It wasn’t the first time that Hagar had found herself in the desert.
Our story of Hagar and Ishmael being cast out is preceded by another incident recorded in Genesis 16:1-16. It goes like this:
Abram’s wife Sarai had not been able to have any children. But she owned a young Egyptian slave woman named Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has not given me any children. Sleep with my slave, and if she has a child, it will be mine.” Abram agreed, and Sarai gave him Hagar to be his wife. This happened after Abram had lived in the land of Canaan for ten years. Later, when Hagar knew she was going to have a baby, she became proud and was hateful to Sarai.
Then Sarai said to Abram, “It’s all your fault! I gave you my slave woman, but she has been hateful to me ever since she found out she was pregnant. You have done me wrong, and you will have to answer to the Lord for this.”
Abram said, “All right! She’s your slave, and you can do whatever you want with her.” But Sarai began treating Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away.
Hagar stopped to rest at a spring in the desert on the road to Shur. While she was there, the angel of the Lord came to her and asked, “Hagar, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
She answered, “I’m running away from Sarai, my owner.”
The angel said, “Go back to Sarai and be her slave. I will give you a son, who will be called Ishmael, because I have heard your cry for help. And later I will give you so many descendants that no one will be able to count them all. But your son will live far from his relatives; he will be like a wild donkey, fighting everyone, and everyone fighting him.” Hagar thought, “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” So from then on she called him, “The God Who Sees Me.” That’s why people call the well between Kadesh and Bered, “The Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.”
Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar gave birth to their son, and he named him Ishmael.
Genesis, from chapter 12 onwards is the story of God’s choice of Abraham to be the forefather of the Jewish people, and the one to whom the divine promise of blessing was first given. We see God’s purposes at work through the lives of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. All of them are important ancestral figures in the history of the Israelites. And yet, tucked into this grand narrative is the little story of Hagar and Ishmael. It could well have been left out. Hagar and Ishmael are irrelevant to the main theme of Genesis; they are humble, unimportant and powerless people.
Probably Hagar had been given to Abram and Sarai by the Pharaoh of Egypt when they were in that land escaping a famine. We are told in Genesis 12 that: “The king was good to Abram because of Sarai, and Abram was given sheep, cattle, donkeys, slaves, and camels”. Hagar was possibly one of the slaves. As such, she was little better than a chattel, a piece of property, a nonentity. Neither Abram nor Sarai ever call Hagar by name. To Sarai she is merely “my slave” or “my slave woman”.
Hagar had a brief moment of importance when Sarai became impatient with the time God was taking to fulfil the promise of an heir. Sarai took matters into her own hands, and used Hagar as a surrogate partner for Abraham in order to produce a child. This may seem odd to us today, but in ancient times it was an accepted way of dealing with a wife’s barrenness. A woman could send her maidservant or slave into the master’s bed. As a result, Hagar became pregnant.
Foolishly, Hagar behaves rather badly. As the fertile one, she taunts Sarai and treats her with contempt. “It’s your fault” Sarai tells Abram “Do something about it!” Actually, it was Sarai’s idea, but none of us are very rational when we are angry. Sarai then treats Hagar so harshly that she runs away.
It is in the wilderness by a spring of water, that God seeks her out, and calls her by name. God comes in search of a poor Egyptian slave girl. Hagar may have been unimportant in the sight of others, but not in God’s sight. In the wilderness God gives Hagar a promise for her son “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count”. Hagar, for her part, responds by naming this God El Roi “You are a God who sees”. God works in the life of a young woman, negligible in the eyes of the world, just as God would later do in the life of a young girl in Nazareth, Mary.
So Hagar goes back to Abram and Sarai and Ishmael is born becoming Abram’s first-born son. Later, Sarai finally does conceive and gives birth to Isaac. Domestic relationships have suddenly become alarmingly complicated! Sarai now has no time for Hagar or Ishmael; in fact she must have felt very threatened by their presence. When she observes Ishmael teasing her son, she is furious and demands that Abram drive both of them away. Abram is understandably distressed, but God reassures him that a future is in store for Ishmael and his descendants. Abram gives them a skin of water, and sends them out.
When the pair runs out of water, it seems that they will perish in the desert. Hagar puts her weakened son under some bushes and moves some distance away, not wanting to see her child die. But El Roi, the God who sees is also the God who hears. “When God heard the boy crying, the angel of God called out to Hagar from heaven and said, ‘Hagar, why are you worried? Don’t be afraid. I have heard your son crying.’” God repeats the promise of a future for Ishmael’s descendants, and God opens Hagar’s eyes to see a well of water, which in her distress she had been unable to see.
The story of Hagar serves as an important reminder to us of the nature and character of God.
Firstly, God is Lord of all. As our Psalm proclaims: “All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you: O Lord, they shall glorify your name”. This may be the story of the covenant people of God, but God is the God of all the nations. They are all under God’s care.
Secondly, God is the God of each and every individual person. At this time when debate is raging over whether some lives seem to matter more than others, it is good to be reminded that God does not have favourites. Everyone matters to God regardless of importance, status, birth order, gender, race or any of the other attributes people may use to elevate themselves and proclaim their superiority. As El Roi, the God who sees, God sees the insignificant, the poor, the oppressed, the foreigner, the refugee and the exploited. Our world and even our society here in this country have their share of Hagars. If God sees them, hears their cries, loves them and cares for them, should not we, as God’s people, do the same?
Finally, God provided water in the desert, a life-saving well of water. Metaphorically speaking God has given us the water of life, the message of salvation. All around us people are thirsting for hope, for justice, for an assurance that God sees them. They are dying of thirst. And there is water right here, sweet, life-saving water. “She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.” Hagar and Ishmael mattered to God. Do they matter to us?