The Original Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2: God Hears Hagar

The Original Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2: God Hears Hagar

Moira in handmaid's uniform, let them think they control you
Samira Wiley plays Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Part one of this character study showed how Sarai and Hagar mirror Serena and June in The Handmaid’s Tale. That post ended with Hagar running away from Sarai. Problem was she was running through a desert. Out there in the middle of nowhere, she finds a spring of water. I’m guessing not a moment too soon. And then she receives an unusual visitor.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

(Gen 16:7 NRS)

Who is the angel of the LORD? It appears a few times in the Bible. Sometimes when God wanted to appear to someone, the angel of the LORD showed up there instead. This Angel seems to be a divine figure who can stand in for God when God’s personal appearance would be impractical. Some Christian commentators believe it was a pre-Incarnate manifestation of Christ.

In the ancient world, people believed no mortal human could look on God’s face and live (v. 13; cf. Exo 33:20). It wouldn’t do if God wanted to give a message to someone, and they died the moment God appeared to them, would it? It seems, though, the Angel could speak to people face to face safely (cf. Gen 32:30; Jud 13:22). Are these direct encounters with God or with the angel of the LORD? Hard to know just from the text. But the Angel speaks to Hagar.

And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

(Gen 16:8-9)

I know what you’re thinking. This is not God endorsing slavery or Sarai’s harsh treatment. You’ll see that when we talk about the story in its context. Keep reading.

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

(16:10-12)

What are you thinking now? Gee, thanks God (for nothing). Again, context makes all the difference. There’s a reason God says this. Keep reading.

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

(16:13)

This goes back to what I said about the angel of the LORD earlier. She is surprised (shocked, probably) that she saw God and was still alive. She believes it was God, but we are told it was the angel of the LORD. Which was it? In scenes like this, the text is usually ambiguous about it, like when Jacob wrestled the Angel. Or was it God (Gen 32:30)?

{***SPOILER ALERT***}

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones tells his girlfriend to close her eyes and not look? While they kept their eyes closed, everyone else melted in the LORD’s presence like statues at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. How did he know anyone who looked at God would die? Because he went to Sunday School and remembered stories like this. My favorite line in the movie: “Didn’t you boys go to Sunday School?” {End Spoiler}

Who knows not to look?

Finally, we should notice that she gives God a name. I can’t think of anyone else in the Bible who both saw God and gave God a name. Jacob asked for God’s name, but the Angel would not give it to him (Gen 32:29). God’s name to the Jews was (and still is) too holy to speak, so this is remarkable. NRSV notes say El-roi means “God of seeing” or “God who sees.” Some translations say “the God who sees me” (see Translation Notes below, if you’re into dissecting Hebrew and Greek).

For Hagar, her reason for the name is that she “has seen God and remained alive.” That stresses her seeing God, so by that reckoning, we might translate it “the God who appeared to me.” In context, either meaning would fit. God has both “seen her” and “appeared to her,” and she lives. This is a God who subverts common expectations.

I like “God who sees (me),” because it pairs well with her son’s name, “God hears.” Putting seeing and hearing together also echoes what God said to Moses when God sent him to deliver the people of Israel:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed (or seen) the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”

(Exo 3:7-8a NRS)

God saw Hagar and heard her. God knew her sufferings and gave an answer to her cry.

Then the author tells us the name of the well where she saw God still bears the name of this encounter.

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

(Gen 16:14 NRS)

NRSV study notes say Beer-lahai-roi means “the well of the Living One who sees me.” Beer is not beer like we think of. It is the Hebrew word for well (sorry). The Living One was sometimes used to refer to God. In an earlier post, I discussed the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have their own son and name him Isaac. A little side note here: After Abraham dies, Isaac lives in Beer-lahai-roi for a time (Gen 25:11). Did he know the history it represented for Hagar and Ishmael?


There are still probably two big questions on your mind right now.

  1. Why did God tell Hagar, Return to your mistress and submit to her?
  2. Was verse 12 a blessing or a curse? This story is a perfect illustration of why it is so important to read the Bible in its original context.

Why did God tell Hagar to return to her mistress and submit to her?

Think about Hagar’s situation here. When the Angel asks her, Where are you coming from and where are you going, she has an answer for the first question (I am running away from my mistress) but not the second. This was obviously an impulsive decision. She had no plan for how to escape beyond running away. What are her options?

  • A. Try to survive alone in the wilderness while pregnant. And when the baby comes, give birth with no one to help her. Then try to figure a way to provide the needs of her and her baby out in a hot dry place with no food and no shelter, and predatory animals who would love to make a meal of them, if she has survived that long.
  • B. Return to her mistress and submit to her.

