Hagar & the Angel Show How God’s Loving Gaze Liberates Us

Something extraordinary happens when the slave Hagar runs away from Sarah into the wilderness.

In the wilderness, she encounters an angel of the Lord who asks her why she is running away. Hagar explains and the angel tells her to return. That request is followed by a promise:

You are now pregnant and shall bear a son;
you shall name him Ishmael,
For the LORD has heeded your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
Alongside all his kindred
shall he encamp.

(Genesis 16:11-12)

For the LORD has heeded your affliction.
He shall be a wild ass of a man,
his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him;
Alongside all his kindred
shall he encamp.”

Genesis 16:11-12

The episode is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, the angel of the Lord, who could be interpreted as a pre-Incarnate Christ, begins in the same way that many other encounters do in the Old Testament, going all the way back to when Adam and Eve were hiding from God in the garden. He begins with a question—not in order to learn why she is there, because surely the angel already knew this. Instead, He endeavors to begin a dialogue with her, to relate to her on a personal level.

Second, the angel’s arrival does not address any pressing material need. We are familiar with the archetype of the forlorn wander in the dessert, dying of starvation and thirst. But that’s not what happens here. When the angel finds her, Hagar is already near a spring (verse 7).

Third, the angel delivers a perplexing command: he tells her to return to her oppressor, Sarah. As one Jewish commentary explains, the angel’s directive can better be understood when understood in the broader context of the Old Testament, in which a period of enslavement is then followed by liberation. Moreover, in context, Hagar’s submission is also tied to the future prosperity of her descendants.

But there could be one more reason why Hagar is asked to return. In encountering God through the angel she has experienced a kind of liberation that is internal and spiritual, such that external enslavement can no longer rob her of her interior peace. Having met God, she is now ready to endure the trial of material slavery.

The ending of the account seems to support this conclusion. It is there that we get our big surprise: Hagar names God.

To the LORD who spoke to her she gave a name, saying, “You are God who sees me” (verse 13).

This is extraordinary reversal of what is expected. First, we would expect someone of higher social or religious status to be granted the privilege of giving God a name. Second, even those of higher rank are often denied such a privilege. Instead, God is the one to name Himself. The obvious example of this is Moses, to whom God reveals His name as ‘I Am Who I Am.’

The name Hagar ascribes to God reveals something about important about who He sees her. In this account, Hagar has encountered God’s loving vision and it is this vision that has liberated her, enabling her to return to Sarah.

The impact of God’s vision is evident the next time Hagar flees into the wilderness, in Genesis 21. This time she cannot find a spring and her skin of water runs out. Hagar’s son Ishmael is at risk of dying of thirst. Hagar is so distraught she puts him down and then walks the distance of a bowshot away because she cannot bear to watch him die. God hears the boy crying and intervenes:

God’s angel called to Hagar from heaven: “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not fear; God has heard the boy’s voice in this plight of his. Get up, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand; for I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and then let the boy drink (verses 17-19).

In her first wilderness encounter, Hagar recognizes God as one who sees her. Now her eyes are opened. Her reality is transformed. She can see refreshing waters where none were visible before. In gazing upon her, God has changed her own way of seeing—not just in material terms, but also in a spiritual sense.

We can understand this dynamic by considering Christ on the cross. One well-known devotional work examines what Christ saw from the cross, such as “His Father’s house” and the Mount of Olives. But most importantly Christ saw us—sinful humanity. We spend so much time looking at the crucifix today we can forget that Christ looks back at us. This literally happens in the Eucharist, in which Christ continues to gaze lovingly upon us from behind the veil of the bread.

And just like Hagar our own vision is transformed. In looking at us, Christ shows us the Father’s love for us, and we are introduced to a new way of seeing ourselves and the world around us. The encyclical Lumen Fidei, in a section likely authored by Pope Benedict XVI, explains how:

The self-awareness of the believer now expands because of the presence of another; it now lives in this other and thus, in love, life takes on a whole new breadth. Here we see the Holy Spirit at work. The Christian can see with the eyes of Jesus and share in his mind, his filial disposition, because he or she shares in his love, which is the Spirit. In the love of Jesus, we receive in a certain way his vision.

May we all, when we find ourselves in the desolation of our own personal wilderness, come to know the God who sees us and, in so knowing, may our own vision be transformed so that we may see the springs of eternal life that await us.

image: “Hagar Saved by an Angel” Robert Dunkarton [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Stephen Beale is a freelance writer based in Providence, Rhode Island. Raised as an evangelical Protestant, he is a convert to Catholicism. He is a former news editor at GoLocalProv.com and was a correspondent for the New Hampshire Union Leader, where he covered the 2008 presidential primary. He has appeared on Fox News, C-SPAN and the Today Show and his writing has been published in the Washington Times, Providence Journal, the National Catholic Register and on MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com. A native of Topsfield, Massachusetts, he graduated from Brown University in 2004 with a degree in classics and history. His areas of interest include Eastern Christianity, Marian and Eucharistic theology, medieval history, and the saints. He welcomes tips, suggestions, and any other feedback at bealenews at gmail dot com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/StephenBeale1

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