The High Holidays are upon us, and my upcoming posts will be dedicated to the Fall Feasts. This month, however, I can still indulge myself with my favourite topic: showing my readers the hidden gems of the Hebrew Scriptures, the amazing things that are lost in translation. Last time we spoke about Jacob; and I was planning to write about Joseph this time, but Joseph’s saga requires at least two posts, so I will leave that until after the Holidays. Today, we will speak about one of the most overlooked chapters in the book of Genesis – Chapter 16.
This is the chapter when Sarah’s Egyptian slave Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s child; Sarah started to “afflict” her and Hagar decided to flee from her mistress. She fled to the wilderness. At first, she was completely alone, then suddenly somebody was walking and talking with her. Meeting someone in the desert was unusual enough, but the stranger’s very first words proved that this wasn’t an occasional meeting, and the speaker was not a random sojourner.
And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
When we read the Bible in English translation, the capital letters make it very easy; they show clearly when and where the Lord speaks. There are no capital letters in Hebrew, so we need to recognize and distinguish God’s voice by what He is saying, not by capital letters. Our actual lives are much closer to the Hebrew text: There are no capital letters here; we need to recognize God’s voice or God’s actions without additional hints and tips. Hagar did recognize the speaker and therefore she told Him the plain truth: “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”
The Angel of the Lord said to her, “return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.” There is some amazing wordplay here that is completely lost in translation. In Hebrew, the verb translated “submit” comes from the same root as the word “afflicted” in verse 6: Sarai afflicted her. In English, it is impossible to form both of these words from one root, but in Hebrew, it is the same root, though in different forms: active and passive. This makes the original meaning even stronger, as if the Lord is saying to Hagar: “Return to your mistress and be afflicted.”
Please take a moment to think of this response. Imagine yourself in the midst of very trying circumstances and then all of a sudden, you receive an epiphany: You meet the One who can actually do anything, can change everything. Wouldn’t you expect Him to help you to change your circumstances? Hagar didn’t ask for this meeting and didn’t seek it; since it did happen, however, couldn’t He at least have helped her a bit? Why does He send her back to the very affliction she is fleeing from? He didn’t promise any good changes; He didn’t say that Sarah would be more merciful and compassionate, or that Hagar’s life would become much easier. He didn’t say any of that. He just said: “Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.”
When we study this Hebrew root (‘anah – ענה ) in Scripture, the first impression is that the word is always used in a negative sense, designating only bad actions:
And when Shechem the son of Hamor . . . saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.
Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them.
Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.
And yet, it goes without saying that if the Angel of the Lord used this very word in His command to Hagar, it cannot always be negative. Indeed, we find very different occurrences of the same word referring to God’s deeds:
“And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you… that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”
From this Scripture we see that if and when God is the One who is causing the affliction, the purpose of His action is “to humble and test“. Thus, it was not about Hagar and Sarah, or what Sarah was doing to Hagar—it was about God and Hagar and what God was doing within Hagar through Sarah. God commanded Hagar to return to her mistress and submit under her hand because He wanted to humble and test her! Thanks to this Hebrew word, we now understand that the Lord Himself is dealing with Hagar’s heart, and it is not under Sarah’s hand that she must submit – it is under the Lord’s hand!
You might remember that later on, Hagar had the second epiphany. The Angel of God spoke to her in the wilderness for a second time when she was with Ishmael. And while we learn much about her when comparing those two scenes, the greatest blessing for me personally comes in seeing how God touched and changed her life in two completely different ways. He knew that the girl in Genesis 16, more than anything else, needed a change of heart. Certainly, she thought her circumstances were very difficult, and they were. Certainly, she thought she was going through terrible hardship, and she was. However, more than anything else she needed to be changed from within, and God knew it! The storms and endless torment of her soul, the love and the hatred, the accusations and the guilt, the bitterness and the pity, all intertwined and twisted, caused her constant pain, so more than anything else she needed peace in her heart! Therefore, when the Angel appeared before Hagar in Genesis 16, God gave her this peace. He changed her heart, but He didn’t change her circumstances. Moreover, He sent her back to her “cruel and unjust” mistress (or so Sarah seemed to her at the time!) and to the very same circumstances, knowing that her transformed heart would allow her to endure peacefully the same affliction that she had run from. He didn’t change her circumstances – but He changed her heart!
Back or After?
Hagar returns, however, before she turns back she does something absolutely unique, something no-one else in the Bible does—she gives the Lord a name! We do have several examples in Scripture where a place was named according to what God did there:
So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide.
And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-Lord-Is-My-Banner.
Hagar, however, doesn’t just name a place. She does something altogether different from what Abraham or Moses did: She gives the name not only to the place (the place gets the name as well: Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi), but to the Lord Himself, and this is absolutely unique in all Scripture:
Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?”
English translations attempt to present as comprehensible the original Hebrew sentence, which is highly enigmatic and incomprehensible. If we translate it literally, Hagar is asking: “Here (or until here) have I also seen the back of the One who sees me?” This strange original expression would literally mean: ‘I saw after the one who sees me,’ or ‘I saw the back of the one who sees me’.
This “after” or “back” part is omitted altogether in most English translations and that is completely understandable, since the exact meaning of this word is not clear. And even though it may seem to you of little significance exactly what Hagar says here in Hebrew – surprisingly, it might shed light on another Biblical story that you would all know quite well!
In a very famous scene from Exodus 33, when Moses asks God to show him His glory, God answers:
But He said, “You cannot see My face; for no man shall see Me, and live.” And the Lord said, “Here is a place by Me, and you shall stand on the rock. So it shall be, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by. Then I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”
Translated, these texts sound very different, and a reader would not see any connection. But in the Hebrew text we discover that amazingly, God says the same word that Hagar said in Genesis 16! Yes, the Hebrew here uses the same word that Hagar used. True, when we are reading it in our modern Tanach, even in Hebrew, the accents (vowels) are inserted and they make two different words from the same Hebrew letters: the same consonants are read as “my back” in Moses’ case and as “after” in the case of Hagar. However, the original text contained no vowels, so I do believe that Hagar is trying to express the same experience that Moses later had! We have to admit that we don’t know what God meant by saying: “You shall see My back.” We have no idea whatsoever what God’s back might be However, if it is the same word that Hagar used, maybe God’s words to Moses also should be understood as: “you shall see after me”. And the meaning, in this case, would be much clearer: even though no-one can adequately describe what is happening in a heart during an encounter with God, because God alone knows the deepest secrets and wounds of the heart – yet we all know how everything is changed in one’s heart and life after an encounter with God! In both cases, with Moses and Hagar, things changed dramatically after the epiphany – and maybe, that is what God is saying to Moses: “It’s not the Divine Encounter that reveals My glory – because a man doesn’t get to see My glory here on earth – but the consequences of My intervention, the transformation after the Encounter, will reveal My glory!”
Much, much more can be said about Hagar, as well as about Abraham and Sarah in this complex story, but due to the limitations of the current format (blog post), I have to omit here many fascinating details and Hebrew insights. If you are interested to learn more, I invite you to read my book “Abraham had two sons”, you can get the book here.
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion) classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .