Recently the story of Hager in Genesis 16 and 21 spoke to me as it relates to a history of abuse. I had never actually considered her story before it jumped off the page at me. In an odd sort of way, her story offers encouragement to folks like me who sometimes get lost in their pain.
Hager was a slave, in bondage to someone else’s will. This was not the life she would have chosen. When I consider the abuse I have endured and its aftermath in my own life, I can identify with her. Yes, she was one of Abraham’s wives, but from the beginning she was simply “a means to an end”, a way for him and his first wife, Sarah, to produce a child. There is nothing in the story that suggests Abraham cared for Hager personally, although later he apparently demonstrates some concern for their son.
Nevertheless, the thought of impending motherhood gave Hager hope, boosting her status in her own eyes, so she began to compete with Sarah, the one that Abraham loved. As a result, Sarah mistreated Hager, and Abraham did nothing to protect her or the child she was carrying. When things got too difficult, Hager ran away. I think running away is a dream every abused woman has!
The angel of the Lord knew he would find Hager at a spring in the desert, a place of temporary reprieve. His question to her is very interesting: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” Hager, no doubt, knew where she was fleeing from, but probably had no idea where she was going! I can so relate! When you are abused, you run away from the source of pain, but where you are going is not as easily discerned. It is far easier to be reactive than it is to be proactive at such times.
What was God’s short-term plan for Hager at this point in her story? His plan was indeed perplexing. He told her to return to her abuser! When I first considered this, I was dumbfounded. Why would a good God suggest such a thing? Surely, He did not approve of her mistreatment! While I can’t speak for God, after considering what might have happened to her alone in the desert, I suspect returning may have been the lesser of two evils in view of His long range plans. I am a strong believer in free will, not only mine, but also the choices of others. I think a lot of things happen in this world as a result of others’ evil choices, and God often allows natural consequences to stand. Yet, He also engineers circumstances to somehow bring good out of evil over time for those who love Him and trust in His purposes.
I’m sure Hager found some comfort in God’s promise to her that she would have a large family. No doubt, she imagined that having more children would be the means of fulfillment for this promise, but that dream never materialized. Instead, more than a decade later, Hager still had only one son. She was probably bitter by this point, and her teenage son reflected her attitudes when he mocked Sarah’s young son. Hager was still unwanted, unloved, and probably disillusioned with the promises of God after waiting for so long. She probably thought it couldn’t get any worse, until it did! Now she was forced to leave again as a result of Ishmael’s actions and Sarah’s anger. It’s one thing to choose to run away; it’s quite another to be forced out by the very one who has already rejected you in a multitude of ways.
When Sarah decided to kick Hager and Ismael out, once again Abraham did not defend them, and neither did God! God instructed Abraham to send them away like Sarah demanded. So, Abraham provided food and water before sending Hager and their 14-year-old son off alone. Once again, Hager is wandering in a desert without a plan. When the water ran out, she left Ishmael under a bush, went and sat a short distance away, and began to sob. The boy was all that remained of her hopes and dreams, and now she thought he was going to die. As a mother, her focus was on him more than her own thirst. The scripture says God heard the boy crying.
Once again, an angel asks Hager an unusual question: “What’s the matter?” As I read this, I thought, “Isn’t it obvious?” Yet, the angel identifies another problem—Hager’s fear! He assures her that God hears, then he reiterates God’s promise to give her a big family in different words. This time he tells her that her son will become a great nation. The large family will come through her son’s children instead of her own. God’s promise is to make Hager a grandmother instead of a mother of many sons! The earlier promise still stands; it just isn’t going to be fulfilled in the way she had imagined. So often in my own life, when the promises of God haven’t materialized in the way I envisioned, I fail to consider how his plan might be different, or on a different time table, from my own. Fear results when trust is absent, and God isn’t given the latitude to be the God whose wisdom surpasses my own! Sometimes my expectations have had to die before God’s provision became obvious.
Then the Angel of the Lord says something even more unexpected. He tells Hager to “lift the boy up and take him by the hand.” Why didn’t God interact directly with the teenager? Why did He tell Hager to act on Ishmael’s behalf? God chose to provide for him through his mother. She still had a role to play in the fulfillment of God’s promises. The angel challenged her to rise above her fear in that moment and to choose to believe again. When she did, the scriptures say God opened Hager’s eyes and she saw a well nearby. Here was an unexpected source of life for her and her son! Why hadn’t she noticed it before? Perhaps, the well had always been there, but she couldn’t see it through her tears. As she dared to believe God’s promises again and obediently responded to her son’s needs, their options became clearer.
Finally, Hager knew where she was going as she stepped into the destiny that God had planned for her all along. She was no longer the slave of an abusive mistress who had rejected her. From that moment forward, she was free to become the grandmother of a great nation! She may have been a victim where she had come from, but she would be a catalyst for good where she was going! Does Hager’s story offer you hope? Does the goodness of God look different now from what you had initially envisioned in your own life? Where are you going now? Are you moving toward your destiny or still running from your pain?