One of my favorite aspects of Scripture isn't the actual Scriptures; you know the little clever, inspiring sayings we like to pick from various parts of the Biblical narrative. It’s true that there are many quaint, yet profound one-liners in the Bible which we like to recycle in quotes, music lyrics, and in cute, creative canvases for our walls. While this gives us motivational and positive reminders throughout the day, we strip the true meaning and power from these passages. The greatest strength of Scripture and the greatest source of wisdom within Scripture lie in its narratives. When I turn to Scripture what I am seeking isn’t some caption you would have better luck finding hanging up on the wall at the Dentist. I turn to Scripture so I can better understand the world around me; to relate and to connect. For that you need drama, conflict, characters, plots, and resolutions. You need stories. There must be a reason why the Bible isn’t just a collection of do’s and don’ts, rules, and guidelines. It’s about people, real flesh and blood, and their stories. Their stories give clarity to my story; to the human experience.
The best character a Biblical story could supply is the one whose part is skimmed over really quickly so we can just get to the important part already. They are the ones we hardly ever pay much attention to and will never be the focus of the sermon. One of those “secondary” characters is Hagar. Genesis Chapter 16 introduces us to Hagar who, for managing only about a chapter of Bible screen time, informs us about God and His relationship to His children, even the “secondary” ones. Hagar is a very unlikely hero in the Hebrew narrative of the Bible. What’s more is that she is usually overshadowed by the epic of faithful Abraham and his contriving, cynical wife, Sarah. What makes her so unlikely is that she is a foreign slave, an Egyptian, in a large household. She is just another piece of property; a young girl in a patriarchic culture. We are not sure how Sarai came into possession of Hagar; however, it was common at the time for young girls to be sold into slavery at a young age by their poor fathers. We can assume then that Hagar was quite young when she came to be a part of Abram and Sarai’s household.
At the time Hagar is introduced into the narrative Sarai is barren, which was a tragedy to Hebrew women, one that no woman would wish upon her greatest enemy. Childbearing was one of the few respectable means of attaining status and security for Hebrew women. Since Sarai cannot have children of her own she arranges a contract of marriage between Hagar and Abram. As the mistress of Hagar, Sarai has the right to give Hagar over in marriage to anyone. Abram agrees to the contract and consummates the marriage ten years later. We can assume that when the agreement was initially made between Sarai and Abram, Hagar was not of childbearing age. This means that Hagar was much younger than Abram. In fact, when Hagar finally did give birth we know that Abram was eighty-six years old. Hagar was to be used as a means to Sarai’s ends. Hagar was to be an involuntary surrogate; she would bear the pains and risks of labor but would receive nothing of the inheritance and prosperity that comes with beginning a family.
For a moment, place yourself in Hagar’s shoes and begin to live her story. Most likely my family sold me into slavery because of our abject poverty. However, the people who took me in seem reasonable and respectable. Though I am forced to give up my own cultural customs and adopt theirs, I am treated well; until I reach puberty. I am then given over in marriage to the old master by my mistress and am told nothing of what is to happen. I am just doing what I am told, being obedient as I was taught, but I can’t stand to be used as if I don’t have a life of my own. It’s as if they don’t care about my desires, dreams, hopes, and fears, none of it matters. My spirit is inconsequential.
Hagar was a young girl when she was given over to Abram and was probably green in the ways of the birds and the bees. I say this because Hagar begins to despise Sarai only after she discovers that she is pregnant with Abram’s child. It’s as if she is surprised this would happen after the marriage is consummated. Hagar is suddenly and unexpectedly struck with overwhelming, life-changing news. A baby will start to take form inside her womb, a baby that she is responsible for carrying and ultimately giving life to. This course of events is thrust upon Hagar who is helpless to stop it. First, she is contracted into marriage without her consent, as a minor is forced into having relations with a man decades older than her, and when she becomes distressed by the consequences, is mistreated by her mistress. Hagar was indignant but courageous. I think Hagar would do what any brave woman would do in such a situation: run. She risks her life and that of her unborn child by traversing across deserts in order to escape unjust treatment.
She was resting by a spring when the miraculous happens. An angel of the Lord appears to Hagar. Hagar is given special treatment and is seen as worthy of such when the angel speaks with her. If you recall, the people in the Bible who communicate with angels are usually the ones closely connected to Christ and the Gospel. They are the most famous or infamous characters of the Bible. Yet, here we see God reaching out to the “secondary” character.
The angel proceeds to ask Hagar two extremely profound questions; questions that require soul-searching and vulnerable honesty. “Where have you come from and where are you going?” Our hero replies without hesitation and is told by the angel that the Lord has heard of her misery. Hagar is transformed by this act of unconditional love. The Lord, she claims, is one who sees her, not in the way of sensing but in the way of knowing. God knew Hagar’s fear, despair, rage, and powerlessness. God knew her heart and cared for it. Hagar’s son’s name, Ishmael, becomes a memento of God’s love and attention.
Our God is a God who sees us, who knows us for who we are and who we are meant to be. He is never too important and we are never too small for Him to take notice of our suffering and misery. He doesn’t promise to magically change our circumstances or to erase all of our hardships but He is always there to give our souls comfort, healing, peace, and love. He sees through to our heartache and He listens. God provides us with the hope necessary for our own survival so that we are not merely living but thriving. The most insignificant of characters are the ones whom God separates from all else in order to build up and radically transform.
Hagar is one of my favorite characters in the Biblical narrative because she reminds me of the nature of the God I serve. I follow a God who sees me, knows me, and reaches out to comfort me in my darkness hour. I know that if I hit rock bottom God will be there, waiting for me. I hope that today you know that you are loved, that you are seen and truly known. You have not been forgotten, misunderstood, or ignored. God looks upon all his children, the richest, the poorest, the ugliest, the most beautiful, the powerless, and the powerful.
Perhaps we will never witness the presence of an angel, but perhaps our message of the Lord will be received through a random act of kindness, a burning, bronze sunset, or an uncommon sense of peace. Perhaps the message is spoken through the Spirit, which softly calls your name. When your heart beats wildly and your hands start to shake and sweat as if you are leaning in for your first kiss- that is the Spirit speaking to you, prompting you. Don’t ignore it because it is a message for your soul, one that it desperately needs. And the soul will never stop desperately needing the love of the Father. Hagar was prepared to answer these two profound questions, where have you come from and where are you going? I challenge you to do the same. You might see the work of God more profoundly than you ever have before.