To understand this, story, I want to tell you another.
Tell the story of Israel’s oppression and God’s deliverance.
- If Israel in the wilderness could go back and comfort the victims in their oppression, what truth would they desire them to understand? God hears. God sees.
- If Israel in the wilderness could go back and confront their oppressor, what truth would they desire Pharaoh to understand. God hears? God sees.
The Potential to Be the Oppressor is Within Us All
The main point of these first six verses is the shocking revelation that Abram and Sarai, the father and mother of the Jewish nation, heroes of the faith, are depicted here as heartless oppressors of the worst sort. First they exploit this slave girl sexually, then they abuse her, breaking her spirit to the point that she must flee into the wilderness. Now if you were reading this in Hebrew, it would really blow your mind, for compare these six verses with Genesis 15:13 Then the LORD said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” God tells Abram that his offspring will be sojourners (or strangers). The Hebrew word for “the sojourner” is HGR, which is, of course, the maidservants name. The Lord does not name the country into which the children of Israel will be HGR, but of course the readers know exactly which country it was, Eqypt, HGR’s country of origin. Finally, the word for afflicted is rarely used in the Old Testament apart from the oppressive suffering of the children of Israel in Egypt, yet in 16:6 it is used to describe Sarai’s treatment of Hagar.
Moses is making an astonishing parallel here - that the children of Abram who were fleeing the oppression of Pharaoh, must understand that the potential to be oppressor lay within themselves, for long before Egypt’s oppression of the children of Abram we have Abram’s oppression of the daughter of Egypt.
We speak a lot about oppression today and social justice, but what is overlooked in our modern discussions is that we play this game of who can out-victim whom, but no one wants to face the reality that the potential to be the oppressor is within us all. We don’t want to hear that, we tend to view ourselves either as the virtuous hero in our story or the innocent victim. Isn’t it true that when you watch a movie, or learn about history, you find yourself naturally aligning yourself with the hero. Very rarely do we watch a movie or study history and see ourselves in the bad guys. This is what unsettles people when they study the holocaust for example. Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust, wrote:
“The horror of the Holocaust is not that it deviated from human norms; the horror is that it didn't. What happened may happen again, to others not necessarily Jews, perpetrated by others, not necessarily Germans. We are all possible victims, possible perpetrators, possible bystanders.”
How does this happen? Moses deliberately describes the exploitation of Hagar as a deliberate echo of the sin of Adam and Eve. Sarai entices her husband to do what God has forbidden, and takes her maidservant and gives her to her husband, the phrase being nearly identical to the scene in the Garden. And remember how what led to that sin - “Did God really say?”
We are in danger of perpetrating oppression when we reject the revelation of God to follow cultural common sense, the wisdom of man.
Abram and Sarai are acting in this chapter according to the common sense of their day. Sarai is barren, but she has a maidservant, and according to the custom of their day (and we know this from other texts outside of the Bible) a woman who found herself in Sarai’s situation would see this as a logical course of action. Her slave was her property, and the son borne to her would be counted as her own. However, this act, no matter how normal it may have seen to them in their culture, violated God’s revelation to them in at least two ways:
- It violated the revelation of God in Genesis 1:27, that all human beings are created in the image of God and thereby worthy of dignity. Human beings are not property, or instruments to be used and discarded.
- It violated that revelation of God in Genesis 2:24, that God created man and woman to be brought together in the union of marriage, of which sex is the physical expression of the bond of intimacy and commitment, and children are the fruit. Throughout history, humankind has tried to separate the act of sex from the intimacy of relationship, the commitment of marriage or the outcome of children. When these things are separated, oppression follows. Abram and Sarai try to separate the act of procreation, from the intimacy of relationship, yet find they cannot, which is why Sarai becomes immediately jealous or Hagar’s new position in the household. And we still try to do this again, we separate sex from the bonds of marital commitment, and get our heart hurt again and again. Or we try to separate sex from relational intimacy and make people into objects for our pleasure and exploitation rather than a person to be loved. Or we separate sex from the outcome of childbearing, and if heaven forbid we a child should dare to be conceived, we act surprised, as if how could that happen, and sacrifice millions of babies each year for daring to remind us that sex leads to children.
The point is that the potential to be the oppressor lay within us all, and until we understand that, we are a danger to ourselves and to others. We’re a danger to others because we will fight to overthrow systems of injustice, yet we may leave in their place a greater oppressor, one that we create in our own image. This is the naivetéy of Karl Marx, who dreamed that the common man would rise up against his oppressor, yet everywhere that revolution has spread, tyranny and violence inevitably has followed.
We’re a danger to ourselves, because we will never accept the good news of the gospel of grace, and therefore will remain damned in our sins, until we see within ourselves this propensity for evil. Jesus said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Only when we truly understand our wicked state before God will we receive the remedy for our sin, Jesus Christ.
Victims of Oppression Need to Know that God Hears and Sees Them
So Hagar, like Israel, flees into the wilderness, where the next astonishing thing happens. God reveals himself to her, through his angel. This lowly oppressed slave woman has an encounter with God nearly unrivalled in Scripture to this point, in which she learns two things, that all victims of oppression need to let sink deep into their heart. 1) God hears, and God sees. Hagar needs to know that God hears her cry and stands with her, and 2) that though great evil has been committed against her, He is able to bring about good out of it (remember the theme verse of Genesis: what you meant for evil, God has meant for good.)
God tells Hagar that the child that was conceived in oppression, which is the definition of rape, will not be the end of her story, but he beginning of her legacy. “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” What a promise to this hurting woman! God has a future here for her. And to give her a continual reminder of this promise, God tells her to name this son, “God hears”. No matter what difficulties lay in front of her, and God tells her to do a very difficult thing, every time she holds Ishmael in her arms, every time she calls his name, she will remember this encounter with the angel in the wilderness, and that God has head her and promised her a legacy.
