God’s empowering response to a slave’s suffering
The lives of the patriarchs, storied and famous, are not without casualties. These imperfect humans who would go on to sire the children of Israel lied to, cheated, failed, and, by modern standards, abused others. But it’s here that God invites us to look with Him on the plight of the smallest, least-important outcast—an Egyptian slave, unwanted background character in the story of Abraham—and watch as He hears her cry. What can we learn from this text?
As a slave, Hagar’s plight was common. According to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi,
If a man marries a [wife], and that [wife] has given a slave-girl to her husband and (so) produced sons…1
In this, one of the most comprehensive and well-known law codes of the ancient world, two laws deal with a common ancient practice where infertile women would give female slaves to their husbands and through them were “bearing” children for the family.
Infertility was a frequent cause of divorce, but cultural practices like these could save a marriage.
Documents like the Code of Hammurabi make this cruel form of surrogacy sound positively mundane, so it’s unsurprising that in Genesis 16, Abram’s barren wife Sarai hatches a plan:
Genesis 16:2. 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.”
Sarai disregards God’s promise of Genesis 15:4 (to provide Abram with a son) and urges her husband into this then-common practice. Whatever the Egyptian slave girl Hagar’s previous responsibilities, her job description just changed: she is now tasked with providing the awaited heir on behalf of her aged mistress. And provide she does—the text is silent on the details of Abram’s sex act with Hagar, but we do know it happened. Within an unnamed time frame, Hagar is pregnant.
It’s difficult to read many details into the events that follow. Whatever Hagar’s feelings about her relationship with Abram, her status as the mother of his child has gone up in the world. The ESV says Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen. 16:4), and Sarai’s response is vitriolic. She lashes out, not at herself, the one who came up with the idea, not at Hagar, whose actions have upset her, but at Abram.
Genesis 16:5–6. 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.
When Sarai confronts her husband, she does not even say Hagar’s name but refers to her merely as “my servant.” We aren’t privy to the details of how she mistreats Hagar; we know only that Hagar flees, and when we find her next, she is “in the wilderness” (Gen. 16:7), as she is presumably trying to go back to Egypt.
The narrative that follows is quietly stunning. In it, one of God’s messengers goes to this outcast at the bottom rung of society, made a mother without her consent and by disobedience to His will, and gives her a message from God.
Robert Alter’s translation2 of the next verses proves instructive:
Genesis 16:9–11. And the LORD’s messenger found her by a spring of water.… And the LORD’s messenger said to her, “Return to your mistress and suffer abuse at her hand.” And the LORD’s messenger said to her, “I will surely multiply your seed and it will be beyond all counting.” And the LORD’s messenger said to her:
“Look, you have conceived and will bear a son And you will call his name Ishmael. For the LORD has heeded your suffering…”
The message divides easily into three parts: (1) return and suffer, (2) I will make your family immense, and (3) God “heeds” your suffering.
The first part of the message, when God tells Hagar to return to Sarai, rings in modern ears as unjust. Hagar, we reason, has clearly been unfairly treated. She has gone from slave to the concubine of an old man, then been harassed and degraded by his wife. My modern sensibilities are disgusted by her plight. Surely, I think, if God has taken any domestic abuse training, He will notify the police and help her to escape.
But God does not immediately solve Hagar’s problem. On the contrary, He asks her to obey Him by returning to her situation. In the narrative, Hagar seems just as shocked as I; note that she does not reply to the messenger. Instead, God’s envoy goes on to the next point: “I will surely multiply your seed … beyond all counting,” which unveils the next surprise. Hagar is to be gifted with what, in the ancient world, is equivalent to a wealth of riches. God tells her that she will first have a son, and, later, uncountable offspring.
I can only speculate how Hagar must have felt at this news. My modern mind tends to think in the words of John Maynard Keynes, who reasoned, “in the long run we’re all dead.” For someone suffering in the here and now, I wonder: how could uncountable future children be a meaningful promise? How could Hagar be motivated by something that would come after her lifetime?
The God who reached out to Hagar in her moment of need, asking for her obedience, and offering her a future family, is my God. And He expects me also to live for a future time.
Hebrews 12:1–2. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
The directive in these verses both describes our actions and gives us a reason for them. We Christ-followers are to live our lives looking both at Jesus and forward with him.
To the twenty-first century mind, perhaps the third part of the message given to Hagar is the most profound: “The LORD has heeded your suffering.” The Hebrew word translated “heeded” is a version of the word “shema,” which is frequently translated “listen.” In Hebrew, it has a connotation of listening intently or paying attention to something, just like the English word “heed,” which means “to pay attention to.”
We cannot overstate the significance of this: the God of the universe has sent an envoy to an insignificant personage and is telling her that He is carefully watching and paying attention to her troubles.
In our modern, secular world, it’s difficult to deny the emptiness and the loneliness that awaits us when we ask, “Why? Why do I matter? Is life valuable?” And suffering is a crucible that pushes these unsettling questions to the forefront. I can only imagine Hagar wondering, “Does what I’m going through right now matter—really matter—to anyone but me?”
God’s promise of a future family is powerful. But to my heart, His telling Hagar that He is paying attention to what she is going through is profound and significant. God says the same to us.
Psalm 139:1-3, 7-8, 18b. O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
I awake, and I am still with you.
By inspiration, the psalmist here conveys a truth that is both a comfort to Christians and a powerful testimony to unbelievers. Wherever I am, whatever is happening, God is there.
What was Hagar’s theology when she ran from Sarai? We don’t know. But we do know that after the God of the universe gave her a personal message, she obeyed. Hagar abandoned her plan to run away from Sarai and Abram and returned, and when she came back, she was no longer a harried, injured victim of domestic abuse. She returned as the mother of a future nation, empowered to face her circumstances with the knowledge that the God of the universe was paying attention to her situation.
Returning to Abram and Sarai took guts. Those of us familiar with the rest of Hagar’s story know that it continues with more strife and more rejection. But Hagar did bear Ishmael, and today she is credited as the mother of a people—just as God promised.
As believers, we can offer great comfort to this world just by pointing out what God told Hagar, reminding even the most downtrodden, insignificant, and abused that a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice (Matt. 10:29). This is the answer to the question, “Why do I matter?” Every one of us matters to God.
1 J. N. Postgate, Early Mesopotamia Society and Economy at the Dawn of History (Routledge: 1992) 105.
2 Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co.,