Now Sarah, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.
This is how Hagar is introduced. From this opening sentence already, one can guess that since Hagar first appears within the context of Sarah’s barrenness, the girl will have something to do with childbearing. “Egyptian maidservant“ means, of course, that she was from Egypt: probably born there and definitely raised there. We don’t know how she ended up as Sarah’s maidservant in Canaan; we don’t really know anything about Hagar’s life before she shows up in the beginning of our story, in the very first verse of Genesis 16. And yet this girl, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, not only gave birth to Abraham’s firstborn son, but was so special in the Lord’s eyes that she became the only woman in the Torah whom He addressed twice. So, although we don’t know anything about Hagar’s life before Sarah’s famous suggestion to her husband, she is definitely worthy of our attention and we can try to imagine and picture how she made her way into our story.
From Egypt to Canaan: Filling in the Blanks
According to one Hebrew midrash, Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh, a princess, who said upon seeing the great miracles that God had done for Sarah’s sake: “It is better for Hagar to be a slave in Sarah’s house than mistress in her own.” And just like that, she left everything–her royal life, her family, her palace, and her country–in order to follow Sarah and to be with her.
To be honest, however, it doesn’t sound like a very plausible theory to me. It seems much more reasonable that Hagar was already Sarah’s maid back in Egypt. We know for certain that in Egypt, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s palace:
So it was, when Abram came into Egypt, that the Egyptians saw the woman, that she was very beautiful.The princes of Pharaoh also saw her and commended her to Pharaoh. And the woman was taken to Pharaoh’s house.
We can assume with great certainty that when Sarah was taken to the palace, she would have been assigned a maidservant who was to take care of all her needs. Let us try to picture that maidservant, probably a young Egyptian girl, and imagine: What did she feel when she saw Sarah for the very first time? I remember myself the very first time I met a believer who crossed my way as His messenger. Looking back, I know it was as if Somebody had stepped into my life, and from that moment on, nothing in it was a coincidence. Quite possibly, it was the same for Hagar: The moment she saw Sarah, she knew her life would never be the same. She was probably struck by the very mature, very unusual beauty of this foreign woman; perhaps she was also shocked by the pain that was so obvious in Sarah’s beautiful eyes. I am sure, however, that there was something more to this overwhelming sensation than just being struck with Sarah’s countenance: I think that almost tangibly, the girl felt some great, unknown power surrounding that woman and almost immediately, she surrendered to that power.
Later, Hagar would always know that the instant she saw that woman, something irreversible had happened: From that instant on, every single step and every single move in her life were predestined. Her life changed once and forever, and afterwards, looking back, she could see that boundary as clearly as one can see a border between the sea and the shore: You can’t confuse where the shore ends and the water starts.
I don’t think Hagar could have learned much about Sarah during that short time while she was in the palace. I doubt that Sarah was very talkative then and besides that, they didn’t have a common language anyway. Somehow, the mistress managed to show or explain to her maid what she wanted or needed, and perhaps their communication never went beyond that. I do believe, though, that even within this limited communication, Sarah held some undeniable, almost mystical power over Hagar: The girl was absolutely enchanted by this woman, by her strange and powerful beauty, by the untold suffering in her fathomless eyes, and by the incredible dignity of her graceful movements. I imagine that every single morning, when Hagar opened the door to Sarah’s room, her heart pounded so loudly that she was afraid she would wake her mistress. Every single night, she lay sleeplessly, ruminating on each scarce word she had heard from her mistress during the day. With all her being, the girl felt that Sarah belonged in some other world and this unknown world both frightened and enthralled her.
Thus it went on day after day, and every day resembled the previous one–until the moment Hagar learned that everyone in Pharaoh’s palace was sick. Not everybody, of course, but all his wives, mistresses, and children. The slaves and the maids were fine. Hagar was fine. And Sarah was fine also–the only one out of all the wives and mistresses. “Why?” Hagar wondered. It was obvious that the gods were angry with Pharaoh and had struck all of his wives and children. So why was Sarah not affected at all?
But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarah, Abram’s wife.
When Pharaoh summoned Sarah, Hagar had no idea what the reason might be or what to expect. Sarah probably thought that the inevitable was about to happen and was visibly shaking all over; she did wonder why the summons had come in the morning, though. She knew nothing about the epiphany that Pharaoh had had. Neither did Hagar. Both of them were absolutely stunned when they heard the reason Sarah had been summoned to Pharaoh:
And Pharaoh called Abram and said, “What is this you have done to me? Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister’? I might have taken her as my wife. Now therefore, here is your wife; take her and go your way. “
Definitely, this whole conversation came as a much greater shock for Hagar than it did for Sarah. Sarah, at least, knew the truth. She knew that she was indeed Abraham’s wife; she had no idea how Pharaoh had obtained this knowledge or what he was going to do with it, but she knew it was the truth. Hagar, on the other hand, knew nothing and was therefore surprised and puzzled by everything: by the fact that Sarah had turned out to be Abraham’s wife, by the fact that Pharaoh somehow found it out, and more than anything else, by the fact that instead of getting mad and killing Abraham, Pharaoh merely sent him away, with his wife and all that he had. 
Thus, the story was almost over for Hagar. But then in one short moment, everything changed again. It might have seemed highly accidental, but as we said before, there were no accidents or coincidences in Hagar’s life anymore. The whole episode was just one more piece in His plan and puzzle. Perhaps it happened this way: At the very end of that audience, Pharaoh’s bleary eyes came to rest heavily on a young girl standing somewhere in a corner behind Sarah. He looked at her for a moment, then shifted his look to Sarah and spoke the words that changed Hagar’s life forever: “Take the girl with you! I have given many gifts to your husband, but this maid is my gift to you!”
This was the second crucial moment that defined Hagar’s life (after her assignment to be Sarah’s maid). And as we said, nothing was a coincidence in that life any longer. Before anyone could say a word, Pharaoh just waved his hand. The audience over, they were dismissed. Hagar was going with Sarah.
Was Hagar sad to leave Egypt? After all, it was all she had known and losing it while stepping into a completely new life would have seemed rather frightening. Still, it would have been different from the way we imagine it. It is very likely that by this point, she didn’t have a home or a family in Egypt; probably, being a maidservant, she had just shared a big room in the palace with many other girls who were maidservants as well, and I can surmise that she was not especially sad to part with this life. Moreover, a part of her heart would have felt that going with Sarah was a right step in a right direction: a step toward that mysterious power that she had felt so clearly in Sarah all along and toward that strange world that was so different from her own, and yet so alluring.
