It’s been ages since our last post, and once again, we’ve been to SE Asia and back, teaching and preaching the Word in nations and to people we’ve grown to love. We’ll share more on that in the near future, but for now, I thought I’d share a teaching I developed for our church’s women’s retreat.
The theme of the retreat was “Pride & Prejudice,” and I have to admit I was pretty puzzled as to what I could teach on from the Bible that would fit that theme. I have to confess that I’ve never actually read Pride & Prejudice (but I’ve seen the BBC mini-series – that counts for something, right?!), and I had never been to a women’s retreat with our church, so I felt pretty ill-equipped to teach that weekend. But, fortunately, God has better ideas than I do, and as I prayed and thought about what to focus on over the three opportunities I had to speak that weekend, I was immediately drawn to the stories of three women in the Bible, who very literally dealt with the themes of pride and prejudice in their lives. These women aren’t much like the beautiful Jane Bennet or the quick-witted Lizzie Bennet, but these three women are women who were on the receiving end of prejudice, who didn’t fit into their communities because of the pride and lack of compassion of others. But God lifted each of them out of their respective situations, restoring their value and identity.
The first Biblical woman who captured my attention is a woman by the name of Hagar. We don’t typically hear a lot about Hagar from the front of a church, probably because we don’t hear a lot from Genesis on most Sunday mornings in general, but we can actually see a great deal about the character of God from Hagar’s story.
We read about Hagar, as I mentioned, in Genesis. She is mentioned in Galatians, but we’re going to focus on her story, which is found beginning in Genesis 16. Back in Genesis 12, God had promised Abram that He would make of him a great nation, among other things. This was an unexpected promise, because when Abram received this promise, he was 75 years old, childless, and married to a barren woman who was a little bit younger than him, but not much. Yet God told him that He would make of him a great nation…which meant God was promising him a child. The events of Genesis 16 take place ten years after the promise of God to Abram. He still had no child, and he (and his wife, Sarai) were not getting any younger.
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, ‘’Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress”
While we might shake our heads at Sarai for her lack of faith, remember, Abram and Sarai, who have spent their whole lives childless, have been waiting ten years for this promised, miraculous child by this point. The fulfillment of that promise was looking less likely than ever. In her desperation, Sarai takes matters into her own hands and gives her servant, Hagar, to her husband, and she conceives. But rather than being thrilled about this news, and about the child to come, Sarai says to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant 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!” Nothing good ever came of a man having multiple wives, and this case is no exception. Abram tells Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, and Hagar flees. We pick up the story in Genesis 16:7-13.
“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, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you ogin?’ She said, ‘I am fleeing 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 surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.’ And the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.’ So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.’”
Hagar was a servant, an Egyptian, and a woman. Her status, her gender, and the fact that she was not a part of the family of Abram, meant that in the eyes of the world at that time, she was of little to no value. In Genesis 16, she is treated as a possession. She is not asked if she would like to become Abram’s second wife, but Sarai gives Hagar to her husband. We don’t know how old Hagar would have been, but presumably she is of normal child-bearing age – she could have been a teenager, forced to marry and sleep with a man in his eighties. At this time in history, a woman’s main role was to produce offspring. Sarai had been unable to do this, but Hagar becomes pregnant seemingly easily. When she looks with contempt on her mistress, it is likely because the woman who was worthless – a possession to give away at her owner’s will – has become valuable, as she is able to give Abram a child. Sarai’s insecurity and actions make sense in a culture where a woman’s value and security were based on her ability to produce offspring. So she treats Hagar harshly, and Hagar flees. But in this space, Hagar once again meets with God.
