The God who cannot walk away from an empty heart
Some passages in the Bible are downright ugly, for the simple reason that the Bible honestly reports the ugly consequences of human sin. Genesis 16 is one of those ugly passages—full of emotional abuse, sexual manipulation, physical abuse, and a prophetic warning of perennial ethnic strife.
God had promised to give Abram descendants, but Abram is old, and no children have arrived, so Abram complains to God (Genesis 15:2-3). God renews his promise to Abram, but still no children arrive. Abram’s impatience grows. Apparently, Abram complains to Sarai at least as much as he complains to God about it, and apparently he says to her the same thing he said to God, “You have given me no offspring!” Apparently, Abram nagged Sarai with reminders of the Babylonian law of the day, the Code of Hammurabi, which stipulated that an infertile wife should provide her husband with a surrogate child-bearer. Eventually Sarai gives in and says to Abram, “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her,” but it seems that she continues to resent the pressure Abram had put on her, for when the slave-girl becomes pregnant, Sarai says to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you!…. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
As far as the society of that day was concerned, Hagar was a person of virtually no value. She is used as a vessel through which Abram and Sarai can have their child. Through this arrangement Hagar does not replace Sarai as Abram’s wife; she doesn’t even become a second wife to Abram; she is simply a surrogate mother. According to the law of that day, Hagar does not even have claim to her own child. The law considered her baby the child of Abram and Sarai.
A young woman, whose blog site is titled “The Journal of My Insignificant Life,” writes, “If I don’t need love, why am I crying? If I don’t need love, why am I suffering? When I’m alone, I feel like dying. My soul is ripping, so heart-breaking. ‘Cause I dream of love, though I tried to hate it. Yes, I dream of love, and I know I’ll never find it.”
Those could have been Hagar’s words. By law, she is merely a surrogate child-bearer, but she longs for more. Society allows her to be used and abused, but she longs to be loved.
So she runs away. By the time we meet up with her by a spring in the wilderness (in Genesis 16:7), she is alone, impoverished, pregnant and miserable. As Ann Spangler points out in her devotional on Hagar, “There is almost no worse nightmare for a woman.”
But, in the midst of this ugly chapter, God shows up. Larry Crabb explains why: “It isn’t only nature that abhors a vacuum. God does too. But the vacuum he abhors is spiritual. He can see a dry riverbed and not fill it. But he cannot see an empty heart and walk away. His love won’t let him.” (The PAPA Prayer, p. 145)
The angel of God finds the runaway slave-girl and, with a play on words, asks her, “Hagar (which means “Flight”), from where are you fleeing? And to where are you flying?” As the conversation continues, the angel tells her to name her child Ishmael, explaining, “For the Lord has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael means, “God hears.” That child’s name would be a constant reminder to Hagar, and to everyone else, that God heard the groaning of Hagar’s heart, and that God cared for her. Hagar then gave to God the name El Roi, which means “God sees me.” It is actually the same word we find at the beginning of Psalm 23. There it is translated as “The Lord is my Shepherd,” but it is literally, “God is the One who watches over me.” And the well there becomes known as Beer-lahai-roi, which means, “The well of the Living One who sees me.”
In the midst of this ugly chapter, Hagar met the God who heard her angst and who saw her sorrow.
Jerry Sittser lost his wife, his mother, and his daughter when a drunk driver hit the family van he was driving. He writes about the grief and pain he endured in his book A Grace Disguised. He also describes how God found him even in his pain: “To our shock and bewilderment, we discover that there is a Being in the universe who, despite our brokenness and sin, loves us fiercely. In coming to the end of ourselves, we have come to the beginning of our true selves. We have found the One whose love gives shape to our being.” (p. 90)
Even in the midst of the greatest ugliness of life, there is a God who “cannot see an empty heart and walk away,” who hears our groans, and who takes notice of us in our sorrow.