The Art of Seeing
The art of seeing—and being seen is something our culture prizes. We direct our gaze to that which we find desirable, delicious, arousing but also unbelievable and repulsive. We are the Looking People, always reading, watching, observing, comparing, searching for the best view.
We’re a people who seek to be seen also. Despite critical tendencies and the litany of body-image complaints—our gyms, malls and homes are mirrored not to develop our humility—but self-admiration. Oh, this isn’t to say we’re content with all we see—we are practiced complainers, but still we look.
We are not only preoccupied by our physical image but also our histories, our possessions, even the accomplishments of those close to us. Look what I have. Look what I’ve done. See who I know. See me.
And we should see.
And we need to be seen.
But even seeing needs interpretation because vision problems abound.
Do you wear glasses or contact lenses? Most eyesight issues are refractive in nature. The human eye is designed to bend light, imprinting images on the retina for the brain to decode. But if the eye is bad and unable to bend light—vision is blurry, darkened. Corrective lenses bend the light instead, so vision is focused, illuminated. The Word of God does this too.
In Genesis 16 we learn of Hagar and her need to be seen. I imagine her as a young and radiant Egyptian beauty--mostly because she was Sarai’s first choice for her husband’s progeny. Hagar is seen by Sarai. “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. Genesis 16:2
Note how Sarai demands Abram see her affliction, “Behold!” she cries. And Abram looks but his gaze goes beyond his wife to the slave girl. And like Eve—mother of all, Abram sees that Hagar is good and a delight to the eyes and he desired a child which it seemed only she could provide. And he listened to the voice of his wife and knew another woman.
Now Hagar is seen and known intimately by her master. And she conceives, feels special and does a little looking of her own. “And when (Hagar) saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt upon her mistress.” Genesis 16:4
Newly pregnant and enjoying fresh honor the slave girl attempts to invert the hierarchy by throwing shade on her older, barren mistress. Oh no, says Sarai and she makes the girl's life hellish. Scripture says Sarai dealt “harshly with her” and it was so bad Hagar ran to the wilderness to escape. She had been seen by man and it went badly, now Hagar just wanted to be invisible.
There’s at least three lessons here:
Graciously and maybe ironically, it is Abram’s God who finds the discarded woman. We learn in Genesis 16:7 “The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.”
Where have you come from Hagar and where are you going? She tells him. Return and submit to your mistress. You are pregnant with a son—call him Ishmael. He’ll be wild, but I have plans for him and you too.
The wonder is too great to contain. Yes, she’s told to return to Sarai and yes, her son will be handful, but God saw her, saw her and that takes precedence overall.
She called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing. Truly I have seen him who looks after me.” Genesis 16:13
El Roi. The God who sees.
More than a decade later Hagar is celebrating with her master and mistress at Ishmael’s brother’s weaning feast. It’s a happy and heady time. God has made a covenant with the Abrams and changed their names. They’ve sustained and added to their great wealth. And now, a baby son. Isaac. The child of promise. The son of the free woman. And in this celebratory season Hagar makes a crucial error. She laughs.
Infuriated—by what I imagine felt like an intrusion on her family’s moment—Sarah cannot bear to see the slave girl any longer. Cast her out, she demands. And like so many family get-togethers, the feast ends sorrowfully.
Abraham, brokenhearted yet obedient to his God and his wife, bids farewell to Hagar and his first-born son. Trusting El Roi really is the God who sees, he turns his back on his son and the boy’s mother and returns to camp.
Whatever future conflicts were birthed by the Abrams foolhardy plan to assist God (by sinning!) I am grateful that through this experience, Hagar gave us El Roi. Acknowledging God or “the name of God” (addressing the fullness of his attributes) is good and proper but calling him by specific names that correspond to precise attributes is ever so helpful in understanding God's heart toward us. In Genesis, facets of His holy character are progressively revealed.
He is ELOHIM the Creator, strong and mighty. Genesis 17:7
He is YAHWEH-JIREH, the LORD who provides. Genesis 22:14
He is EL ROI, the God who sees. Genesis 16:13
After Abraham's departure and a period of wandering, Hagar comes to the end of herself in the wilderness of Beersheba. Her beloved son isn’t in her womb this time and if she was unsure how to provide for him before, she’s at a loss now. After her meager supplies have been exhausted, the dutiful mom places her son in a shady spot and walks a bow-shot distance away--convinced his death is imminent. We learn that she lifted her voice and wept. Her son must have called to her--Mama what’s wrong? What have I done? What can I do? because God responded to the pleas of the child.
And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation. Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Genesis 21:17-19
The God of seeing helps Hagar see a well that was there all along. We know from her mother’s heart that though she was weary from thirst, hunger and anguish, her only hope was for her son. She feared she would see his death instead God allowed her to see how to sustain his life.
In the same way, the God of seeing enables us to see well. We have been seen by God—so we can see others. To find the emotional, physical, financial and spiritual wells that will bring refreshment to parched souls.
We seek to be seen and we ought to see the world--its beauty and depravity, but not merely with eyes that scan the surface, judging others on the basis of competencies and frailties. We need light to bend, penetrate the surface and reveal the subterranean needs of the soul.
We can take confidence that EL Roi is the God who sees us too--even if no one else does. And there's more! The prophet Zephaniah tells us that when Christ is in our midst, God rejoices over us with gladness and quiets us with his love. Zephaniah 3:17
We don't need to to constantly earn, prove or show our value because the psalmist tells us that greatness, like good eyesight, is a gift from the Gentle One.
You have given me the shield of your salvation and your right hand supported me and your gentleness made me great." Psalm 18:35
May we all be made great by the gentleness of our seeing God and seek to see each other well also.
"Lay aside every weight and the sin that so easily entangles and run with endurance the race set before you. "