Hagar responds to God’s promises in worship, in fact she gives God a new nickname. I’m going through a devotional book with Noemi right now in which we are going through the names of God, and we call them nicknames. Why does God have so many nicknames, she asked me. I said that the greater a person is, the more nicknames people give them. 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.”
There’s one other aspect of this encounter with the angel that I think is important to Hagar and to us. These two truths, that God hears her cry and stands with her, and that though great evil has been committed against her, form in her a new identity. She is not a victim, she is the one whom God sees and cares for. I see not only in Hagar’s statement, but also in how God describes Ishmael - he will be a wild donkey, dwelling over against his kinsmen. This is not a derogatory statement against Ishmael. The wild donkey is a picture of a man strong and unrestrained. He will not be trapped in a cycle of oppression, or possess a victim mentality, for God has broken that victim mentality in Hagar, and it will not be passed down to her son. Parents, do you realize the power you have in modelling strength and resilience to your children?
And church, that is one of the ways in which we can be the eyes and ears of God to people, to see and hear them when they cry out, so that they know that God sees and hears their cry. They may be weeping in the wilderness, or at the back of the church, or in the break room in your cubicle. And they need God and to know that he sees their tears and hears their cries. They need to know that they need not be a victim, they can be one whom God sees and for whom God cares.
Perpetrators of Oppression Need to Know that God Hears and Sees Them
Hagar is no longer a victim, she is a daughter of God equipped with his promises and presence. I believe that we are not to see God’s sending of Hagar back to Abram and Sarai as the sending of a victim back to her abusers, but as the prophet of the Lord warning them, that God sees and hears their wickedness. That why I began with the question, if the children of Israel could speak any word into Pharoah’s heart, what word would they have spoken? God sees your wickedness, God hears every intent of your secret counsels. He is the judge of the earth and his justice is fearful. And I believe Abram hears the message, loud and clear. How do I know this? Look at verse 15: “And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.” Abram names Ishmael, “God hears.”
I want to close by reading an open letter Australian Pastor Murray Cambell published on the Gospel Coalition website after an article by Julie Baird appeared in an Australian news source in which she quoted sources stating evangelical men who sporadically attend church are more likely than men of any other religious group. that is appalling.
Dear Abuser… I want to make it clear that if you want to invoke Bible verses to control and manipulate your wife, the Bible is against you.
If you harm your wife physically, sexually, emotionally, or materially, Jesus stands against you.
To hide behind the Bible in order to justify how you treat your wife is vile. Justifying your attitudes and actions with the Bible is like blaming the cook book for the food poisoning you caused when you cooked a meal with putrid meat. The issue isn't with the book, but what you brought out of your fridge. You are destroying your family, dishonouring God, and deceiving yourself.
I have met men like the ones described in Julia Baird’s article—not many, but a couple. When their anger was exposed they became even more heated. When we assisted their families, they stormed out. When we called on them to repent, they admitted no wrongdoing and instead tried to play the victim. When we told them to leave the church, they were vindictive and spread all manner of falsity.
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, warning him of men who would attempt to worm their way into relationships with women for all manner of evil intent. He says of such people, “They are men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.” (2 Timothy 3:8) There is no place among the followers of Jesus for violence or harsh words, for sexual manipulation, for financial leverage or for making threats. Blaming tiredness or stress, or alcohol and drugs doesn’t cut it. These things are symptoms of a deeper issue in your heart. All such abuse is inexcusable, a betrayal of the standard set for husbands by the Creator of marriage.
Thankfully, these scenarios have been rare during my pastorate. I know many more men who, with their wives, are faithfully serving the Lord Jesus in their marriages, and it is a joy to see their loving homes flourishing, with all the warts and occasional grumpiness mixed in. I am thankful that the research Baird draws on not only highlights the disturbing incidence of domestic violence among the fringe-dwellers and occasional attenders of conservative Protestant churches but also includes this important conclusion: that conservative Protestant men who are regular church attenders are the LEAST likely demographic to abuse their wives out of any group, religious or not.
But I am also painfully aware that I do not see everything that happens in the privacy of people’s homes or in the secret thoughts of people’s hearts. It’s possible that you may have slipped under my radar completely, which is why I’m doing the unusual thing of writing you an open letter.
If you are abusing the family that God has entrusted to your care, then the issue is not with the Bible, but your refusal to trust and believe what it says. Maybe there is a tendency in our culture to dissolve differences between men and women. It is true that our culture devalues both headship and service; they are assumed to be evils that inhibit our individual freedom.
But your abusive conduct is not the biblical alternative.
The model for marriage that the Bible offers is good and beautiful. It depicts man and woman as complementary; it upholds the dignity of both; their equality and their difference. Its takes its pattern from the person of Jesus Christ who loved his bride, the church, and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25).
Headship is not wielding power over another, but is the exercise of responsiblilty, in love, for the flourishing of others. Submission is not the forced subjugation of one person to a cruel authoritarian, but a choice freely made to honour a person and acknowledge the weight of the responsibility God has placed on their shoulders. (And it is precisely because of that responsibility that the Bible places on husbands that it takes abuse and family violence so seriously.) Revealing abuse, in whatever context it is taking place, is necessary.
If you are a perpetrator then there is no road to salvation that does not involve the bright light of truth shining into your heart and onto your behaviour. Mercifully, the God who is against us in our arrogance and violence is also full of mercy when we turn toward him in humility and begin the long, hard road of repentance.
God sees, God hears