Hagar is the only person in the Bible to give God a name and the only woman to be promised a nation. “None of the mothers of Israel is her equal in this regard” (Fischer, p.18). Yet she is subjected to some of the greatest degradation in the scriptures. Her story has even been used to sanction slavery. White American slaveholders in the mid-1800s took God’s command to Hagar “Return, submit,” as legitimizing the slavery system. But the same text has been a source of hope for liberation by African American communities.
“The African-American community has taken Hagar’s story unto itself. Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people. She and Ishmael together, as family, model many black American families in which a lone woman/mother struggles to hold the family together in spite of the poverty to which ruling class economics consign it. Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side” (Williams, p. 33).
Though she may be at the head of a long line of victims, she is the true hero in the story that begins with Abraham and Sarah.
First let’s start with her name. Though Hagar was Egyptian, her name is Semitic. Many commentators have tied Hagar’s name to ancient Arabian words having to do with “flight” “immigration” and “fleeing.” Upon closer scrutiny it is clear that the exact origin and meaning of her name is not known (Drey, p.182).
Was Hagar Black?
Since Hagar was Egyptian, many have assumed that she was black and then interpret her story as one of racism.
“In dealing with Hagar, it is important that we do not follow this simple syllogism: Hagar was an Egyptian, Hagar was a slave, therefore Hagar was a Black. Such reasoning reinforces racist stereotyping since Egyptians in antiquity could be Negroid or Caucasian, it is quite possible that Hagar was Black. However, it cannot be argued that Hagar was Black because she was an Egyptian who was at the same time a slave. Slavery in Hagar’s day was not controlled by race” (Jackson, p.13).
Furthermore, Sarah desired to build up her lineage through Hagar regardless of her race or nationality. Being of Egyptian descent didn’t bother any of the matriarchs or patriarchs of the Bible. Later Moses married a Negroid (Cushite) wife and Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian woman. Their children, Ephraim and Manasseh, become the progenitors of two of the twelve tribes of Israel. Ancient Israel may have been nationalistic, but it was not a racist society. In fact, there is scholarly debate about the skin color of Abraham and Sarah who came from Ur of the Chaldees, the home of the Sumerians known as the ‘black-headed’ people. “Although some argue that this is a reference to hair color, others suggest that it refers to skin color. Was Sarah what we would call white? She certainly was not European.” (Bellis, p.79). Therefore, we cannot assume that a black woman was serving a white woman.
Was Hagar a Slave, a Handmaiden, or a Concubine?
The story of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham is considered to have occurred from about 2000 to 1720 B.C.E. which coincides with Egypt’s Middle Kingdom. During this period, Egypt dominated Canaan with a strong military. It is very unlikely that a citizen of Egypt would be sold into slavery. According to a variety of scholars, Egypt used Asiatic slaves during this period (Waters, p.189). Egypt at the time of Abraham and Sarah, was considered the most sophisticated culture of the day. Egyptians were held in high esteem throughout the ancient Near East and therefore Hagar would have held a position of importance within Sarah’s household.
So how do we get the idea that Hagar was Sarah’s slave? Waters points out that the term for slave, ebed, does not occur in the story (p.202). Hagar is described as both the shifhah of Sarah and as an amah, typically translated as “slave” even though ebed describes slavery more accurately. Several commentators consider sifhah to mean a woman in the service of another woman. A shifhah held special rights within the family that an amah did not. “A better understanding may come from the Ugaritic verb s-f-h, which means ‘being together’ and is related to the Hebrew mispahah (‘clan’)… In other words, shifhah could mean ‘someone who joins or is attached to’ a person or a clan.’ If Hagar was a gift to Sarai from Pharaoh, this interpretation would be the best fit” (Drey, p.184). However, over time, sifhah took on a meaning similar to amah and referred to a person who is subservient.
The term for concubine pileges is never used to describe Hagar.
Her “status vis-a-vis Abraham is non-existent, as the story shows: even when she is given to Abraham for the purpose of producing a son, she is ultimately answerable to her mistress (16:6). Hence, she does not even enjoy the comparatively inferior, albeit legally binding status of a concubine” (Brenner, p.208).
