This is the first of 48 references to the angel of the LORD in the Old Testament. The word “angel” simply means “messenger” and it seems that this messenger is often dispatched on special assignments throughout the Old Testament. But there are signs that he is more than simply an angel. This special messenger is often identified with God Himself as we see in this passage. That leads many people to believe that the angel of the LORD is a pre-incarnate version of God the Son — or the form that Jesus took in the Old Testament, to put it simply. That’s what I believe. This is no mere angel, but a full-fledged member of the Godhead standing before Hagar.
And the messenger of the LORD calls Hagar by name. This woman who feels as if no one sees her, no one cares for her, no one stands up for her and her well-being — the messenger of the LORD, Jesus himself, calls her by name.
Hagar the Egyptian has her own experience of the God of Abraham here. The same God who called Abraham now calls Hagar to go back to Sarah and to submit to her. The way forward with God is always the way of submission. But the real question God seems to be asking Hagar is less about submitting to Sarah and more about submitting to Him. God’s question to Hagar is the same question we discussed last week — the controlling question for her, for Abraham, and for all of us today — It’s God’s question: Do you trust me?
God promises that Hagar will also have numerous descendants — and even though the history of those descendants is somewhat checkered throughout history, that does nothing to negate the fact that God chooses to bless this pregnant woman all alone in the wilderness. And Hagar’s response, at least in this episode, is the correct one. She submits to the will of God. She trusts the One who seeks her out in the wilderness.
And Hagar comes away with a new awareness: “God sees me.” Even if no one else sees me, God sees me. She names her son Ishmael — “God hears me.” And she gives God a new name: El Roi, “You are the God who sees me.” The God who calls me by name. The God who loves me.
Maybe today you feel like you’re one of the ones who is easily overlooked. Maybe you’re like Hagar: your life has been radically altered by the decisions of someone else. Someone used you, viewed you simply as a means to an end. Maybe you can relate to Hagar the Egyptian — you’ve never felt as if you really had a place among the people of God. Maybe you feel like she feels — you’re a long way from home, alone in the wilderness of loneliness and isolation. You feel unseen, unheard, and unloved.
Let me ask you this: What would it do for you if you could hear Jesus call you by name? What would it do for you to know that Jesus truly sees you — He doesn’t see you as an object, as something to be used, as a means to an end. But instead, He sees you for who you are. He sees you because you were made in the image and likeness of God. That means He can’t NOT see you — because when He looks at you, He sees a reflection of the divine, a reflection of Himself.
What if today, in this text, Jesus intends to confront you — to call you by name — to let you know that He sees you?