YHWH planned to restore the blessing of his reign to the nations by creating his own nation through Abram and Sarai. But Hagar did not see God in their household: what she saw was the abuse of power that is so typical of humanity in rebellion. How will the nations ever see God when his people are so unloving?
YHWH sent his messenger to care for Hagar, giving her direction and hope. Hagar was astounded that YHWH would notice her. A mistreated runaway Egyptian slave, she feels like a nobody who belongs nowhere. And yet, YHWH sends a messenger to care for her.
Hagar doesn’t know who this God is, so she does something you never see in the Biblical narrative: she makes up her own name for God:
Genesis 16:13 (ESV)
So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”
Normally God reveals his name to his covenant people. Just four verses after this (17:1), God reveals his name to Abram as part of the patriarchal covenant. At Sinai, God reveals his name to Moses as part of the Sinai covenant. But Hagar was not part of the covenant people. She features only three times in the Old Testament, and every time she’s introduced as “Hagar the Egyptian” (16:3; 21:9; 25:12). She’s a foreigner.
That makes Hagar’s case extremely interesting. The Jewish people know God by his covenant name, but that name was not given to the gentiles. Does that mean that gentiles cannot know God, since they don’t know his name?
The case of Hagar suggests that YHWH can and does reveal himself to foreigners who do not know his name. Their knowledge of him will be imperfect, and they may know him by strange names—not the ones revealed by God. Even though their encounter is incomplete, it can be genuine: they have begun to see the God who sees them. Do you know seekers who have a very different understanding of God to you?
Theologians argue over the fate of the unevangelized. We’d probably be wiser to leave that question in God’s hands, since he never asked us to judge anyone, let alone those who’ve never heard of Jesus. But do you think the case of Hagar might have something to say about those who’ve never heard the name?
We’re way too quick to judge who’s in and who’s out. People might invent their own names for God, and have a rather limited understanding. But rather than ruling people out if they’re not like us—not using the same words as us—we should seek to find common ground with them, to tap into whatever awareness of God is there in their hearts.
Remember Melchizedek the Canaanite? Wasn’t that how Abram responded to him?
Our sovereign is at work beyond what we see. Look for him. Do you see the God who sees us?
What others are saying
Victor Harold Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Genesis 16:13:
The text identifies the deity as the Lord (Yahweh) but gives no indication that Hagar knew it was Yahweh. This is the only example in the Old Testament of someone assigning a name to deity. Usually naming someone or something is a way of affirming authority over the one named. Here it is more likely that since she does not know the name of the deity that has shown her favor, she assigns a name to him as an identification of his nature and so that she might invoke him in the future.
Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 121:
Hagar gives expression to her personal discovery by designating God after the particular aspect of His providence that she has experienced.
El-roi The vocalization of the second element occasions a marvelous ambiguity that permits the following translations of the name: “God of seeing,” that is, the all-seeing God; “God of my seeing,” that is, whom I have seen; “God who sees me.” Most likely, the several meanings are intended to be apprehended simultaneously. When God “sees,” it is, of course, that He shows His concern and extends His protection; when Hagar “sees,” she experiences God’s self-manifestation.
Read Read Genesis 16:13-16.