We saw that Abram and Sarai were culturally blind to issues like polygamy and slavery. They were still hurt by these issues.
Whenever humans have power over other humans, we end up abusing that power. Watch the power struggles that develop in this story:
Genesis 16:4–6 (NIV)
4 When she [Hagar] knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.” 6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
This is a story about power. The narrator repeatedly focuses on Hagar’s powerless status as slave (16:1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8). Becoming Abram’s secondary wife is a step up, but she lets it go to her head when she realizes she’s pregnant. At least in one important way, she feels superior to Sarai.
Predictably, Sarai reacts to being disparaged by her slave. She blames Abram for the hurt she is experiencing. She backs up her claim by appealing to YHWH to judge Abram as the cause of her injustice (16:5). This is the first time the word šā·p̄ǎṭ (to judge) is used in Scripture. Since YHWH is sovereign, it is his responsibility to judge his people, i.e. to sort out their disputes and the injustices they suffer from outsiders. We will need this Hebrew perspective if we are to understand what judgement means in Scripture.
Caught between his two women, Abram backs off and gives Sarai the power to deal with Hagar. The narrator gives his harshest critique of Abram and Sarai to date: Sarai mistreated Hagar. ʿā·nā(h) is a power word—to afflict or oppress. YHWH used this word to describe how Abram’s descendants would be mistreated in Egypt (15:13). Exodus 1:11-12 uses it to describe Pharaoh oppressing Israel.
Abram and Sarai are servants of YHWH; yet they use their power to mistreat their servant. Hagar should be experiencing the wonder of YHWH’s care through them; instead she flees from their mismanagement (16:6).
How does YHWH respond when his earthly servants misrepresent him? Should he call his recalcitrant servants on the mat and ask them to answer for their actions? He’s more interested in caring for the person they mistreated. For the first time in the Biblical narrative, a heavenly messenger (the angel of YHWH) is dispatched on the king’s business: to care for a slave his earthly servants have mistreated (16:7).
The angel addresses Hagar as “slave of Sarai.” It’s not a term of disparagement, but of significance. Like the angel, Sarai and Abram are servants of YHWH. Belonging to Sarai is one of the highest positions on earth.
It’s a position Hagar is running from. She has nowhere to go to. YHWH’s messenger directs her to go back to submit to her mistress. “Submit” is ʿā·nā(h)— the same power-word used of Sarai oppressing Hagar. But this time, Hagar is to place herself under Sarai’s authority—to humble herself (in contrast to being humiliated). The messenger’s words may even contain a gentle rebuke for the way Hagar previously “began to despise her mistress” (16:4).
Along with that instruction, the messenger delivers hope to Hagar. Her descendants will be innumerable, like Abram’s (16:10). Like Abram, she will give birth to a son whose life is significant to YHWH (16:11-12). The sovereign will give her the blessing of Abram, for she bears Abram’s child.
When the messenger arrived, Hagar was sitting by a desert spring with nowhere to go. The heavenly ruler saw her misery (16:11) and intervened for her. The encounter changes her life.
YHWH is the kind of ruler who cares for his people. All of them. Even the mistreated. Even those his servants mistreat. Especially those his servants mistreat.
What others are saying
Tammy Maltby and Anne Christian Buchanan, The God Who Sees You: Look to Him When You Feel Discouraged, Forgotten, or Invisible (Colorado Springs, CO: David C Cook, 2012) chapter 1 (electronic edition):
God has heard Hagar cry out. He sees the reality of her life. Amazingly, this God has a future in mind for her and her son. In fact, her descendants through Ishmael will be too many to number.
Once Hagar realizes all this, she can’t hold back her enthusiasm over what has happened to her. She even gives this foreign God a new name, one that will still be remembered centuries later.
She calls him El Roi, which literally means “the God who sees.”
She blurts out, her voice thick with wonder, “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
Read Genesis 16:4-12.