The God Who Sees Us In Our Affliction
Little is known of Hagar’s origins save two things—her Egyptian ethnicity and her role as servant to Sarah (wife of Abraham). Some speculate she was given to Sarah during an ignominious escapade to Egypt, where Abraham had lied to Pharaoh claiming Sarah was his sister (Genesis 10:12–20). Others suggest Hagar was part of a marriage dowry given to Sarah (similar to Laban giving Bilhah and Zilpah to his daughters in Genesis 29–30).
Either way, take note of one important element as the scene opens in Genesis 16—Hagar is silent.
In this power differential, Sarah calls all the shots. Hagar’s opinion was not sought, nor was Hagar in a position to be heard. Sarah commandeered Hagar’s womb for her own purposes.
Hagar the Surrogate
Sarah surely felt the shame of infertility—in her world a woman’s value came primarily from the ability to bear sons.
Perhaps her ears perked up when she first heard of God’s promise to make a “great nation” from the seed of Abraham. Yet, as the days turned into months and the months into a decade’s worth of years, Sarah grew desperate.
Did she wonder if God had forgotten her? If God had another plan? A baby in her womb seemed impossible in her old age, so Hagar functioned as her surrogate.
Though perhaps strange to our modern ears, this type of surrogacy was not out of the ordinary in the ancient world. It was a way for a childless couple to have an heir and for the wife to “feel that her maid’s child was her own and exert some control over it in a way that she could not if her husband simply took a second wife.”
Sarah may have even assumed, at least at first, that this transaction was mutually beneficial. Hagar, as a servant, was being given the honor of bearing a son for the wealthy Abraham. But more than likely, Sarah didn’t even consider Hagar in the equation. Her personal servant was not free to function independently. Hagar belonged to Sarah and in all likelihood was viewed as little more than property.
Hagar did indeed conceive a son for Abraham, but things didn’t work out the way Sarah had hoped. Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress” (16:4), or more literally “her mistress became little in her eyes.”
From Sarah’s point of view, a foreign slave’s fruitful womb had bested her in her own barrenness. To put it another way, her plan backfired—Hagar’s status increased while Sarah’s diminished.
Abraham let Sarah handle the matter however she pleased, resulting in treatment so harsh that Hagar fled from her mistress
But take note, God had not forsaken Hagar. On the contrary, “The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness” (v. 7) and offered her comfort and hope.
Yes, she was to go back to the protection of Abraham and Sarah and voluntarily submit, but the Lord promised that her son Ishmael—whose name means “God hears”—would be a free man and her descendants numerous.
In response, Hagar had the audacity to do something that had never been done— she gave God a name: “You are a God of seeing” (v. 13). She was the first and only person in the Bible to do so.
Make no mistake. God sees and hears the cries of the afflicted. Injustice— even injustice deemed permissible in a particular time or culture—does not go unnoticed by Him.
When the vulnerable are silenced, God’s ears open wide.