Hagar: Tears, Empowerment, & the Faithfulness of God


Corot_Hagar_in_the_WildernessToday we continue our Lent series, “The Weeping Word“, looking at different moments of crying, lament, and tears in the Scriptures.

In the early chapters of the Bible, there is perhaps no greater symbol of injustice than Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Abraham and Sarah. She is under forced labor, and is made by her master’s wife to bear a child by an old man. She is, in essence, a sex slave. After Hagar has her son, Sarah deals very harshly with her, causing Hagar to run away. God chases her down:

The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

Here, God does three things he has not done since the Garden of Eden: he visits a woman, addresses her by name, and promises her descendants. The shock here is not that it’s taken so long for him to do these things; it’s in the fact of whom he chooses to offer these empowering gifts to. Hagar is not only not (technically) part of God’s covenant people, but she’s arguably the most abused, lowly, disempowered, marginalized woman, used, discarded woman in the entire Pentateuch.

And God meets her and chooses to exalt her. He asks for her story. He empowers her. He listens to her. He offers her dignity and justice when the world (even God’s own people) would not give it to her. But this visit is even more profound and powerful.

When Hagar encounters the angel in the wilderness, the angel gives Hagar’s son a name, Ishmael. Ishmael means “God hears.”…. After receiving the name Ishmael for her son, she does the unimaginable— she, an African sex slave, names God. She calls him El-Roi, the “God who sees.” It is the first instance in scripture of humanity naming God— a full six chapters before Abraham does the same.

If we pay attention to the original wording, there is a rich interplay between Ishmael and El-Roi. The God Who Hears (Ishmael) is also the God Who Sees (El-Roi). It is as if, in being heard by God, Hagar can finally see.
[from the amazing book Geography of Grace]

God here allows himself to be named by this person, marginalized even from the people of God, even as he blesses her and offers her dignity. Amazing, right? But if you recall, our series is about looking at moments that specifically talk about times in the Scripture of crying and weeping. Where is that here? It’s not mentioned.

Instead, we have to move over several chapters in Genesis. In this chapter, God has fulfilled his promise to let Sarah give birth to the true bearer of the covenant blessing, Isaac. This means there are two sons of Abraham running around. Sarah sees Ishmael playing with Isaac and immediately tells Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael off into the desert to let them die. Abraham, weak as he is, obliges.

Hagar, now a single mother, runs out of water for her son and hides him in some bushes so she doesn’t have to watch him die. And she cries.

As she sat opposite [Ishmael], she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

Why is this encouraging to me in this time of Lent? First of all, remember the beautiful, intimate, and unprecedented interaction between Hagar and God earlier. Even in spite of how God met her, extended promises to her, and let her name Him, she still comes to this moment of crisis. Secondly, not only is she not “technically” part of the covenant people of God, but never, in either of these moments does she actually reach out to God.

Instead, in spite of her not reaching out to him and her lack of trust in his earlier promises, God reaches out to her. He moves towards her even when he was not on her radar.

And every time he meets with her, it’s always in tenderness, provision, and empowerment. He meets her in her biggest weakness and offers inviting and empowering words, strengthening her with nearness and practical support. He gives her Himself.

And all of this begins with her tears. My favorite line: “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water”. God tenderly turns our tears into loving provision.

And so it is, in our own wilderness of Lent, as we press into our deepest doubts, fears, anxieties, uncertainties, and places where Trust in the Gospel hasn’t quite become real, God moves towards our tears, opens our eyes, and gives us Himself, the Living Water.

[image credit: selection from “Hagar in the Wilderness” by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot]

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