Susquehanna Morning

Susquehanna Morning

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lent 7: Hagar and Her Mistress and the Living One Who Sees

 Head from a statue of a woman from the Twelfth Dynasty pyramid of King Sesostris at Lisht

We interrupt the story of Sarai, because this next part insists on being told from the point of view of Hagar.

You can read it here.

Hagar the slave. (If your translation says, "servant," or "handmaiden," get a better translation. I say this with some regret, because I really like the Common English Bible, but I think it gets this one wrong.)

Hagar the Egyptian slave. So, she stands as a reminder-- if that's the right word-- of something that will happen later: Hebrews will be enslaved by Egyptians. She is also, perhaps, someone who was obtained as a result of the time Sarai spent in Egypt.

Hagar the Egyptian is a slave belonging to Sarai, the wife of the fabulously wealthy Abram. Living in close proximity to her mistress, Hagar is undoubtedly aware of a growing tension around Sarai's childlessness. That does not mean she is in anyway prepared for what happens next, no matter the culture of the time, no matter the uses of slaves.

Renita Weems (in her work Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women's Relationships in the Bible, 1988) , describes the disparities between the women here:

Sarai had social standing, as Abram's wife, but she had no respect. She had material abundance, but she was not comforted. She was beautiful, but she was barren, childless, less than a woman in the eyes of her Hebrew community. That which Sarai craved most, her husband's money could not buy her. Only her slave's womb could give it to her. And according to custom, because Hagar belonged to Sarai (through Abram, of course), any children Hagar bore would legally belong to Sarai. Thus, what the Lord had prevented of Sarai, Sarai set out to obtain through her slave.

Hagar is given to Abram as a surrogate. As a slave she has no agency, no right to refuse.

The story is told from the point of view of Sarai in the biblical narrative, but it cannot help giving us room to identify and sympathize with Hagar. And it gives us a lot.

After Hagar conceives, the story turns to vision and seeing as a metaphor, a touchstone throughout the rest of the passage.

"... and when she saw that she had conceived, [Hagar] looked with contempt on her mistress." (In the Hebrew, "her mistress was despised / trifling in her eyes.")

Whatever Sarai expected, it was probably not this.

Weems writes:

Before, Hagar had been a defenseless slave. Now, as the pregnant concubine of the prosperous but old man Abram, Hagar was protected. She ceased to be Sarai's slave and became Abram's wife.

Perhaps the pregnancy awakened something in the slavewoman, something that previously lay dormant.

Perhaps it was her sense of self-worth.

Perhaps it was her sense of purpose and direction.

Or perhaps, it was the prospect of being loved unconditionally by the child. (Pregnancy has had that effect on more than one woman.)

Whatever the reason, Hagar could no longer see Sarai and her relationship to her mistress as before, for Hagar was able to give the old man Abram something his wife Sarai could not....

Sarai is enraged, and brings the full extent of her wrath on her husband:

"May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl 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!"

Sarai knows that, in the end, this is about her power or lack thereof... and Abram seeks immediately to rectify that imbalance by telling her, Do what you want. She is your slave.

And so Sarai "deals harshly" with her... 

(In the Hebrew, this language is identical to the language used to describe the Pharaoh's behavior towards the Hebrew slaves in Exodus. It is the language of punishment and humiliation.)

Hagar runs away, into the wilderness. She would rather take her chances with the hostile natural environment than stay another moment to endure whatever harsh treatment Sarai is doling out.

Hagar the slave.

Hagar the Egyptian slave.

Hagar, the pregnant Egyptian slave.

What happens next is the first annunciation by an angel we find in scripture. It is an annunciation to a pregnant slave. 

And that is almost all you need to know about God.

An angel finds Hagar by a spring of water, and at first, gives Hagar a bitter word.

Return to your mistress. Submit to her. (v. 9)

And this is followed by the annunciation:

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
    you shall call him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 
 He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
    and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”  ~Genesis 16:11b-12

The angel gives Hagar a vision of her son... not as the abstraction a baby can be in early pregnancy, laden with the mother's fantasies and hopes, but as he will be.  

A child whose name "Ishamel" will mean "God hears"... the cries of this pregnant slave in the wilderness. 

A "wild ass of a man" whose description as a fighter may give Hagar precisely the tangible hope she needs.

And so Hagar does what no other person in scripture has done: she gives God a name. 

So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi” (that is, God of seeing/ God who sees) she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" ~ Genesis 16:13 

And the well that was eventually built around the spring bore a name testifying to Hagar's experience: Beer-lahai-roi, Well of the Living One Who Sees Me.

The Living One Who Sees Me.

The first slave we encounter in scripture receives an annunciation, and names God, and leaves behind a spring of water named for her encounter with the divine.

She also returns, at divine command, to her harsh mistress, so let's not pretty this up too, too much. Hagar's story is not over. Nor is Sarai's. 

But thanks be to and for the Living One Who Sees the harsh treatment those in power dole out to those who are powerless. Their time will come.



  1. Thank you for this. At a time when many of us are feeling powerless, it is good to be reminded of the Living One Who Sees.

  2. As I read this Pat I thought about those who see God Moses Jesus and are illuminated - luminous - Maybe being seen but without the light - I would like it even better if she shined.