For the estimated 14 million solo parents in the country, life is indeed challenging, especially if there is not much emotional and financial support from extended relatives. Aside from having to earn a living, becoming both mother and father to a child and navigating the difficult ages in their growing up years can be really stressful. Parenting in itself demands a lot from a person, but to do it alone in difficult circumstances seems hopeless. This is the story of an obscure character overshadowed by a famous couple in our biblical story today.
Hagar is an Egyptian slave owned by and a maid to the wealthy woman, Sarai (later renamed Sarah). Nothing is mentioned about her genealogy but many scholars believe she may have been acquired when Abram (later renamed Abraham) and Sarai were in Egypt. In the Near Eastern culture at that time, a childless husband with no heir is a serious matter, and a wife without a brood of children marks failure as a wife. So polygamy is practised to provide a solution, while rich wives resort to surrogate motherhood through their maids (Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary).
The scene in Genesis 16 opens with Sarai having no children. So she resorts to the customary solution – she gives Hagar to her husband to be his second wife to have a child by her. Hagar does not have a choice on the matter, and Abram (just like Adam) goes along with Sarai’s plan without any of them asking the Lord about the matter (a natural human tendency). When Hagar becomes pregnant, her social standing rises – from being a slave to a pregnant wife – which makes her feel superior enough to despise her mistress Sarai who is barren. Sarai blames Abram. Abram does not stand up for Hagar but lets Sarai do with her whatever she wanted. Sarai begins to mistreat Hagar who flees to escape the miserable situation.
In the desert, Hagar has an encounter she will never forget. An angel appears to her and asks her to return and be humbly subject to Sarai. She is given an assurance that her son, whom she is to name Ishmael (God hears) to remind her that God hears and pays attention to her affliction, will be so numerous and will be a strong nation to contend with. She trusts and obeys. We encounter Hagar again in Genesis 21:1-21 where Sarai already has the promised son Isaac, probably around 2-3 years old while Ishmael, Hagar’s son is already a teenager. This time, Sarah sees Ishmael mocking Isaac so she goes to Abram and asks him to to drive them out again. A sense of deja vu, Hagar again is in the wilderness, this time with her son. God hears the boy’s cry, thinking they would die in the desert. But an angel again appears to Hagar, and lets her see a well of water so they survive. The angel reassures her yet again that Ishmael will be a great nation, being Abram’s son. This time, they are not asked to return but to move on with their lives, and God is with them.
There are two dominant themes in this story of Hagar that can encourage solo parents. First, God sees Hagar (16:7-12). She may not know God that well, but she may have heard about God’s dealings with Abram and Sarai. God assures her that he heard her afflictions and saw her misery.
In both situations, God through the angel directs Hagar what to do. In the first, it is to return and not escape, as it might be her best means to survive and have Ishmael rather than in the desert where she could have died. In the second, she is not asked to return but is shown the means to survive and even thrive with God going with them and blessing them. When trials become too much, escape may seem to be the “easier option” but may not be the best. Seeking God in the midst of the trial offers direction and hope. In both times, Hagar just has to take God at his word and trust that indeed he has her best interest at heart even if it looks hopeless.
Second, Hagar sees God (16:13-16). She encounters God’s mercy and submits to Him. She names God, “El Roi” (“You are the God Who Sees Me”). It is in our desperate times when we call on God that we get to know and experience first hand his grace and enablement. So for the solo parent, let us look to God. We may not like the answer, but we can trust his heart to show us the way and to turn things for good, in his time.