Text says Sarah “gave her to Abram, her husband, to be his wife (issa).” But why would Sarah establish a competitor for herself? If Sarah changed Hagar’s status from handmaid to wife, then Sarah would not have any legal right to Hagar’s son, the exact opposite of what she claimed she wanted to occur. And if Hagar became Abraham’s wife, later on Sarah would have no right to expel Hagar from the encampment. However, Sarah did have this authority. Issa can also be translated as “woman” and in this context it makes more sense that Hagar remained Sarah’s handmaid, not Abraham’s wife. Even if Sarah’s action was an ancient custom and abided by the legal system of her homeland, from Hagar’s perspective this form of surrogacy could have meant forced impregnation (rape) since her consent was irrelevant. At no time in the story do the two women speak directly to each other and at every opportunity Sarah treated Hagar like an object. Even if we “lay aside our cultural biases” to understand the milieu of the times, the story still challenges us to wrestle with its inherent class and gender oppression.
Hagar Becomes Pregnant
“and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt [vattekal] on her mistress” (Gen. 16:4).
Hagar’s reaction has been smoothed over by feminist scholars who emphasis that vattekal isn’t really that bad. It’s quite understandable that after living as a servant, it was quite an honor to suddenly be pregnant with the patriarch’s child. Of course she was proud of her fertility and evaluated herself positively in comparison to her barren mistress. However, such apologies overlook Hagar’s internalization of sexist oppression. By ignorning Hagar’s vattekal we fail to notice that that she bought into the patriarchal system that values women only for their fertility (Scholz, p.58). Abraham traded Sarah’s sexuality for his own security and Sarah traded Hagar’s sexuality for her security. And Hagar traded her honor for a moment of gloating. “The narrative subtly suggests that because women can’t get along with one another, sisterhood is not a viable alternative to patriarchy” (Bellis, p.74). Sarah certainly fell right in line with patriarchy’s need to keep women separated and therefore powerless. As soon as Abraham gave her the go-ahead, Sarah violently abused Hagar. Communication between the genders and classes had completely broken down.
Hagar’s Exodus and her First Theophany
After suffering Sarah’s abuse, Hagar flees to the wilderness. She almost makes it back to Egypt when she finds a spring on the way to Shur. It is here she is met by a messenger of God. “The angel ‘finds’ Hagar, ms‘. This verb, when predicated of God, carries a technical meaning going well beyond connotations of the English verb: it includes elements of encounter and of divine election (cf. Deut 32:10; Ps 89:21; Hosea 12:5)” (McEvenue, p.69). “Hagar, shifhah of Sarah, from where have you come and where are you going?” the messenger asked. Hagar explained her predicament but the messenger did not sympathize with her. He told her to return to her mistress and submit to harsh treatment once again.
She said nothing so the messenger kept repeating the formula, “And the angel of the Lord said” which “indicates that Hagar obdurately makes no response to the angel’s speeches in vv. 9 and 10… Hagar does not budge. The repetition of ‘And the angel of the Lord said to her’, communicates this conversational void; the angel ceases his address, waits for an answer and, receiving none, begins anew. In his second speech the angel offers an incentive; he will make her the mother of a multitude. This inducement… does not move Hagar… This time the angel offers the prospect of revenge. Only when Hagar hears that her son will be wild and free and a thorn in the side of her tormentors does she submit” (Reis, Hagar, p.90-1).
Though Hagar was commanded to return and submit to her mistress, she was given the comfort of knowing that her son would submit to no one (Alexander, p.139). In addition she was promised a great nation would descend from her. Ironically, the legacy Sarah had attempted to build up for herself through Hagar, Hagar received from God. Before she gave up her autonomy, she exercised it by naming God. “You are a God of seeing (El-ro’i)” (Gen. 16:13). God called Hagar by name, the only character in the story to do so, and Hagar responded by naming God El Roi, ‘God of my seeing,” which can mean both ‘the God I have seen ‘and ‘the God who sees me'” (Frymer-Kensky, p.231). She acknowledged that El-ro’i saw her future.
What she said next is very difficult in the Hebrew: “‘Have I not gone on seeing after he saw me!'” (NJV). This is generally understood to mean that unlike most people who look at God, Hagar was not struck dead. Compared to Abraham who fell on his face before Yahweh (Gen. 17:3), Hagar showed no fear of the Lord. She also named the spring Beer-Lahai-Roi, “well of the living one that sees me” in honor of her experience. Thereafter the place is considered a sanctuary and a visible sign of her theophany.
Why Wasn’t Hagar Liberated?
As Reis notes, the story of Hagar is an embarrassment. If God is just and merciful, then why isn’t Hagar liberated from her oppressors? “A God who provides water and manna for the Israelites in their wilderness wandering could surely do as much for one Egyptian slave seeking her freedom… It is hard to understand how the God we know from so many parts of the Bible as the God of justice and deliverance could deny such liberation to Hagar” (Sakenfeld, pp. 20, 19).