In addition, something significant was happening between her and Sarah–finally! All this time, Hagar had longed to get her mistress’ attention. Sarah, however, had been so preoccupied with her own situation, her own fears, and all the attempts to escape the inevitable that she almost hadn’t noticed her young maidservant, though Hagar had tried really hard to be noticed. Now that Sarah was safe, she noticed the girl for the first time ever: not just as the maidservant who had been waiting on her, but as a human being whose whole life was about to be changed because of her. Because of her and her husband’s lie that she had silently agreed to be part of, and for which she also bore some responsibility, she probably felt guilty as well, and we have already seen that guilt is a terrible driving power, an extremely explosive fuel for emotional fire. Not much time passed between the moment when Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah, the moment when Sarah first looked on the girl with pity and compassion, and the time that Sarah actually started to love the girl. She became so loving and caring toward Hagar, their relationship grew so intimate and tender, that one would never have guessed that Hagar was Sarah’s maidservant. Not only did Sarah come out of the Egyptian episode with a new maidservant, who was to become an important part of her life and her story, but also with a very personal, special relationship with this maidservant.
So, Hagar wasn’t altogether sad to leave Egypt. She would have had very mixed feelings on leaving though, and this bittersweet sensation that she experienced would become a constant part of her adult life. Mixed feelings marked the years she lived in the land of Canaan: She despised the simple, nomadic life in tents, so different from the sophisticated Egyptian lifestyle she had known. She wondered about the complete absence of all the implements that made Egyptian life so comfortable and easy; she could not understand why such rich people would lead such a primitive life. After all, it was common knowledge in the tribe that Abraham was very rich indeed. Often enough, she complained to Sarah about how different Canaan was from Egypt and how much she missed her Egyptian lifestyle. And yet deep in her heart, Hagar knew that if she were taken back to Egypt, she would desperately miss her new life. Not only would she miss her mistress–so kind and loving and caring, still as beautiful, but not quite as mysterious anymore–but she would miss the very land of Canaan and the life that she had joked about so many times. There was something special about this land, something she could not put her finger on or express in words, yet she knew beyond any doubt that she wanted to be a part of this specialness.
Thus, for Sarah, the first ten years that she and Abraham dwelt in the land of Canaan were marked by the name of Hagar. The girl became almost a daughter to Sarah and she cared deeply for her, almost like a mother. We have already mentioned the “almost father-almost son” relationship that Abraham had had with Lot; Sarah now had that same kind of relationship– “almost mother-almost daughter,” with Hagar. Abraham, on the other hand, hardly noticed the girl. This is why Sarah felt so safe and secure when she offered Hagar to her husband: She knew perfectly well that Hagar didn’t occupy any place in Abraham’s heart, feelings, or thoughts. She actually almost wanted Abraham to notice her; after all, both Abraham and Hagar were so important to her. Sarah really wanted these two most important people in her life to become important one to another, as well. This was the third crucial moment that defined Hagar’s destiny.
So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her. ” And Abraham heeded the voice of Sarai.
Little did Sarah know how much she would regret this plan; how remorseful she would be, and how betrayed she would feel when these two, the most important people in her life, ultimately became important to one another. Yes, even after Ishmael was conceived, Abraham still dearly loved his wife; yes, even after Ishmael was conceived, Hagar was still formally Sarah’s maidservant. However, now the two of them were not only sharing nights and bed, they were also expecting a baby together. And though Sarah was the one who had planned and initiated the whole thing, she felt absolutely left behind. We have discussed Sarah’s pain already. Here, we are going to speak about Hagar and what was going on in her heart.
First, let us try to understand what went on in Hagar’s heart when Sarah came to her with her sensational offer. We shouldn’t be surprised to find this girl once again full of mixed emotions and bittersweet feelings. We have already surmised that Hagar had become almost a daughter to Sarah, and that she almost saw Sarah as a mother. This alone would have made Sarah’s plan extremely bizarre, to say the least. It would be exceedingly strange for her to go to the tent of Sarah’s husband! Besides, just like every girl, she dreamt of her own family; but who would marry her, after she had been Abraham’s mistress? In short, I believe, she had many reasons to try to convince Sarah that the plan wasn’t good. But as we already know, Sarah felt guilty for failing to bring the seed of Abraham into the world, and guilt is a terrible driving power, a dangerous and extremely explosive fuel for emotional fire. Doubtlessly, Sarah was a very wise woman with a clear prophetic gift; nevertheless, all of that failed her when the enemy kept whispering into her soul about how guilty she was. I believe that Hagar tried to dissuade Sarah; it seems, however, that none of her arguments worked. “Remember, you are still my maidservant,” said Sarah, “and you are supposed to do whatever I tell you to do.” And so Hagar did.
I’d be lying if I said that Sarah’s plan found no positive response in Hagar’s soul. We spoke about bittersweet feelings: This means that the sweet part exists along with the bitter. She realized that her status would completely change from then on. In relation to Sarah, she was already very different from all the other maids and slaves; this was obvious to everybody. And yet formally, she was still Sarah’s slave and had no rights whatsoever. “This will change,” Hagar thought, “once I become Abraham’s mistress. Especially once I conceive his child.” And this change of status stood to bring many good changes into her life, as well.
However, whatever scenarios went through Hagar’s head, or through Sarah’s, it’s possible that none of them included the most threatening factor that we all know from Scripture, happened very soon afterwards: the growing hostility between Sarah and Hagar. For years, the relationship between the two women had been so tender and so close that neither of them could have imagined that the new situation could ruin their relationship at such an alarming speed.
I imagine that Sarah hadn’t realized how difficult this change would be for her. But still, it was her mistake and her miscalculation and she was the one responsible for the whole situation. Abraham, who heeded her voice, definitely shared the responsibility. Hagar, on the other hand, was just Sarah’s slave and did exactly what her mistress demanded of her; she did not have any part in the whole plot and therefore, did not carry any responsibility for the situation.
Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan.
