We sometimes believe God would listen to us if we could just calm things down a little and finish up the dusting.
The patriarchal narratives of Genesis offer no support to such an idea. Hagar’s remarkable interaction with Abraham’s God is unruly from start to finish. Yet the son of this servant of Abraham’s wife Sarai is named to honor God’s listening skills and the place of Hagar’s encounter with him after his powers of observation.
Nothing about the story escapes the prevailing unruliness.
Hagar comes into the picture in the first place because of an untidy sexual arrangement. Unable to produce for her husband the desired son, Sarai encourages the old man to sleep with her servant so that through this negotiated settlement she might ‘build up’ a legacy. When Hagar does as required and conceives, Sarai makes her life miserable to the point that Hagar escapes into the threatening desert rather than endure her mistress’ hectoring. What is more, the ‘angel of the Lord’ meets her in her distress but then inexplicably orders her back to the environs in which her pregnancy and her persecution had originated. He also intimates the menace that her child will grow up to become.
And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin. (Genesis 16:11–12 NRSV)
Even the son she carries in her womb, though he be the scion of a great nation, will be a ‘wild ass of a man’ who makes violence his code of behavior.
Still, in spite of the fact that Hagar’s son’s life will constantly overflow the banks of propriety, he will be called Ishmael—’God listens’—to commemorate YHWH’s attentiveness to his mother in her straits.
Supplementing the point about interaction between God and a troubled human being that Ishmael’s name makes each time it is thoughtfully voiced, Hagar adds her own comment about heaven’s unexpected perceptiveness:
So she named the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’ (arguably, ‘the God who sees me’); for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered. (Genesis 16:13–14 NRSV)
So does the narrative that lays down the circumstances in which Abraham’s faith converges with heaven’s purpose to engender a chosen people occupy itself with divine attentiveness to those whose lives unfold somewhat on the margins of that celebrated project.
In a moment the patriarch-in-the-making will venture before his heavenly visitors as they journey on a collision course toward Sodom and Gomorrah a daring question: ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’
The vignette involving Hagar, more than a moment of narrative indiscipline, prepares the reader already to understand what ‘right’ must mean when the God of Abraham allows human beings a glimpse of himself. On the one hand, heaven’s attention will be drawn often and mercifully to the outcast. On the other, the God who belongs up there seems possessed of a singular focus that allows him to listen and to see when everything down here is noise, blood, and dead dreams.