HAGAR AND THE ANGEL
One of the striking differences between Jewish and Christian interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis is the Jewish presentation of the Lord in very relational terms. The magisterial implications of the transcendent God who stands behind the six day creation epic will slowly unfold as biblical revelation develops. But in his first interactions with man, God’s desire is not to overwhelm us with his majesty, but draw us into relationship by using models that will become commonplace in human interaction. And this appears to be grasped more firmly by traditional Jewish, rather than by Christian scholars.
My purpose in this segment is to mention the first appearance of the angel of the Lord in Genesis 16, but to get the feel of things, let me pick out a few of the ways the Lord manifests himself in the opening chapters of Genesis.
First, as a Gardener: In Genesis 2:8 we read “the Lord God planted a garden east of Eden.” The author is very deliberate in saying that the Lord God (Yahweh Elohim ) planted the garden. He did not delegate the task to angels or archangels. We are meant to picture him with the hoe and the shovel personally breaking up the ground because he himself wants to prepare a homestead for Adam and Eve. And this alone is a remarkable image.
Second, as a Potter: We read in Genesis 2:7 that “the Lord God (again, Yahweh Elohim) formed man out of the dust of the earth…” The present participle of the word “formed” is the word “potter”, the same word that is used in the famous potter passage in Jeremiah 18. Working with wet clay is messy work, but again he does not delegate the work. We are meant to picture him as the master sculptor, bending over the clay, intent on personally producing his great masterpiece.
Third, as a midwife: In 2:7 we read that he “breathed into [Adam] the breath of life…” just as a midwife would into a new born baby that needs help to breath independently. And to breath into someone means that your face has to be touching theirs, which means that as Adam awoke the first thing he saw bending over him was the face of God. Balthasar was fond of saying that “the child is awakened to personhood by the smile of the mother.” And this is true, because the first child, Adam, was awoken to personhood by the smile of God himself.
Fourth, as a Craftsman: We read in 2:22 “Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man.” The Hebrew word “made” is the word “built” and is the same as that used to describe the craftsmen who worked on the tabernacle. Man is the craftsmanship of God, but woman is God’s craft taken to the next level. Eve is all that Adam is, but now the craftmanship has become a masterpiece that will be given as a love gift to man in the covenant of marriage.
Fifth, a Matchmaker: I read in a Rabbinic commentary that Eve’s hair would need to be braided in preparation for the wedding as this was an important symbol of virtue and purity. It went on to say that as no one else was around to do it, the Lord God braided her hair and then presented her to
Adam. While we might think the Rabbi’s imagination was working overtime with this fanciful interpretation, it does reveal how they grasped the humility of God that Genesis sets out to present. The issue of the braiding of the hair is not important in and of itself. What is important, is that they grasped not only the majesty, but also the humility of God that the author is setting forth. It would never enter our minds to project such an interpretation onto the passage, but for them it was a very natural solution to what in their day was a difficult cultural problem.
Sixth, as a Tailor: After Adam and Eve sinned, we read in 3:21 “And the Lord God made for Adam and for is wife garments of skins, and clothed them.” Again, the author is very specific, it is Yahweh Elohim, who personally made the garments. He did not delegate the task. Adam and Eve were his beloved children, and as a father he wanted to personally stitch together the garments that would cover the shame of their nakedness.
And seventhly, the Lord reveals himself as Exile: In 3:23, speaking of Adam’s punishment we read “Therefore the Lord sent him forth to till the ground from which he was taken”
If we back up to the previous verse, verse 22, the Hebrew syntax is very unusual. The Lord’s word about Adam not being allowed to eat of the tree of life lest he should live forever is a sentence that’s cut off, it ends in mid air. It is as if, humanly speaking, God has a lump in his throat and can’t finish what he has to say, his grief is too great for him to go on speaking.
Therefore it should not surprise us that although expelled from the garden and “sent…forth to till the ground from which he was taken”, the Rabbis said that when Adam and Eve went out, the Lord went with them. They are exiled and the Lord becomes an exile with them. And, incidentally, this is born out in chapter 4, where, after they had left the garden, several times the Hebrew text says they lived “before the face of the Lord.”
So as we look at the early chapters of Genesis it is clear that the author’s intention is to make a presentation of Yahweh Elohim in relational terms that we are familiar with: the gardener, the potter, the midwife, the craftsman, the matchmaker, the tailor, and the exile.
His glory is obvious as the creator of heaven and earth, but he does not want to overwhelm us with his transcendent majesty before we have grasped his father heart and his invitation to walk with us in the cool of the day. And this relational revelation was one that was clearly grasped by the early Jewish exegetes.
