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A Series of Firsts

Words by Ashley Kelly | Illustrations by Marie Warner Preston

In Genesis 16 we meet a new and important character in Abram's story: Hagar. When Abram and Sarai take matters into their own hands and attempt to fulfil God's promise of an heir by building a family through their maidservant, Hagar is thrust into the limelight, and through a series of 'firsts' in Scripture we learn much about the heart and character of God.

Do you ever get annoyed by the seemingly insignificant side stories included in movies and books? I prefer to stay with the action, to follow the main story. Over the years, however, I have learned that character development is an important part of storytelling, and side stories are used to give the audience glimpses into different aspects of the characters.

In the story of Genesis, we could easily read the portions of Scripture about Hagar and Ishmael as superfluous because, after all, they aren’t part of the new family God is establishing through Abram. Here’s the truth, however: Their side story is vital to our understanding of the whole. Through it we have the opportunity to learn more about the narrative's main character—not Hagar or Ishmael but God Himself.

The journey out into the wilderness with Hagar is worth the effort of trudging through the sand and sweating in the heat of the day. As we sit alongside her near the refreshing spring, watching what happens when the Angel of the Lord greets her, we find ourselves in awe of who our God is revealed to be. There are a few firsts that happen in this encounter between Hagar and the Angel of the Lord, and we learn something about God through each one of them.

First up: the Angel of the Lord. The first time this being appears to anyone in the Bible is right here with Hagar (Genesis 16:7). There are differing theories concerning who the Angel of the Lord is—an early appearance of Christ, a physical appearance of the Father, or, at the very least, a representative of God, acting in His full authority. Whichever theory we prefer, the reality is that he reveals God’s actions and words. In this appearance, the Angel of the Lord shows us that God comes near to us in our despair. He is a very real depiction of the often-quoted Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”

In the next first, God, through the Angel of the Lord, names someone before their birth. We have no record of this happening until this moment with Hagar in the wilderness. In her deepest struggle, God eases her pain by acknowledging her situation and using it as an opportunity to reveal more of Himself to her. “You shall name him Ishmael,” is the directive given to her (v.11), a name which literally means ‘God hears.’ This is to remind Hagar that He has heard her misery; He is aware of her pain. Every time the baby will cry, every time Hagar will comfort him, every time she will say his name—she will be reminded that God Almighty hears her. She will remember how God revealed Himself and comforted her in her despair.

Finally, for the first time, someone gives a name to God. It is clearly written that Hagar calls Him El Roi, “the God who sees me” (v.13). She has learned first-hand that God—the One so big and powerful He stands outside time—isn’t too big to notice her. He is a God who sees, a God who hears, and a God who comes near.

Hagar’s wilderness journey, a side story that could easily be breezed through in the larger narrative of Genesis, reveals to us precious insight into the character and heart of our God. In our deepest struggles and darkest times, we have a God who deeply, intimately cares about each of us, just as He did for Hagar.

What names of God are meaningful to you in this season and why? Take some time to thank Him for how He has already revealed Himself to you, and ask if there are new names that He wants you to know Him by.

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