Bible Ladies (Part 1): Hagar (A study in strength and weakness)


Fanfani Enrico Hagar And Ishmael

One of the most interesting and sometimes controversial women of the Bible is the matron (or even matriarch) Hagar.  She should in no way be confused with Dik Browne’s comic strip Viking, but should be seen as a woman of mystery, nobility, and at least some measure of faith.

We first find reference to Hagar in Genesis chapter 16, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived (verses 1-4a).”

This has long been a talking point, that any wife might offer the maid to her husband to produce a child with.  Fair enough, the need for an heir was an insurance policy in those days, but this is more of a discussion about Sarai (Sarah) so I will leave it off for now.

What happens next is interesting, however. “When she knew she was pregnant, she (Hagar) began to despise her mistress (vs 4b).”  This may well have been a disdain for being put into the situation of bearing a child as a surrogate, without having a choice in the matter.  Another take is that, she had now become “more important” than her mistress by virtue of her pregnancy, so exploits her new found role as “heir-bearer.” To me, a third explanation is intriguing however.

This view centres around a rabbinic tradition that Hagar was the daughter of an Egyptian nobleman, and that her servant status to the house of Abram was part of the settlement Pharaoh had made with Abram in Genesis 12.  “When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman.  And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace.  He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels.  But the Lord inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife Sarai. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. “What have you done to me?” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife?  Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!” Then Pharaoh gave orders about Abram to his men, and they sent him on his way, with his wife and everything he had (verses 14-20).”

In this view, this was a woman of noble birth, not a common slave  Her attitude therefore is more haughty (or at least confident) than might be expected, and fits Hagar’s character (or at least pride) in this passage and beyond.

In the biblical account Sarai mistreats Hagar and she flees from the abuse. While alone in the wilderness an angel appears to her. “Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”  The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”  The angel of the Lord also said to her: “You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael for the Lord has heard of your misery (16: 9-11).”  When she later gives birth, “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me. (vs 13).”

She may be noble and haughty at times, but she is obedient to the instructions from God. But, God’s plan was not for the heir to be Ishmael, and in the fullness of time Isaac is born to Sarai/Sarah. Ishmael and his mother are therefore cast out into the wilderness.  “Early the next morning Abraham took some food and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob. God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.  Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink (Genesis 21:14-19).”

This episode is also fascinating.  When Abraham sends them away, he gives them food and water, but no material wealth. It is a symbolic point being made, that Ishmael and his mother have no claim of inheritance.  They are sent off with the bare minimum.

Now in the desert, the water gives out.  Hagar leaves her son in the cover of a bush and goes away to mourn his impending doom.  I marvel at this in two respects.  The first is that this woman who adamantly held to a name for her son, given by an angel, would ignore the same angel’s prophecy that Ishmael would become the father of a nation.  Okay, despair is a powerful thing.  Many of us might well have done the same.

The second point to ponder is that she removes herself from her son so she can’t watch him die.  I am not going to judge, for every person deals with this scenario in a personal way.  She clearly does not want to witness the most terrible event in her life – her son’s death.

On pondering this, I myself could not do the same.  I have lost a child.  If I had that day to live over, I would have given anything to have had just a few more precious moments with her – even if they did culminate in her death.  It seems, a common approach.  Mary made her way to the cross of Jesus, and many others have sought those last few minutes even if ending in pain.

In Islamic tradition, however, Hagar’s actions are not quite as passive.  Yes, she may well have in the end went to the side to sob, but before that she is said to run back and forth throughout the area looking for water (an event reenacted every year as part of the Hajj pilgrimage).

Here again is a woman of dignity and of will.  Her faith may have waned, but her spirit doesn’t until the end.  An end, in which God again intervenes, and she sees the needed water.

This proud woman’s last recorded act is to secure a wife for her son in Genesis 21:21, a wife not of the local tribes, but of her own people in Egypt.  This is often cited as supporting evidence of her Egyptian noble status.  Why would a slave return to the land of her captivity, or seek a wife for a free born son among the lower rungs of society (he former peers).  As an Egyptian of good family, however, she might well seek a suitable wife from among her peers and extended family, fit for one who would sire “twelve tribal rulers according to their settlements and camps (Genesis 25: 16).”

So what can we learn from this “Bible Lady?”  First, whether noble or base she had pride and self-assurance.  This was especially prevalent when she was following the lead of God.  Secondly, she obeyed God.  This was true in her returning to Sarai, and in the naming of her son. Finally, she like us had lapses in her faith.  There is much to this last point.  Her faith (and remembrance of the God’s promise) started to fail.  But, just when she finally gives in to the despair, God stepped in and “opened her eyes.”  We can take heart in that.  God is faithful, even when we are not.  He will lift us up, especially when we have hit bottom.

Let us seek the emulate the strengths of this woman, Hagar; and let us learn from and grow from her weaknesses.


[I will post several other studies on “Bible Ladies,” though the order will not be systematic but rather as my musings and ramblings lead me].



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