THE STORY OF HAGAR

 Hagar means ‘stranger’. Hagar came from Egypt, and was never fully accepted into the tribal group.
Sarah may have been a shortened version of Ummu-sarra, which means ‘the great mother is queen’.
Abraham means ‘ancestor of many people’.
Ishmael means ‘God hears’. Twice when Ishmael’s mother Hagar is abandoned by others, God hears her and helps her.
At the beginning of the story of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham are called Sarai and Abraham; later in the story, God makes a promise to them, a covenant, and their names change to Sarah and Abraham. To minimize confusion, I have used 'Sarah' and 'Abraham' throughout.

What the story is about:
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 tells of 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 women as 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)
 

ON THIS PAGE:

What the story is about:

The Conception and Birth of Hagar's Son

The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael

Summary

Hagar's Importance in Islam

Migration and Settlement in Canaan

Women's Lives in this Era

 

 THE CONCEPTION AND BIRTH OF HAGAR’S SON
(Genesis 16:1-16)

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 a slave in the household of Sarah, a Hebrew princess. Sarah may have acquired Hagar as part of the generous bride-price paid to Abraham by Pharaoh in Egypt (Genesis 12:10-20). It was an accepted practice at the time to give servants and slaves as part of the dowry of a well-off young woman. If Hagar was a gift from the Pharaoh, she was probably an accomplished servant with valued skills. It may have been a step down socially for her, to become the servant of a nomadic tribeswoman.

 

Hagar was always disadvantaged among the Hebrew women because she was a foreigner and a slave. This must have seemed ironic to her, 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 Hagar's new owner Sarah could not conceive a child, which was after all the primary function of a tribal leader's wife. She was a failure, and her barren state was a constant torment. She decided to offer her slave Hagar to Abraham as a sort of surrogate mother. 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, 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. No longer a slave, she would become an important concubine or secondary wife, definitely a step up in the world.

'Sarah, Abraham’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, 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.' Read Genesis 16:1-6.

 
 
 

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. He 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.

To view a satellite image of the Wilderness of Shur,
see Google Earth map for +30° 14' 7.44", +33° 14' 49.20"

'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’.'
Read Genesis 16:7-16.

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 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.

 

 ‘The angel of the Lord’ was a device used by the biblical writers to show that a human being had received a message from God. What they meant exactly by the word ‘angel’ is an open question. In modern terms we would probably say that a deep conviction of purpose settled on the person involved, guiding them towards a particular course of action. Angels are traditionally portrayed as winged (they carry a message) and genderless (they are spirits without bodies).

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.

THE EXPULSION OF HAGAR AND ISHMAEL
(Genesis 21:1-21)

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’.

Read Genesis 21:8-14.

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’.
Read Genesis 21:15-21.

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.

Summary
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, no longer a slave.

 

 

 

 

 

 








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.

 
 
 
 
 

  MIGRATION AND SETTLEMENT IN CANAAN

The city-kingdoms of Mesopotamia went through cycles of glory and defeat. Sometimes they were led by able rulers who lorded it over large tracts of territory, but at other times their lands were conquered by invaders, so that their power and prestige shrank. One such city was Ur, the home city of Sarah and Abraham. In about 1650BC a Dark Age began in Mesopotamia. The great cities were destroyed and society fragmented into small, frightened groups.

In the period of confusion and destruction that followed, many people fled. They abandoned their homes and searched for a more secure place, or simply tried to escape the violence. One such group was led by Terah, father of Sarah and Abraham. He and his large group of family and servants set out looking for a new home, forming a tribal group of people who were, without knowing it, ancestors of the Hebrew people.

At first these migrants traveled as a small, mobile clan following its flocks wherever pasture was best.  But eventually they arrived at territory already occupied by people called the Canaanites, a relatively sophisticated group who lived in city-states with an economy based on agriculture and trade. The clan, now led by Sarah and Abraham, camped on the outskirts of various cities of Canaan, settling temporarily in one place then moving on when they wished to do so.

 

This group of migrants prospered and grew.  Despite the fact that they lived among foreigners, they tenaciously held on to their identity as Hebrews. This stubborn pride in their heritage was fostered by the women, who were responsible for maintaining Jewish identity.

It was during this period that the tribes developed their unique ethos and began to see themselves as separate from the tribes and kingdoms that surrounded them. Their main identifying difference was worship of Yahweh, a spirit-god who combined the power of all the gods of other tribes but had a special relationship with the Hebrew people. This relationship was embodied in the concept of the covenant, a mutual promise of protection and allegiance made between Yahweh and themselves.

 

This is the golden headdress of Queen Puabi of Ur who lived about a thousand years before Hagar and Sarah.
Jewelry has always been an indication of the wealth and social status of the woman who owned it, no matter what century or era. Sarah may have had a more modest version of this headdress, and Hagar would have leapt at the chance of owning something like it. Bearing a son to the tribal chief, a son who might himself eventually become tribal leader, would elevate her wealth and status beyond a slave's wildest dreams. Hagar was quick to seize the opportunity when it came her way.

 


WOMEN’S LIVES IN THIS ERA

The women of the city-kingdoms of ancient Egypt, Canaan and Sumer lived in a hierarchical and ordered society. Some were rich women who lived in the royal court, wearing magnificent embroidered clothes and intricate gold jewelry. At the other end of the social scale were peasant women in villages who worked in the fields every day, growing the crops that supported their whole clan.

Archaeological evidence and excavated clay tablets show that these people lived in a deeply religious society. The women in particular lived and breathed religion because their lives were so closely connected with Nature, on which they depended for survival. Belief in the gods/goddesses, expressed in mythic stories, was intrinsic to everything they did.

 

Some of their sacred stories influenced later religious thought. In one of the Mesopotamian myths, Inanna (called Astarte in the Bible) was the queen of heaven, who enterws the underworld and died but was restored to life after three days. Tammuz, mentioned in Ezekiel 8:14, was the god of vegetation who died each year but rose again with the reappearance of vegetation in the spring. Both these myths had themes of life, death and resurrection, ideas that would later appear in many other religions, including Christianity.

Devotion to the gods and goddesses of Nature existed side by side with worship of Yahweh throughout much of Hebrew history. The concept of monotheism was just beginning to develop, but many women  also worshipped a fertility goddess, the Great Mother, source of plant, animal and human life. Ancient Near Eastern religions certainly had fertility of the soil and of human and animal life as one of their main focuses.

The laws of Hammurabi, a famous law-maker and king of Babylonia, provided insights into the lives of women in this period. There were laws to
  • protect the rights of women in marriage
  • protect women against rape
  • define the punishment for adultery
  • define the just treatment of women who were slaves
  • regulate the behavior of sacred women who served in the temples
  • lay down conditions for divorce, etc.

It was probably during this period that Hebrew women enjoyed greatest freedom and prestige. The stories in Genesis and Exodus show them as independent, strong, and smart, displaying leadership and initiative. The women in these stories almost always got their way when they wanted something.

This was because women were necessary for the survival of the tribe, and they knew it. They performed a wide range of tasks without which the clan or family simply could not have managed. They moved freely in society, were not confined within the home, and seem to have spoken and acted confidently.

Their contribution to the culture of the time was significant. The stories as we have them in the Bible were edited much later by male priests, but there are hints that women had a thriving cultural tradition of their own. These stories dealt with families, children, food, security/safety and home-places, all things related to women’s lives, and scholars suggest that many of the stories of Genesis were originally women’s stories, preserved by women down the centuries.