The story of Hagar is closely bound up with Sarah' story, but is important in its own right because it tells of a woman's courage and endurance. It is also significant because it explains the ancestral background of the Arab peoples, who are called Ishmaelites in the Bible.
The story contains two central episodes: 1 The conception and birth of Hagar's son Ishmael (Genesis 16:1-16). Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarah, was made pregnant by Abraham, the husband of Sarah. While she was pregnant, God promised that her child would be the ancestor of a great nation.
2 The expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 21:1-21). Hagar and Sarah quarreled, and eventually Hagar and her son Ishmael left the Hebrews.
Hagar represents women in the Bible who are excluded or despised by the people around them. This might happen because they are
childless, in a society that valued mothers (Sarah)
a slave in a hierarchical society (Hagar)
pregnant and unmarried in a society that valued virginity in unmarried girls (a later example is Mary of Nazareth)
Hagar: victim? or upwardly mobile?
Read Genesis 16:1-16
1 Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid (not necessarily a slave. Cp. 1 Sam. 25:41), an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. (Hagar = flight. See v. 3.)
2 And Sarai said to Abram, "Behold now, the LORD has restrained me from bearing: I pray you, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her." And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
3 And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan (these 10 years to be taken into account in any calculations), and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife. (This was strictly in accordance with the enactment of Khammurabi [‡ 146] which Abram had brought from Ur.)
4 And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.
5 And Sarai said to Abram, "My wrong be upon you: I have given my maid into your bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD (Yahaveh) judge between me and her."
6 But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your hand; do to her as it pleases you." And when Sarai dealt hardly with her (Heb. afflicted her. The Code of Khammurabi [‡ 119] forbade her being sold. Sarah could only lay tasks on her), she fled from her face.
7 And the angel of the LORD (1st occ. = messenger = 2nd Person, as being sent. Elohim = as being being commissioned by oath) found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur. (Shur = wall. The nearest way to her native land. Shur was the name of the great fortified wall shutting Egypt from Palestine.)
8 And he said, "Hagar, Sarai's maid, from what place came you? and where will you go?" And she said, "I flee from the presence of my mistress Sarai."
9 And the angel of the LORD said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hands."
10 And the angel of the LORD said to her, "I will multiply your seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude."
11 And the angel of the LORD said to her, "Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Ishmael (= who God hears); because the LORD has heard your affliction.
12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him (true today and for over 3,000 years. Cp. 21:29. Isa. 21:13. Jer. 3:2. Ezra 8:31. Ps. 10:8,9); and he shall dwell in the face (i.e. on the face of the same country) of all his brethren." (Esp. with the Midianites [37:28], Midian being his half-brother, by Keturah [cp. Judg. 8:22,24]. Cp. the fulfillment in 25:18.)
13 And she called the name of the LORD that spoke to her, You GOD (El) see me: for she said, "Do I see, here, even after the Vision?" (I.e. "Do I live, after seeing God?")
14 Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi (= the well of living after seeing); behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.
15 And Hagar bare Abram a son (through infirmity of Sarah's faith. So the Law [parenthetically] "because of transgression" [Gal. 3:19]. Levitical law given, as Ismael was, until Christ the anti-type of Isaac should be born [Gal. 4:1-5, 19,31]): and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.
16 And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.
Here's something to do: Tell the story from the point of view of each character, one at a time. You'll see how rich, how complex the story is.
The story of Hagar took place during the late Bronze Age between 2000 and 1550BC, corresponding to the Middle Kingdom period in Egyptian history.
Hagar was an Egyptian girl who was in the household of Sarah, a Hebrew princess. Sarah may have acquired Hagar as part of the generous bride-price paid to her husband Abraham by Pharaoh in Egypt (this story is in Genesis 12:10-20).
It was an accepted practice at the time to give servants and slaves as part of the dowry of a wealthy young woman. If Hagar was a gift from Pharaoh, she was probably an accomplished servant with valuable skills. Becoming the servant of a nomadic tribeswoman may have been a step down socially for her.
You might take a look at Egyptian love poems in Women in the Bible: the story of Potiphar's Wife: it will give you some idea of the comparative sophistication of the Egyptians.
Hagar was always disadvantaged among the Hebrew women because she was a foreigner. This was ironic, since she came from a land that was socially and politically advanced and possessed cities, temples and elaborate burial sites. Egypt had a complex economic system that regulated trade and commerce throughout its empire, and its theology and religion were sophisticated and well ordered. Hagar must have found the living conditions of the Hebrews quite primitive by comparison.
It seems that Sarah could not conceive a child, which was after all the primary function of a tribal leader's wife. In her own eyes and in the estimation of the tribe she was a failure, and her barren state was a constant torment. She decided to offer her Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate. Hagar would bear the child and look after it, but it would belong to Sarah and be accepted as the child of Sarah and Abraham.
To modern people, the idea of giving another woman to your husband to bear a child seems strange and brutal, but in ancient Near Eastern family law the practice was common and acceptable.