Elsa Tamez, a feminist scholar suggests that “What God wants is that she and her child should be saved, and at the moment, the only way to accomplish that is not in the desert, but by returning to the house of Abraham…Hagar simply must wait a little longer, because Ishmael must be born in the house of Abraham to prove that he is the firstborn… This will guarantee him participation in the history of salvation, and will give him rights of inheritance in the house of Abraham” (p.14).
Although Ishmael does not receive Abraham’s inheritance as Tamez predicts, her point is well taken: it is important that Ishmael be born within the patriarch’s household. “The offspring of a free man with slave women, according to the notions of law in the ancient Near East, must be acknowledged as sons by the legator in order to be able to make any claim to inheritance” (Fischer, p.35). Later God will promise Abraham, for his sake, that Ishmael will become a great nation. It appears that if Hagar hadn’t returned, God would have neglected Ishmael and abandoned the promise to Hagar.
But is a God who commands the oppressed to return to their oppressors worthy of worship? Before we condemn God, we must examine ourselves. Who are the people we return to oppression who only seek better economic conditions? Where is our mercy at the borders of our nation? Perhaps we are not that different from slave owners when we say, Return, submit. Sakenfeld offers this suggestion:
“The angel of God directed Hagar toward survival, but our discomfort with that command requires us to work for liberation… our theology needs to have room for God to be at work supporting and caring about those who are oppressed within these structures from which there is no apparent escaping. God is present and at work in the struggle for survival and some degree of quality of life within all the brokenness of this world” (p.22).
In wrestling with the text, we are challenged to redirect our lives toward finding justice in our communities.
Hagar returned to Sarah’s abuse and gave birth to Ishmael. Even God abandoned her by transferring the promise of the great nation that will be built up in her name to Abraham. “And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is your seed” (Gen. 21:13). Now Ishmael is referred to as Abraham’s son (Gen. 21:11) and the patriarch takes the credit for naming him. “It is also possible, however, that the narrator is showing that Abram abided by Hagar’s naming and instructions” (Jeansonne, p.47). Regardless, the patriarch’s fatherhood is celebrated rather than Hagar’s maternity.
“The shift of the name-giving from the mother (v.11) to the father results in the absurdity that Abram gives his son the memorial name that calls to mind the liberation of the mother from slavery, a slavery in which he was essentially involved (v. 6). Female experience is usurped and conveyed to the man” (Fischer, p.21).
Patriarchy is firmly back in control again. When she ran away, Hagar was Sarah’s servant and beholden to the matriarch. We would have assumed that because Sarah had asserted her authority over Hagar, that when Ishmael was born, he would be accounted to Sarah, not Abraham. “If Sarah had originally intended to regard her handmaid’s issue as her own, when did Ishmael come to be considered Abram’s son?” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.38). Sarah is clearly not involved in Ishmael’s birth. “Three times the text mentions that Hagar bore the child. Sarai has been displaced, and the son never becomes hers… Sarai’s treatment of Hagar broke the connection” (Frymer- Kensky, p.231). Drey speculates that Sarai demoted Hagar from the higher status of a maidservant (shifhah) to a slave (amah). “If Hagar is now a slave, then her son Ishmael is the son of a slave, not a handmaid. In part this change of status could have disqualified him from becoming Sarah’s son” (Teubal, Sarah the Priestess, p.38). Sarah no longer wished to be built up by Hagar’s progeny. When Ishmael “played” at Isaac’s weaning party, that was the last straw for the matriarch and Hagar was sent away.
Hagar’s Exile and her Second Theophany
Although Abraham was distressed about the expulsion, God told him to listen to Sarah and order Hagar’s departure to protect his inheritance. He sends them away to wander in the region of Beersheba with only a few provisions in contrast to his vast wealth. Abraham seems miserly until we realize that this is not a waterless area. In fact, Abraham himself dug a well there. Perhaps he knew that everything they needed to survive would be accessible to them. “In order that Ishmael need not die of thirst close by his father’s well, Hagar’s eyes, which had been prevented from seeing, are opened” (Fischer, p.44). It is God who lifted up Hagar’s eyes to see the well. She is not left alone to fend for herself. But first Hagar and Ishmael collapsed in exhaustion and thirst. Hagar lifted up her voice and wept, but God only heard and responded to Ishmael’s crying, not Hagar’s. Rulon- Miller and Trible see this as an indication of God’s indifference to Hagar. I do not find it a sign of insensitivity toward Hagar when God focuses on Ishmael during this episode. As a mother, Hagar would have been comforted to know that God would watch over her son and provide him with the same promise of a vast number of descendants that God had previously promised her.
