A couple of months ago, I wrote about Allowing Yourself to be Seen, and before that it was The Moment of Being Seen. Those posts were about “seeing” between people, but this week I remembered a great story in the Bible about being seen.
I am amazed at how little the stories in the Old Testament are whitewashed. The people are people, with all their petty and not so petty cruelties and insecurities and fears. It must’ve been tempting to make the heroes of the faith purely heroic, but most (if not all) of them are complex and real. Whatever other issues we may (or may not) have with what the writers/editors chose to include in the Scriptures, I’m grateful they kept the people pretty real.
Hagar was a servant of Sarai while she and Abram were nomads. Most people who’ve grown up Jewish or Christian know about God’s promise that Abram’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, yet, year after year, Sarai didn’t bear him any children. Well past menopause, Sarai gave up hope, and jump started the whole thing by forcing Hagar to have sex with Abram.
So when Hagar became pregnant, is anyone surprised that she didn’t bow with humble gratitude to Sarai for putting her in that situation? The Bible says she treated her mistress with contempt. I can imagine it:
“I’m sorry, since I got pregnant, the smell of your morning leban [mixture of yoghurt and wheat] makes me throw up. I wouldn’t want to put you through that. You’ll have to get your own breakfast.”
“Of course it’s easy for you to walk half the day without a break, you’re not pregnant.”
And is anyone surprised that Sarai doesn’t just accept this constant snarking as her just desserts for ordering her servant to submit to unwanted sex? Abram won’t intervene, so the Bible says Sarai treated Hagar harshly — given that their lives were already harsh, we can guess that she beat Hagar and withheld food and water.
Hagar ran away to the wilderness and an angel approached her at a spring with a crazy mixed message. It’s one of the few stories involving an angel in which the angel doesn’t first tell the person not to be afraid, so it makes me wonder how he appeared. I bet not in a blaze of glory, shining wings unfurled. I bet he appeared as another weary traveler and slumped beside her on a flat rock near the spring. And Hagar wasn’t afraid of him because she’d already been raped and beaten. What could he do to her that was worse than that?
The angel knows her name, knows that she’s pregnant, tells her that she’ll have a son who’ll be “as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives” (Gen 16:12). He gives her the name of the boy: “You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress” (Gen 16:11).
And he tells her she has to go back and submit to Sarai’s authority.
I don’t know that I would’ve seen this as good news, yet she changes the name she called God to El-roi, which means “the God who sees me.” This is a personal name, more intimate than a general title. She says, I imagine with wonder in her voice, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” (Gen 16:13).
Nobody else saw her for her. Sarai saw her as the means to an end, as an insurance policy/just in case/last-ditch effort to fulfill God’s promise. Abram probably barely acknowledged her outside the deed itself, and he certainly didn’t care to do anything about her situation once she’d gotten pregnant. She was a servant. Servants aren’t seen.
So despite the mixed message of blessing and struggle, because God saw her for her, and heard her cries and sent someone to her to clue her into the bigger picture, she goes back to Sarai and has Ishmael.
Amazing, the power of being seen.