Genesis 16 presents several images of God. One is that of Hagar, who calls God the one who sees her. The other is that of Sara, who speaks the following way about God: ‘The Lord has kept me from having children’ (v. 2) and ‘May the Lord judge between you [Abraham] and me (v.5).’
The contrast between the images of God held by Hagar and Sara continues in how each woman’s son is named. The name of Hagar’s son – Ishmael – means God hears, while the name of Sara’s son – Isaac – means laughter. In Genesis 16, God hears and responds to Hagar’s desires – seemingly without Hagar needing to tell God what they are. Sarah’s desires, however, are left unheard: God has kept her from having children. It is as if a cruel joke is being played on Sarah; her laughter (Gen 18:13) and that of Abraham (Gen 17:17) hopefully mark the beginning of their being able to see the good in God’s joke of giving them a son when it seemed impossible.
Hagar, who has been used and hurt by God’s people, is the one who has the understanding of God that we would want: God who sees us and whom we see; God who comes after us and finds us; God who gives us our desires before we even ask them. Yet, sometimes our experience of God does not look like that: as in Sara’s situation, sometimes God seems distant or present only through a lack of action. While the end of Sara’s story gives us hope, as does God’s reaching out to Hagar, this does not nullify the abuse and challenges Hagar faced nor the many years of difficult waiting that Sara faced (without any guarantee that God would ever hear).
Whatever image of God we have and whatever extent we feel seen and heard by God, we should be careful in how we judge another person’s image or experience of God. The story of Hagar and Sara shows a bit of the range of the experiences people can have with God and how this then complicates their relationship to and understanding of God.