Hagar and the God who Sees

Intro to Genesis 16:1-16

Last week we celebrated the incredible blessings of the Triune God – 

Even through disbelief and laughter,  

a child is born to Sarah and Abraham when they are far past child-bearing years.  

Like so many blessings,  

there is a shadow side to the blessing of Sarah and Abraham having a child in old age. 

In the story of Hagar we find a God who acts in the midst of injustice, 

Who meets us in our most challenging moments,  

And calls us to see anew.  

Today we delve into the story of Hagar, 

The mother of Ishmael, who would become a great nation. 

This story is also in the Muslim Koran,  

Although a bit different for Hagar and Ishmael are not side-stories in Islam, 

But matriarch and patriarch of the Islamic tradition.  

Let us listen to the Jewish and Christian version.   

Genesis 16:1-6a 

The blessing promised to Sarah and Abraham was so unbelievable  

that before the promise is fulfilled, 

they take matters into their own hands, 

And force Sarah’s slave to lay with Abraham. 

They are not the first to violate and force a person. 

Slavery was widespread in the ancient world. 

There were no social services or safety nets like today. 

So, if one slipped into poverty – 

Which was easy to do if there was a drought or war – 

One had little recourse but to sell themselves or their children. 

In ancient Israel there were laws that freed slaves every six years; 

In the Hammurabi Code the release of slaves was dictated after three years. 

It is not certain that the laws were followed, but that was the legal intention. 

The practice of men raping their female slaves was common, 

In ancient times and in this country.  

Although in the story of Hagar we see that she was made a wife – 

Which afforded her, in theory, more respect and honor.  

Once she has conceived, her position increases even more – 

For women’s primary role in the ancient world was to bear children. 

Now that she has been, supposedly lifted up,  

not equal to Sarah, but presumably more status than before,  

Hagar sees differently – 

She looks upon her mistress differently – 

The NRSV translates the phrase “contempt” 

However, a more accurate translation would be “slight”  

Sarah is dismissed in Hagar’s eyes. 

Perhaps because Hagar sees herself as worthy. 

Perhaps because Hagar is disgusted by Sarah’s actions.  

Sarah cannot tolerate Hagar’s new status and new view of her, 

So she afflicts her – in Hebrew it is the same word used to describe how the Egyptians afflict the Israelites in bondage in Egypt. 

Like many who are in places of privilege or power,  

When those with less rise,  

Those who benefit from higher status freak out and desperately seek to regain control – 

Either by condemning freedom tactics of the oppressed  

or enlisting new laws or policies to keep oppressed people down.  

Sarah, like many of privilege before and after her,  

chooses new harsh tactics to keep down Hagar 

and preserve her own status.  

However, those who believe in freedom will not rest – 

They are resilient and strong and rise up.  

Let us hear now how Hagar confronts the affliction brought upon her.  

Genesis 16: 6b – 16 [Slide 7 & Lay Leader] 

Hagar flees and God sees.  

God sees those cast aside, those in the midst of trouble.  

Hagar is the first person in the Bible to name God – 

The Hebrew “El-Roi” translates, “the God who sees” 

Indeed God sees –  

Like the best sort of Father or parent, God sees and protects his beloved.  

God saw the Israelites in bondage in Egypt and brings them to freedom. 

God in Jesus Christ sees the Samaritan woman at the well. He does not look upon her as an object, but sees her as a whole being. He talks with her – a sign of respect not usually afforded to a Samaritan woman whom Jews at the time regarded as other and less than. Jesus sees her and in doing so opens her eyes to see the Messiah. 

Lest we think God is the only one who needs to see, in Matthew 25 Jesus calls his disciples to see the the hungry and give food, to see the stranger and offer hospitality, to see the naked and bring clothes, to see the sick and bring healing, to see the prisoner and visit. To see.  

Seeing is a foundational piece of God’s call towards justice/God’s reign/to loving one another because to see first acknowledges the humanity of another – that another is indeed made in the image of God, as we read in the very first chapter of the Bible. To see is to give respect, as Jesus did with the Samaritan woman at the well. To see is to have a clue as to how to love. We can’t heal the sick without first seeing the sickness. We can’t welcome the stranger we refuse to see. We can’t dismantle racism if we don’t believe it is in our world and in our own minds. To see gives us a clue as to how to love.  

Seeing is especially important for white people eager to jump into social justice work with what is commonly called a “white savior complex” – that “I can make it all better because I’m the hero” attitude makes racial justice work about lifting white people up, when, in fact, there are strong, resilient people of color who have a far better understanding of what is needed. So, to my white siblings, and anyone with privilege in our society, may we first see, instead of attempting to take the lead or correcting the experience of another.  

For people of color, and anyone who has suffered oppression, when the world turns away, know that God sees and will stand by you in the fight for justice. For those with the privilege to look away, do not look away, do not discredit, do not dismiss, but see the injustice rampant in the United States and in the world. Read. Watch. Learn. See. For white women or white people who may be oppressed for reasons other than the color of your skin, let us not use other forms of oppression as an excuse to look away, discredit, or minimize the plague of racism.  

What do you notice about these pictures of Hagar and Sarah?  

Sarah is white and Hagar is black.  

If you google search pictures of Hagar and Sarah, often Sarah is depicted as white and Hagar as black. Historically this does not make sense since both women lived in the same general region.  Sarah most certainly did not look like a white European. Yet, whites are accustomed to seeing themselves as “owners” of black and brown people, whether consciously or unconsciously. Furthermore, Europeans and white Americans view Sarah and Abraham as their ancestors and so depict these ancestors to look like themselves. So artwork by whites often continues this conscious or unconscious historically flawed racial depiction of Hagar and Sarah. And still, Sarah acts as many white women have over the centuries – scared by sexist pressures to have children she inflicts harm upon another woman she has deemed less than. Amy Cooper using the threat of police on a black man in Central Park is a prime example. Allowing one oppression to fuel another only divides us further.  The outcome is not kind. The outcome is terror and harm barely redeemed by God.  

So we hear the next part of Hagar’s story.  

Genesis 21:8 – 14a 

Abraham is not a stellar father here, nor a loving husband – the text does not even name Hagar in this chapter as Abraham’s wife.  

This scripture reminds us that human fathers are still human – fallible and far from perfect.  

This scripture reminds us not to worship human fathers or patriarchs,  

Even if they have done both good and evil, 

For humans are not God.  

While human fathers and husbands, and we can include mothers, wives, mentors and parents, may fail,  

We can count on God to see and hear our authentic cries.  

Let us see the last portion of Hagar’s story as told in our Christian scriptures.  

Genesis 21:14b – 21 

While Sarah and Abraham have afflicted pain and neglected their responsibilities, 

God steps in to save and redeem Hagar and Ishmael.  

When oppression and injustices bear down, 

We can find hope in the God who sees and saves. 

As God opened Hagar’s eyes to the well of water and life, 

God helps us to see hope and possibilities in our lives. 

God helps us see a way out of no way. 

God helps us see tools for justice, tools for blessing, tools for life.  

Sight comes when we take time to look around. 

Sight comes when we are humble enough to cry. 

Sight comes when we open our hearts in prayer.  

When we feel exiled,  

May we trust God sees and will help us to see. 

When we feel powerful or in control, 

May we see the Hagars supposedly under our control. 

When the weight of the world bears down, 

May we cry out and trust that we will be heard. 

When injustices tear apart families and community, 

May we trust that God sees and will redeem.  

May we see and be seen.