It was Hagar Who Named Him El-Roi, the God who sees.
In May 2021, a familiar theme of violence between Israelis and Palestinians broke out during the Muslim holy season of Ramadan. Palestinians have experienced about 10 times the death toll as suffered by Israelis. More Palestinian children have died than Israelis as a whole. Israelis and Palestinians are both mourning – with Palestinians mourning disproportionately.
While there’s currently a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza, that doesn’t mean there’s peace. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” The cease-fire hasn’t achieved an absence of tension and the presence of justice is as elusive as it was prior to the May conflict. Palestinians are still being evicted to make room for more colonization. Palestinians living within occupied territories have no vote in Israeli elections.
The religious dynamic of the conflict is impossible to ignore when a house of worship is raided by the opposition. Both Muslims and religious Jews see themselves as Abraham’s offspring – and worshipers of Abraham’s God. Does Abraham’s God only see and hear the agony of one set of Abraham’s children?
You, Me, and She
She was an Egyptian slave – Sarai’s human souvenir from her sojourn in Egypt with Abram (Gen. 16:1). Whatever Sarai told Hagar to do was the Egyptian’s duty to perform. Her absence of bodily autonomy was on full display when Sarai ordered her to be a surrogate mother. Her personhood essentially became an extension of Sarai’s body. There was no artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization back then. Hagar got impregnated the old fashioned way with 85-year-old Abram. Eighty-five. Probably not how she previously imagined giving herself away (Genesis 16:2).
This arrangement came about after Abram and Sarai had given up on God’s promise to bless them with a child of their own. Abram had once tried to negotiate a deal with God for his servant Eliezer to be his heir. No conjugal relations required. Simply allow the young man to be Abram’s legal heir to receive God’s promise of fruitful offspring. God wasn’t having it. The offspring must come from Abram’s “bowels,” as the King James puts it (Genesis 15:2-4). Through his child with Hagar, Abram figured he had it halfway right. God hadn’t technically said the son must come through Sarai’s “bowels,” just his.
Half-truth = Whole Lie?
Abram soon learned halfway right often means wholly wrong. It wasn’t long before Sarai told him it was a mistake. God even told him it was a mistake. We’re still dealing with the fallout of Abram’s faith failure. We have three major religions all claiming Abraham as their father, including about 1.9 billion Muslims claiming kinship through Ishmael. For centuries, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have been slaughtering each other, claiming rights to the same real estate, and justifying violence in the name of Abraham’s God. Are all, like Abraham, partially right and completely wrong?
We can’t know how Hagar felt when the sexually exploitive proposition was first thrust upon her. We can infer that after becoming pregnant, Hagar sensed her fortune was changing. She was giving Abram something his wife couldn’t – a child. It would technically be Sarai’s child, but everyone would know who’s he really was.
Hagar no longer saw herself as an ordinary servant-girl. She was now Abram’s younger, fruitful, wife, and taunted Sarai about it (Genesis 16:3-4). We might judge her as spiteful and unwise, given the power dynamics. Yet, wouldn’t most of us seek a little satisfaction at the expense of someone who’s been oppressing us with our newfound leverage? Sarai’s idea of using another women’s womb to uplift her own status was having the opposite effect and she felt compelled to put her slave in her place (Genesis 16:5-6).
It was a hot mess. Abram and Sarai created combustible conditions and Hagar threw gasoline on it. The heat became so intense that Hagar ran away, not knowing where to go or how she would survive. She probably didn’t think it possible, but her life’s story was about to take an even more bizarre twist…
The God who hears
This Egyptian slave, turned surrogate mother, now homeless and pregnant, was about to have a God-encounter like nobody we’ve seen yet in the Bible. Hagar was visited by the angel of the Lord, which would be amazing enough. However, the Old Testament often uses “angel of the Lord” to refer to the Lord Himself, as seen with Abraham in Genesis 22:11-16.
God first tells Hagar something she doesn’t want to hear – go back and submit to Sarai. However, He sends her back with a promise similar to what He vowed to Abram. God would multiply her offspring so mightily that no one could number them. They would be a tight-knit family, ready to resist anyone seeking to domineer them.
The angel of the Lord also announced what her son’s name would be – Ishmael, meaning “God hears,” or “God will hear.” This is the very first time the Bible depicts God naming a child before its birth. Every time Hagar called Ishmael’s name she would be reminded how God heard her cry and intervened when there was no one else to turn to (Genesis 16:7-12).
The God who sees
Overflowing with gratitude, Hagar had the audacity and the distinction to be the first person in the Bible to give God a name, El Roi – The God who sees me! Not only that, she exclaims that she has seen Him who sees her (Genesis 16:13, NKJV)! This sex-trafficked slave had a personal, visible visit with God. Hagar experienced the truth expressed by Karen Gonzalez (author of The God Who Sees): “God is present with anyone who is treated as a human resource instead of a human being.”[i]
He Still Sees and Hears
Although Hagar and Ishmael were blessed by God independently of their masters, God still kept his original promise to Abram and Sarai (later known as Abraham and Sarah). Both Ishmael and Isaac were named by God Himself (Genesis 17:19). Both were blessed to birth nations and both would come together to mourn and bury their father (Genesis 25:9). Isn’t it time for the spiritual descendants of Ishmael and Isaac to mourn their losses and bury their hostilities in honor of their father?
Many blame the ancient sibling rivalry of Ishmael and Isaac as the main source of conflict in the “Holy Land,” while others say it’s about the region’s oil or imperialism or racism. Maybe all of those explanations are partially right yet the whole globe sees something is very wrong.
Growing numbers of international voices, including some Jews in America and abroad, are questioning and critiquing Israeli policies. Doing so does not necessarily make them anti-Semitic. Failing to do so is Anti-Semitic, for the children of Ishmael and Isaac are both Semitic people. Until reconciliation is reached, there will be cyclical episodes of violence within the Semitic family.
Reconciliation in this instance is impossible without believers in the God of Abraham being mindful that He is still the God who sees and hears. He observes not only the affliction of Sarah’s children, but also those of Hagar. If believers in Abraham’s God are ignoring the cries of those God hears and overlooking the people God sees, then we’re missing out on God Himself. Whether Jews, Muslims, or we who are in Christ and see ourselves as Abraham’s seed, let’s honor our father by pursuing peace and justice as Ishmael and Isaac once did.