August 11, 2019
Comments prior to message:
It’s a great privilege to be here. I want to thank Pastor Kelly for the invitation. Your church has also hosted Dr. Hikmat Kushua a friend of mine from Beirut. So I had heard of you before coming.
Our passage is Genesis 16. You will know it as the story of Hagar’s flight and God’s meeting her and sending her back to Sarai.
Reading: Gen 16:1-16
When I was a new dad, my youngest daughter used to get a little perturbed with my lack of attention to her. She would sometimes take my face between her two hands and turn my head toward her as she said in her best 3 year old English “Daddy look at me.”
What she expressed is what I think every human being desires at some level, to be seen, to be noticed, to be the object of someone’s attention.
This primitive story includes slavery, polygamy, tying a woman’s worth to child-bearing and petty rivalry. We might consider it so ancient that it has little to do with modern times.
Yet it tells of the most basic and fundamental human need, the need to be loved, to be noticed, to be the object of someone’s affection. It’s all the more beautiful because Hagar probably never dreamed of being the object of God’s affection. It was an encounter that changed her life.
Let’s consider it under two headings. First “a fight and a flight.” Then “a finding and a future.”
A Fight and A Flight
Some have pointed out that Sarai’s actions parallel those of Eve in Genesis 3. She took Hagar and gave her to Abram. Abram listened to the voice of his wife. So the parallels are there, but one thing is not there. God did not prohibit Sarai from doing what she did as was the case with Eve.
In fact, putting ourselves in Sarai’s place, might help us feel her desperation. She can secure no heir for Abraham though that is the role assigned to her by her family and society. He on the other hand is absolutely convinced from his God that he will have a vast progeny that will bring blessing to all the world. Every time he comes home speaks of Yahweh’s promise, it must have been like a knife in her gut. He is in his 80’s and she in her 70’s. And the wait has gone on far too long.
It was a common custom of the time. Remember, until this time, Sarai has not received God’s promise. That comes later in chapter 17. So far, we know only that Abraham will have a son, not Eliezer, his servant, but his very own son. Sarai has no options and soon it will be too late. Her decision to give her slave to her husband as a wife must have been painful for her, yet it was the only way.
But it’s not all self-sacrifice, is it? Sarai sees in her maidservant Hagar an opportunity to “obtain children by her” (v. 2). Literally the Hebrew says “I may be built up from her.”
So, who is Hagar? She is the servant of Sarai, perhaps acquired during their sojourn in Egypt.
A slave girl... owned by another. Hagar is a means. Her time is not her own. Her labor and energy are not her own. Her future is at the disposal of her owner. In fact, she doesn’t even own her body. And now, she doesn’t own her womb.
She’s in child-bearing years, which at that time may well have been her teens. But let’s say that she is in her 20’s. And she is given to a man that is in his 80’s. Think about that.
We usually consider Hagar’s bearing Ishmael to be a point of honor for her. That does come later in the story, but I wonder how the Egyptian slave girl felt as her future was decided for her, her husband was assigned by her mistress and her womb was useful only to sire the family progeny.
The all-important thing is to provide an heir for Abram. Hagar is there to save the old man from the shame of childlessness and to keep him from looking like a fool because of these outlandish promises. That’s her role in the story.
Hagar looks down on Sarai
Sarai makes the decision. Generally, a middle Eastern wedding, then and now, would be accompanied with a lot of dancing, singing and celebration. You might be surprised to know that the couple’s honeymoon night, the consummation of the marriage, in other words, is carried out while the wedding guests wait outside. It’s the ultimate invasion of privacy to our minds, but that’s the way it works.
But you get the impression here that it was done quietly, that no one was waiting outside to celebrate the marriage other than Sarai herself.
The disastrous result is that Sarai perceives that her servant has become arrogant toward her. The text says literally that she has “become small in Hagar’s eyes.”
Her pregnancy must be a vindication for Hagar. She was a slave, after all, who must have carried out the menial tasks that were deemed too low for the woman of the house. Now she was a mother. Now her son would be the heir of Abram who we have already been told was a man of great wealth.
She looked lightly on Sarai (v. 4). The word is clear—a non-verbal communication through the eyes.
Sarai received this belittling glance not as a secure woman, strong in all God’s promises, but as a weak, wounded individual whose very purpose for life was now threatened. “May the wrong done to me be on you” (v. 5), she rails on her husband—a middle Eastern way of speaking. She wounds others in her pain.
Abram does little to resolve the issue. “She’s in your power,” literally “in your hand.” That phrase “in someone’s hand” becomes a key to understanding this passage. “She’s subservient to you. You have the power here. She’s in your hand. Do as you like with her.”
So the wounded Sarai proceeds to wound Hagar. “The Hebrew verb used here implies that Sarai subjected Hagar to physical and psychological abuse.
