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Good Morning, Covenant Family! I’m excited this morning because this is the first time this year that we will be digging into an Old Testament story. There are famous stories like Noah’s Ark and the crossing of the Red Sea. But I think I’ll try to focus on some stories that are a little less well known - or on some lesser noticed elements of familiar stories. I’ve come to really appreciate many of these stories - especially when read and interpreted through the lens of the God revealed in Jesus. Today, we will talk about a woman named Hagar and her unique and special interaction with God found in Genesis 16. This is the Covenant Weekly for February 27, 2024.

In Genesis, we meet a man named Abram and his wife Sarai. Later their names would be changed to Abraham and Sarah. Early in the story with them, God promises Abram that his descendants will be as many as the stars in the sky. But several years later, in their old age, they still don’t have children. This would have been seen as a blot against Sarai - a moral defect in her. But there was a practice in their world that if a wealthy woman couldn’t have children, a servant could act as a surrogate. With that in mind, listen to this story in Genesis 16.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to bear children for him. But she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, “The Lord has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. 3 So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan.)

4 So Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!”

6 Abram replied, “Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away.

7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. 8 The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied.

9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.” 10 Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count.”

11 And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the Lord has heard your cry of distress. 12 This son of yours will be a wild man, 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.”

13 Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me.” She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” 14 So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means “well of the Living One who sees me”). It can still be found between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.

There is a lot I could highlight in this passage, but I want to focus on two things related to Hagar. The first is her name. In the Old Testament, there were several ways the importance of a character could be highlighted. If they were shown to have active agency, that highlighted their value. If they were named, that is another thing that highlighted their value. If they were given a voice, that is something else that highlighted their value.

What you notice in this passage is that Abram and Sarai do not name Hagar. She is constantly referred to by them as “my servant” or “your servant.” Secondly, she is not given any active agency. She is forced by Sarai and Abram into sexual relations and pregnancy. She has no say in the matter. And thirdly, she has no voice with them. They treat her like property or a tool for their benefit.

This stands in stark contrast to how the narrator – the one composing this scripture as a word from God – views this young woman. And as such, it invites us to understand how God views this young woman and how we should view her. Hagar is named by the narrator. If it was up to those in power, we would never know this poor servant's name. But it isn’t up to them. God values her beyond what people do and gives us her name.

Next, the narrator shows that she has agency. Admittedly, she doesn’t embody that agency in ways that embody kindness initially. But she has also been functionally raped by her master so there are extenuating circumstances for her contempt of Sarai. From the narrator's perspective, however, this is an additional step in the valuation of Hagar. She has agency and she is using it. She uses it in response to Sarai and ultimately she uses it to flee Sarai and Abraham. And the name God says that she is going to call her son, that is what he is named. It seems she uses her agency in the naming of her son!

And that leads to the third thing we see here. The messenger of God speaks to Hagar and gives Hagar a voice. God listens to her when her mistress and master do not. Not only does God listen, but God identifies her situation. Hagar feels the value that God identifies in her and responds by using her voice to do something that no other person in the Old Testament does. Hagar names God.

Talk about identifying and imbuing someone with value! In the face of Abram and Sarai seeking to rob Hagar of any worth, God names her, sees her agency, and hears her voice. As Hagar identifies, God sees her.

What an important lesson for those of us with power who are tempted to label or devalue others around us. This is not the way of God. It is possible to be a part of what God is doing in the world and fail miserably to represent him in our interactions with others. May this not be true of us.

But this may be an even more important lesson to those among us who feel unnamed, without agency, and without a voice - to those who feel unseen. God sees you. God knows your name. God invites you to act with agency in receiving his love and moving toward a future in connection with him. And God hears your voice - your cry of distress. This is the heart of God embodied in Jesus who came to us with love and compassion; who served the lost and the least; who listened to people others that alienated; and came with an invitation to respond, not efforts to control. Wherever you find yourself today, be encouraged through Hagar’s story that God sees you, loves you and welcomes you to speak back in relationship with the God of the universe. You are not alone.

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