El Roi, The God Who Sees Me

This post is part of a series about the names of God in the Bible. This series is based off of the study that took place in our Ladies’ Bible Class. You can watch those sessions online at WestsideLife.org/media. Just look for the “Name Above All Names” media series.

“When we feel most invisible and forgotten by everyone else, we can remember that God does see us. He witnesses our struggles and comes alongside us. After all, if he sees the sparrows and takes care of them (Matthew 6:26), how much more does he care for us in our greatest time of need?” Hope Bolinger, BibleStudyTools.org

El-Roi, The God Who Sees Me 

Today we focus on a name of God that is used only once in the entire Bible: El Roi—the God Who Sees Me.

  • El—The generic name for God
  • Roi—From the verb to see, to notice, to pay attention to.
  • Main Passage: Genesis 16 (Hagar)
What Was This Story About?

El-Roi is the name given to God by Hagar, Sarah’s servant who became pregnant with Abraham’s first son Ishmael. After initially supporting this plan, Sarah eventually came to despise Hagar and mistreated her so severely that Hagar felt compelled to run away. While she was wandering in the inhospitable desert, the Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar to bless her (and her future child) before telling her to return home to Abraham and Sarah.

Because Hagar felt seen, noticed, and cared for by God, she gave God a new name: El-Roi, the God Who Sees Me.

Desperate Times Call for Desperate Measures (Genesis 16:1-6)

At this point in the story, it’s been ten years since God appeared to Abraham and promised that he would be the father of a great nation (Genesis 12). During that time, a whole lot of nothing has happened in the baby department. They still do not have children, and Sarah seems to doubt that God will actually fulfill his promise.

Sarah would have felt an immense amount of pressure in this situation. According to Old Testament scholar Dennis Prager, infertility would have been cause for divorce in most Ancient Near East cultures (like the one of the Patriarchs in Genesis). In fact, divorce was so common in this situation that Prager commends Abraham for sticking with Sarah as long as he did.

So, after waiting a decade for God to fulfill his promise with no sign of progress, and struggling with that underlying fear of being cast off due to her infertility, Sarah proposes a solution that seems altogether scandalous to modern readers: Why don’t you make a baby with my servant?

Culturally, this was more common than you’d think. Historical records from nearby cultures show us that infertile wives would frequently offer a concubine to their husbands. Whatever children they had together would be considered the biological children of the original husband and wife. 

Because of that, Walter Bruggemann writes “No moral judgment need be rendered against the alternative device for securing a son, as this may be attested as a proper legal practice elsewhere in the biblical period.” It was perfectly normal and legal for this arrangement to be made in Abraham and Sarah’s day.

Of course, the fact that something is legal or accepted by society doesn’t mean it’s morally right. Theologically, this plan indicates that Abraham and Sarah struggled to put their full faith and trust in the promises of God. Because they did not see God acting in the timeframe that they thought necessary, they took their own initiative to have a son outside of the plan God had made.

And going around God to try and do things on your own rarely works out well for everyone involved.

Hagar Despises Sarai

After getting pregnant with Abraham’s child, the dynamic among Abraham, Hagar and Sarah takes a big turn for the worse. Culturally, Hagar’s status would be elevated because of her ability to give Abraham a child. In other ancient cultures, a slave who produced a child was often valued higher than a wife who was barren. 

Sarah feels this shift in the relationship. She complains that she is now despised in Hagar’s eyes and blames this evil (literally violence or maliciousness) all on Abraham. To be fair, Abraham was responsible for getting Hagar pregnant, but the entire idea was Sarah’s, not his. Nevertheless, she complains to Abraham about the situation. Abraham does not make any sort of concrete decision about what to do (how would a husband choose between his angry wife and the mother of his only child?), but instead reminds Sarah that it’s ultimately her decision and told her to “do what is good in her eyes.”

Sarah Oppresses Hagar

Sarah did not make a very gracious decision. The Bible describes her treatment of Hagar as a form of oppression that was so serve, Hagar felt compelled to run away from Abraham and Sarah. 

Abraham and Sarah are heroes of the faith, but they’re far from perfect. Jewish Rabbis throughout the centuries have concluded that Sarah sinned in her treatment of Hagar and Abraham sinned by allowing it to take place.