Hagar finds an Egyptian Wife for Ishmael
By the end of the narrative, Ishmael was solely Hagar’s son and no longer identified as Abraham’s son. This is most evident in the rather peculiar statement God maked later when he addressed Abraham about Isaac, “Take your son, your only son” (Gen. 22:2). That Hagar was now in control of her life and her son’s is evident when she chose a wife for Ishmael from Egypt (Teubal, Ancient Sisterhood, p.140). “In her last act, Hagar guarantees that these descendants will be Egyptians” (Trible, Texts, p.27). In the end we learn that she was a resourceful and powerful woman.
Parallels Between Hagar and Moses
Earlier in the story God spoke to Abraham in a dream: “Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possession” (Gen. 15:13-14). This is hardly a comforting revelation. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Abraham had a nightmare. Why in the world did God warn Abraham about the Exodus before he even had one son? It turns out we are being given a huge clue to the meaning of the whole story about Hagar. By mentioning the Exodus, the author encourages us to compare the upcoming events in light of the Israelites’ experience with slavery and their liberation.
Looking for points of connection between Hagar’s experience and Moses’, I have found dozens of compelling parallels. They both fled from oppression and encountered God in the desert. The Lord told both of them to return to the place from which they fled. Reluctantly they both returned and then were expelled from slavery. Both then wandered in the desert and at the point of death God rescued them by providing water. Both stories also use much of the same language, including some words unique in the Bible to these two episodes. (For a fuller description of the parallels between Hagar and Moses, read Dozeman and Reis’ articles.) In Abraham’s dream, God explained that his descendants would not return to the promised land until the fourth generation “for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (v.16). One of the reasons given for the 400 years of slavery was that the Amorites who inhabited the land had not sinned enough to deserve being expelled from Canaan.
In the same way God did not liberate Hagar in Genesis 16 “but sends her back to her mistress because the iniquity of the patriarch and the matriarch is not yet complete. Just as God does not unjustly exile the Amorites but reserves sentence until they thoroughly deserve their punishment, so too does he permit Abraham and Sarah the full exercise of their free will before he wreaks judgment upon them… their descendants will pay for their forebears’ maltreatment of Hagar. They will slave under Egyptian affliction as Hagar the Egyptian slaved under affliction…Hagar will be requited thousands of times over for 400 years” (Reis, pp.106-7).
In a re-reading of Hagar’s story with this parallel in mind, we can now detect the text’s condemnation of Abraham and Sarah’s behavior. Now we can see the justice of God’s pronouncements. Now Hagar is the hero and the model for Moses’ life (Dozeman, p.29).
Reconciliation in the Next Generation
When Abraham sent his servant to Paddan-aram to obtain a wife for his son Isaac, the servant returned with Rebekah but did not take her to Abraham. Instead he took her directly to Isaac’s encampment at Beer-Lahai-Roi in the land of Shur, the sanctuary that Hagar named in her first theophany. Gen.16:7 and 25:18 indicate that after Ishmael’s death his offspring continued his mother’s legacy in the land of Shur (Trible, Ominous, p.60). Is this a coincidence or an indication that Isaac made peace with his father’s past and acknowledged his brother Ishmael, perhaps even living in the same area? This seems very likely since Ishmael and Isaac bury Abraham together when he dies (Gen. 25:9). The text reports the two of them together so casually as to suggest nothing unusual occurred (Zucker). For the most part thereafter, Hagar’s descendants were not disparaged in the Bible and relations with the Israelites were cordial. For instance, there seemed to be intermarriage with the tribe of Simeon and the Ishmaelites. In other words, the children of Abraham found peace. It was only many generations later that their descendants, Jews, Christians and Muslims began to afflict each other. Now we, the children of Hagar and Sarah, must remake the peace Isaac and Ishmael found together. Like them, we must bury the iniquities of our parents and move together into a place of safety so our children may not suffer the violence of a war that has been waged too long.
In Genesis 21 Ishmael is called “the son of the female slave.” The only other occurrence of this phrase is in Exodus 23:12 when the Israelites are given the laws of the Sabbath: “Six days you will do your work, and the seventh day you will rest; that your ox and your ass may have rest, and the son of your female slave, and the stranger [ha-gar], may be refreshed.” According to Rosenstock, the ancient audience would have heard the pun on Hagar’s name in the use of the word stranger in this context. They would have been cued into thinking of Hagar and consider the observance of the Sabbath as a memorial to the innocent victims of history.
