This is the first in a new series called Lamplight Studies. Check out this post for an introduction.
The other day I wondered “what’s in a name?” As I reflected on changing my name, my mind kept drifting to Hagar’s story in Genesis chapter 16. In this story Hagar calls God “El-roi,” which means, “God who sees.” She assigns God a name and she is the only person so far in scripture to do this. As I mentioned in that previous post, to name something in scripture indicates relationship and a creativity akin to the Creator’s. I started my study with this knowledge and thought I would camp here and unpack that idea a bit. But, as I studied further I found myself drifting away from exploring what’s in a name and instead considering what it means to be seen by God and to see God.
As I read and meditated on this scripture I was also reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s book, Love Warrior. Her story, and her candid, gifted writing, pulled me into some spaces that make me uncomfortable. One particular truth she shares is this: “You have to be known to be loved” (p. 30). Glennon is talking about love from other people, and it applies in my life that way, but it also applies to my relationship with God. It is very hard for me to be vulnerable. I hate crying in front of people. I hate sitting in my emotions. I hate admitting that I am struggling. However, what I am finding is that when I do this hard work—whether it is with my husband, my friends, my family, or with God—I am much freer to love God, love others, and love myself.
While I have always known that God created and loved me (read more about the first time I realized this here), over time I began to believe that God loved me because of the things I could do, not for who I am. God loved me, but that love was contingent on the way I loved others and the ways I followed God’s rules, rather than a love that was based simply on the fact that I am God’s creation. The truth is God created me and God sees all of me—the good and the bad. The grace here is that God sees me through a lens of love. This is a truth; I just don’t always live like I believe it.
To build on Glennon’s words and to connect us to our scripture, this week I’ve tweaked her quote a bit and have been considering this:
We have to be known to be loved…and we have to be seen to be known.
Now, here is the scripture we are going to explore, Genesis 16:7-14:
7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 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.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11 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.
12 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.”
13 So she named the Lordwho spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.
(I’ve put together some side by side comparisons of these verses in a handful of translations here. If you read these, notice the similarities and differences and write down any questions or revelations that come up. It is also important to read scripture in context: I encourage you to go back and read chapters 15-21 when you have a few minutes.)
“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?”
I am moved by the way God meets Hagar. God calls Hagar by name and articulates her status within her culture. God then allows Hagar to say, for herself, where she has come from and where she is going. God asks Hagar to put words to her own story. Then, God does something that I don’t like, and that doesn’t totally make sense to me: God sends Hagar back into a situation of abuse. Granted God sends her back with a promise that she, like Abram and Sarai, will have a legacy beyond counting, but still, I have a hard time reconciling this action. And, I worried that this text might be used to affirm and perpetuate systems and relationships of abuse in our own day. As I dug deeper I realized that to use this text in that way is an abuse not only to the people we might enforce such a teaching on, but is also an abuse to the text itself. This is a specific action in a specific situation. Even though it is confusing how God does it, I think God is liberating Hagar and allowing Hagar to be a part of that liberation.
As I reflect now, and as I think back over the commentaries I read in preparation for this post, I think perhaps Hagar is told to return in order for Abram to name Ishmael and claim him as his son; this is what would ultimately provide familial protection for both Hagar and Ishmael down the road. Delores S. Williams’ introduced me to a second idea in her book, Sisters in the Wilderness: God was establishing relationship with Hagar and ensuring her and Ishmael’s physical survival by sending them back to Abram’s household. There is a lot to consider here. (Add to that the reality that their story continues later in Genesis 21. Some scholars believe that this could be another version of this story that we find in chapter 16; others believe that it is a separate event. Either way, we get a fuller–and more complicated–picture of Hagar and Ishmael’s story by considering both chapter 16 and 21.)
As I thought through all this it made me wonder: does Hagar find an even deeper liberation as she names God? The name she gives focuses on the place where she met God, rather than a name that ties God to the ancestral heritage of Abram’s household (I was introduced to this particular idea first in the Theological Introduction to the Old Testament). When God greets her he calls her “Hagar slave-girl of Sarai.” Now though, Hagar is able to establish her relationship with God outside of the confines of her enslavement. She has met and named the God who sees her in her personhood and not in her relation to her captors. God allows it, and I believe thereby affirms her action.
