Genesis 16; Matthew 15; Nehemiah 5; Acts 15
IN ALL OF ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN LITERATURE, so far as I am aware, Hagar is the only woman whom Deity directly addresses by name (Gen. 16:8; 21:17). The woman in question is not one of the great matriarchs of the Old Testament — Sarah, perhaps, or Rachel, or Rebekah — but a slave who resents her mistress and flees. Yet God addresses her, tells her to submit to Sarai (16:9), promises that the child she is carrying in her womb will be a son, and later tells her that that son will be the progenitor of a great nation (21:18).
The account has many interwoven layers to think about. Placed after God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 15, this incident reflects well on neither Abram nor Sarai. Desperate for children, they think they have the right to bring God’s purposes — and their own desires! — to pass by legal but shady means. The result is not only tension in their household for years to come — tension that spills over into the next generation (Gen. 21, 25), but the beginnings of the Arab peoples, who frequently find themselves locked in hostility with Israel to this day. One of the great features of the Bible is its sheer honesty: great men and women are portrayed with all their warts. This remains a broken world, and the very best are fallen. This should warn us against untamed hero-worship.
Yet there is another connection with the previous chapters. God had promised Abram that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him (12:3). The election of Abram is a means to that end. However focused on Abram’s offspring his purposes will be, God remains the sovereign Lord of all. In the book of Genesis, the account of Abram is nestled into the broader account of the creation of all, and the Fall of all. And so here, at the very beginning of the history of the nation of Israel, God displays his concern for the despised and the outcast, people who are not organically connected with the promised line.
We may detect the same concern in the Lord Jesus. In Matthew 15:21-18, Jesus well knows that during the days of his flesh his mission is in the first instance directed to “the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24). There is a redemptive-historical primacy to the ancient covenant people of God. But this does not prevent him from acknowledging the remarkable faith of yet another woman, a Canaanite, who wisely changes her plea. She no longer addresses Christ as “Son of David” (15:22), on who she can make no direct claim, and simply pleads for mercy (15:27). Another “Hagar” finds that mercy abundant, as countless people do today.