He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s slave woman, from where have you come, and where are you going?” And she said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” Genesis 16:8 NASB
From the presence – How easy it is to forget that Hebrew is concrete! Removing the physical element by translating according to our social expectations literally changes the feel of the statement. Hagar is not running away from the existence of Sarai, nor from her attendance or demeanor or deportment. Literally, she is running away from Sarai’s face! The Hebrew couldn’t be clearer. If the writer wanted to say “the presence of” he could have used the Hebrew lipnê, but he doesn’t. Instead, he uses the preposition min (from, out of) and the noun peney (from pānîm—face). That little change obscures our recognition of the broken personal relationship. It is a wound to the face-to-face interaction between these women (and over a man, no less). But it also disguises another Hebrew connection. You see, the root pānâ also means “to turn.” This is a very familiar Hebrew word, occurring more than two thousand times in the Tanakh. Pānîm is always plural (“faces”), a deep metaphysical expression of the multiplicity of our appearance. In this verse, the word helps us realize not only that Hagar flees one of the faces of her mistress, she is, at the same time, turning back to safety. We know this because she is on the road to Shur. This was a well-known road from Canaan to Egypt. She’s going home where people accept her and she’s safe.
Finally, the verb she employs to describe her action, bāraḥ also has an umbrella of meanings. One is used in this translation but there are others, perhaps equally applicable. flee, run away, chase, drive away, put to flight. Notice that two of the possible meanings involve another person’s coercive behavior: drive away, put to flight. Hagar isn’t the only actress in this drama. Sarai is pushing her out. The verb includes choice and compulsion, and both are necessary if we are to understand the broken pānîm experience. The syntax tells us something as well. In Hebrew the word order is “from the face of Sarai my lady (queen) I am fleeing.” The important fact in the verse is not the action of escape. It is the face confrontation.
God (and angels) instruct Hagar to return and submit, but once again we find multiple layers in the text. The word is hit’anni but the root is ʿānâ, a very interesting word. There are three distinct roots with various meanings. The first means “to answer, to respond, to testify, to speak.” The second means “to be busy with, to be occupied.” And the third means “to afflict, oppress, humble.” Might we suggest that Hagar is responding, answering, and testifying to her lady in the affliction and humiliation? Oh, and just in case you might have missed it, “The primary meaning of ʿānâ III is ‘to force,’ or ‘to try to force submission,’ and ‘to punish or inflict pain upon,’” Once again, it is the personal interaction (or lack of) that is highlighted. God doesn’t overlook her pain. He uses it. He tells her to do what she can to mend the break even if that means submission to affliction. The heroine in this drama is Hagar who had every reason to leave and whose goal was to return to safety, just as we would have. But she didn’t. Why? Why submit to a cruel mistress? Because God told her.
Think about that. The God in question is the God of Abraham, not the God of an Egyptian. The God who tells her to return to a life of suffering (and eventually to an attempted execution) is a God whose vested interest is in her slave masters. She has every reason not to trust this God, but she does. She is the foil of Sarai, a woman who had every reason to trust but didn’t. Perhaps Hagar should be listed in the hall of fame of the faithful in Hebrews 11 rather than Sarai.
Topical Index: Hagar, peney, presence, face, bāraḥ, flee, force, hit’anni, ʿānâ, submission, Genesis 16:8