You probably already know this, but it’s worth repeating. When you’re reading a verse or a passage in your Bible, don’t limit yourself to that specific verse or passage. Read some of what comes before and after. Read to find out where the story is taking place and why, and what comes about as a result.
The main benefit of doing this is that you’ll get a better idea of what the author had in mind when it was written down. But there’s another benefit, too. Unless you’re following a plan for reading the entire Bible, you’re likely to skip a fair amount of Scripture, even if you’re reading your Bible every day. And, as Yosemite Sam used to say to Bugs Bunny, “There’s gold in them thar hills.” In the case of reading our Bibles, there’s Scriptural gold to be found in passages we might otherwise miss because they don’t show up in our devotional booklets or the lectionary.
I struck gold doing that this week. The suggested passage for tis Sunday is from Chapter 21 of Genesis, where Abraham sends Hagar and their son Ishmael away. I wanted to learn more about Hagar’s story, which took me back to chapter 16, which we read a few moments ago. Isn’t it a great story? I checked to see when it would show up in the lectionary schedule and was surprised to find that it never does, even though it contains some real riches for us. Chief among them is that we that we learn how we see and are seen by God, and we hear and are heard by God.
The story actually begins years earlier, when a famine occurred in the land of Canaan. Abraham (still called Abram at that point) and Sarah (still called Sarai) became refugees. They left their home and went to Egypt, where they lived as aliens. While they were there, they acquired a slave—a woman named Hagar. Scripture doesn’t tell us how they came to own her—whether they bought her, traded for her, or won her in a game of cards. But, she became their property. Abram and Sarai were forced to leave Egypt under rather unsavory circumstances (which you can read about in Chapter 12). They took Hagar with them—away from her home, away from her family, to live in a strange land as someone else’s property.
Ten years passed, and Abram and Sarai were rich in gold, rich in silver, and rich in livestock, but destitute in the one thing that mattered most: children. As things stood, a man born a servant in Abram’s household and possibly adopted would inherit everything when Abram died. This is a catastrophe in their culture.
Now, earlier, God had promised Abram that he would have offspring of his own. Abram believed this promise and, Genesis tells us, “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” But God doesn’t seem to be delivering (if you’ll forgive the pun). Scripture doesn’t tell us how Abram was dealing with the delay, but we do know how Sarai was feeling about it. She was tired of waiting.
Not only did this situation pose an inheritance problem, it reflected on her worth as a woman. It was also a theological problem for Sarai; she had come to the conclusion that God was preventing her from conceiving. So, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She decided to do something which was common in her world. She would give her slave to her husband, so that he could make the slave pregnant. Then Sarai would raise the child as her own.
Abram seems fine with this plan. He reacted in much the same way as Adam did when Eve offered him some fruit from the tree of knowledge. His wife offered and he accepted, apparently without reservation. A generous explanation might be that Abram thought this was how God’s promise would be fulfilled—after all, the offspring had been promised to him, not Sarai.
It’s not long before things start to unravel, as they usually do when human beings decide to try to force God’s hand. Hagar did indeed conceive, and now the slave has some power of her own. She looks down on her mistress, who obviously is deficient in the most important department of womanhood. We don’t know how Hagar expressed what Sarai calls “contempt,” but it doesn’t sit well with Sarai. She sees herself as the injured party, by her slave and by her husband. She complains to Abram, but Abram is not interested in this domestic squabble. He tells Sarai, “Hey, she’s your slave. You’ve got all the power. Do whatever you want to her.”
Sarai takes him at his word and, Genesis tells us, dealt “harshly” with Hagar. Who knows what form that took? However Sarai took her anger and frustration out on Hagar, it was bad enough that Hagar ran away. And that running took her in the direction of Egypt and home.
She had made it to a spring on the road to Shur, almost to the border with Egypt. And, an amazing thing happens to Hagar there. The angel of the Lord “finds” her and says to her, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where are you coming from and where are you going?”
Think about that for a moment. Think about how much is embedded in those couple of lines. First of all, the angel of the Lord finds her. As far as we know, Hagar wasn’t in any kind of physical distress, even though she was a pregnant escapee who had traveled nearly 100 miles through the desert of the Negeb alone. She wasn’t praying or crying out. But the angel seeks her out. This seemingly insignificant person—considered mere property to be used as her owner wished—was important enough to God, that the angel of God sought her out and came to her. In fact, this African, female, enslaved outsider is the first person in the Bible to encounter the angel of the Lord.
Next the angel calls her by name. Abram never said her name. Neither did Sarai. They only refer to her as “the slave girl.” But the angel knew her name. The angel of God knew who she was and what she was. She wasn’t just an anonymous slave. She was known by God. Her life was known by God.
The angel asks her two questions: “Where are you coming from and where are you going?” Surely the angel knows the answers to these questions. But the angel invites Hagar to tell her own story, in her own words. the angel allows Hagar the dignity of expressing what things are like for her, from her point of view.
But Hagar doesn’t actually answer those questions. Instead, she explains what she is doing. She’s running away from her mistress. She knows what she’s running from, but she doesn’t say—maybe she doesn’t know—what she’s running towards. She is escaping the past, but she can’t describe—or maybe even envision—the future.