Hagar is in a desperate situation, she is desperate for water and desperate for a home. God meets her and she is enfolded into God’s love and the bigger story of what God is doing. She responds with astonishment as she wonders, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” Ever since I first studied this story in seminary I’ve been moved by the fact that God sees Hagar, but as I studied more deeply I began to realize I could relate to Sarai, too. In some ways even more so.
I am in a position of security, and I spend a lot of my time trying to maintain that status. Sarai is securely within Abram’s household as his wife, but she is afraid she will lose her status and protection.
God has promised Abram in Genesis 15 that his offspring will be like the stars: too many to count. By this point both Abram and Sarai are way past childbearing years and Abram is lamenting that God’s promise will have to come true via a child from one of his servants. God assures him this will not be how things play out. Then, we get to chapter 16 and learn that Sarai has decided to try another culturally appropriate approach to securing an heir. She will give her slave-girl Hagar to Abram and force her into surrogacy. Any child this union produced would then become Sarai’s property and thus fulfill God’s promise. Sarai is particularly concerned about securing an heir because as a woman in her culture she is valued and protected through her relationships with men. Early in life she would have been protected by her father, then her husband, and then in her old age, her son.
Like Sarai, I often try to live into God’s love and promises by doing as much as I can rather than trusting God will care for me. In Sarai’s case this striving and anxious planning comes at the expense of Hagar. I can see in my own life where my striving and anxious planning do damage to the people in my life—and ultimately to me, too.
God eventually gives Sarai a son, Isaac, despite her old age and her fearful abuse toward Hagar. It is a miracle. God also changes her name to Sarah in Genesis 17 and gives her a clean slate. This is something only God can do.
I said before that it is hard for me to be vulnerable. It’s hard for me to admit to God that I am scared. It is hard for me to face my fear of not living up to my call or my potential. It is in quiet moments with God, when I ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the spaces where I am clinging to my own plans and striving for security, that I realize that I am already loved. It is in these vulnerable moments when I admit that something has hurt me or that I am worried that I feel God’s peace and love. I find when I emerge from those moments with God that I feel lighter and more able to love others.
I have a verse on a post-it note above my desk from 1 Peter 5 (The Message):
“So be content with who you are and don’t put on airs. God’s strong hand is on you; he’ll promote you at the right time. Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you.”
“Live carefree before God, he is most careful with you.”
I wonder what Sarai and Hagar’s relationship might have looked like had they lived carefree before God? We can extend them grace because in a lot of ways they were each just beginning to meet and get to know God. They were grappling with the realities of their culture and their respective places in it and trying to figure out how to relate to God in the midst of it all.
I wonder what my relationships might look like if I lived carefree before God? I am learning to extend a similar grace to myself that I offer to Sarai and Hagar. My culture has given me a prescribed set of expectations based on my gender and class, too. In the midst of this, God is meeting me and offering a freedom that can’t be found anywhere else.
The truth is, God sees and loves both Hagar and Sarai in the ways that they need and not because of anything they do. Through the story of these two women, I am learning that God’s love is more expansive and welcoming than I can fully comprehend.
Here is a list of sources I drew upon. Unless I left a specific note above, the study of all of these—plus the knowledge I picked up over my life in church and through study at seminary—informed my interaction with the text. If you’re looking for deeper study on this passage these are some resources that I found helpful:
- Birch, Bruce C., Brueggemann, Walter, Fretheim, Terence E., Petersen, David L., A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament, Second Edition. Nashville: Abingdon, 2005.
- Matthews, Kenneth A., New International Version: The New American Commentary, Volume 1B (Genesis 11:27-50:26), 178-192. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.
- Melton, Glennon Doyle, Love Warrior: A Memoir. New York: Flat Iron Books, 2016.
- Shekel, Michal. “Lech Lecha (12:1-17:27): What’s in a Name?” In The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, 57-62. Woodstock: Jewish Light Publishing, 2000.
- The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version, edited by Michael D. Coogan. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- Walton, John H., The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis, 442-449. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
- Williams, Delores S., Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, 1-31. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2013.