The more times I read Genesis 21, the more I’m thankful that God has opened my eyes to hope when I have tended toward despair. Through the story of Hagar, God is showing me He is the only one who can open my eyes to see His goodness when I am overwhelmed by circumstances that are out of my control.
Before digging into Genesis 21, it’s important to have some context. Fourteen years prior, back in Genesis 16, Sarah forced Hagar to sleep with Abraham so that she might “obtain children” through her servant, and as a result, Hagar bore Ishmael. We know there is tension between Sarah and Hagar after that, but what happens when we arrive in Genesis 21 seems abrupt. Hagar’s world gets turned upside down in a single moment after Sarah sees something she doesn’t like. After Sarah “saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian laughing” at her son, Isaac, Sarah demands Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” Immediately, they are exiled to the wilderness of Beersheba.
Genesis 21:15 further details their dire situation as they struggle to survive in the wilderness.
When the water in the skin was gone, she put the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot, for she said, ‘Let me not look on the death of my child.’ And she sat opposite of him and she lifted up her voice and wept.
Our narrator in Genesis paints a grim picture for Hagar’s and Ishmael’s future, and my heart aches for Hagar. I imagine what she has suffered. I’m betting she has been on the lookout for Ishmael’s safety ever since she stepped out of her home in the early morning darkness, days prior, with nothing but a loaf of bread and a skin of water. I imagine she has been prioritizing his water and food intake before her own every day of the journey. I’m thinking she is most likely sleep deprived, having spent many long nights “on the lookout” for whatever predators are lurking in Beersheba’s forested country. She must be worn thin with worry as she considers what lies ahead.
I have read this story over a hundred times in the last twelve months. When I began grieving my aunt’s death this summer and her brother’s death (my uncle passed a few months later), I found myself turning to this passage. Multiple times this fall, I found myself turning to this story when I felt helpless as I listened to friends and mothers across the country speak of the gut wrenching fear they feel when their black sons go out for the night with friends. Also, I turned to this narrative when I needed a quiet break from conversations with my own children as they processed the fear that their lives would “never be the same” as they were before COVID.
At first, I questioned — Do I keep coming back to this passage because it’s easy to find? I have marked up half of this chapter’s word in yellow highlighter, and my handwritten notes crowd the margins in blue and black ink. Also, I’ve boxed the following phrase with a thin blue Sharpie.: “Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:19). I remember marking it because it signaled the turning point in Hagar’s story.
Immediately after an angel of the Lord encourages Hagar, “fear not,” God opens her eyes to see something she could not only moments before — Water! When God reaches down with compassion to care for Hagar, she sees a well of water from which to draw life, for both she and her son. The moment God opens Hagar’s eyes, she is able to see beyond her own grief, helplessness, and confusion. When God opens her eyes, he opens her heart to hope.
So, while it helps that Genesis 21 is dogeared and easy to find, I’m realizing there is another significant reason I am drawn to read about Hagar as she pleads for help in the wilderness. As I attempt to look ahead with hope, I realize God has been leading me to this text to teach me about how to trust Him when I can not see a clear path ahead.
I sense that I am a great deal like Hagar — completely dependent on God to open my eyes to see His goodness right in front of me. I, too, need God to open my eyes if I’m going to see the hope He is placing at my feet.