The similarity between our story and the story of the Fall from Genesis 3 is striking. Both couples involved in the stories–Adam and Eve in the first case, and Abraham and Sarah in the second–did something out of God’s will and breached His original plan. Remarkably, the same verbs are used in both verses and therefore, their actions sound the same in both cases. Eve took of the fruit… and gave unto her husband; Sarah took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram.
This comparison, pointed out by the author of a wonderful article, brings us to a very sad conclusion: Not only did Hagar not have any part in Sarah’s decision, she actually could not have had. She was as much the object used to fulfill Sarah’s desire as the forbidden fruit was the object of Eve’s desire. In the story of Fall, two people carry the responsibility; you would not blame the fruit for what happened in the Garden. In exactly the same way, there are two people who are responsible for our situation: Sarah and Abraham. “Hagar becomes, in effect, the forbidden fruit” that was taken by somebody and given to somebody else, but in no way can be held responsible for those actions or their consequences.
And so, the night finally came when the forbidden fruit was given to Abraham and Hagar went into his tent. Let us leave Abraham and his young mistress in the darkness and intimacy of Abraham’s tent, instead picking up this story at the point where the girl realized she was pregnant. She gave the news to Abraham, the father, and when he heard it, he was happy and proud beyond measure. Then, she told the news to Sarah; after all, she would be the child’s formal mother. It had been her plan, her idea in the first place; she should be happy it all worked out exactly as she had planned. However, Hagar didn’t meet with the same joy in Sarah. Moreover, as cool and distant as Sarah’s attitude to Hagar had been of late, it became even more tense and cold after this news.
How much of this whole situation was Hagar’s fault? Did she provoke any hostility on her mistress’ part? In the English text, we read that her mistress was despised in her eyes. It doesn’t say this in Hebrew, however. In Hebrew, Hagar’s mistress became “lighter” in her eyes. This was not only predictable, but the absolutely inevitable result of the redefinition of statuses that accompanied the fulfillment of Sarah’s plan. First, Hagar became Abraham’s mistress, in a sense, his second wife, and obviously, the distance between the status of a mere slave, even a loved slave, and a girl who shares the patriarch’s bed, is huge. However, nothing is said about their changed relationship at that point, which means, in my opinion that Hagar was still trying hard to behave as though nothing had changed between her and Sarah. But then, Hagar conceived.
Think of it: she was the first woman in this family to conceive a child! She was carrying the child of the patriarch! She had become a precious vessel who carried the treasure for which Abraham had been waiting for so many years! It’s no wonder that the positions were redefined at that point; it’s no wonder that Sarah, her mistress, though free and powerful and rich, didn’t seem so elevated anymore, because none of her power, freedom, or wealth had helped her to do what Hagar did: conceive Abraham’s child! It’s no wonder that her mistress became “lighter” in her eyes. “Hierarchical blinders drop. The exalted mistress decreases; the lowly slave increases. Not hatred or contempt, but a reordering of the relationship emerges.” If Sarah hadn’t anticipated this, if she had hoped to keep the old structures within the new reality, this was once again her own miscalculation and responsibility. And as the distance between the women’s statuses began to shrink, the relationship between them grew increasingly tenser. Sarah would have held herself very distant and aloof and for the first time in years–perhaps for the first time since they had left Egypt–Sarah actually treated Hagar as a slave. She made her do things she had never had to do before. Hagar would have felt more and more clearly that the horrible jealousy that had overwhelmed Sarah could actually kill her or her baby.
The Angel in the Wilderness
Hagar decided to flee. She ran away and found herself in the wilderness, imagining how sad Abraham would be to discover she is gone, and to realize that he had lost his child even before he was born. She decided she would raise her son in her homeland–for some reason she was absolutely confident she would have a son–and then at some point, she would bring him back to Abraham, saying: “Here, my lord, is your son.” Then it would be such a joy for Abraham, and then Sarah would see…
But Hagar didn’t have time to think through what exactly Sarah would see; somebody was walking with her and talking to her. Meeting somebody in the desert was unusual enough already, but the stranger’s very first words proved to her that this wasn’t an occasional meeting, and that he was not a random sojourner.
And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
When we read the Bible in English, the capital letters make it very easy: They show clearly when and where the Lord speaks. You see nothing like this in the Hebrew Scriptures though: We don’t have capital letters in Hebrew and you have to recognize and distinguish God’s voice by what He is saying, not by capital letters. Our actual lives are much closer to the Hebrew text: There are no capital letters; we have to recognize God’s voice or God’s actions by themselves, without additional hints and tips. Frequently, we fail: There are so many situations where we don’t recognize Him. It’s just like in John’s Gospel, when Yeshua (Jesus) says: “Father, glorify Your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.” Picture this: In the same very phenomena, in the same very sound, one can hear the voice of God, while another hears just thunder.
Apparently, Hagar did recognize the Speaker. After His question, it became clear to her that this was not somebody who just happened to be in the same place as her at the same time. She realized that the One who was asking knew everything anyway and that there was no point in hiding anything from Him. Therefore, she told Him the plain truth: She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”
What was His response? Three times, in verses 9, 10 and 11, the Scripture repeats the same words: The Angel of the Lord said to her… So what did the Angel say and what was this threefold message that made her go back immediately?
His first response we find in verse 9: The Angel of the Lord said to her, “return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.”
Please take a moment to think of this response and of the whole situation. Imagine yourself in the midst of very trying circumstances and then all of a sudden, you receive an epiphany: You meet the One who can actually do anything, can change everything. Wouldn’t you expect Him to help you, to change your circumstances? Hagar didn’t ask for this meeting and didn’t seek it, but since it did happen, couldn’t He have at least helped her a bit? Why does He send her back to the same very affliction she is fleeing from? He didn’t promise any good changes; He didn’t say that Sarah would change her attitude and would be more merciful and compassionate, or that Hagar’s life would become much easier now. He didn’t say any of that. He just said: “Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.”
Remarkably, in Hebrew, the verb that is translated here as “submit” comes from the same root as the word “afflicted” in verse 6: Sarai afflicted her. In English, it is impossible to translate both of these words from one word, but in Hebrew, it is the same root, though in different forms: active and passive. In a sense, it makes the original meaning even stronger, as if the Lord is saying to Hagar: “Return to your mistress and get afflicted.”
When we study the use of this root (‘anah – ענה ( in Scripture, the first impression is that the word is always used in a negative sense, designating bad actions only:
And when Shechem the son of Hamor . . . saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them.
Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.
And yet, it goes without saying that if the Angel of the Lord used this very word in His command to Hagar, it cannot be completely negative. Indeed, we find very different occurrences of the same word, referring to God’s deeds:
“And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you, allowed you to hunger, and fed you with manna which you did not know nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”
From this Scripture we see that if and when God is the One who is causing the affliction, the purpose of His action is “to humble and test.” Thus, we understand that it was not about Hagar and Sarah, or what Sarah was doing to Hagar–it was about God and Hagar and what God was doing to Hagar through Sarah: God commanded Hagar to return to her mistress and submit under her hand because He wanted to humble and test her! Together with Hagar, we are now starting to understand: It is not under Sarah’s hand that she has to submit; it is under the Lord’s hand!
However, only we the readers know that the Angel’s command was even stranger than Hagar can foresee. The girl knew her past and she knew her current circumstances, but she didn’t know her future. As disappointed as she might have been to hear the Angel send her back to her mistress and the very same circumstances, she couldn’t really comprehend how weird this command sounded in the light of future events. She didn’t know what we the readers know: that just in a few years, the Lord Himself would support her banishment from the same family that He was sending her back to now. We all remember the story: Hagar and her son were expelled from the family, according to Sarah’s request, and God backed Sarah up in that request. This means that though the Lord was telling Hagar to go back to Sarah and the family now, He Himself would insist on her expulsion from this family just a few years later. Why? Wouldn’t it have been much easier for everybody if Ishmael had been born in Egypt and had nothing to do with Abraham’s family? It would have been so much simpler and would have saved everybody so much pain. Why did Hagar have to go back now? Why did He send her back?
I would say that the very fact that God sends the pregnant Hagar back–knowing in advance that Hagar and Ishmael would be expelled from Abraham’s family later–speaks volumes: Obviously, it was very important to Him that Ishmael be born in Abraham’s family. It was very important to Him that Abraham would have two sons.
We next hear the second statement in verse 10: Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.”
Please take a moment to meditate on these words. Hagar is the very first woman in the Bible that God gives such a promise to! If we wonder what she must have felt when she heard this promise, let us remember that she had spent ten years in Abraham’s camp. Undoubtedly, she had heard the stories about Abraham’s leaving Haran and about God’s promises to him countless times. “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered “ Then He brought him outside and said, “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.”Now, as she had also received a very similar promise, what might she have thought?
I believe that at this point Hagar actually started to think that she, and not Sarah, would be part of that covenant that God promised to Abraham when He commanded him to leave his home and to go to the Land. And how would she not? Try to imagine yourself reading the Scripture as if you are reading it for the first time ever: If you heard God giving these promises to Abraham and then the same promise to Hagar (and never to Sarah), what would you think? Exactly what Hagar thought: that she, together with Abraham, would enter God’s covenant.
Thus, this second statement would have been even more convincing than the first one (and definitely, much more comforting): It became crystal clear to her that if she was going to be a part of God’s covenant with Abraham, she had to be there, together with Abraham. She had to go back–to be next to Abraham.
And then comes the third statement, about her son, in verses 11-12:
And the Angel of the Lord said to her:
“Behold, you are with child,
And you shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the Lord has heard your affliction.
He shall be a wild man;
His hand shall be against every man,
And every man’s hand against him.
And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
What did Hagar feel when she heard these words? She already knew that she was “with child,” so that didn’t come as a shock. Furthermore, she would have believed, with all her heart that it would be a son, not a daughter, so this part came as a confirmation rather than news. The news, indeed, was his name: and what a tremendous news it was! What an awe-inspiring name! Naturally, she needed to share this news with Abraham. He would be so happy to hear what a wonderful name God had chosen for his son, the son of the covenant! She needed to go back–to raise, together with Abraham, their son Ishmael!
Definitely, she would have been thinking about the future features of her son’s character that the Angel described: He wasn’t going to be an easy person, so it seemed. However, I think this wouldn’t have touched her as deeply as we might imagine: After all, it referred to a very distant future when her unborn son would be an adult. For now, what really mattered was his name–because this name proved more than anything else that the boy belonged to the Lord. Ishmael–”God will hear!” If other parents were to give their son such a name, it would be just a hope, just wishful thinking; given by the Lord Himself, however, it was a real promise! Yes, she needed to go back to Abraham to share this promise with him!
The Girl Names the Lord
So, as we have seen, every part of the Angel’s threefold message was very clearly intended to make Hagar return. Before she turns back, though, she does something absolutely unique, something nobody else in the whole of Scripture does: She names the Lord! We do have several examples in the Bible where the place was named according to what God did there:
Then Abraham lifted his eyes and looked, and there behind him was a ram caught in a thicket by its horns. So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide.
And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-Lord-Is-My-Banner.
Hagar, however, doesn’t just name a place. She does something altogether different from what Abraham or Moses did: She gives the name not only to the place (the place gets the name as well: Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; observe, it is between Kadesh and Bered), but to the Lord Himself, and this is something very unusual. In fact, it is absolutely unique in the Scripture:
Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?”
El Roi– God-Who-Sees-Me– is one of the most profound names of God in the whole Bible. Before we comment on the name, though, let us ask ourselves some questions about Hagar. The more I have studied this story, the more intrigued and puzzled by this girl I have become. Hagar is the only person in the Bible bold enough to name the Lord! Or perhaps naïve enough? Simple minded enough? What does it say about her? About God? About their relationship? How are we supposed to interpret this incredible fact?
Two things immediately spring to mind when I try to answer these puzzling questions. First, this absolutely supernatural experience must have been real enough for Hagar that a vivid, tangible aftertaste lingered in her soul even after it was over, such that she was able and ready to name Him! The second thought is about Hagar’s character: She dared to do something that even Abraham and Moses would not do. The fact that Ishmael would be a wild man, according to the Angel’s prophecy, doesn’t surprise me at all: If he took after his mother, he would definitely be a wild man. Apparently, Hagar was a very obstinate girl, and I believe that this is why the Lord told her to go back and to submit under Sarah’s hand. Before He could do anything through her, God wanted “to humble and test” her. It is always like this: Before anything can be done through any of us, God always needs to humble and test us.
We conclude our comments on this chapter with a few thoughts on the profound name the girl gives to the Lord:
Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?”