But the angel of the Lord can. First of all, the future involves returning to her mistress and her life of slavery. Now, I have to tell you this troubles me. I can’t imagine, from my 21st-century viewpoint, why God would send her back to the conditions she was trying to escape. Even though the slaveowners of our nation relied heavily on passages like this to justify the evils of slavery, we certainly wouldn’t tell the victim of human trafficking to return to the people who enslaved her. We wouldn’t think of telling a wife to return to a husband who beats her, or a child to go home to a cruel parent, or an employee to endure the harassment of an abusive boss. Practically and morally speaking, this is a difficult part of the story—a part I’m still wrestling with.
But, the next thing that happens is that the angel of the Lord makes a promise to Hagar. In fact, Hagar is the first woman in the Bible to whom God directly makes a promise. The promise is that Hagar’s descendants will be so many that they can’t be counted. And the first will be a son, who will be called “Ishmael” which means “God hears.”
“God hears.” If God hears, that means God is listening. Remember that the only words Hagar spoke were in answer to God’s questions. And all she said out loud was that she was running away. But God must have been listening to Hagar’s heart and heard much more than those few words. God heard the pain and unhappiness of Hagar’s life as a slave. God heard her longing for home. God heard her feelings of powerlessness and how her owner Sarai had reacted when Hagar’s pregnancy gave her some power of her own. A son is part of the promise. But, in her son’s name, God promises Hagar that she is being listened to and heard.
In response, Hagar does something that no one else in the entire Old Testament does: she gives God a name. She recognizes the angel as God and, out of her own experience, she gives God the name: El-Roi—“God who sees me.” Ishmael’s name affirms that God hears her, but her name for God declares her confidence that she has seen God and that God sees her. She’s not anonymous. She’s not invisible. She’s not unrecognizable or interchangeable. God sees her.
What a wonderful thing to know about our God! We learn from Hagar’ story that God hears and sees us. God hears the words we say, but God also hears the unspoken desires and fears and joys in our hearts. Jesus gave us the gift of the Spirit, who hears us so clearly that the Spirit intercedes for us when we don’t even know what words to use. “Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it completely,” the psalmist sings. The Book of Common Prayer describes God as the one “unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” God is listening to us and hears what we have to say, whether spoken or unspoken.
God is also a God who sees us. God sees into all the nooks and crannies of our lives. God sees us when we run toward something with joy, and when we’re running away in fear. God sees us when we’re at the top of our game, and God sees us when we’re slogging our way along a road through a desert. God sees us at our most powerless, and when we misuse the power we have. God sees us when others hurt us, and when we hurt them back. We, too, can call our God “El-roi”—”God who sees me.”
But the hearing and seeing are not one-way streets. We can hear God and see God, too. We hear the still small voice whispering in our hearts, and hear God’s voice in Scripture. Sometimes, we hear God through the voices of modern-day prophets, calling us to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Always we see and hear God in Jesus—God with us, God in a human face and body we can recognize and identify with. Being heard by God, we can also hear God speaking. Being seen by God, we can also see God in Jesus.
If we picture this seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard as a vertical line connecting us and God, we can also add a horizontal line that connects us and other people. We are created in the image of the God who sees and hears us, so we are created with the capacity and the desire to hear and see others.
Have you ever sat near someone who’s carrying on a cell phone conversation? Did you find it annoying? Did you find it distracting, because you just can’t stop paying attention, even if it sounds like the dumbest conversation ever? There’s a reason for that. When we hear only half of a conversation, we are hard-wired to try to fill in what we can’t hear. We get annoyed, because we don’t have enough clues to fill in the blanks. We get distracted because our brains are working overtime, directing energy and attention towards trying to fill in what we can’t hear. We can’t tune out these “halfalogues” because we are created to listen to and hear others.
Sometimes, though, we try to shut down that ability to hear and see. When what someone else has to say contradicts what we think, or what they want to show us makes us uncomfortable, we shut our eyes and ears. We say, either out loud or to ourselves, that they’re exaggerating or out of line, or that they don’t deserve our attention. Or, we start out listening but quickly jump in to tell our story, before they get a chance to tell theirs. We don’t want to hear or see something that will disrupt our view of the world and maybe even require us to change that view. Unless someone else’s story matches what we think their story is—a story that doesn’t challenge us in any way—we’re really not interested in hearing it. So, we put earplugs in our ears and blinders on our eyes.
God never does that to us. God always hears and see us. God always hears and sees the Hagar’s of the world, too. That’s God’s nature. That’s the image we were created in. But our sinfulness has dimmed that image. Even though we are created in God’s hearing-and-seeing image, our sinfulness makes us want to turn away so that we don’t see and hear as God intends us to.
But, the image of God in us calls and enables us to be intentional in our looking and listening, seeing and hearing. We can listen, as Paul says, with hearts that look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others. We might be surprised at what we hear when we listen closely to other people, especially those who are most unlike ourselves. Our world may begin to look different when we invite others to show us what life in this world is like for them. When we take others as seriously as God takes us, we reflect the hearing-and-seeing image of God in which we are made. As others see that image in us reflected back towards them, they too may be led to say, “I have seen the God who sees me.”
I’m glad I followed that advice to read the “before and after” of a Bible passage, because it led me to this story. From it, we learn so much about who our God is. In it, we are reminded of who we are created to be. Thanks be to God, who so desires to see and hear us, that God came to us in Jesus and remains with us in the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to the God who hears. Thanks be to El-Roi—the God who sees us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young