Hagar – Slavery was a common part of the ancient world. Empires relied on it. Kings would raid nearby cities to enslave their own peasants, or take war captives to supply a thriving foreign slave trade. Debtors and the unemployed might sell themselves or their children into bondage; children then born into slavery were considered added “property” to enlarge the owner’s wealth. Merchants of wheat, cattle or land would typically deal in human trafficking for added income. It should not be too surprising, then, that Abram and Sarai held slaves. When God’s chosen left their Chaldean home, they did not leave their culture behind. But God meets us where we’re at, refining us as silver, as He draws us nearer to Himself.
Hagar was Sarai’s Egyptian handmaid. Hagar was not even her name, merely a euphemism for slave that means “dragged away.” She’d been torn from her own family and everything familiar to be carried along like flotsam in this couple’s wake. And her mistress – whose own name meant “my princess” – treated her as such. Hagar found herself in the crucible of adversity, a thing, inhuman and without feelings. She may as well have been a chair to be sat upon and moved around at whim.
God had promised Sarai and Abram heirs and a country. Everyone knew the prophecy that the elderly, barren Sarai would be the mother of a nation, not that Sarai would let anyone forget. Her whole married life, Sarai had secretly borne the shame of infertility. Now, with a divine promise of children and an actual kingdom, this princess could hardly wait.
But ten full years passed, and God had still not granted her children. Sarai invoked an old Chaldean custom. “Take my young handmaid, Hagar,” she advised her husband, “and perhaps she will give us heirs.” Abram saw nothing wrong with her plan, and agreed. It was easiest, he’d found, to indulge Sarai in all she wished.
Hagar had no choice but to sleep with the old man from then on.
When it was known that Hagar was pregnant, the couple celebrated. They fussed over Hagar as a prize heifer, coddled her with fine food and praise. Even in Egypt a concubine could become queen. Perhaps things were changing for Hagar.
But she may have let her guard down and spoken as an equal one too many times to her mistress.
Sarai ran to Abram. “God will judge you for the abuse I’m taking from this servant!” Sarai scalded him. “She looks down on me now that she’s conceived. What are you going to do about it?”
Abram sighed. He never understood the jealousies of women. “She’s your slave. Do with her as you wish.”
Happily, Sarai heaped her frustration on Hagar, knowing her husband would think no less of her. A slave, a mere vessel, should know its place, and how easily it may be broken.
Hagar fled into the desert, the same wilderness through which Moses would lead the Israelites. Her soul was shattered. Everyone she’d ever looked to for protection or kindness had abandoned her, even these people who claimed to follow the true God. What they did to her was wrong, but they acted as if her situation were perfectly normal. She was invisible, mute, and powerless.
She came upon a spring on the route to Shur. And God met her there.
He called her by name. “Where have you come from, and where are you going?”
Hagar had no idea for her future. She could only answer to the pain of the past: “I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai.”
Gently, God said, “Turn around and submit to her. I will give you descendants too numerous to count.” Hagar recognized the same promise given to Sarai. But God wasn’t finished: “You will have a son, and you shall call him Ishmael because I have heard your misery,”
“He will be a wild ass of a man,” God said with a fond laugh. “and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Hagar envisioned her son – free and her defender – the first of many. No one had noticed her, but this true God had read her full heart. She wept with validation. “You are The God Who Sees Me, and I have now glimpsed You.”
So Hagar returned. Her life wasn’t perfect, but she could bear it, armed with the confidence of God’s recognition and shared promise of inheritance. Hagar’s son indeed grew up rambunctious and protective. Fourteen years later – the Biblical number of salvation – Sarai too had a son, Isaac; and through his line the Messiah was born, carrying all in the wake of His grace, making us all free from the chains of sin and death. As David would later marvel, “Who am I, Lord, that you would take notice of me?” Yet He does see. He hears, and He knows, and He’s calling each one of us by name.