Foreign Thing is the name given to Hagar when she enters the Hebrew Scriptures in Genesis 16. By then, she was already an enslaved person in Abram’s household.
It’s very likely that Hagar came to live with Abram and Sarai during their sojourn in Egypt. Depending on which translation of the Bible you are reading, she is described as Sarai’s handmaiden, servant, slave, maidservant, or maid.
Hagar labored in their household even to the point of bearing a child who would not be considered hers but theirs. Even her own body and her offspring are not considered her own. Although the practice of giving a servant to a husband to bear a child is unheard of in our context, it was legal and not uncommon in the ancient Near East.
But no sooner does Hagar become pregnant than her troubles worsen. The Scripture says she “disrespected” her mistress, so Sarai deals harshly with her; some theologians say Sarai oppresses her. A pregnant Hagar runs away to the desert, seeking her own liberation.
This is where her story takes an unexpected turn. Hagar becomes the first person in the Bible to receive an annunciation—an appearance, or special message, from God, and the first to give God a name. A messenger of God appears to her, urging her to return to her mistress and promising that she will bear many children.
She is instructed to give the child in her womb the name Ishmael, meaning “God hears” (Genesis 16:11). It is noteworthy that her annunciation is nearly identical to Mary’s in the Gospels. And when God’s messenger has finished speaking to Hagar, she responds, “You are El Roi [the God who sees]” because, as verse 13 tells us, she said, “Can I still see after he saw me?”
Hagar had good reason for her surprise at having survived an encounter with God, writes theologian Megan McKenna. “Tradition said that if a person saw God, the person died from the encounter. And she gives God a name! The God of Vision—of far seeing, of the future, of knowing the present and taking note of her, just a maid, a pregnant slave, and an Egyptian, not even a Jew.”
As if that were not enough, Hagar meets God again in the desert, this time while fleeing Sarah’s mistreatment and eviction from the household. Fearing the likely death of her young son, Hagar can’t bear to watch him suffer. She places him under a bush and sits some distance away, crying out in grief and weeping.
But God heard the boy’s cries, and God’s messenger called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “Hagar! What’s wrong? Don’t be afraid. God has heard the boy’s cries over there. Get up, pick up the boy, and take him by the hand because I will make of him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well. She went over, filled the water flask, and gave the boy a drink. God remained with the boy; he grew up, lived in the desert, and became an expert archer. He lived in the Paran desert, and his mother found him an Egyptian wife.
God sees and responds to Hagar’s suffering a second time. She hears from God’s messenger that, although Sarah may have tossed her and her son out like garbage, God is determined not only to save their lives but to bless them. She will get to watch her boy grow up and will see him marry from among her own people, the Egyptians.
Unlike Sarah, who laughed at God’s promises, Hagar responds to God’s provision with open hands. She has a special understanding of God because God cared for her and Ishmael in the desert as a compassionate mother would have done. God cared for her deeply and tangibly regardless of the fact that she was an enslaved foreigner. And all this even though she did not bear the child of the promise to Abraham.
Tradition in Israel and in the Hebrew Scriptures is that there is no difference between God and messengers of God. God visits Hagar! Messengers of God sometimes appear to biblical characters—including, most famously, Mary, the mother of Jesus. But this messenger appears to an enslaved Egyptian girl, a “foreign thing” who belongs to Sarai to do with as she pleases, including mistreat or throw out.
Hagar in the desert reminds all of us that the Spirit can be found in the places we least expect: with the poor, the outcasts, the enslaved people, the domestic help, and the foreigners. God is present with anyone who is treated as a human resource instead of a human being. God shows up not just for the master and mistress of the house but for the undocumented maid forgotten in the kitchen.