Scripture for the Day: Genesis 16:1-15
This story happens to be what is known as a text of terror. A text of terror is a biblical passage that outrages and pains the contemporary reader. These passages depict extreme acts of violence and seem to promote deeply problematic practices and thinking. I was lucky enough to take a class by that same name last fall, and it culminated in a large paper project. We got to choose any text of terror we wanted to write on, and I chose Genesis 16 for one very specific reason – Hagar. I know it’s unnecessary to have favorites, but along with the Daughters of Zelophehad in the book of Numbers, Hagar is among my favorite women in the Bible.
Hagar is a largely marginalized character in this story. As an Egyptian, she is a racial outsider. As an enslaved girl, she has no agency over her own life. All the interaction between Abram, Sarai, and Hagar are actions put upon Hagar – she is given to Abram as a wife, he impregnates her, and Sarai deals harshly with her. Hagar has no power to change the things that are happening to her. She is a victim of terror and abuse via Sarai’s manipulative scheming and Abram’s indifference. Throughout the entirety of this narrative, neither Abram nor Sarai call Hagar by name. Neither one speaks directly to her. No one properly acknowledges Hagar’s personhood. No one – except God.
In the face of her mistreatment, Hagar runs away headed back home to Egypt. On that journey, an angel of the Lord seeks her out and appears to her in the wilderness. For the first time in this story, she is called by her name and spoken to directly. Not only that, but the deity asks her very thoughtful, intentional questions that invite her into dialogue. She is finally given the opportunity to speak for herself. After listening to her, the deity shares a lot of things with her, one of which is an acknowledgement of her affliction, affirming that God hears her and knows what she is going through. After this divine encounter, Hagar gives God a name, and she is the first person in the Bible to do so. The name she gives is El-roi, and it literally means “God of my seeing.” This phrase can be interpreted in two ways. First, it can be understood to mean “I have seen God.” Second, it can mean “God has seen me.” Personally, I’m partial to the second interpretation. Hagar is fully seen and fully known by God. She is not forgotten, and God demonstrates that the depths of God’s care and attention are not just reserved for the powerful. In fact, in this narrative, God does not appear to the people in positions of power at all. Instead, God actively sought out Hagar – a marginalized, enslaved, racial outsider with no power, no agency, no status, and no influence. God calls her by name and communicates with her in a way that lets her know that she is not out of God’s sight. She is seen. She is known. She is loved.
In a story we are very familiar with in the chapter right before this one in Genesis, God makes it clear to us that God loves Abram and is committed to him in covenant relationship. In a story we are less familiar with, God makes it clear to us that God also loves Hagar and others who are oppressed and live on the margins. God loves everybody, yes. However, in many ways, that statement too blandly describes God’s attentive love and profound concern for God’s people. This story, and countless others in the Bible, articulate that God has a particular love for the marginalized and a special eye on the oppressed.
As people of faith, may we fix our eyes on God and those whom God loves. Amen.