There are times in our lives when God seems not to care, to be distant, to have abandoned us, and to have forsaken his promise to be a present help in trouble. We’re not alone. This was how many individuals felt throughout Scripture. It’s how Abraham felt as he questioned God’s faithfulness to provide a child. David struggled with the presence of God in Psalms 13, 56, 139, and many other Psalms as he wrestled with a theology of suffering. It was the experience of John the Baptist as he searched for proof that Jesus really was the Messiah and the experience of the disciples as they saw their Savior hanging on a cross. It was also the experience of an often overlooked slave in the book of Genesis: Hagar.
Hagar’s story is in Genesis 16 and 21. It’s a tragic story of abuse, loneliness, the near-death experience for her only child, and inter-familial drama. Yet through this story, we gain insight into God’s heart for those who are desolate, alone, and in a place of hardship.
As context for Hagar’s story, Genesis 16 describes who Hagar is – an Egyptian slave in Abraham’s household (16:1). The last recorded incident of Abraham and Sarah being in Egypt is in Chapter 12, so it’s likely that they accumulated Hagar as a slave during their stay in Egypt.
In regard to Sarah volunteering Hagar to have the promised child with Abraham, it should be noted that, “In the legal custom of that day a barren woman could give her maid to her husband as a wife, and the child born of that union was regarded as the first wife’s child. So Sarah’s suggestion was unobjectionable according to the customs of that time. But God often repudiates social customs” (The Bible Knowledge Commentary, 56).
We see this custom play out later in the story of Jacob when Leah and Rebekah both give their servants to Jacob as wives. This was a common thing in ancient cultures, yet, as the commentary states, this does not mean God approved or advocated for this practice. Genesis 2 makes this very clear when God says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (2:24).
The God Who Knows
Hagar conceived a child through Abraham and “looked with contempt on her mistress” (16:4). Sarah, in turn, treated her servant harshly.
Hagar fled to return to Egypt with no provisions, alone, and pregnant.
She stopped by a well in the wilderness. Then, Scripture says, “The angel of the LORD found her” (16:7). God sought her out. He knew where she was.
He was aware of her past abuse and her present need. Yet, he asked the question, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?” (16:8) There is no record of Hagar telling the angel of the Lord her name or her occupation. In this, God demonstrated to Hagar his omnipotent knowledge of her identity. Just as he knew her identity, he also knew where she had come and where she was going.
God proved his deep knowledge of her, not just of her name and identity, but of her as a whole person who was loved and noticed by God. God knew Hagar inside and out.
The God Who Hears
The instructions from God might come as a surprise. The angel of the Lord commanded Hagar to return to Sarai and submit to her.
He graciously follows those hard-to-swallow instructions with a promise to Hagar’s offspring:
“Behold, you are pregnant, and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael because the LORD has listened to your affliction” (16:11).
Ishmael literally means God hears. (Shema is Hebrew for listen, and El is Hebrew for God.) Ishema-El.
In Hagar’s affliction, God provided a promise through her offspring that God is a God of hearing. Not only did God know Hagar, but he heard her cry. God named Ishmael as a constant reminder to Hagar that God is a God of hearing.
The God Who Sees
Genesis 16:13 reads, “So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me’” (16:13).
There are two characteristics of God demonstrated in this verse: God sees, and God looks after. To condense it down further, God cares. This is his heart.
Hagar would need these promises from God for what she would face thirteen years later - that God knows, God hears, and God sees.
Thirteen Years Later
The weaning of Isaac proved to be a time of celebration for Abraham and Sarah. Yet Ishmael mocked it (see Genesis 21:9). On account of this, Sarah commanded Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.
“So she said to Abraham, ‘Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10).
This is an extraordinarily significant verse that Paul picks up in his epistle to the Galatians. In Paul’s exposition of this event, he points toward the separation of the Old and New Covenants – that which was born of the flesh shall not inherit that which is born of the spirit.
As Hagar and Ishmael wander in the wilderness, they came to a well where Hagar prepared for her son’s death. She lifted her voice and wept. And again, God heard.
“And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is” (Genesis 21:17).
This verse is incredible. Earlier, we said that Ishmael’s name means “God hears.” Here in verse 17, the phrase “God heard/has heard” is used twice in this single verse. God heard Abraham and Sarah’s plea for the promised child. God heard Hagar at the well when her child was dying. God heard Ishmael’s cry. God was not only with Isaac but with Ishmael as well – thus fulfilling his promise to Abraham. As we saw in Genesis 16, God is truly a God of hearing.
God Is Faithful
This story is a needed reminder that God is faithful to his people, his promises, and his character. God will fulfill his promise even when all hope seems lost, and things seem bleak like there is no way forward. For Hagar, God proved himself to be faithful and demonstrated his all-hearing, all-knowing, and all-seeing heart.
God was faithful to this enslaved Egyptian, Hagar. If he proved his faithfulness to this outcast who was outside the covenant family of God, how much more will God prove himself faithful to those of us who reap the familial benefits of being in a covenant relationship with him because of his Son?
As Paul would write centuries later to the church at Rome, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life?” (Romans 5:10).
We serve a faithful God who always sees, knows, and hears. There is both a comfort and a warning in these attributes.
The Valley of Vision summarizes this beautifully:
“May I never forget that
thy eye always sees,
thy ear always hears,
thy recording hand always writes.
May I never give thee rest until Christ is
the pulse of my heart;
the spokesman of my lips,
the lamp of my feet.”
Brittany Proffitt lives in Dallas, TX, holds a BA in Religion, and is a student at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is passionate about Scripture and how God’s Word impacts individuals’ hearts and lives.