The English translations make an obvious attempt to present as comprehensible the original Hebrew sentence, which is highly enigmatic and incomprehensible. If we translate it literally, Hagar is asking: “Here (or until here) have I also seen the back of the One who sees me?” The strange original expression–would literally mean: I saw after the one who sees me, or I saw the back of the one who sees me.
This “after” or “back” part is omitted altogether in the most of the English translations, and that is completely understandable, since the exact function of this word here is not clear. And yet we know that there is no better explanation of the Scripture than the Scripture itself; this word would be even more puzzling were it not for an example we find later in the Bible. In a very famous scene from Exodus 33, when Moses is asking God to show him His glory, God answers:
But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
The Hebrew here uses almost the same words that Hagar used. True, when we are reading it in our modern Tanach, vowels are inserted and they make two different words from the same Hebrew letters: The same consonants read as “my back” in Moses’ case are seen as “after” in case of Hagar. However, the original text contained no vowels, so I do believe that Hagar is trying to express the same experience that Moses later had: the same sight of God’s glory that Moses asked for and was privileged to see.
We have to admit that we don’t know what God meant by saying: “You shall see My back.” We have no idea whatsoever what God’s back might be; we just translated the word as “back” and created the whole concept in order to make comprehensible something that we cannot comprehend; Moreover, I question whether it was intended for our comprehension in the first place. I think the very fact that Hagar used the same word that God used while speaking to Moses, however, means that the experience she had during that encounter had been very similar to the experience that the Lord allowed to Moses in Exodus 33. Considering that Moses was a great leader who was extremely close to the Lord and proved his faithfulness many times, we can only wonder about God’s infinite mercy toward this girl. Obviously, she was very special in the Lord’s eyes; we can clearly see it in this part, and we need to keep it in mind as the story unfolds.
Remarkably, despite the fact that throughout this whole scene, the Angel spoke to her about hearing (“You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your affliction”), she names the Lord: God-Who-Sees-Me. Why? Would it not be more logical, after this experience and those words, to name Him God-Who-Hears-Me? Why, instead of saying: for I have heard here the One who hears me–a much more accurate reflection of what happened–does she say: I saw after the One Who sees me? What actually happened during this encounter that made her give the Lord such a name?
Once again, do we have anywhere in the Bible the same “hearing–seeing” dynamic in a relationship with God? In fact, we do: In the last chapter of the book of Job, Job says to the Lord: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You.”It is noteworthy that nowhere in the book of Job is there a description, or even a hint, of Job seeing God with his eyes! It says: Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and then for the last four chapters, we listen to what the Lord is saying to Job. There isn’t a single word here implying a visual encounter between them. And yet, the reality of the epiphany he experienced was so overwhelming for Job that in his perception, it was as real as a visual experience. So, when Job says “Now my eyes see you,” we don’t know whether he actually saw something or someone during his encounter with God, whether it included a visual component. In a sense, it’s not that important: His words mean, first of all, that the epiphany he has just experienced was as convincing and reliable as something he would see with his own eyes.
Returning to Hagar’s story, we can now draw some conclusions. Of course, nobody knows or can adequately describe what happens during an encounter with God. It is different for everyone, because only God knows what is in the heart He is revealing Himself to. Only God knows the deepest secrets and wounds of that heart, and He is the only One who can touch and heal them. To those watching or listening from the outside, it might seem incomprehensible at best, or be altogether invisible, in other cases. This holds true for Paul: The people with him on the Damascus road saw nothing of the encounter that turned his life upside down.
It also holds true for Job: We have no idea how much his friends and comforters heard and understood of what God said to Job in the last chapters of his book. And yet, for Job himself the reality of this encounter was so overwhelming that he could say: “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You.” This is very similar to Hagar’s story: Though we, the readers, can also hear the message the Angel delivered to Hagar, the absolutely overwhelming presence of God that she experienced during that meeting, the warmness of God’s closeness that melted her heart completely, His love, His compassion, His tenderness– all of this remains hidden between the lines for us. Yet it was so real for her that the only thing she could utter was: El Roi. The-God-Who-Sees-Me.
Ishmael – Son of Promise?
So Hagar bore Abraham a son; and Abraham named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abraham was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abraham.
Hagar went back. Nothing is said about the rest of her pregnancy: how she returned to Sarah, how she submitted herself, whether Sarah afflicted her or whether Sarah had also been changed after Hagar’s flight and the very real threat of losing the child that Abraham had been waiting for so desperately. Not a word is said about that. However, we don’t hear about any conflicts or clashes with Sarah until the very last, central conflict in chapter 21, so I suppose it means that Hagar did submit herself under Sarah’s hand. I believe that the overwhelming understanding that God indeed saw her heart, her pain, and her suffering had been a crucial, even a life-changing experience for her.
We previously discussed Sarah becoming a believer and starting to have a real relationship with God in Egypt, when God Himself intervened in the story and protected and saved her from Pharaoh. Using the same name that Hagar gave to the Lord, we can say that from that moment on, Sarah had always known that God was the One Who saw her: her heart, her pain, and her suffering. The same was now true for Hagar: Now she knew, beyond any doubt, that even when her mistress used her and was unjust to her, there was still One who saw it and saw her! It was not Sarah who was in control of her life, even though she was her mistress; the Lord himself was in control of her life, as well as the life of her child. She didn’t need to defend herself any longer, because she had found out, once and for all–as Sarah did in Egypt–that she had a mighty Protector!
All these past months, she had been completely alone in her suffering and distress, with nobody to turn to or to share this pain with; now, all of a sudden, she realized that there was One who knew everything about her, One who felt her pain, One who hurt together with her. This understanding was absolutely overwhelming: She was not alone anymore! She knew now that she had a mighty Protector and Defender; she knew now she could always rely on Him, and her relationship with both Sarah and Abraham changed drastically. She was not torn between her feelings of superiority and her complete loneliness any longer: She was neither bitter, nor defensive; she was neither arrogant, nor obstinate. None of that made sense anymore. Instead, she became peaceful and tranquil and submitting herself to Sarah came as naturally to her now, as it had seemed unthinkable just a few days before. After she came back to Sarah from the wilderness, she submitted herself to her mistress, and even when Sarah wanted to find a reason to be angry with her, she couldn’t: Hagar was quiet, obedient, and respectful, and immediately did everything Sarah asked.