She mistreats her—the sparseness of detail arouses our curiosity only to leave us waiting in vain for more detail.
Whatever it was that Sarai did results in Hagar’s flight.
She runs in the direction of Egypt, perhaps hoping for the familiarity of home, but now as a pregnant refugee, a woman with no male guarantor or protector alone on the road, disoriented, abused and not knowing where home is.
A fight, one in which Hagar was not totally innocent, leads to a flight. (8 m 36 s)
Syrian and Iraqi Refugees
Let’s pause for just a moment to make some connections
Hagar, as we know, becomes the mother of Ishmael who has been associated historically with the Arab peoples of the Near East. This is because the biography of Muhammad, the founder of Islam, traces his lineage to Abraham through Ishmael. Now the association isn’t entirely accurate because the Bible speaks of the Arab people as coming from three sources—Keturah another wife of Abraham and Joktan one of Noah’s descendants through Shem. Also, the Arabs of today have amalgamated many other ethnicities to become a vast people group largely characterized by the Arabic language. Nevertheless, there is an identification of Hagar and her son Ishmael with the Arabs and with Islam such that, observing Hagar, if you will—the mother of the Arabs in her flight—brings to mind so powerfully the flight that is taking place again in today’s Middle East.
We’ve watched with horror and disbelief as thousands have taken flight from war zones, crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats. We can see a parallel with this story.
Think of Syria only.
Damascus, once the proud Caliphate of early Islam. 5 million refugees. That’s almost 1/4 of the population. 6.6 million Syrians are internally displaced. That means ½ of the population of 22 million has been displaced either internally or externally. Since the beginning of the war nearly a half million have been killed. 1 in 10 Syrians have been wounded or permanently disabled since the war began in 2011.
To put it in perspective, if you took the states of the southeast and dumped them all on Mexico and Canada. And then you take the whole northeast… They’re fleeing to the west of the US. Proportionately, that’s the scale of the displacement we’re talking about in the Middle East.
In Iraq, the same thing is happening. 3 million displaced people within Iraq and many more fleeing to neighboring Turkey and Jordan.
We live in Lebanon—home to about two million Syrian refugees. People who are working with Syrians realize that everyone has a brother, cousin, uncle, father who has fallen victim to the war. Sometimes they’ve just fallen out of contact. Their families don’t know where they are and whether they’re dead or alive.
Hagar’s Arrogance and the Arab Spring
Hagar must have felt herself vindicated when she was pregnant with Abram’s heir. He was, after all, a wealthy man. How swiftly the tables turned and she found herself subjugated to a cruel master and took to flight. In much the same way, the people of the Middle East and other war-torn regions, began with the hope of the Arab Spring and today find themselves beat up and fleeing for refuge to any place where they can find safety, security and hope. The Arab Spring has turned to a bleak Arab winter with no hope and perennial questions.
Its critical to make the connection because God is still speaking through this story. God is about to encounter the refugee Arab woman. So let’s get back to the story. (12m49s)
A Finding and a Future
A finding that leads to a future hope. ”The Angel of the Lord found her…by a Spring of water in the wilderness.”
Who is the Angel?
Who is this Angel of the Lord? I developed my idea of angels from a painting my grandmother hung over the guest bed in her home where I often spent the night. It was a glowing, loosely robed being with huge wings ushering two small children across a rickety bridge. That’s not the picture here. The Hebrew word “malak” just means messenger. One who is sent by the LORD (YHWH) with a message.
When we let the text itself explain to us who the angel of the Lord is, we’re on solid ground. And Hagar clearly thinks she is talking to Yahweh. “So she called the name of the LORD (YHWH) who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing.” (v. 13)
So, I’m working on the assumption that this is an appearance of divinity…sometimes called a theophany or a Christophany. In John’s words “no one has seen God at any time. The only God, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” (John 1:18)
We make a mistake if we assume that Christ only appeared in the Gospels. He wasn’t sitting behind the curtains in the drama of Scriptures until his name was called. He was active throughout. He told the disciples and the Jewish leaders of his day that Moses wrote about Him (Jn 5:46) and that Abraham rejoiced in seeing His day (Jn 8:56) and that all that was written about him in the Old Testament Scriptures had to be fulfilled (Lk 24:44).
But you might need more than my opinion to be convinced. How about John Calvin?
John Calvin: But let us inquire who this angel was…The ancient teachers of the church rightly understood it to be the Eternal Son of God in respect to his office as mediator. -John Calvin, Harmony of the Law
When we observe this encounter, we are seeing how the great “revealer of God”, the one who makes him known, the second person of the Trinity responds to a broken refugee woman fleeing her oppressor.
