El Roi - the God Who Sees

Have you ever been in a situation where you were taken advantage of – you felt helpless, with nowhere to turn? Have you ever been treated unjustly by your employer even though you were doing your best to comply with what they wanted? Have you ever felt like God doesn’t see what’s going on in your life?

That’s exactly the situation of a woman named Hagar, a woman on the margins of God’s covenant. She was exploited and mistreated but discovered that God sees and God cares and God acts.

Hagar’s story is told in Genesis 16, and like Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, it was the best of times and the worst of times. But the worst part comes first. The first part of the story is the human story, and it’s bad, marked by pain, sin, and jealousy. The second part of the story is when God shows up, and it’s marked by promise, seeing, and justice.

In Genesis 16, we see God’s people, Abram and Sarai, acting like they don’t trust God. We also see God unexpectedly bringing blessing to those on the margins and outside of the covenant. We see God bringing redemption to the consequences of our sinful choices. Through it all, we see that God sees, that God knows, and that God cares.

Act 1: A Catalogue of Human Sin

1. A bad situation made worse by doubt.

vv. 1-2: Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

The bad situation here is that Abram and Sarah lived with an unfulfilled promise: God had promised offspring that would bless the nations. But they couldn’t have children. In this moment of unfulfilled promise, Sarah looked at her circumstances rather than God. And then, Abram listened to his wife rather than God.

2. A Fleshy Answer to a Spiritual Problem

vv. 3-4: So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived.
 
The situation was made worse because of the solution Sarah came up with – Abram should take Hagar as a second wife and have a child through her that would count as Sarah’s. So she proposed a doubt-based solution, and Abram ‘listed to the voice of Sarai’. That means he acquiesced – he gave in to what she had said.

By the way, who is Hagar? The scripture describes here as a ‘female Egyptian servant’. Perhaps they had obtained her in Egypt when they fled their during an earlier famine. But she is treated as a means to an end – there is no record they asked her opinion on this. And so through expediency this forced relationship opened a door to a series of bad events.

3. Normal, but not good.

v. 4: And when she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress [Sarai].

In ancient Mesopotamian culture, children were regarded as a status symbol; ‘blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them’ (Psalm 127.5). Conversely, to not be able to have children was a social stigma. Sarai’s motivation to have children would surely have included the dimension of social standing. Likewise, when Hagar did conceive, this was a sing of blessing.

To her being blessed, Hagar added contempt. This could perhaps have been rooted in the fact that Hagar had been forced into a relationship she did not want. We don’t know what her attitude was to this arranged marriage as a second-class wife, but it is quite possible she was not thrilled by the relationship. And so this may have been an unwanted pregnancy.

But the human emotion of disdain seems to have gotten the better of her; she now sees herself has superior to Sarai, her mistress, in that Hagar could conceive, and Sarai could not. While we can see this is as a normal and understandable response, it’s still wrong and sinful.

4. From Bad to Worse.

vv. 5-6: And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

This short section of scripture includes three human errors that make this bad situation worse. First, Sarai ‘goes ballistic’ and starts blaming Abram for Hagar’s contempt. Forgetting that it was her own idea, she thinks it’s Abram’s fault. Second, Abram errs by acquiescing a second time. He didn’t put a protest when Sarai said, ‘Go into Hagar’, and he doesn’t put up a protest when she wants to punish Hagar. All through this story Abram seems ‘just along for the ride’.

But the pinnacle of pain is Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar. Having been given the green light by Abram to ‘do to her as you please’, Sarai dealt harshly with her, and Hagar fled. One has to wonder how badly a pregnant woman must be treated to make her flee into the wilderness. But Sarai treated her badly enough, and Hagar fled.

Selah

Let’s pause here to recount all the mistakes people have made so far in this story. So far we have Sarah’s doubt Abraham’s acquiescence (part 1), Hagar’s contempt, Sarai’s judgment, Abraham’s acquiescence (part 2), and finally, Sarai’s harshness. There is no surprise that after this sequence of events, Hagar flees.

But this is what I would like you to see: Through their own sin, the House of God’s People became Place of Pain. Abraham’s household was the church -God’s people - on the earth at this time. What should have been a place of hope and promise became unbearable to a marginal outsider. God calls his church, his people, to extend love and grace to those amongst them. In the next section we see that God gives Hagar what Abraham and Sarai did not.

Part 2: Divine Grace Intervenes

5. The God Who Finds

vv. 7-8 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”

God doesn’t ask questions because he doesn’t know the answer; he inquires about our situation so that we will verbalise the narrative we are using to interpret our situation. A similar exchange happens between God and Elijah in 1 Kings 19. When the prophet Elijah fled from Jezebel, God found him in a cave and asked him, ‘what are you doing here, Elijah?’ Elijah’s response locates his self interpretation:

He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19.14).

Notice that Elijah, rather than saying, ‘I’m afraid’, points to 1) his bravery and 2) his faithfulness as the last man standing. In essence, he says, ‘I’ve been great!’. He missed the bit that the fact of being in a cave demonstrates that, at least for a moment, fear got the better part of him.

Back to Hagar: interestingly, and to her credit, Hagar doesn’t try to justify or explain her situation, she simply states the fact: ‘I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai’. Honesty with God is a good first step towards receiving grace.

6. The God Who Engages

vv. 9-10: The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.

These are probably not the word that Hagar wanted to hear. Who wants to submit to a cruel woman? But here’s the thing to see: God engages us according to his purpose. God had plans for Hagar, and those plans included her placement in Abram’s household. For her destiny to be fulfilled, she had to return. God deals with us according to destiny, not our self-perception.

7. The God Who Promises

vv. 10-12: The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”  And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”


This may not be what any mother to be wants to hear about her soon to be born son, but the good news is that God has not forgotten Hagar. She may have felt alone and isolated in strange land with a domineering family, but in the midst of her darkness, God gave her a beautiful promise of blessing. Though he might be a wild man, her son Ishmael became the father of nations.

8. The God Who Sees

vv. 15-16: So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing”, for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

This is a great example of theological reflection. Hagar reflects on her life situation and God’s intervention and comes to learn something about God: God is a God of seeing; God is the God who ‘looks after me’. This may not be the most profound revelation of God in scripture, but it may be the most encouraging: God is the God who looks after his people.  

Application

There are three simple points you need to understand from this text. First, whether you feel like it or not, God sees your situation. You are not alone, and you are not outside his gaze – God sees. Second, God knows your pain. Sometimes we feel that God just has a vague awareness of what we’re going through; no, he knows your pain. And third, God gives you his promise. Like Hagar, he deals with you according to your destiny.