I'm reading through the Bible in a year, as I have done for many years, but it sometimes feels as if my struggle with the Old Testament increases along with my age. I have less and less certitude and more and more questions.
As Christians, it is important when reading the Old Testament that we do it through the lens of Jesus. Therefore, when I hit troublesome stories I have to ask myself where or how I see Jesus. He is, after all, the living Word of God.
One of my most recent troublesome stories was the story of Hagar in Genesis 16.
Hagar was an Egyptian, and servant to Sarai (Abram's wife). I assume Hagar was picked up during Abram and Sarai's stay in Egypt (Genesis 12 - another troublesome story worth exploring).
Anyway, Sarai has been unable to have children and gives Hagar to Abram as a 'wife' (v3). Abram readily agrees (disappointingly) to this, has sex with Hagar, she becomes pregnant ... hello Ishmael.
Where do I even begin?
There is legitimate argument that becoming Abram's 'wife' (and I'm using that term very loosely - you'll see why) was an enviable step up for Hagar, and becoming the 'wife' who bears his child would have brought even more status and favour.
Verse 4 states that when Hagar finds out she's pregnant, she begins to treat Sarai with contempt. Contempt is the feeling that a person/thing is worthless or beneath consideration.
I don't know about you, but growing up in church, I always got the impression that Hagar was troublesome, the bad one, the stirrer.
If becoming Abram's 'wife' was such a step up and gave her status and favour, why would she view Sarai with contempt? Because Sarai was barren? Quite possibly.
But Sarai had created this 'opportunity' for her, hadn't she?
What if, instead, Hagar had no choice in the matter. Could she have said no? Did she? Would she have been listened to if she had? Maybe there was already someone special in Hagar's life, another servant in Abram's household maybe. Maybe being a wife and having a family was already being considered...just not with Abram. How must that have felt? To be denied the love you had for one you didn't choose.
I could understand contempt.
So you remember in verse 3 Sarai gave Hagar to Abram as a 'wife'? Well, Sarai has a good whinge to Abram about Hagar's bad attitude (in Hagar's position I think a lot of people might have had a bad attitude too). Abram replies "Look, she's your servant, so deal with her as you see fit." Abram refers to Hagar, not as his 'wife', but as Sarai's servant...bear in mind that at this point Hagar is pregnant with Abram's child.
Hagar was a commodity, a means to an end, never a wife.
Betrayed, unimportant, insignificant, invisible, worthless, used.
With Abram's go ahead, Sarai treats Hagar so badly that she see's no alternative but to run away...whilst pregnant, in a culture where single, pregnant women are not looked upon kindly. Things must have been bad.
But Hagar, the Egyptian, encounters the angel of the Lord (could this be Jesus?) beside a spring of water in the wilderness. He tells her to return home, but he also gives her a promise; that she will have more descendants than she can count - sounds pretty similar to the promise given to Abram doesn't it!
He also tells her she is to name her son Ishmael, 'God hears.'
God hears her.
Hagar, the Egyptian.
Her son will be a daily reminder.
When she's having a bad day - Ishmael - God hears.
When she's being treated badly - Ishmael - God hears.
When she's disrespected, ignored and insulted - Ishmael - God hears.
Yet, in verse 13, we find that 'Hagar used another name to refer to the Lord, who had spoken to her. She said, "You are the God who sees me"'.
The Living One who sees me.
Hagar, the Egyptian
The woman who gives God a name.
But where do I see Jesus in this troublesome story?
With Hagar, the Egyptian?
To find him, I look in the New Testament to discover him in the Old. In John 8 the religious leaders bring a woman to Jesus who has been 'caught in the act' of adultery. So consumed with their desire to trap Jesus they were willing for this woman to be stoned. Stoned to death.
Caught in the act. Just sit with that for a minute.
Shocking as this may seem, you don't get 'caught in the act' of adultery alone.
It needs two people. Where was the man who was also 'caught in the act'?
Her value in the eyes of these men, these religious leaders? Worthless, a commodity, insignificant, used.
The Living One who sees me
He sees her, beyond the act, beyond the shame, beyond the minimal value placed upon her life in that culture.
So, where do I see Jesus in these troublesome stories.
I see him with every woman who feels betrayed, unimportant, insignificant, invisible, worthless and used.
God sees you and God hears you.