This was not a blanket approval of slavery. All the Angel is telling her is B is preferable to A. There, the basic needs for her and her baby—food, clothing, shelter, water, and safety from wild animals—will be met. If she is submissive toward Sarai, she will most likely be less harsh with her. This is a survival strategy, one which slaves throughout history adopted. But God/the Angel gives her a reason to survive. God has a destiny and a promise for the son she is carrying.

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. The same promise God gave to Abram’s seed, which he is, a son of Abram’s own issue. God gives him a name, and I talked in an earlier post about the significance of God naming someone.

You shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael in Hebrew comes from shema`, meaning “hear,” and ‘El, meaning “God.” So the name means, “God hears.” If she ever needs to be reminded that God hears her in her affliction, it’s right there in her son’s name.

Now we come to verse 12 and the second question from above.

Was verse 12 a blessing or a curse?

To review, verse 12 says, “He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

Ladies, how would you feel if God appeared to you while you were pregnant to tell you this? Would you wonder why God was punishing you? Before you judge, remember Hagar’s circumstances were very different from yours. How would she have heard this?

He shall be a wild ass of a man. He will be strong, independent, and able to survive in harsh conditions.

…with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him. He will bow down to no master. He will enjoy the freedom and autonomy she longs for.

…and he shall live at odds with all his kin. She might not like the idea of him being at odds with her, but who else are his kin? Abram. Sarai by law, though not by blood. Anyone related to Abram. She knows they will not fully accept him, so why shouldn’t his hand be against them?

Legally, he will belong to Sarai. But Hagar will always be his mother by blood. He will feel that tension along with her, and it will come back on Abram and Sarai’s heads. He will not be a compliant child like a “good slave” should. She will be there to teach him the destiny God has for him, and that destiny is freedom from anyone who would make him a slave. What better justice could she ask for?

Nolite te bastardes carborundum

I can picture the scene. Ishmael is a toddler. Hagar is playing Pattycake—or whatever games they played with little children back then. Sarai comes in and says, “I’ll take him now.” Ishmael lifts up his arms, and she picks him up. Abram tousles his hair affectionately. Sarai carries him out, saying, “What a sweet boy.”

And all the while, Hagar is thinking, “So, my master and mistress, you think he is the answer to your prayers. No, he is the answer to my prayers. You think he is sweet now? Just wait until he grows up,” and she laughs. “Just you wait.”


Do you see now what a difference reading in context makes? To our modern ears, the Angel’s words sound like a curse. But for a slave-girl like Hagar, in the land of Canaan somewhere around 2000 BC, these words were life.

The Angel gave her a strategy for survival—submit to her mistress. That would not be easy for her, but it would ensure both her survival and her son’s. And the Angel gave a promise worth living for—her son would be a free man. For the sake of that promise, she accepted slavery for herself.

Abraham was commended in Hebrews 11 “because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS). So did Hagar, which again tells me she should have been included in the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11.

Translation Notes (for Bible Geeks like me)

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13 NRS)

The translation of El-roi is uncertain in the Hebrew. WTM (The standard Hebrew text) includes a note that says ro’i is a noun (Masculine Singular Absolute) and can mean “appearance” or “appearing.” This might give the translation, “God who appears to me.” When Hagar comments she saw God and lived, that would point to God appearing to her rather than seeing her.

BDB (the standard Hebrew lexicon) says it generally means “looking, seeing, or sight.” It translates the name as “God who sees,” which would be appropriate, because God sees Hagar’s affliction.

However, KJV, NAS, and NIV translate it as “the God who sees me.” The entry for Job 7:8, same word and form, says it is a Verb, Qal Participle (Masculine Singular Construct), with a 1st person suffix, which would affirm that translation. It is also how the LXX (Septuagint) translates it.

 ὁ θεὸς ὁ ἐπιδών με  (Gen 16:13 BGT); ho theos ho epidon me.

ἐπιδών verb (participle aorist active nominative masculine singular) from ἐφοράω fix one’s glance upon, look at, concern oneself (with) Lk 1:25; Ac 4:29.* [pg 71]

The Septuagint adds the personal pronoun me, which shows they understood El-roi to mean “the God who looks at me,” or “the God who sees me.” We see another example in Job 7:8.

The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.

(Job 7:8 ESV).

Ro’i is translated him who sees me. So it appears we have either “God who appears to me,” or “God who sees me.” The verb could also be Past tense rather than present, so it could also mean “God who appeared to me,” or “God who saw me.”

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