When the Bible says that Sarah oppressed Hagar (an Egyptian), it’s the same word (Hebrew anah) that is used to describe Israel’s slavery in Egypt (Genesis 15:3 and Exodus 1:11-12). If you’ll stop and imagine the severity of Israel’s oppression at the hands of the Egyptians, that’s the same way the Bible describes Sarah’s mistreatment of Hagar.

Obviously these situations are not morally equivalent (the mistreatment of one woman versus the enslavement of an entire people), but I think the connection is striking. Before the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites (Exodus), an Israelite oppressed an Egyptian (Sarah and Hagar). 

Hagar Flees to the Desert (16:7-12) 

Hagar eventually ran away from Abraham and Sarah in order to escape Sarah’s abuse. Her long-term prospects were very poor. Without the stability and support of someone like Abraham (who was likely rather wealthy), Hagar would struggle to survive on her own.

Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar while she was resting near a desert spring. The angel asked her where she was from and where she was going, even though God already knew the answers to those questions. Hagar answers anyway, explaining that she was fleeing Sarah’s abuse.

Surprisingly, the angel tells Hagar to return to her “boss” (or mistress) Sarah, despite her mistreatment. And in that statement there is a play on words that gets lost in translation.

Sarah was oppressing Hagar back home, which is why Hagar fled. As we mentioned earlier, the word for this oppression is anah. It conveys the ideas of forcing someone down or pushing them to the ground.

The angel tells Hagar to return home and submit to Sarah. As it turns out, that’s the same word anah. Except in this sense, it’s when a person voluntarily lowers themselves a sign of humility and submission. The angel is asking Hagar to willingly lower herself (anah) before the woman who was forcing her down (anah).

Return and submit to the woman who made my life miserable? Are you kidding me? Do you think you Would you be willing to follow those instructions?

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” —Matthew 5:38-39 (NIV)

In Jesus’ sermon on the mount, he teaches us to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile. Hagar’s decision to listen to the Angel of the Lord and return home to Abraham and Sarah might be one of the best examples of that in the Bible.

The Angel Blesses Hagar

The Angel’s message wasn’t all bad news, however. He did have something positive to offer—namely, a blessing for Hagar and her unborn son.First, the angel promises to greatly increase Hagar’s descendants, using the same language of “increase and multiply” from the creation story and the story of Noah’s family repopulating the earth. The language about descendants being too numerous to count is reminiscent of God’s promises to Abraham about his future family too (see Genesis 15:3).

In other words—and don’t miss the significance of this—this pregnant, exiled, Egyptian slave is given the some of the same blessings and reassurance that God gave to some of the most celebrated heroes of the faith. God has a chosen people (Israel), but he frequently pours out his grace and blessings on outsiders like Hagar. Perhaps we should keep that in mind!

Call Him Ishmael.

“You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.”

The Angel instructs Hagar to name her child Ishmael, which comes from the name El (God) and the verb Shama, to hear. The meaning of this name is therefore God hears—an appropriate name since God heard about Hagar’s struggles. 

There is so much hope and encouragement in the name Ishmael. Maybe we feel like our problems are too small for God to care about. Or maybe, on the opposite end of the spectrum, our challenges are so overwhelming that we think there’s nothing God can do to help us. 

The name Ishmael reminds us that God knows us, hears about us, and is deeply concerned about the difficulties we are facing. When Israel cried out to God about their slavery in Egypt, God listened and knew it was time to act (Exodus 2:23-25).

When no one else seems to care, God listens to every cry of our weary hearts. 

El-Roi, The God Who Sees Me.

After hearing this blessing and promise from the angel, Hagar gives God a new name. Victor Hamilton has pointed out that Hagar is the only person in the Old Testament to have the audacity to give God a new name. Others frequently give names to family members, holy places, or animals—but Hagar is alone in giving God himself a new name: El-Roi, the God Who Sees Me.

Hagar was alone, tired, and hopelessly scared about her future. Cut off from the only source of stability and support she knew, she was left to wander alone in the desert.

It was at this rock-bottom moment that God heard about Hagar’s misery and saw the challenges she was navigating. She was so moved that God would notice her, an undeserving outsider, that she gave God a new name.