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The second woman we are going to be looking at in our 6 week study on women in the Bible is a little more of an obscure character. Hagar in the Old Testament. So turn to Genesis 16 and let’s look at Hagar’s story.
Verse 1 introduces us to the characters in this story, it says…
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar”
Here’s the Cliff Notes version of who Sarai & Abram (who we will later know as Sarah & Abraham) are and where they are at in their lives. When Abram was 75 God called him on a journey and promised Abram that he would have offspring and that He was going to make him into a great nation. During this journey they encounter the Pharaoh of Egypt and to make a long story short, Pharaoh makes them very wealthy giving them “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, menservants and maidservants, and camels.” (12:16) They finally settle in the land God said He would give to them. So in Chapter 16 this is where we find Abram and Sarai, he is 86 and she is like 76, and they are waiting for this child God is supposedly going to give them.
The other character we meet is Hagar, who we are going to be focusing on tonight. And here we learn that Hagar is Sarai’s “Egyptian Maidservant.” From these two words we actually learn a lot about Hagar. In Genesis 12:16 it told us that Abram received from Pharaoh livestock and servants as a sort of bribe. Hagar was most likely one of those servants who was given to him. Just knowing this we can really begin to paint a picture of what Hagar’s life was most likely like. Society treated her like a piece of property, equal to sheep, cattle, donkeys, and camels. Servant sounds ok, but in reality she was a slave. And in that culture as a woman she had even less value and worth. So think about what Hagar must have felt and how she must have viewed her life. She was torn from her family, her friends, and even from her culture and her country when Abram left Egypt with her as part of his newly acquired property. She had no choice in the matter, she is now a slave to a strange foreign couple being dragged away from everything she had ever known.
So those are our main characters, so now let’s set the stage, verse 2…
2 “so [Sarai] said to Abram, “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said”
In verse 1 we learned that in their old age they are still childless, which is a problem since God had promised them off-spring and He told Abram it would be a blood child. So Sarai, in verse 2, does what just about every woman would do in a situation like this. She has given God plenty of time to do His part, but He hasn’t, so she analyzes the situation and concludes that even though God told Abram He would have manyy offspring, He has kept Sarai from having children, which must mean He wants her to have children in a different way so she needs to come up with plan B to help God carry out His plan.
And she decides that since she can’t have children, Abram will have them through her servant Hagar. Now what we need to understand here is that in their culture it was a common practice protected by the law to have children through a servant if you were barren. Verse 1 makes this clear when it says she was childless but she had a servant, what that means is that she had another option. And it says in verse 2 she would build her family through Hagar…so when this baby is born it would not be Hagar’s, it would be Sarai’s. Sounds like a good plan, and Abram agrees to it. (and I would love to spend a lot of time on why Abram is such a passive husband in this story, but it’s not our focus, maybe another time!)
So Sarai carries out her plan, look at verses 3-5
3 “So after Abram 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. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 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.”
So Abram marries the servant Hagar, sleeps with her, and she gets pregnant. I think we can only begin to imagine how Hagar felt about all of this. Abram is 86 and Hagar is most likely somewhere between 14 and 30. How might this little arrangement affect Hagar? How do you think she is feeling? Put yourself in her shoes. What do you think that was like? She’s not married which means she is a virgin!! She may have been disgusted to have to have sex for the first time with an old man who is also a foreigner. Perhaps she feels hollow, like she is nothing but an object, a means to and end, without a say in the matter. The one thing she had was her own body, and now even that didn’t belong to her. She was robbed. Being a wife and mother was the highest calling on a woman’s life in that day and age. Just like you and I, she dreamt of that. Can you imagine all your dreams coming crashing down on you as you realize what your true fate is and that your fairy tale will actually never come true. Perhaps at night she dreamt of the day a man would save her from her situation and give her purpose and meaning in life. But, instead she must live a nightmare. And we can bet she was hormonal! I know this sounds funny, but seriously, in those first few weeks your hormones go nuts. We got in the biggest fight of our marriage when we were two weeks pregnant only to find out several days later that I was pregnant and the hormones had played a big role in it. On top of all of this remember that she actually has no rights to that baby, if Sarai wants it as her own she can take it and even send Hagar away.
Now we can understand why it says in verse 4 that Hagar despised her mistress when she found out she was pregnant. In the dictionary it explains that to despise someone is much worse than to dislike them, “it suggests looking down on someone with great contempt and regarding the person as mean, petty, weak, or worthless.” The ESV even says here that “she looked with contempt” on Sarai. It was visible and full of hate.