Genesis chapter 16 is the well known story of Abraham and Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian slave. Sarah is now about 77 and has given up all hope of bearing a child for Abraham. Polygamy was one way out taken by many couples, and another was surrogate motherhood. And this was what Sarah opted for. Hagar would become a “slave wife.” She would have a child by Abraham but remain Sarah’s maid. The mistress could then feel that her maid’s child was her own and exert some control over it in a way that she could not if her husband simply took a second wife.
In the culture of the day Sarah’s action was perfectly acceptable (Jacob does the same and four of the tribes of Israel are born this way), but the text indicates that both Sarah and Abram displeased the Lord in the light of the promises they had been given.
When Hagar became pregnant by Abraham she became proud and Sarah set out to humiliate her. The word indicates she was violently abused, and in fact it’s the same word used to described the suffering of Israel in Egypt (Gen 15:13, Ex 1:12).
Although Hagar became proud, Sarah was old enough to know that something like this was almost inevitable (other ancient texts are full of warnings about the domestic consequences of slave wives). And she should have simply corrected her behavior as it began to manifest itself. The upshot, as we know, is that Hagar was so mistreated that she became a runaway slave and headed back on foot through the desert to Egypt.
He prospects were utterly hopeless. It was very unlikely she would even survive the journey. If she did, she could expect no mercy in Egypt. Pharaoh had given Abraham female slaves as a gift when he left Egypt, and Hagar was almost certainly one of them. If discovered she would probably face the death penalty. And her prospects for marriage as a pregnant runaway slave were virtually zero. She is a now a woman whose situation is a bleak and without hope as it is possible to imagine.
Then into this narrative of despair come the remarkable words, “Now the angel of the Lord found her near a certain spring of water in the wilderness…”
As I have said, this is the first mention of the angel of the Lord in scripture. The angel of the Lord (or angel of God) will appear, by name, seven times in Genesis and five of these will be to Hagar (four here and one in chapter 21.)
Without going into the complex theology behind it, we can safely say that the angel of the Lord is God appearing in human form. And it takes our breath away that the first time he does this is to go out into the desert and look for a runaway pregnant Egyptian slave girl.
The Angel of the Lord speaks to her with incredible compassion and assures her that she will live, and prophesies that because Ishmael is a son of Abraham “I shall greatly multiply your descendants that they will be too many to count.” And that meanwhile she is to return and submit to Sarah.
With this the story could end. It is already a stunning reversal, a wonderful manifestation of the love of God. But for me the best is yet to come, as it finishes with Hagar’s reaction to all this. Hagar, a slave, a runaway, a pagan, a woman without a future, a woman who probably did not expect to live through the next 48 hours. This is her reaction:
“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are the God who sees me.’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who sees me.’ For this reason the well is called ‘The well of the Living One who sees me.’” (16:13)
For this incident to make sense, one has to realize that a slave girl was “invisible” to the gods of Egypt. Only those of status in the empire were “seen” by the gods. In fact only those of status in the empire were “seen” by Pharaoh.
And what overwhelms Hagar is not the fact that God will multiply her descendants so that they will be too many to count,” but that this God who found her is a God who sees suffering people—people who are desperate, people who have no status, people who are social outcasts, people who have no hope, people who are on the margins, people who are powerless.
A few years ago I heard Jurgen Moltmann recounting an incident a close friend experienced outside the Red Fort in Delhi, India. He was staying with an Indian friend who had been at university with him in the UK who was from a high class Brahmin family. In front of the Red Fort is some waste land and as they walked past the English friend asked who the people were who were camped on the land. He realized they were Dalits, or untouchables, but wanted to know if they lived there permanently, or were visiting the city for a festival, or were migrants. His Brahmin friend, who he thought he knew so well from their years together in university, looked at the small encampment and simply said, “I don’t see anyone” and walked on.
And this is true of all the cultures of the world. Those without status are invisible to the powerful. And it is equally true of their gods. And this is why for Hagar, of even greater significance than the fact that God will multiply her descendants so that they will be too many to count,” is the fact that this God who found her is a God who sees people who are invisible to the gods of this world: the desperate, the poor, the marginal, the slaves, the outcasts, and the runaways. And it is into this context that we have the first mention of the Angel of the Lord in scripture.
Yahweh manifests himself as the gardener, the potter, the midwife, the craftsman, the matchmaker, the tailor, the exile, and then as the Angel of the Lord. As the one who goes out into the desert to find an Egyptian slave girl who has lost all hope and is without a friend in the world.
The study of scripture should lead us to worship, and to worship is not hard when we cut away our preconceptions and see the Yahweh Elohim of Genesis for who he truly is. And who he truly is begins to look very much like the Word who became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.