Today we start a short series of devotions looking at Sarah, Hagar and Rebecca.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, ‘You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!’ But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ The angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her.’ The angel of the Lord also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ And the angel of the Lord said to her,
‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
with his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.’
So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.
Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
I am sorry to have to mention this, but someone has broken the Hebrew in the passage above, and I think it matters. English translations of verse 13 want Hagar to say “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”, because this is the kind of thing people in the Old Testament would say. But as soon as you look at the Hebrew this interpretation just doesn’t hold. To find anything here, we have to add some letters or explain away some confusing word choices. That done, Hagar seems to say either ‘Have I really seen the backside of the one who sees me’ or ‘Would I ever have looked here for the one who sees me?’
Both readings are exciting. Hagar is standing by a well, on the road by which she was fleeing back towards her people, away from a household who have made her pregnant and begun to mistreat her. We can imagine a long form of her speech: “Who would have thought that doing what I am doing, and in a nowhere place like this, the God who sees everything would send someone to meet me and change what I am doing.”
But, perhaps we should be paying attention to that word “backside”? It seems to make Hagar’s encounter with this angel a little bit like that of Moses (Exod 33) when he is given permission to look at God passing by – a famous passage in which God tells Moses “you cannot see my face”. If we start to pay a lot of attention to God’s backside, and try looking it up in the Greek text of Genesis, we find a real puzzle. In Greek, Hagar says to herself “Have I seen face to face with the one who sees me?” A growing number of translators wonder whether Hagar’s reference to God’s hind parts is a euphemism created by a Hebrew scribe to hide the word ‘face’. It acts to take away the impression that this slave girl, who was fleeing from the divine plan for Abraham’s family got a better view of God than Moses did. A young girl, but with a clearer understanding of God’s attention and intention than Sarah, who laughed at God’s plan. Meeting with a stranger in a nowhere place, Hagar realises that God cares even for her. God is looking out for her, and and God is looking at her. And the braveness with which she has looked right back gives her strength to go back into a dark situation and wait for God’s plan to unfold.
God who sees me,
let me look for your face,
gaze into your eyes,
and wonder what you have in store for me.
And strengthen me for whatever shall come.
The Rev’d ‘Frin Lewis Smith is the Minister of Darwen and Tockholes URCs.