Then the day arrived when Abraham’s firstborn son came into this world. Yes, I suppose he was born on Sarah’s knees and officially became Sarah’s son. Yes, Abraham wept with joy when he saw his firstborn, a fulfillment of his decades-old longing and waiting. And yes, I suppose that for a while, Sarah tried to see Ishmael as her own son and to be a mother for him–mostly for her husband’s sake. It didn’t work, however. She was still too bitter and too jealous toward Hagar to be able to raise her maid’s son as her own. The epiphany Hagar had had in the wilderness, the amazing and profound name that God had given to Ishmael, and the fact that Abraham named him exactly as Hagar had told him–none of this helped either. Sarah felt excluded and left behind. She was hurting terribly; she was sad and bitter, and absolutely cold and emotionless toward Ishmael.
What about Hagar, then? Was she present in Ishmael’s life? Where was she, how was she all those years before Isaac was born–the years when Ishmael was Abraham’s only son, the years we know almost nothing about? We are going to talk about Ishmael in the next chapter; for now, suffice it to mention that it seems that Sarah soon lost any interest in the boy and stopped even pretending to act as his mother. I believe that it was only at this point–not before Sarah quit–that Hagar started to fill the gap that had been formed by a mother’s absence in the boy’s life. Gently and quietly, but very consistently, she did the things that a mother is supposed to do: tuck him into bed, sing him a lullaby, tend to an injury. I suppose that by the time Ishmael is 13 years old in Genesis 17 and Abraham is told that Sarah will bear a child, Sarah wasn’t even hiding her indifference toward Abraham’s son. Once she knew that against all odds, she was going to have a son of her own, Ishmael was completely forgotten. That is where Hagar comes into the picture and takes her place as the boy’s mother. Yes, when the Lord told her to go back, she went back and submitted herself to Sarah; yes, she reconciled herself to the thought of another woman being her beloved son’s mother. But she couldn’t stand the thought of her son becoming de facto motherless and she tried to fix it. She was able to trust the Lord when He told her to submit under her own affliction, but resigning herself to her son’s affliction was too much to bear. She tried to fix things for him and the future conflict with Sarah became inevitable. It was only a matter of time.
Cast Out This Bondwoman and Her Son!
Then God said: “No, Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you. Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly. He shall beget twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this set time next year.”
Ishmael was 13 when the Lord announced to Abraham that Sarah was going to have a son–and that it would be her child, and not Ishmael, who would be the son of the covenant. Undoubtedly, this announcement came as a great shock for Abraham, who had loved Ishmael dearly, had always seen him as his heir and successor, and would be perfectly happy to keep doing it. It would have been an even greater shock for Ishmael, and though it’s very unlikely that his father had told him everything, I suppose he could have figured out as much as the change in his status. He would have realized he was not the son of the covenant, after all; moreover, he had never been the son of the covenant in the first place – And ever since, the endless generations of Sarah’s children have been paying for that huge and bitter disappointment that the son of Hagar experienced.
It was a terrible disappointment for Hagar, as well. Or perhaps it was a terrible disappointment for Hagar, first and foremost. After all, Ishmael was still a boy; his adult future still seemed very distant for him. Perhaps the fading brightness of the colors his future was supposed to be colored with, didn’t affect him so terribly. For his mother, on the other hand, it was a terrible shock indeed: All the great things that God’s promise contained, all the wonderful things that she used to imagine attached to her son’s future–all of a sudden, none of this was relevant anymore. Ishmael would receive none of it! For the first time since her encounter in the wilderness, her strong faith of the last thirteen years wavered, shaken when she felt that her son was being deprived of what she had believed had been promised to him from his birth. All those years before Isaac was born, Hagar had had a deep peace in her heart, because she had been confident that her son was the son of the covenant. Once she realized she was wrong and those expectations would never come to pass, all those sharp angles of her personality that her faith had smoothed and subdued for thirteen years, started to show again. Not that she lost her faith completely–I think she still believed in God–but she lost her confidence and day by day, she grew more and more bitter.
Now we come to the crucial scene. The family throws a big party to celebrate the weaning of Isaac: And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham: “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely Isaac.”
In the previous chapter, we discussed in detail what might have happened during that famous scene–what Sarah might have witnessed. She could have seen a number of different things, but as we said, none of them would really have justified what happened afterward: Sarah’s demand to cast out this bondwoman and her son and the actual expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael. Honestly, I don’t think there is anything at all that a 15- or 16-year-old boy could have done to justify the punishment of kicking him out of the family. Therefore, from the very beginning it must be very clear for us: When God supported Sarah’s request, it was not about punishment or rejection; that could not be. God is a righteous and just God, and He would not do something that is not just.
So, if it was not about punishment, what was it about? Certainly, we can find some explanation on the emotional level: God just used this situation to put an end to the family’s otherwise endless pain and suffering. He decided to cut this terrible knot of hurt–because it had to be cut at some point and the longer it stayed like this, the more pain it would bring to everybody. He had not been the One who had created this extremely complicated and painful situation to begin with, nor was He responsible for the fact that there was now no easy way out. Yes, at the moment it seemed extremely unjust to both Hagar and Ishmael, and perhaps to Abraham, as well; nevertheless, this family situation had to be resolved at some point, and since God’s covenant had to be established with Isaac only; the boys had to be separated. God chose to separate the boys because He had different plans and different destinies for each of them.
However, as we have realized already, there is much more to this story than just the feelings of the people involved. There is a heavenly mystery that we will speak about soon, and though everything we have read and seen on this Peshat level will help us approach this mystery, there is no way we can actually delve into it unless we move on to the next levels.
The Second Epiphany
Once again, if we see this whole situation through Hagar’s eyes, it would seem ultimately unjust and unfair to us–as it definitely seemed to her. First of all, as we have mentioned, it’s very likely that Ishmael didn’t do anything bad at all: His only fault might have been in being a too-loved and too-adored big brother. If, indeed, this was the case, the expulsion, which was perceived as a punishment–and how could it have been seen otherwise?!–would have seemed to both of them extremely unjust!