Now for the irony of all ironies. In light of the contempt Sarai is receiving from Hagar in verse 5 she turns to Abram and blames him for everything. But we know, this was all her plan! Abram didn’t do anything to her, she did this to everyone else. Secondly, she completely fails to recognize her mistreatment of Hagar and only sees the “wrong [she is] suffering.” Even if what she forced Hagar to do was common and protected by the law, she doesn’t for a moment consider Hagar’s feelings and the situation she is now in.
But again, Abram passively bows out of this sticky situation and tells Sarai to do what “she thinks is best.” And evidently what she thinks is best is to mistreat Hagar right back. Which is also a natural human self-protective response. And in response, Hagar runs away.
Now the scene changes and the focus becomes solely Hagar, and we are introduced to a new character. Look at verses 7-8,
7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert… 8 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.”
What is the most amazing thing about what it says happened in verse 7? Well, first is that the angel of the Lord appeared. The Angel of the Lord is a messenger from God who represents God Himself and speaks the very words of God. So the Angel represents God’s presence. But what is truly amazing is that the angel of the Lord found Hagar! She was an Egyptian slave woman, she was not even of God’s people. She didn’t know God and didn’t believe in Him. But she had probably heard of YHWH since Abram had a relationship with God. And here we are told the Angel of the Lord comes to her. He finds her. She wasn’t seeking Him out or even praying to Him as far as we know. But God came to her in her darkest hour and revealed Himself to her.
And when He finds her He asks her about her situation. Where have you come from and where are you going? So basically, what happened Hagar and what are you planning on doing? By coming to Hagar and asking these questions God is treating Hagar as a human, an individual. He shows her that her life has purpose and meaning enough for God to take notice and show concern. Everything in the world has told Hagar she is worthless and that her life has no meaning, but God is showing her that He sees her very differently and that she does matter in His eyes. And in one sentence she gives her exasperated answer, she is running away from Sarai. That says it all.
Now if you were in a situation where you were being mistreated, even abused by your employer, and you prayed to God for help and guidance, what kind of answers would you expect to get from God? Maybe, I’ll protect you, you’re going to be ok, everything is going to work out. Or at least, run away and take care of yourself and your baby…I will judge and punish Sarai for what she has done. And He could have said, Go back to Abram and tell him what has happened and I will be sure he will protect and love you. But instead, God says what we would least expect and what seems most harmful to Hagar.
“Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”
He tells her to humble herself. To return to a harmful and horrible situation and to submit to a crazy woman. He never once tells her “Yes, Sarai is wrong and I will judge her for that.” Think about it, if she goes back and submits to Sarai it will look like Hagar is accepting responsibility and admitting fault! WHY would God tell Hagar to do something that is so obviously harmful and oppressive to her? Why wouldn’t God vindicate Hagar or at least free her from an unfair situation?
Our Limited Perspective
When we are in a situation that isn’t fun, that is oppressive, or is causing us sadness or pain, our natural instinct is to run. The way we see and understand the world we think that God would never want us to be in such difficult places, that He would want us to do whatever we can to be happy and live a peaceful life. But our vision is limited, temporary, and often worldly. And when we look at our lives through our limited perspective we often fail to see God’s greater plan or even consider that God’s plan might include a difficult situation. So we justify running away.
But God’s perspective is not only bigger, it is eternal. And sometimes God’s will for our lives does include us submitting to difficult situations or hardships. Sometimes doing that is even required in order for God to do what He plans to do. And this is not an oppressive thing, it is always infused with God’s love for us and the knowledge that He will always care for us and be with us in those lowest and darkest of times.
When we view Hagar’s situation through those lenses, what might God’s plan have been for Hagar? What good could we possibly see in her returning to Abram and Sarai? Perhaps this was God’s protection over her and her child. She would certainly be safer in their home than out in the desert where she could be raped, robbed, and abused. She would have a safer and healthier pregnancy there than homeless. How would she feed and care for her child living on the streets? And what about breaking the law? By running away from her owners she was breaking the law. She may have been killed for it or even separated from her child once he was born. He would have most likely been sold in slavery as well.
As we think of these things you might be tempted to say “But we don’t know any of this for sure so why create false ideas? We can’t put words in God’s mouth.” Well, think of it this way – We do know that God always has a plan. As Romans 8:28 says, His plans always include not just His eternal purposes but also our good. The Psalms tell us that goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. So truly, what the whole of Scripture tells us is that we can look for those things. We should consider what in God’s plans is for our good, for our protection, because He loves us, and so on. That is what it means to have an eternal perspective, it means not just seeing our life at face value, but seeing beyond it to God’s purposes and looking for meaning in all things good and bad. And even then, when we don’t see what good could come of something, submitting because we trust God and His care for us.
