Have you ever played the victim in somebody else’s tragedy?
Have you ever been praised and doted on, only to find yourself discarded when you were no longer useful? Perhaps you inherited a string of bad luck? You feel like you’re going under and when you finally seem to make it to the top to breathe you only get pushed down again.
Such was the life of Hagar. I call her “Hagar the Horrible” in jest, after the famous comic strip by cartoonist, Dik Browne, syndicated by King Features Syndicate.
The biblical Hagar, introduced in Genesis 16, was nothing like the Norwegian Raider stashed in the funnies section of our newspapers. Hagar’s name meant stranger and one who fears. She was an Egyptian slave who found her way into our Household of Faith, and specifically into Abram and Sarai’s tents. With a name such as hers, it is not hard to imagine the tragic story that eventually led her to our famous patriarch and matriarch. As Sarai’s personal maid, she would have had certain privileges and an intimacy that other slaves didn’t. There must have been something pleasing about her to reach such an esteemed position. At the end of the day, however, she was still just a slave.
Sarai was a mature woman in her seventies and the child promised by God to Abram had still not arrived. Whether uncertain that she was supposed to be part of that promise or simply lacking faith that God could bring the child into a womb not only barren, but now past the age of conceiving, Sarai began to look elsewhere for the fulfillment to Abram's promise. In her desperation, she hatched up the not-so-bright idea that Maid Hagar could bear Abram the child, a child which would then legally belong to Sarai through whom she could build a family; such was the law on a mistress's ownership of slaves. Abram, perhaps tired of waiting and listening to Sarai’s "woe is me's," agreed to her plan. No doubt easy on the eyes, Hagar became a concubine to Abram, which was, essentially, a wife without a prenup or legal right to her children. Thankfully in Abram’s time, her child would still be able to claim an inheritance from the father, and would be shared between the birth and adopted mom.
(Okay, yes! I have to say it! I am horrified to find both slavery and polygamy in Genesis! Let's remember that this is not a stamp of approval on the p practice - the NT clearly discourages it and bans it in church leadership - but that's another story and another book in the writing stages. Rest assured, we will address slavery too! Though it is not something we approve - it was part of the ancient cultures. Rather than rewrite history, Genesis narrates the good, the bad and the ugly without bias. May we learn not to repeat the bad and ugly in our own lives.)
Was this arrangement for Hagar desirable? Most likely it elevated her. At Abram's time in history, concubines were considered wives just as were those who came with a dowry and ceremony; they shared equally in the everyday running of the household. Although they had fewer legal rights and assurances built into the union, they were still kept women, and looked upon legitimately. I can only imagine Abram and Sarai doting on and pampering Hagar, prepping her to be the one who would finally make raising a family a possibility. Sarai must have made sure that Hagar's every need was met.
Until…Hagar became pregnant! Suddenly, fearful Hagar was possessed with power, holding a trump card that could permanently raise her above her mistress, the First Wife. Sarai was now competition and Hagar, knowing she could give Abram what Sarai could not, became arrogant and proud. Scripture says that she held Sarai in contempt.
When Sarai came to her senses and realized what she had done, it was too late. Hagar no longer respected or submitted to her, but flaunted her pregnancy. Sarai turned her anger on Abram, blaming him for Hagar’s mistreatment. Abram responded with, “she’s your maid, do whatever you want with her.” This settled the question as to whether or not Hagar was on equal footing with Sarai; Abram confirmed without a doubt that Hagar was still bound to Sarai as a servant, leaving poor Hagar somewhere in the uncomfortable territory of lesser wife and lady's maid. Though it doesn’t say how, Scripture says that Sarai took her revenge on Hagar by treating her harshly. Hagar reacted by doing what any immature young lady would have done; she ran away into the desert, choosing death to scorpions, sun and a myriad of other elements over another run-in with the woman who was clearly determined to keep her in check.
Thankfully there was another set of eyes on Hagar far more compassionate and long-suffering. The angel of the Lord (sometimes used as a reference for an appearance by God) went after Hagar and found her near a spring beside the road to Shur, the north-eastern border of Egypt. The mother-to-be must have been desperate to find a home and hoped for safety among her own people. But the angel let her know that she was included in a covenant, the covenant God had given to Abram to make his descendants like the sands of the sea. Although she was not the woman chosen to give birth to Isaac, the boy from whose line Messiah would come, the God of Abram had made a special place for Hagar; she had become chosen, and the horrible treatment she had suffered at the hands of both Abram and Sarai served to grant her a promotion above her wildest dreams. Although instructed to return to Sarai and submit to her authority, the son she was carrying would be raised under his father's shelter and provision as well as God's. This son would eventually throw off Hagar's yoke of slavery (his hand will be against everyone) to become his own man (he will be a wild donkey of a man) and form his own 12 tribes (he will live in hostility toward all his brothers) and nation.
As bearing children symbolized status for women in ancient cultures, Hagar was granted a bright future indeed. Though she was returning chastened and submissive, Hagar now had an actual home to return to, her own covenant with God, and a promise of better days to come.
In gratitude, the stranger who feared gained confidence in the God of Abram, whom she adopted as her very own, naming Him the very personal, El Roi (the God who sees me), saying, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” As the wife who bore Abram his firstborn son, she went on to receive recognition within the clan, for the well where she encountered the angel became known as Beer Lahai Roi, meaning “well of the Living One who sees me.” She would go on to name her son, Ishmael, which means, “God listens/hears.”
We will explore more of both Hagar and Sarai’s story in coming blogs. But isn’t it incredible to know that even though others may abuse us, there is One who continues to look for and find us, refusing to cancel us or allow our troubles to be wasted. Indeed, El Roi, the God who sees, seems to specialize in creating beauty from our ashes.