This is, frankly, infinitely more important than the political rhetoric which we hear from the politicians and pundits. We’re about to hear from the King of kings and Lord of lords. If this “sent one” could really be Christ, then what he says transcends anything we hear from our contemporary leaders. We’re seeking to hear the command of Christ and if we hear it, we must obey.
I promise you that if you will allow yourself to see Christ in this passage—the eternally existing Logos of God, you will see it differently. You will see how this encounter sets the trajectory for this woman’s future.
Response of the Angel
So what does this Word of God, this Sent One of YHWH do?
He finds her
It’s a very common word, “to find.” But when it is used in reference to God “finding someone” it is almost always talking about a saving, a rescuing. The vine found by God and he transplanted it to a fertile field…the vine being Israel. David was found by the Lord behind the sheep and placed on the throne of Israel. The angel of the Lord was in pursuit, until he found.
He asks two questions
First he calls her by name, her personal name “Hagar.” Neither Abram nor Sarai have done this. We only know her name from the narrator.
He has two questions in one short sentence. Where have you come from and where are you going? What is your story? What is your future? What’s brought you to this place and what will you do about it now?
Isn’t it interesting that the eternal word of God, the pre-existent Christ, meets with an abused woman in flight and he has a question for her. Tell me about yourself.
She knows the answer to the first question: “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”
But he knows the answer to the second question. Where are you going? And he begins to open up her future.
Future (Angel’s words)
Return to your Mistress and submit to her. v. 9
The picture starts off bleak. “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” Again, now for the second time, “submit to her” literally, the angel is saying “submit under her hand.” Just as Abram had said that Hagar was in the hand of Sarai to do with as she pleased (16:6), so the Angel now confirms that Hagar is to return and place herself under the hand of her mistress. Return to a place of servitude…a place from which abuse led you to flee.
Well this seems like bad news. But the Angel has only begun. There are more elements to the angelic announcement and please follow me carefully here because what you’re about to hear may be a little different from what you’ve heard about this passage before.
I will multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude (v. 10)
First, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” Good news, right? Don’t you wonder if Abram came home one day and said “guess what Yahweh told me.” He said I would have my very own son, my very own and then he took me out to look at the stars and he said if you can count those stars, then you can count your descendants. Don’t you think Hagar overheard that? There can be no doubt that this is a declaration of blessing.
Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael because the LORD has listened to your affliction (Gen 16:11)
Second: “Behold you are pregnant and you shall bear a son and you shall call his name Ishmael because the LORD has listened to your affliction.”
Can you not see this woman melting into tears under the beauty of this declaration? His name is “God is listening.” Why? Because Yahweh himself has heard your affliction. She thought of herself as just Hagar the runaway slave. Who am I to be heard of God? But wait, it was her affliction that he heard. What does it mean? Hagar knew. The rough words that were exchanged, the abuse, the moans, the despair. God himself hears and responds.
Now God has given one hard word “return to your mistress and submit under her hand.” And he’s given two amazing and overwhelming words of grace and favor “I will multiply your offspring so that they can’t be numbered” and “you will have a Son and call him Ishmael for God has heard your affliction.
3 more words will define this woman’s future.
He shall be a wild donkey of a man (v. 12)
He will be a “wild donkey of a man.” Now in our day we use the word donkey (or a synonym) for someone who is obstinate, headstrong and stupid. But that’s not how it is being used here. In fact, the text specifically uses a different word from the insulting word used for a beast of burden. The word is used of a desert donkey sometimes called an onager, what we in Arabic call the jaḥsh al-barrī. It is an animal that is renowned for its sturdy isolationism and its absolute refusal to be domesticated.
Quote from Sarna:
“Like the wild [donkey] among the beasts, so are the Ishmaelites among men. In their nature and destiny they call to mind the sturdy, fearless, and fleet-footed Syrian onager (Heb. pereʾ), who inhabits the wilderness and is almost impossible to domesticate.”
Do you see what’s happening here? IF God were saying, “your Son is going to be an obstinate, headstrong, stupid beast of burden” that would hardly be something that would comfort and cheer Hagar. What he says is “your Son will throw off the chains that bind you. He will be as free as the desert donkey, running wild, undomesticated.” You are to submit under your mistress’ hand. He will cast off all that binds him.
His hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him
The next phrase, in typical Hebrew fashion, repeats and further explicates the preceding phrase. “His hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.” It’s a difficult phrase to understand because it’s so compact. It’s nine words in English, only five in Hebrew. It uses the same words that Abram used of Hagar’s submission to Sarai in v. 6: “Your servant is in your hand.” Only here Hagar hears that everyone is in Ismael’s hand and everyone’s hand is in/on him. It’s not so easy to translate, but it seems to be saying that Ishmael will be a struggler. He will fight to keep himself free and independent. He will live an isolated life and will not easily submit to attempts to subjugate him.
