Read Hagar’s story: Genesis 16 and 21:9-20
Hagar comes up in this Sunday’s lectionary, and her story could not be more timely, especially as our faith communities consider the sins of racism and oppression. She was many things: a slave and nemesis to Sarah; the first person in the Bible to name God (she called him El-Roi, “O God of seeing; a mother to Ishmael; the first person in the Bible to cry, and Islam’s spiritual foremother.
Her story is inexorably wrapped around that of Abraham and Sarah. She is described in many ways in various Bibles: slave-girl, handmaid, servant, shifchah (a servant who grew into the heart of the family), maid, maidservant, and later, concubine. One scholar suggests that she was most likely “obtained as a gift from Pharaoh, to her husband as a second wife, a common custom in patriarchal times.”
We hear the start of her story shortly after Abraham and Sarah left their home to follow God’s call to go to a place where they would “have as many descendants as there are stars in the sky.” Pulling up stakes at ages 75 and 65, respectively, they leave, taking family members, slaves, and animals with them.
After years in the wilderness, Sarah gives up all hope of becoming pregnant and turns to Hagar for help. Under ancient laws, any child born to Hagar would, by rights, officially belong to Sarah and Abraham. Because of her perceived infertility, Sarah sent her husband into Hagar’s tent.
Perhaps it took one visit from Abraham; likely it took more; perhaps it took years. How willing was Hagar to participate? We will never know. Some say that it would have been an honor to bear the child of the tribe’s leader, that it would raise one’s status with the group. What we do know is this: There is no such thing as consensual sex when one is ordered to have intercourse with the most powerful man in the tribe.
Once Hagar conceives, the Book of Genesis says her attitude became condescending toward Sarah. (Genesis 16:4) Sarah became abusive, Hagar fled into the wilderness, and “the angel of the Lord,” found her and told her to “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hands.” (Genesis 16;9) Upon her return, the Abraham-Hagar union produces a son: Ishmael.
Years later, after the birth of Sarah and Abraham’s son, Isaac, the water boils hotter. Sarah becomes so irritated with Hagar that she orders Abraham to send the now-teenage boy and his mother back into the wilderness. Abraham checks with God; God tells him to listen to Sarah, and Hagar is banished—i.e. given a death sentence.
Like Jesus in the wilderness so many years later, thirst almost takes her life. Excruciatingly more painful for her, however, is the looming death of her beloved son, whom she has hidden under the shade of a bush. Hagar weeps — and God acts, hearing the voice of the boy. (Genesis 21:17)
“Come, lift up your boy,” says God, “and I will make of him a great nation.” Thus was born a key building block of Islam, with God having heard a woman in distress and saving her child.
Through God’s intervention, Genesis says that Hagar finds Ishmael a wife of Egyptian descent; Ishmael marries and produces twelve tribes (much like Isaac). Author Bruce Feiler says that Josephus first identified those tribes as Arab peoples, but it was not until the eighth century, through the efforts of the prophet Mohammed, that the Abraham-Hagar union became more influential.
Hagar is truly one of the overlooked and under-appreciated women of the Hebrew Bible. She is only one of three women with whom God dialogues. She names God and is the only person in the Hebrew Bible to do so.
The dialogue between Hagar and God is a story of relationship and action. God finds Hagar when Sarah has banished her; Hagar does what God tells her to do; Hagar recognizes that she is in the presence of the divine and names God, and God who protects both mother and son. (Genesis 21:20-21)
A true survivor, Hagar’s story is a striking example of the line from the hymn Amazing Grace: “I once was lost but now am found.” She flees from abuse, comes to know God, obeys God’s word, gives birth, is banished, yet survives—and passes on her faith to her descendants.
What might we learn from Hagar?
- If we are lost, abused or abandoned, God will hear us when we call out.
- Sometimes we need to travel through the wilderness to reach home.
- Ishmael was able to hunt so that he and his mother could survive. How do we prepare our children for a crisis and for self-sufficiency? How do we prepare ourselves?
- How would it have felt to be Hagar, before, during and after her pregnancy with Ishmael?
- God heard Hagar’s cries and acted, even though Hagar had not mentioned God’s name until that moment. What does that say about the presence of God?
- Consider the issue of slavery. What might we learn from Hagar’s story? Where and how does Hagar find redemption?
- How does one discern the best time to leave a painful situation? What part do faith and prayer play in that process? What if one is not able to leave the abuser? Where is God?
Much of the text here is adapted from Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter. Author: Lindsay Hardin Freeman. Publisher: Forward Movement