But God doesn’t just leave it at that, He does give her a little more to hold on to and to encourage her. He says in verses 10-12,
10 “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.
11 “…You are now with child
and you will have a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the LORD has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
Why would knowing these things be encouragement to Hagar? Why would it help her to return? It validates that He is God because He knows what no man could know. He knows her child, He knows it’s gender which in those days you couldn’t know til the child was born! When Michael and I first saw our baby at the sonogram we both immediately thought of Psalm 139 where it says that God knew us in the womb. I was amazed to think this child that I sometimes wonder if it’s still there or not, is known by God before I will ever even meet him/her. And God doesn’t just know each person before they are born, He knows what every day of their life will hold. And I guarantee as Hagar heard this she also realized that it meant God knew her in an intimate way as well! It shows that He isn’t just telling her to go back on principal but that it is part of a bigger plan. He’s helping her see beyond the dark hole she is in now. In a way God is telling her Ishmael is her son, not Sarai’s. That she will have many descendants. All that matters is how God sees it and that’s the validation she needed to hear. It is her body and the child in it is hers. He gives the child a name which will forever remind Hagar that God sees and hears her since Ishmael means “God hears.” She is not invisible or hidden. And by giving the child a name God helped Hagar to think of the child as a person, to make decisions for the best of that child, to care well for the child, and to know there is purpose in that life. The horrible way he was conceived is now validated and given purpose.
Now in the midst of this encouraging news God also gives her a little bit of bad news in verse 12, your son will be like a wild ass and he’ll clash with lots of people. But regardless of God telling her this she responds in verse 13 saying,
“You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
And I really think this reflects how this encounter with God has already matured Hagar and given her faith. Her focus is no longer herself and her sad situation, instead she is overwhelmed and encouraged to simply know that God sees her, that she matters, that He will be with her and has a purpose for her life….even if that means she will have more hardships to face. This is enough for her.
We live in a broken and fallen world and the reality is that even with God at our side we will face problems, sorrow, and hardships. But what Hagar learned that day was that knowing God is with us, sees us, and has purpose in all things, makes all the difference. A relationship with God meant more to her than having a perfect life, just like what we saw with Mary last week. And this is what an eternal perspective is, seeing past the temporary and worldly, to see the spiritual and eternal.
In her book, Lost Women of the Bible, Carolyn Custis James says that when Hagar realized this,
“[It] freed her to do the extraordinary – to love her neighbor, to put the interest of others ahead of herself…, and to reflect the image of God in her relationships.” (p.94)
It’s amazing to see the power of stepping away from our lives to regain perspective. Sometimes we get so buried under the complexities of our lives that we can no longer see the big picture and gain perspective. So we have to learn to retreat, to turn to God with those things, and to listen for His voice through His Spirit and His Word giving us encouragement and understanding of the harder things in our lives. I bet many of you are in need of that right now just as Hagar was…
So in verse 15 we read Hagar’s response to her encounter with God, to this retreat which helped her to gain a God-centered perspective on her life. She returned because the God who sees her commanded her to return. She did it knowing the outcome wasn’t going to be everything she had ever dreamed and hoped for. But that’s because it wasn’t the outcome that motivated her anymore, it was simple obedience to the God of creation, humbling herself to His greater plan.
Last week we talked about when we are living in unexpected situations in our lives and things in our lives look nothing like what we had thought. I think tonight’s story about Hagar builds beautifully on top of that. God’s command to us is to “Stay and submit to it.” and the encouragement we can take with us when we do is that God sees what we don’t see. That we are never alone in it. That He is with us. That He has purpose in the dark and lonely places you might find yourself in.
That simply knowing God sees us and loves us can motivate us to do things we never would have imagined doing on our own. And that if you know and trust that God is good and that He loves you, then that thought will bring you hope and joy not despair. Hagar was truly one of the first people in the Bible to see God in a personal way and it changed everything about how she lived and viewed her life. And that is what you and I can learn from the life of a woman who in the world’s eyes was worthless – but whose legacy has lived on to teach women like us thousands of years later some of the most important lessons of our lives….how would Hagar have ever known that that was one of the purposes of such a hardship in her life?
Questions for discussion & application
● What is an area (or areas!) of your life right now that you feel buried in and are in need of some perspective?
● What lessons from Hagar’s encounter with God can you apply to those areas of your own life to help you gain perspective?
What are some ways we can “retreat” to gain perspective?