“Taking a day to reflect on our lives, to recognize how we have oppressed others and plan for a better future– this is how we can continue to honor the story of Hagar. Read in isolation, the details of Hagar’s life and the Exodus story seem a meandering collection of stories. However, standing at a distance from the portraits of Hagar and Moses, it becomes apparent that the biblical author wanted to convey a positive message about humans. Even though the oppressed often become oppressors when they are liberated, God does not give up on humanity. Yahweh provided a body of legislation requiring Israel to take care of the disadvantaged. “The biblical author believes in mankind’s perfectibility and tries to refine and improve our characters so that, instead of cycling in an endless succession of reciprocal oppression and inequity, humanity progresses in righteousness and compassion” (Reis, Hagar, p.109).
And it is in the name of the stranger, in the name of Hagar that we are encouraged to be better people.
For Further Reading
Alexander, T. Desmond – “The Hagar Traditions in Genesis XVI and XXI,” in Studies in the Pentateuch, J. A. Emerton, ed. Supplements to Vetus Testamentum. (Brill Academic Pub., 1990) 131-148.
Bellis, Alice Ogden – Helpmates, Harlots, and Heroes: Women’s Stories in the Hebrew Bible (Westminster: John Knox Press, 1994)
Brenner, Athalya – “Female Social Behavior: Two Descriptive Patterns within the ‘Birth of the Hero’ Paradigm” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 2. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
Dennis, Trevor – Sarah Laughed: Women’s Voices in the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994)
Dozeman, T.B. – “The Wilderness and Salvation History in the Hagar Story,” Journal of Biblical Literature 117 (1998), 23-43.
Drey, Philip R. – “The Role of Hagar in Genesis 16,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 40 (2002) 179-95.
Fischer, Irmtraud – Women Who Wrestled with God: Biblical Stories of Israel’s Beginnings. Linda M. Maloney, trans. (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical, 2005)
Gruber, Mayer I. – “Genesis 21:12: A New Reading of an Ambiguous Text” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 2. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
Hackett, Jo Ann – “Rehabilitating Hagar: Fragments of an Epic Pattern,” in Peggy L. Day, ed., Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989) 12-27.
Jackson, Alvin A. – Examining the Record: An Exegetical and Homiletical Study of Blacks in the Bible. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Studies in Religion, Culture and Social Development, Vol. 4. (Peter Lang Publishing, 1994)
Jeansonne, Sharon Pace – The Women of Genesis: From Sarah to Potiphar’s Wife (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990)
McEvenue, Sean E. – “A Comparison of Narrative Styles in the Hagar Stories” Semeia 3 (1975) 64-80.
Reis, Pamela Tamarkin – “Hagar Requited,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 87 (2000), 75-109.
Reis, Pamela Tamarkin – “Take My Wife, Please: On the Utility of the Wife/Sister Motif,” Judaism 41 (1992), 306-15.
Rosenstock, B. – “Inner-Biblical Exegesis in the Book of the Covenant,” Conservative Judaism 44 (1991/3) 37 – 49.
Rulon-Miller, N. – “Hagar: A Woman with an Attitude,” in Philip R. Davies and David J.A. Clines, eds., The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplementary Series 257. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Acdemic Press, 1998) 60-89.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob – Just Wives: Stories of Power & Survival in the Old Testament & Today (Louisville: Westminster Jon Knox, 2003)
Scholz, Susanne – Sacred Witness: Rape in the Hebrew Bible (London/New York: T&T International, 2007)
Tanner, Beth Laneel – “My Sister Sarah: On Being a Woman in the First World” in An Introduction to Feminist Biblical Interpretation in Honor of Katharine Doob Sakenfeld. Linda Day and Carolyn Pressler, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006)
Tamez, Elsa – “The Woman Who Complicated the History of Salvation” Cross Currents 36 (1986), 129-135
Teubal, Savina J. – Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah (Swallow Press, 1997)
Teubal, Savina J. – Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch of Genesis (Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press, 1984)
Trible, Phyllis – “Ominous Beginnings for a Promise of Blessing” in Hagar, Sarah, and their Children: Jewish, Cristian, and Muslim Perspectives. Phillis Trible and Letty M. Russell, eds. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 33-69.
Trible, Phyllis – Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984)
Troost, Arie – “Reading for the Author’s Signature: Genesis 21.1-21 and Luke 15.11-32 as Intertexts” in A Feminist Companion to Genesis, Athalya Brenner, ed. Feminist Companion to the Bible 2. (Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 1993)
Williams, Delores S. – Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1993)
Weems, Renita J. – Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (San Diego: LuraMedia, 1988)
Zucker, David J. – “The Mysterious Disappearance of Sarah” Judaism, Fall-Winter (2006) 30-39.