Secondly, Hagar, who has spent the past fifteen years learning to obey, submit, and humble herself, once again felt with every fiber of her being that she had no rights whatsoever and was completely at her mistress’s mercy (and it didn’t look like her mistress had much mercy for her!). Thirdly, Hagar’s heart was full of disappointment and disbelief that Abraham would fail to defend and protect his son, although–Hagar knew it for certain!–he loved Ishmael dearly. And finally, she was ultimately disappointed by God–the One whom she knew as El Roi, the “God Who sees me.” This time, it didn’t look as if He saw her and her son’s affliction; and if He saw and didn’t step in, didn’t defend them, all the worse! In short, great were Hagar’s disappointment and bitterness when she heard Abraham telling her that she and her son would have to leave.
Then she departed and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba. And the water in the skin was used up, and she placed the boy under one of the shrubs. Then she went and sat down across from him at a distance of about a bowshot; for she said to herself, “Let me not see the death of the boy.” So she sat opposite him, and lifted her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad. Then the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. He dwelt in the Wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
This is the second time Hagar has an epiphany–the second time the Angel of God speaks to her in the wilderness. Hagar occupies quite a unique place in the Bible for many different reasons: She is a first runaway slave; a first woman in Abraham’s family that conceived and carried a child; a first slave that was freed. This double epiphany, however, puts her in an especially unique and significant position: No other woman, throughout the whole Scripture, is recorded as having heard God speak to her twice. She is not just the first woman in the Bible to have an epiphany twice; she is the only woman in the Bible to have an epiphany twice! While we will deal more with the spiritual consequences of this fact later, it is important even here, in our Peshat part, to make certain that you are aware of this remarkable fact.
An Exercise in Comparison
Before we deal with this second epiphany and God’s second message to Hagar, let us observe the difference in her situation compared to the first time the Angel of the Lord found her in the wilderness. Have you ever seen those comparison exercises in children’s magazines where you are presented two seemingly identical pictures and have to find the differences? Almost in the same way, we can compare two similar scenes in the Scripture, except that in our case, we can be certain that the differing details will always point to some spiritual truth. For me personally, it is always a very profound and enriching experience to study the differing details in seemingly similar scenes.
I will give you an example. In the Gospels, we have two very similar descriptions of supernatural fishing with Yeshua: The first one is in Luke 5, the second one in John 21. Let us read both Scriptures:
When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.”And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish which they had taken.
They went out and immediately got into the boat, and that night they caught nothing. But when the morning had now come, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus…. And He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast, and now they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish.Therefore that disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Now when Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment (for he had removed it), and plunged into the sea….Simon Peter went up and dragged the net to land, full of large fish, one hundred and fifty-three; and although there were so many, the net was not broken. Jesus said to them, “Come and eat breakfast.”
There are many details here that are very similar in both texts (we underlined them): In both stories, the fishermen had been fishing for the whole night before Yeshua commanded them to throw the net, and in both stories they caught nothing. In both stories, He commands them to cast the net and gives a detailed instruction as to where to cast it. In both stories, they obey: They do as He says and cast the net again, after the whole night of catching nothing. And in both stories, the result is overwhelming: They caught a great number of fish, in Luke 5, and they were not able to draw it in because of the multitude of fish in John 21. There is only one striking difference in the result, though: the net! The net was broken in the first scene: Their net was breaking. And the net was not broken in the second. This seemingly technical detail carries an enormous spiritual load. What does it mean and why did it happen?
In order to understand why the end was so different, let us try to see whether there were any different details in the stories themselves. The only crucial difference that I find between the pictures has to do with the direction: What kind of a move do we see in the story? From God – or away from God? In the first scene, Peter is saying: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” In this case, we read that their net was breaking. In the second, Peter plunged into the sea, trying to come to Yeshua closer and faster, and here, the net was not broken. We can arrive at a very important conclusion: Different movement of the heart produces completely different results in the midst of the very same circumstances. We become broken when we think about ourselves: how weak and sinful we are and how we are not worthy for Him to be with us and to save us. We never break when we think of Him instead of ourselves and are ready to plunge right into the depths just to be closer to Him, seeking our strength and righteousness in Him.
In Luke 5, Peter recognizes the Lordship of Yeshua–he is a believer already–but he is still too busy with himself and his own problems. One might think that in John 21, after his betrayal of Yeshua, Peter would have been even more aware of how weak and sinful he was; nevertheless, he just plunged into the sea. He just wanted to be with Yeshua, because at this point he knew already that forgiveness, healing, and righteousness can all be found through Him and in Him only!
In returning to our story of Hagar, what is the same in both pictures? –Hagar, the An,gel, and the wilderness. If one decided to create a play based on this story, one would certainly use the same scenery in both scenes. But where are the differences?
The first and the most obvious difference, of course, is that now Hagar is not alone. She is with her son. Ishmael is next to her and that makes the whole situation altogether different, even though the scenery is the same. A further comparison of those scenes should teach us a lot about being grateful and appreciating what we have. She thought–and so did we!–that she had been desperate then, back in Genesis 16. Now, as we see her in Genesis 21, we cannot help but think how much better off she had been then compared to what she was experiencing now. Then, she knew her way well and didn’t get lost (or didn’t think she was lost). Then, she was next to the spring of water and wasn’t thirsty (or didn’t think she was thirsty). Then, she was not dying (or didn’t think she was dying). Then, she didn’t need God to save her (or didn’t think she needed God to save her). Therefore, she didn’t call upon the Lord; she didn’t expect Him to appear. And yet, He came, and transformed her heart completely.
Many things are very different in Genesis 21, besides Hagar being not alone anymore. First of all, we read here that she wandered in the desert around Beer-Sheva. Can you imagine? Hagar is lost now. In Genesis 16, the girl knew her way in the wilderness well. So our first question must be: How and why did she get lost this time?
I imagine that being with Ishmael and feeling a huge responsibility for her son’s life made her more nervous and less strong; more vulnerable and less confident. This is probably the reason she lost her way. She feels responsible not only for herself now, but for her son as well, and as a result, she got lost in the wilderness that she used to know so well.
There is an inevitable tragic consequence of getting lost in the wilderness, and they had to face this tragic consequence soon enough: They were left without water. This is the third crucial difference from the first scene. While the young girl from Genesis 16 did not have any problems with water, since she was next to a spring, now in Genesis 21, the mother and son are out of water. They are dying without water; physically, literally dying.
Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that the pattern of epiphany in Genesis 21 differs drastically from what we read in Genesis 16. In the first scene, it doesn’t say directly where the angel was. It says he found Hagar by a spring in the desert, but for some reason, a reader is led to believe that he was disguised as a random wayfarer who just started to talk to her. The very fact that she answers him and they are having a conversation suggests a more mundane situation than hearing a Voice from heaven. If this is the case, it differs substantially from Genesis 21, where the Angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven.
Let us sum up the differences. First of all, Hagar seems to be in a much worse situation now, compared to Genesis 16. Nothing can be compared with the anguish of a mother’s heart when her child is suffering, and this is the torment she is going through right now, in Genesis 21. Furthermore, though we are watching the same Hagar, she is still a very different woman from the one we saw in Genesis 16. She was angry then, but she is really hurting now. The obstinate girl who knew her way and knew what she wanted is gone; the feeble, vulnerable mother, worrying about her son and desperately trying to save him, has taken her place. I believe that this is precisely why her second epiphany was so different from the first one.
We learn much about Hagar when comparing those two scenes, but the greatest blessing for me personally comes in seeing how God responded in each of these two epiphanies. I love witnessing how He touches her life and unlocks her heart in two completely different ways. He knew that the girl of Genesis 16, more than anything else, needed a change of heart. Certainly, she thought her circumstances were very difficult, and they were. Certainly, she thought she was going through terrible hardships, and she was. However, more than anything else she needed to be changed from within, and God knew it! The terrible storms and the endless torment of her soul, the love and the hatred, the accusations and the guilt, the bitterness and the pity, all intertwined and twisted, made her hurt constantly, so more than anything else, she needed peace in her heart! Therefore, when the Angel appeared before Hagar in Genesis 16, God gave her this peace. He completely changed her heart, but He didn’t change any of her circumstances. Moreover, He sent her back to her “cruel and unjust” mistress (or so Sarah seemed to her at that moment!) and to the same very circumstances, knowing that her transformed heart would allow her to endure peacefully the same affliction that she had run from. He didn’t save her physically, but He did save her spiritually.
In the famous story of the paralyzed man who was let down to Yeshua through the roof, Yeshua asks: Which is easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you’ or ‘Get up and walk?’ This is an incredibly profound question: Where does God’s power manifest itself more, in the visible stories of healing and miracles, or in the invisible transformation of heart? When we get to Genesis 21, we see God physically saving Hagar’s and Ishmael’s lives. Once again, He proves Himself as El Roi, the God Who sees: He saw their need and their suffering and He stepped in to save them. This is a wonderful testimony: We all long to see God stepping in and manifesting Himself as El Roi, the One Who sees us, especially when we are suffering! We have to remember, however, that before God changed Hagar’s visible circumstances in a mighty way in Genesis 21, He had changed her heart in Genesis 16. He had changed absolutely nothing in the visible realm then, and so, He must have transformed her heart completely. This transformation of the heart was so real for her that it is after this encounter that she had named God El Roi, the One-Who-Sees-Me.
As impressive and wonderful as it is, the miracle of Genesis 21 would not have happened if the miracle of Genesis 16 had not taken place in Hagar’s heart first. In Luke 5, before the paralyzed man rose up before them, took up what he had been lying on, and departed to his own house, glorifying God, Yeshua had touched and healed his heart: “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” The heart has to be healed first, and only then the visible healing comes.
This is exactly the reason why God did not have to create a well of water to save Hagar and Ishmael; all He had to do is open her eyes: God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. Scripture says that He is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, and this story is a wonderful example of how He works through those who submit to Him and His power. He doesn’t need to change the visible circumstances for them; all He needs is to open their eyes, and then they see.
It is the same in our lives: God knows–and only He knows–when it’s your heart that needs healing, even though circumstances seem really harsh, and when your situation really does need changing and you need a visible breakthrough. In His time, He will open your eyes and you will see a “well of water”.
I would love to finish this portrait with a “happy ending” to Hagar’s and Ishmael’s story. In a sense, their story does have a happy end: after God saved them in the wilderness, they indeed seemed to live happily ever after. So God was with the lad; and he grew and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. He dwelt in the Wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
However, the countless generations of Hagar’s and Sarah’s children don’t have this happy ending in their stories. In the modern world, especially those of us living in the land of Israel–on both sides!–feel the pangs of this never-ending pain again and again; find ourselves covered by the disgusting pus oozing from those never-healing wounds again and again. Perhaps the story of Hagar is meant to teach us a profound lesson, after all: Yes, we desperately want the visible circumstances to be changed, but before the visible circumstances change, and in order for them to change, an invisible transformation of the heart has to take place first. The healing of the heart comes first. We wouldn’t be able to see the well in the wilderness unless we know with every cell of our being that the One Who sees us lives! This is what saved Hagar and her son in the wilderness: their faith. That is what will save us all, in the end: our faith. Without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.
-  Genesis 16:1
- Genesis Rabbah, XLV; In Judaism, the Midrash (/ˈmɪdrɑːʃ/; Hebrew: מדרש; plural midrashim) is the body of exegesis of Torah texts along with homiletic stories as taught by Chazal (Rabbinical Jewish sages of the post-Temple era) that provide an intrinsic analysis to passages in the Tanakh..
-  Genesis 12:14,15
-  Genesis 12:17
-  Genesis 12:18,19
-  Genesis 12:20
-  Genesis 16:2
-  Genesis 16:3
-  “Hagar, Sarah and their children: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Perspectives,” Westminster John Knox Press, 2006; Chapter 1 , Phyllis Trible and Letty M.Russell, Unto the Thousandth Generation
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Genesis 16:8
-  John 12:27-29
-  Genesis 16:8
-  Genesis 34:2
-  Exodus 1:11
-  Exodus 22:22
-  Deuteronomy 8:2,3
-  Genesis 13:16
-  Genesis 15:5
-  Genesis 22:14
-  Exodus 17:15
-  Genesis 16:13
-  Exodus 33:20-23
-  Job 42:5
-  Job 38:1
-  Genesis 21:9,10
-  Luke. 5:4-9
-  John 21:3-4, 6-7,11-12.
-  Luke 5:18-26
-  Luke 5:25
-  Luke 5:20
-  Ephesians 3:20
-  Hebrews 11:6