I recently had such a moment, reading about Hagar in Genesis 16. So here’s the story. Hagar, servant girl, of Sarai, is the Ophelia of the piece: while all the drama and attention are focused on Abram and Sarai, she is quietly suffering the consequences of their bad decisions. Sarai has lost hope that she will have a child, and so she offers Hagar to Abram as a second wife, as a means of providing him with an heir. As soon as Hagar gets pregnant, not surprisingly, there is enmity between Sarai and Hagar. Hagar ‘despises’ Sarai (Gen 16:4, perhaps jealous of Sarai for being Abram’s first wife and love). Sarai in turn, also probably envious of Hagar’s new status as the provider of the long-awaited heir, ‘mistreats’ Hagar (Gen 16:5). It gets so bad that Hagar can’t take it any more and she runs away.
Now, you may have noticed some bias in my telling, but I can’t help but feel a little bit sorry for Hagar at this point. In school plays I never won the big parts; I was ‘Girl in chorus number 3’. I was always on the outskirts; defiantly alternative, and yet simultaneously envious of those who seem to have all the action and attention centring around them. This may well be projection on my part, but Hagar seems to me to be representative of those who feel ‘left out’ of God’s plans, someone who is just on the periphery while all the exciting things seem to be happening to everyone else. She can glimpse her own happy ending – happily married to Abram, bringing up their child together – but knows that it will be forever out of her reach.
As a servant, a woman, a foreigner, she has no status, no rights. She is someone who suffers without any chance of recourse, without an advocate or someone to fight her corner. When Abram has to choose between Sarai and Hagar, he tells Sarai she can do what she wants with Hagar, “your slave is in your hands” (Gen 16:5). She is representative of all those who suffer silently, behind closed doors. She is patron saint of the invisibles.
So where is God in this? With all these exciting plans and promises for Abram and Sarai, what space is there for someone like Hagar?
To answer this we need to go to the next part of the story. Hagar runs away to the desert – and comes face to face with the angel of the LORD. (It is worth noting that the first appearance in the Bible of the angel of the LORD is to Hagar: a woman, a slave, an Egyptian foreigner. God notices those in society whom we ignore or devalue.)
God gives her a blessing and a command. The blessing sounds very like the one just given to Abram, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count” (Gen 16:10). The command is to go back to Sarai and submit to her (16:9).
In one sense, not much has changed. God sends Hagar right back into the same situation that was causing her so much pain and suffering. But in another sense, everything has changed. Why?
It’s because God says to her, “the LORD has heard of your misery.” (16:11). After all that long suffering, it is pure relief to have someone acknowledging it. She responds, “You are the God who sees me”. I find that one sentence incredibly beautiful and profound.
She thought that no-one had noticed her suffering; but God had seen, God had heard. There are times when I battle with that sense of being forgotten. There have been times in the past year where I have felt almost completely helpless to the illness; and invisible, as everyone else got on with their lives. There are times where I have that same sense of desperation to be taken out of my situation.
In times of great suffering it is immensely precious to be able to say, “You are the God who sees me”.
Over to you:
- Have you ever felt like you could ‘glimpse your own happy ending’, but it was out of your grasp?
- Who are those in your life, perhaps on the periphery, who may be suffering alone?
- How do you respond to the God who ‘sees you’? Do you see it as a comfort?