Was Hagar consulted in the matter? There is no information on this. Ancient people assumed she would leap at the opportunity. For a woman in Hagar's position, the prospect of becoming pregnant to the leader of the clan was an honor, and would result in a dramatic rise in her social status. Se would become an important concubine or secondary wife, definitely a step up in the world. Eventually, she might be the mother of the tribe's leader, which would make her Queen Bee of the tribe.
'Sarah, Abraham's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.'
Something went wrong between Hagar and Sarah after Hagar became pregnant. Sarah was daily confronted by the other woman's success at conceiving a child, and believed that Hagar no longer gave her the deference she deserved. For her part, Hagar may have enjoyed being treated with respect for the first time in her life, and did not bother to hide her pleasure.
The women fell out, and Sarah berated Abraham for what had happened. It was all his fault, she said. Abraham pointed out, quite rightly, that it was not in his power to do anything, since Sarah was still in charge of the women of the tribe, and Hagar was under her jurisdiction, not his. This gives us some inkling of the property rights and social power of the woman who led the tribe. She, not her husband, ruled the other tribal women and was responsible for them.
In response to Abraham's words, Sarah 'humbled' Hagar - the narrator ironically uses the same word that described the treatment of Hebrew slaves in Egypt at the time of Moses. Sarah humbled an Egyptian, as the Egyptians would one day humble Sarah’s descendants. What this 'humbling' entailed we do not know, but it was enough to drive Hagar away, fleeing from the relative safety of the tribe out into the bleak landscape. Pregnant as she was she headed south, in a desperate attempt to get back to her lost home and family in Egypt.
'The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said 'Hagar, slave-girl of Sarah, where have you come from and where are you going?' She said 'I am running away from my mistress Sarah'.'
She followed the road to Shur, which was one of the trade routes passing through the Sinai peninsula. Alone and unaided, it was a heroic effort and a tribute to her tenacity that she got as far as she did. The country is fearsome: eroded hills like bare bones in the arid landscape, the earth tormented by constant wind.
Despite this, Hagar very nearly made it to Egypt, as the map above shows. But eventually, exhausted, she stopped at a spring of water in the wilderness of Shur. At this moment, an 'angel' spoke to her, telling her to return to Sarah and have her baby among the Hebrews. It would be a special child, a child with a great future. So she retraced her steps and returned to the tribe, and to Sarah.
Hagar was able to return to Sarah, because she now had a purpose in life:
to bear a child who had an important destiny
to rear that child who would have descendants without number.
Sarah's son Isaac would be born some fourteen years later. But until then, Hagar's son Ishmael was Abraham’s son and heir, and Hagar's status in the clan or group was solidly established.
Hagar and Ishmael expelled
Read Genesis 21:1-21
21:1-8. Manifestation of Seed.
d x 1-3. Isaac's birth and naming.
y 4,5. Circumcision.
x 6,7. Cause of Isaac's naming.
y 8. Weaning.
1 And the Lord visited Sarah according as He said, and the Lord did to Sarah as He had spoken. 2 For Sarah conceived, and bare Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time which God had spoken to him. (Note the change of title here, till v.32, because it is Creator and creature. In v.33, Yehovah, where it is in covenant relation. In Mary's song both titles united-Luke 1:46,47) 3 And Abraham called the name of his son that was born to him, whom Sarah bare to him, Isaac (= let him laugh).
4 And Abraham circumcised his son being 8 days old (8=the Dominical number, cp. Ishmael, 13th year), as God had commanded him.
5 And Abraham was 100 years old, when his son Isaac was born to him.
6 And Sarah said, "God has made me to laugh, so that all that hear with laugh with me." (not laugh "at") 7 And she said, "Who would have said to Abraham, that Sarah should have given children suck? (A proof that "God", the Creator, had renewed her youth, showing why Abimelech should have taken her [20:2]. Sarah's Magnificat may be compared with Mary's. The scenes of both near to each other. Mary's words [Luke 1:54,55] connect her "mercy" with that shown to "Abraham and his seed") for I have born him a son in his old age." 8 And the child grew (cp. Luke 2:40), and was weaned: and Abraham made a great feast the same day that Isaac was weaned.
21:9-21. Separation of Ishmael.
c z 9,10. Hagar and Ishmael, in house.
a 11. Abraham's suffering.
b 12,13. God's intervention.
c 14. Hagar and Ishmael. Wilderness of Beer-sheba. z 15. Hagar and Ishmael, out of house.
a 16. Hagar's suffering.
b 17-19. God's intervention.
c 20,21. Hagar and Ishmael. Wilderness of Paran.
9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born to Abraham, mocking (again).
