Hagar this name to the LORD who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13)
Who was Hagar and how did this “surrogate” relationship between Hagar, Sarai (Sarah), and Abram (Abraham) come about?
Hagar is Sarai’s Egyptian slave girl, whom Sarai (later Sarah) gives to Abram (later Abraham) as a wife who would bear a child that would be considered Sarai’s (Gen 16:3). Although it bears a resemblance to modern technological surrogate motherhood, this custom may seem bizarre. However, cuneiform texts of the second and first millennia b.c.e. attest to this custom in ancient Mesopotamia. (Tikva Frymer-Kensky)
As an Egyptian slave girl, Hagar was property. Forcefully separated from her family and her home she became property. She had no rights and relied on Sarai and Abram for even her basic needs. As a slave she became invisible, and became the victim of a crazy plan to give Abram child.
Was this “surrogate” role that Hagar was cast normal for the time?
The first such text, from the Old Assyrian colony in Anatolia, dates from around 1900 b.c.e. A marriage contract, it stipulates that if the wife does not give birth in two years, she will purchase a slave woman for the husband. The most famous text, in the Code of Hammurabi (no. 146), concerns the marriage of a naditu, a woman, attached to a temple, who is not allowed to bear children. Her husband has the right to take a second wife, but if she wishes to forestall this, she can give her husband a slave. In the world of the ancient Near East, a slave woman could be seen as an incubator, a kind of womb-with-legs. (Tikva Frymer-Kensky)
How does Hagar see herself in the relationship?
Sarai and Abram see Hagar in this role and never call her by name. She, however, sees herself as a person and, once pregnant, does not see Sarai as superior; “she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen 16:4). With Abram’s permission, Sarai regains authority over Hagar. She “degrades her” (NRSV, “dealt harshly with her”), possibly by treating her as an ordinary slave (Gen 16:6). The Hammurabi laws acknowledge the possibility that the pregnant slave woman might claim equality with her mistress, and they allow the mistress to treat her as an ordinary slave (law 146). This seems to be what Sarai is doing. However, Hagar is not passive. (Tikva Frymer-Kensky)
What does Hagar do?
Rather than submit, she runs away to the wilderness of Shur, where she meets God’s messenger, who tells her to return to submit to Sarai’s abuse for then she will bear a son who will be a “wild ass of a man” (Gen 16:12). Just as the wild ass was never domesticated, so too Hagar’s son would never be subject to anyone, and would live “with his hand against everyone” and “in everyone’s face” (Gen 16:12). (Tikva Frymer-Kensky)
In the wilderness, Hagar becomes the only person in Scripture to name God. And the name this seemingly invisible slave girl gives God is “El-Roi”, which means“the God who sees.”
God sees Hagar, right in her circumstances, right in her weakness, right in her desperation. He not only sees Hagar, He sends a messenger to her to encourage her and give confirmation about the direction she should take. From her crisis of faith Hagar becomes the only person in the Scripture to name God- what a powerful honor He gave to Hagar. God chose Hagar, a servant with no rights and no identity to be the person in the Bible to give Him a name. Wait until you see what else God chooses Hagar for!
Lord, restore the joy I had
I have wandered, bring me back
In this darkness, lead me through
Until all I see is You. -Lyrics from Soul on Fire, by Third Day