He will live over against his brothers
The final phrase is “he will live over against his brothers.” If you’re reading the NIV, the translation says “he will live in enmity against his brothers.” That is an unfortunate translation that has contributed to much misinformation.
There is a separation here. As we know Ishmael and Hagar were later cast out of Abraham’s house at the time of Isaac’s circumcision. Ishmael must have been about 14 years old at the time. Abraham does not want to do it but God instructs him to send Hagar and the boy away. As a result, he lives in the wilderness of Paran (Gen 21:8-21) which is the north Sinai—over against his brothers, right? By the way Gen 17:20 promises that 12 princes will come from Ishmael. They are listed in Gen 25:12-18 where it also says that “he settled over against (or “opposite”) all his kinsmen.”
So in summary, when the eternal logos meets this runaway slave girl he gives her some hard news “return to your mistress and submit under her hand.” But he also sweetens it with some wonderful news “God hears your affliction and your son will be greatly multiplied. He will cast off the chains of subjugation and live as a free man. He will not live among his brothers, but over against them.” In other words, your freedom will come through your son Ishmael.
I know that this message of grace to Ishmael may run counter to things you’ve heard in the past, but that’s exactly why I’m here. I’m here to challenge that.
I suspect that this encounter with the living God…the living Christ…caused Hagar to hold her head high as she returned to Sarah and Abraham. She did exactly as she was instructed and found her future and her hope.
Truth is, Ishmael was not the promised seed. He was not the son of the promise. Isaac was. But does that mean that Ishmael is rejected? Remember that Ishmael was the only son for 13 or 14 years. During that time, he was thought by Abraham to be the son of the promise. It was only a later revelation from Yahweh that revealed to Abraham that Sarah was to be the mother of the promised son.
Does God’s grace to one or to some mean his absolute rejection of the others? No. His grace spills over, even to the reject, to the son of the refugee slave woman.
In fact, Ishmael was the first son of Abraham to receive the sign of the covenant—circumcision.
But this story is familiar, isn’t it? Because you and I were “strangers to the covenants of promise, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, having no hope and without God in this world. But God being rich in mercy through his great love with which he loved us, he made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
So when you look at the sons of Ishmael today, despite all you hear in the media, remember that God’s grace was abundant enough for you and it’s abundant to Ishmael as well.
In fact, God is finding Hagar again today. Here are a few photos of Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish Muslims crowded into the churches of Lebanon to hear God’s word and to participate in singing his praises.
I love Hagar’s naming of this Angelic messenger. She calls him “אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י” You are a “God seeing me” or “the God of my seeing.” (v. 13) The name she gives him reflects two realities—she has seen him, but he is the one who is seeing her.
She explains it “truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” And that’s literally the way the text reads—he is looking after me. I’ve seen the one who is pursuing me. He’s come to find me and I saw him. I met him. I encountered him. My life is on track now. I know what I’m supposed to do and how I’m to live. (28m)
Conclusion-Application: On mission with Christ
…Could it be that the loving eyes of the Father are turning toward the Muslim world? That he is again seeing the daughters of Hagar, the sons of Ishmael with a longing love. Could this massive displacement lead to their encountering Jesus through the body of Christ…through churches likes yours and mine? Through people who are his children even though they don’t deserve to be and they’re willing to point others who don’t deserve to be his children in the direction of the Father’s love through the Son’s death and resurrection?
News outlets can’t see it. But to us who know Him to be both loving and sovereign it makes perfect sense. Do we know him that way? If this was the pre-incarnate Christ, we shouldn’t be too surprised that he meets with a woman by a water source. He did it in his incarnation as well. And after that encounter, he invites his disciples “lift up your eyes and look on the fields, for they are white for harvest.” Maybe God is, once again, in pursuit. Maybe he wants to use us, the body of His Son, to pursue those he loves.
You and I are the body of Christ—given life by the Spirit of Christ to carry out the mission of Christ in the world. “As the Father has sent me, so send I you.” If the tattered and torn and abused fugitives are to meet Christ today, he or she will meet him in our skin. She will hear him through our words. She will encounter him in our eyes.
You may say to me, “that’s a heavy load to bear and I have no training in this kind of thing.” Start here: “where have you come from and where are you going?”
Then listen. Listen to what comes back at you and listen to the leading of the Holy Spirit. And remember that Christ is “looking after” Hagar. To be like him, you’ll want to do a little pursuing yourself. Don’t kid yourself that you can’t do this. He has given you the gifts of the Spirit. You’ve known Him a long time. You can do it. You’re his body. For Hagar, the “sent one” was the preincarnate Christ. For today’s migrants, it’s you and me. We are his “sent ones.”
Let us pray.