In the book of Genesis, Hagar is the maidservant of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. At a certain point she and Sarah have a falling out, and Sarah orders her to be banished ?— ?in fact, sent off into the bleak wilderness along with her young son Ishmael. This cruel decree is carried out, and poor Hagar wanders about with her son for a time. Eventually they run out of drinking water, and it seems they will both die of thirst. Hagar, despairing, leaves her son under one of the nearby bushes and sits down some distance away. “I don’t want to have to watch the boy die,” she says, and bursts into tears. But help is on the way:
God heard the boy’s cry, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid: God has heard the boy’s cry from where he is. Get up, pick up the boy and hold him tight in your arms, for I intend him to become a great nation.” And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, so she went and filled the water-skin with water and gave the boy to drink. (Gen 21:17–19)
This is one of those passages that biblical scholars call a “name etiology”:1 Ishmael’s name means “God hears,” or “May God hear,” so the passage suggests ?— ?not once but twice ?— ?that Ishmael was so named because God heard Ishmael’s cry. Beyond this, there is a larger, national issue lurking beneath the narrative. Ishmael’s descendants would indeed become a great nation, as later history was to show. This section of Genesis thus seeks to point out that, on the one hand, those Ishmaelites are actually the Israelites’ cousins, both peoples descended from Abraham; but on the other hand, it was equally important to assert that they were Israel’s inferiors, the descendants of a mere maidservant who had been unceremoniously booted out of Abraham’s camp.
Two Kinds of Seeing
For our subject, however, what is most important is the beginning of the last sentence, “God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Why should the narrative have said that God opened her eyes? Minutes earlier, she seemed to be wandering around in the wasteland with nothing to drink. Now an angel calls to Hagar from heaven and tells her that everything will be all right and that, in fact, God has destined her son for greatness. Then God Himself opens her eyes and she suddenly sees a well that will save her life along with that of her son. Why didn’t she see it before? Nothing in the text implies that she then had to dig the well, or that God led her to some previously hidden opening in the ground. Apparently the well was in plain sight all along. In fact, the text had earlier mentioned that Hagar put her son “under one of the bushes” because she couldn’t stand to witness his death. But didn’t she know that bushes, especially bushes in the scorched wilderness, must have some source of water to survive, and that such a source must therefore be somewhere very close by? If so, why did God have to open her eyes? And by the way, were they really closed?
The answer to all these questions has to do with the act of seeing itself. In numerous places in the Bible, the text seems to go out of its way to assert that there is a special kind of seeing associated with divine encounters. It is as if the normal faculty of sight is shut down, replaced by something else: at first, people think that their eyes are perceiving things, but this is just an optical illusion. That is why, in a divine vision, people often seem to be in some kind of fog (as Hagar apparently is here): the most obvious things seem to escape their attention. After a while, however, they catch on; suddenly they realize that this is a divine encounter, that their eyes are really not functioning normally, and what they think they are seeing they are not seeing at all. That is why God has to “open” Hagar’s eyes afterwards; He has to switch her vision from the special to the regular sort of seeing in order for her to perceive what was right in front of her all along.2
This special kind of seeing is often marked as such in the Bible. One day, sitting outside his tent, Abraham sees three men approaching. Notice, however, the Bible’s wording:
Now the Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre, while he was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. And he lifted up his eyes and hesaw, and behold! Three men were standing near him and he saw; and he ran from the tent door toward them and bowed down low.” (Gen 18:1–2)
The first sentence describes to the reader what really happened: the Lord appeared to Abraham. But that isn’t what Abraham saw, so the text stresses the fact that he was seeing in a different mode: “He lifted up his eyes and he saw, and behold!?.?.?. and hesaw?.?.?.”2 This vision carries on for a while: Abraham prepares an elaborate meal for his three guests, then watches them eat, or at least thinks that that is what he is seeing. (But every ancient Israelite knew that angels cannot eat.)3 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they ask ?— ?but how do these strangers know his wife’s name? The whole thing is like a dream, except that Abraham seems to be wide awake.
Then He said, “I will return in a year’s time, and your wife Sarah will have a son.” Sarah had been listening at the door of the tent, which was in back of him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, well advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods that women have. So Sarah laughed to herself: “After I am all worn out, will I still have relations ?— ?not to mention that my husband is old too!” Then the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Can I really give birth, old as I am?’ Is anything too much for the Lord? In a year’s time I will be back, and Sarah will have a son.” (Gen 18:10–14)
It is important to pay close attention to the words. This whole section is being told to us from the point of view of the narrative: the text is saying that this is really God speaking to Abraham. But Abraham and Sarah don’t know this; they are still in a fog ?— ?as they will be until the end.
Beyond this specific observation, what is remarkable about the whole incident is what it seems to be saying about human encounters with God. They do take place. A person could just be sitting in front of his tent on a hot afternoon, and suddenly God might appear to him. But the person could never really be sure of what he was seeing, because his eyes seemed to be telling him that this was just an ordinary human being.4 (One might say this was his brain’s way of representing to itself something that was not visual at all.) Then God begins to speak, and in the present example, even though Abraham doesn’t know it is God speaking, the words enter his mind, “I will return to you in a year’s time, and Sarah will have a son” (verse 14). The words turn out to be true: Sarah does indeed give birth to Isaac. But the accompanying visual part, the things that Abraham’s eyes had been seeing, remain a kind of waking dream. Even after those true words coming from God had been spoken, the waking dream can continue, as is it does in this case. The passage thu...