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Naming God: Hearing Voices from the Margins (Pt 1)

Caring for People | Rebecca Walker | 25 November 2011
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Hagar’s Faith Story

Hagar’s story is a tragic one. She did not have much choice in many of the things that shaped her life. It was not her fault that Sarai could not conceive, and it was certainly not her fault that Sarai came up with the brilliant plan of giving Hagar to Abram in order to have a child. The culture was against Hagar in so many ways. She was in a position of servitude, and on top of that a wife giving her servant to her husband was common Ancient Near Eastern practise when a woman could not conceive. It was the equivalent practice to surrogacy or IVF today. In Genesis 16, Hagar runs away from Sarai because conflict arose between them when Hagar became pregnant.

This is where the story gets really interesting. Hagar was an Egyptian, she was not supposed to be a mother of Abram’s descendants. In God’s plan, she was not the one who would bear the child promised to Abram; Sarai was. The situation with Hagar was created by Abram and Sarai’s unbelief. So Hagar ran away when Sarai mistreated her. When she was sitting near a spring in the desert, God appeared to Hagar and told her to go back to Sarai, and that he would bless her and her offspring. God told Hagar to call her son Ishmael which means “God hears”. In response, Hagar named God El Roi—“the God who sees me” (Genesis 16:13).

Six chapters later in Genesis 22, Abram—now Abraham—has the same revelation about God that Hagar had. God told Abraham to take Isaac and offer him to God as a burnt offering. Abraham is faithful and goes to do what God told him. At the moment when he was about to sacrifice Isaac, God intervenes and provides a ram to be sacrificed instead. Abraham called that mountain Jehovah-Jireh, the Lord will provide.

If you dig down into the Hebrew the two names El Roi and Jehovah-Jireh come from the same word. The name El Roi (Strongs 7210), given to God by Hagar, comes from the Hebrew word raah (Strongs 7200) which is the same verb used in the name Jehovah Jireh given by Abraham to the place where God provided the ram for the sacrifice in place of Isaac. The same thing about God’s nature was revealed to both Hagar and Abraham, except that Hagar got there first because of the difficulties in her life brought upon her by other people’s choices. God had to construct a situation specifically to get Abraham to the same realisation about who God is.

People like Hagar in our world are similarly the objects of God’s love and attention. Jesus taught that his gospel is good news for the poor, and in the beatitudes he went out of his way to show how all the categories of the world are turned upside down by his kingdom. James 2:5 says, “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?”

Donald Kraybill writes, “The kingdom is full of surprises. Again and again in parable, sermon, and act Jesus startles us. Things in the Gospels are often upside down. Good Guys turn out to be Bad Guys. Those we expect to receive rewards get spankings. Those who think they are headed for heaven land in hell. Things are reversed. Paradox, irony, and surprise permeate the teachings of Jesus. They flip our expectations upside down. The least are the greatest. The immoral receive forgiveness and blessing. Adults become like children. The religious miss the heavenly banquet. The pious receive curses—shattering our assumptions. Things aren’t the way we expect them to be” (4).

To be faithful followers of Christ then is to align ourselves with those who are on the margins, those who are trampled by society. We are not just supposed to serve them, but to listen to them. If, as in Hagar’s case, they receive revelation about who God is before the rest of us, then if we want to know God there will be plenty that we can learn by listening to them. But sometimes we do not stop long enough to listen, because we have so much to say; we have preconceived notions about God that we feel the need to impress on others, and solutions to the problems we perceive that others have.


1. Johnson, Elizabeth A. She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York : The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992.

2. Budden, Chris. Following Jesus in Invaded Space: Doing Theology in Aboriginal Land. Cambridge : James Clarke & Co, 2009.

3. Sugirtharajah, R. S. Charting the Aftermath: A Review of Postcolonial Criticism. The Postcolonial Biblical Reader. Malden, Oxford, Carlton : Blackwell Publishing, 2006.

4. Kraybill, Donald B. The Upside-Down Kingdom Third Edition. Scottdale, PA : Herald Press, 2003.

Naming God: Hearing Voices from the Margins Series