My article for the March Crossways newsletter for St Paul’s Church Spennymoor and Whitworth Church.
‘You are the God who sees me.’
These words were spoken by Hagar, at the end of Genesis 16. Hagar lived in the enormous household of Abram and Sarai (later known as Abraham and Sarah). There were numerous ‘servants’ (or ‘slaves’) in their household – so many, in fact, that Abraham was able to muster an army of 318 trained men from among his ‘servants’ (Genesis 14:14-15)! We need to be careful not to make too many assumptions about what life was like for servants or slaves in that culture. It was simply normal for wealthy families to have large households with numerous servants or slaves. No doubt life was awful for many, but at least in a large household you had a measure of security, unlike those who had to fend for themselves. And some masters and mistresses were God-fearing people too. Perhaps it was like being part of a mining community? Mining families were utterly dependent on the pit owners, with no other options realistically open to them, but at least you had a steady income and a roof over your head. It was a tough life, but it was better than the alternative, as many discovered when the pits closed.
Hagar is described as Sarai’s ‘Egyptian slave’ (NIV) or as her ‘female Egyptian servant’ (ESV). Maybe she was one of the people given to Abram by Pharaoh himself (Genesis 12:16)? We’re not told about the colour of Hagar’s skin; it’s only much more recently that people started to think of their identity in terms of their skin colour. But she lived a long way from her home, and she certainly wasn’t ‘part of the family’.
Sadly, Genesis 16 is a story of Abram and Sarai behaving in a disgraceful manner, showing nothing of the faith for which they are commended elsewhere (Hebrews 11:8-19). Rather than trusting God’s promise of a son through Sarai, they took matters into their own hands, and Hagar was given to Abram in order to provide him with a son. Hagar became pregnant, and began to look with contempt on Sarai. Sarai grumbled to Abram about this, and Abram basically said it wasn’t his problem, and told Sarai to do whatever she wanted to Hagar. So Sarai treated Hagar badly, and Hagar ran away, still pregnant.
It was then that the angel of the Lord found her. Hagar was in the desert, near a spring, and the angel spoke tenderly to her, giving her words of comfort and reassurance, and telling her to go back to Sarai. Hagar in response called the Lord, ‘You are the God who sees me’.
Racial awareness (the topic of this year’s Lent Course) is all about ‘seeing’. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd in America in May last year, I have certainly had my eyes opened in all sorts of ways. Perhaps this has been most significant when I have heard people describing their experiences of living in the UK as members of a minority ethnic group.
I don’t think I had appreciated how common it is for people from ethnic minorities to be on the receiving end of racist behaviour. Whether it’s the casual remark that reminds you that you don’t fit in, or constantly being stopped and searched by the police (something that has never once happened to me), or the threat of physical violence, it seems that everyone whose story I have heard has a huge amount to say. Previously I might have assumed that, if I met someone from a minority ethnic group, they might perhaps have experienced a little bit of racism. But now my assumption is that they are very likely to have experience a lot of racism.
Hagar’s experience as an outsider is shared by many people today, and not only on the basis of ethnicity. There are all sorts of reasons why someone might feel they do not belong. And if you are reminded of that on a daily basis, it soon adds up.
The evangelist Roger Carswell often quotes a Scottish preacher, John Watson, who said, ‘Be kind; you do not know what battles people are fighting.’
‘The God who sees me’ sees each one of us (Psalm 139). He knows the ways in which we have been ill-treated by others, and made to feel like outsiders. But this same God sent not only his angel to Hagar, but also sent his Son into the world, to bring us back into his family, so that we can belong fully, not as slaves or servants, but as his own precious sons and daughters.
‘So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ (Galatians 3:26-29, NIV)