Hagar’s encounter with God speaks so much of God’s character and His heart for the left out, lonely, and rejected. The Lord promises Hagar that He will multiply her offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude. The Lord promises Hagar that she will bear a son, ensuring her security in a culture that said a woman was valuable if and when she produced a son. And Hagar calls the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “a God of seeing.” She says, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” God is faithful to His promise to Hagar. When Abram was eighty-six years old, Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
God is faithful to His promise to Sarah, too. In Genesis 21 we read that Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son (Isaac) when he was a hundred years old. We pick up Hagar’s story again in 21:8-21. In this passage, Isaac has been weaned, and Abraham makes a great feast for him. But Sarah sees Ishmael laughing at Isaac, and insists that Abraham casts Hagar and her son out, saying, “the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac” (21:10). God tells to Abraham to do what his wife has told him, and emphasizes that it is through Isaac that his offspring shall be named. God would make of Ishmael a great nation, too. In response, Abraham gives Hagar bread and water, and sends her, with her son, away. She wanders in the wilderness of Beersheba.
”When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, ‘Let me not look on the death of the child.’ And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. And God was with the boy, and he grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the widerness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him fromt he land of Egypt.”
Once again, Hagar is rejected by her mistress. Sarah once again comes across as a villain, and her actions are pretty harsh considering it was her idea for Hagar to have this child, but her actions are also understandable in a culture and a time where a first-born son stood to inherit far more than a second-born son. Sarah seems to anticipate a rivalry between the two sons, even at this early time, and her well-being could also be in jeopardy, as if Abraham died, culturally, Isaac would be the one to look after her, and that would be more difficult if Ishmael inherited first. While it might seem like God is agreeing with Sarah and her hateful attitude and actions by telling Abraham to do whatever she wishes with Hagar and Ishmael, God is emphasizing that the promise to Abram all the way back in Genesis 12, will be accomplished through Isaac, not Ishmael. Ishmael may be Abraham’s first born son, but he is not the son of the promise.
Despite this, God has His own intentions and provision for Hagar and Ishmael. Though she is cast out to the wilderness, left to die without enough water or food for herself and her son, God meets her in the wilderness, and promises that He will make of Ishmael a great nation. God opens her eyes to a well of water, and the text tells us that “God was with the boy, and he grew up and lived in the wilderness.” He married a woman from Egypt, and later in Genesis we read that he became the father of twelve princes.
Hagar was left out, lonely, and rejected, by Abraham and Sarah – by the family she had served and even married into. No one in Hagar’s day would assign any value or worth to Hagar. But God sees Hagar, provides for her, protects her, and promises her a future. God redefines Hagar’s worth. God sees the outcast, and by that very seeing, she is called valuable. Her identity is that of a woman who was seen by God, met by God, and cared for by God.
Perhaps you can identify with Hagar in this story. Perhaps at some point in your life you have felt left out, lonely, and rejected. In an age where we are more connected than ever, and yet loneliness is an epidemic, maybe there have been times when you’ve felt overlooked by the world around you. Maybe you feel that no one sees you, cares for you, or acknowledges your value. No matter why you feel this way or if those feelings are grounded in actual events or are lies of the enemy, I want to assure you that just as God saw Hagar, God sees you. He wants to meet with you, just as He met with Hagar, and He wants to redefine your value, not within the constructs of the prejudices of the kingdom of the world, but as His child – as one who belongs to Him and to His Kingdom. God is faithful to His promises, and He is faithful to the promise that you are His. This means we don’t have to strive after acceptance in this world. This means we don’t have to strive after a picture-perfect life that will convince our family, friends, and Instagram that we have it all together and are of value. This means we don’t have to strive after even what contemporary Christian culture holds up as being a woman of value. Whether you homeschool your kids or send them to public school, whether you are married or unmarried, whether you are the main breadwinner in your family or a stay at home mom, whether you’re retired, unemployed, or have a successful career, you have value, because God sees you, knows you, and wants to meet with you.
I want to challenge us to see our value the way God sees our value, and to see one another’s value the way God sees the value in each one of us. Whether we feel like we have been hurt because of pride and prejudice of others, or whether we have pride and prejudice against others, I hope we can remind one another of where our true value lies: in the God who sees the left out, lonely, and rejected.