10 Wherefore she said to Abraham, "Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac." (see the Divine Interpretation-Gal. 3:6-29; 4:22-31; 5:1-12)
11 And the word was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son.
12 And God said to Abraham, "Let it not be grievous in your sight because of the lad, and because of your bondwoman; in all that Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall your seed be called. (Here Heb. zer'a = seed, is in the sing. sense, because of the word "Isaac", and because of the sing. verb "it shall be called". Zer'a is a collective noun, like Eng. "sheep", but the context must determine whether it is sing. or pl. It is to this verse Gal. 3:16 refers; not 12:7, where it is indefinite; or 17:7 where the verb and pronoun show it is plural. See Gal. 3:16; and cp. Rom. 9:7. Heb. 11:18. "Your seed" is therefore "Christ". The difference of the 30 years comes in here: 430 years to Exodus 12:40 from Gen.12:4, when Abraham was 75: thence to Isaac's birth: and now, 5 to his recognition as the seed = 30 years.)
13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is your seed."
14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water (cp. man's provision, a bottle, with God's a well v.19), an gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba (= well of the oath).
15 And the water was spent in the bottle, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs.
16 And she went, and sat herself down over against him a good way off, as it were a bow-shot: for she said, "Let me not see the death of the child." (a Fig. of speech, the lessening of a thing in order to increase and intensify that same thing, demeaning). And she sat over against him, and the boy lifted up his voice and wept.
17 And God heard the voice of the lad; and the Angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, "What ails you, Hagar? fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is.
18 Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in your hand; for I will make him a great nation."
19 And God opened her eyes, and she saw a well dug of water; and she went, and filled the bottle with water, and gave the lad drink.
20 And God was with the lad; and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer.
21 And he dwelt in the wilderness of Paran (= place of caverns): and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.
Women in multi-wife households, like Sarah and Hagar, spent a good part of their time planning ways to advance their son's interests.
Despite Hagar's return, the rivalry between the two women was unresolved. Later, the birth of Sarah's son Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7) upset the balance of power, and the problem resurfaced. This situation was not uncommon in societies that practised polygamy. The Old Testament recognized the positions of 'loved wife' and 'disliked wife', and there were specific laws about the inheritance due to the children of both (Deuteronomy 21:15-17). You might read 1 Samuel 1:1-7 for the story of the relationship between Hannah, the beloved but childless wife, and Peninnah, the less loved but fertile wife, both married to Elkanah. Their story echoed the situation that existed between Hagar and Sarah.
For fourteen years Ishmael was seen as the future heir of Abraham. He and Hagar were accustomed to being treated with respect. But when Sarah had her own son, everything changed. The question was, who would be Abraham's heir: the first-born son, or the son of the principal wife? This was a question that would surface continually to plague Israel throughout its history.
Sarah had no doubt about the matter. She saw Ishmael as a threat to her son, and the old enmity between the two women reappeared - now even more savage than it had been before. One telling detail is the way that Sarah never speaks directly to Hagar or says her name - never once in the whole story.
'The child grew and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had born to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham 'Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac'.
The rich fabric of Sarah's gown and the voluptuous red of Hagar's says it all. Sarah has power and wealth. Hagar has youth, sexual allure and an unborn child. Sarah drives her out like a stray dog that has overstayed its welcome.
We do not know the details of the bitter power struggle between the two women, but we do know that Hagar lost. Neither of the women had ever trusted or liked each other, but now Sarah had a murderous hatred for Hagar, and actively sought her death. In a climactic scene, Sarah insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away from the tribe.
Abraham was uneasy about expelling Hagar and Ishmael into the heat of the open desert, since they had virtually no chance of survival. He argued against it. But Sarah's power over him was still so strong that she could make him do it. He gave Hagar a gift of bread, the food staple, and a skin of water, a symbol of life - not so much for eating and drinking, but as a signal to the tribe that she remained under his protection, despite her expulsion from the tribe. It was a warning to Sarah's servants that they might not kill Hagar when she was out of sight of Abraham.
Alone in the desert, Hagar and Ishmael soon used up their tiny supply of water. Hagar searched desperately for more but found none, and saw her son begin to die of thirst. There was nothing she could do to save him except place him in the shade of an overhanging bush and wait.
When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat a good way off for she said 'Do not let me look on the death of the child'.
In what she believed were the last moments of her life, she lifted up her voice and called to God for help. God heard her, and heard the weak voice of her dying son. Then her eyes were opened, and she saw something she had missed before: a well of fresh water. She refilled the skin that Abraham had given her with water and took it to her son, gently coaxing the water through his lips. Then she drank the water herself.
She and her son continued on their journey, knowing they had only God and themselves to rely on. They spurned life in a town but lived in the wilderness of Paran instead, where the boy grew to manhood. When it came time for Ishmael to marry, Hagar took good care to find him a wife from her own people, not from the people of his father.
Hagar was never fully accepted into the Hebrew group despite being the mother of Abraham's child. In the end she was rejected completely, and expelled. But she was protected by God against the hatred of Sarah, and in the end lived as a free woman.
Hagar's Importance in Islam
According to the Koran, Abraham, Hagar and Ishmael were the ancestors of the Arab nations, and of the prophet Mohammed. The Koran says that it was at Mecca that God saved Hagar and her son from death by thirst. Muslim ritual reflects the story of Hagar, and every year for thirteen centuries Muslims performing the Hajj have retraced Hagar's steps as she desperately searched for water.
*Note - "Jews" = The tribe of Judah