By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Abraham and Sarah, Women in the Bible


What do we know about Hagar?


  • She was an Egyptian, no doubt one of those who served Sarah when she was taken into Pharoah's palace.(Gen. 12:15) And when Pharaoh sent Sarah and Abraham out of Egypt (Gen 12:19-20) "with all that they had," Hagar was included.
  • Hagar's job was to take care of Sarah. She did her job for ten years without notice.
  • When Sarah couldn't have a child of her own, she told Abraham, "I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her." (Gen. 16:2) This is a well-documented practice in the Ancient Near East. The child would legally have been considered Sarah's. It is unclear what role, if any, Hagar would have had in raising "Sarah's" child.
  • Hagar is not asked about the arrangement; she is expected to comply.
  • Hagar conceives easily.
  • Then she let it go to her head: "when she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was slight in her eyes."(Gen 16:4)
  • Suddenly, Hagar realized God's promise to Abraham would be fulfilled through her. Of course, her heart beat with pride. Natural maternal pride overshadowed legal status. She was no longer nothing; she was, indeed, someone. As she perceived,or "saw," that she was pregnant, she had a new vision of Sarah. The level of the lowly maid increased just as the level of the esteemed wife decreased. But it was all too threatening -- and patently against their customs (even laws).
  • Sarah complained bitterly to Abraham. Abraham said, "She's your maid; you can do whatever you want to her." (Gen 16:6)
  • Sarah "punished" Hagar -- the same word is used for the oppression of the Israelites in Egypt under the hand of Pharaoh.
  • Hagar fled into the desert to get away from Sarah, and that's where the story gets interesting. She stopped by a well on the way to Shur on the southern border of Canaan -- no small distance, probably on her way back to Egypt. There, an angel of the Lord said to her,"Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?" -- that's the first question ever put to her! She replies, "I am running away from my mistress, Sarah." (Note the absence of surprise or fear in this encounter from Hagar.)
  • The angel says, "Return unto your mistress and submit to her." A harsh command, for sure! But it is accompanied by two promises. "I will increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count. You are with child and shall bear a son. You shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard your cry."
  • The name Ishmael means "God hears, or may God hear." So the name would forever commemorate Hagar's plight and her need for God's help and God's response.

Before we continue with the story, let us recall who else was given commands followed by promises in Genesis. It was Abraham, of course. The father of God's people was given difficult commands (leave your home,kin, and country and go to a land that I will show you) followed by promises of innumerable descendants. Unlike Abraham, however, Hagar is an alien and a woman! She is the only woman ever to receive such a promise. She is the first person noted in the Bible to be visited by a divine messenger, and the first to be given a birth announcement.

Unlike Abraham, who did as he was told without comment, Hagar bursts forth with a cry of joy and praise.

  • She "calls the name of the Lord who had spoken to her. You are the God of seeing." (Gen 16:13) She NAMES the Lord, the only person in the Bible to ever do so. Though naming usually confers upon it some sense of dominion, Hagar was not given any dominion over the Lord. Rather, it is as though she said, "Regardless of what other people may call You, for me You are a God of seeing, who saw me in my distress, who came to my aid." It could also mean "the God whom I have seen."
  • She then names the well, "The well of the Living One who sees me," emphasizing the fact that God revealed himself to her.
  • She goes back to Sarah and gives birth to Ishmael (Gen 16:16), which demonstrates not only her faith but also her obedience.

At this point, Hagar disappears from the scene until Chapter 21, where Sarah gives birth to Isaac. The name "Isaac" means laughter. On the day that Isaac was weaned (Isaac would have been around three years old, which makes Ishmael 17), Sarah witnessed Ishmael "playing" with Isaac. The Hebrew word is another variation of the name Isaac (i.e. laughter), yet most scholars, in trying to defend Sarah's subsequent actions, have argued that Ishmael was mocking Isaac, abusing him, or even molesting him. The word can have sexual implications, but it could also mean that they were playing together.

  • Sarah demands that Abraham "get rid of the slave woman and her son." Though Abraham is "displeased and distressed," God tells him to "send her away," thereby providing a divorce as well as emancipation for Hagar.
  • Abraham provides provisions for Hagar and Ishmael -- a skin of water (around 30 pounds) and some bread.
  • They go off into the desert of Beersheba on their way toward Northern Arabia.
  • Needless to say, eventually the water runs out.
  • Hagar places Ishmael under a bush so at least he will die in the shade. She moves some distance away to cry.
  • Ishmael is crying too, and "the Lord heard his cry." (Gen 21:17)
  • Again God speaks to Hagar, telling her to "Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him." (Gen 21:18) This is another difficult command, followed by a promise.
  • Hagar opens her eyes, and beholds a well she had not noticed before.
  • They both survive, and later Hagar finds a wife for Ishmael from the land of Egypt.

So, twice Hagar was the recipient of God's promises. She was given land and the promise of many descendants -- the only woman in the Bible to receive this. Her story parallels Abraham's in many ways, even to the point where she acts like a "patriarch" in finding a wife for Ishmael. Both Genesis and Chronicles record Ishmael's descendants. (See Genesis 25:16ff, also I Chronicles 1:29ff) Later references to Hagarites and Ishmaelites in the Bible verify the realization of God's promises. (See Ps. 83:7, I Chron 5:10, 21; 27:31) In I Chronicles 5:21 after the Hagarites lost a battle, the victors "took away their cattle; of their camels fifty thousand, and of sheep two hundred and fifty thousand, and of asses two thousand, and of men an hundred thousand. For there fell down many slain, because the war was of God." The list of "spoils" is impressive.

But because of the Egyptian connection, some scholars have also looked at Hagar's history in relation to Moses. Again, the parallels are surprising.

Moses Hagar
Prince and slave Slave and Princess
Prince to liberator Slave to wife
flees to a well (Ex 2:15b) flees to a well (Gen16:7)
Both encounter God in the wilderness
Both are commanded to return
Both receive a word of promise
Both experience a new name for God
I Am God who sees me
Afterwards, each is given a new role
But the conflict increases
Each has a second wilderness experience
God sanctifies the expulsion
The expulsion includes a release from slavery
But this time the wilderness is more threatening
Provisions are limited to what they could carry
Eventually they run out of water
Each cries out to God
God "hears" and provides water
They continue to live in the desert, at risk, but with God

Not only does Hagar handily accomplish her patriarchal duties, but her role as recipient of covenantal promises gives one pause. Her role resembles that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Hagar, too, is promised land and many descendants. God appears to her twice! She is not an Israelite; she is not a man. Yet God speaks to her and fulfills His promises to her.

This is a story, then, that celebrates the breadth and depth of God. God does not just hear and respond to the cries of His chosen people. He also hears and responds to the cries of the disinherited, the dispossessed, the defenseless--those who have been cast out. Hagar was guiltless, and her suffering did not go unheeded. When we are alone with the story of God and Hagar, alone with the divine perspective, we can learn tremendous lessons about God and about His ways with humanity. Her story demands that we consider the rights and worth of every individual. Hagar is a true heroine.


Dozeman, Thomas. "The Wilderness and Salvation History in The Hagar Story." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 117/1, 1998, pp. 23-43.

Hackett, Jo Ann. "Rehabilitating Hagar: Fragments of an Epic Pattern." Gender and Difference in Ancient Israel. ed. Peggy Day, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

Miller-Rulon, Nina. "Hagar: A Woman with an Attitude." The World of Genesis. ed. Philip Davies and David Clines, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 257, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

Reis, Pamela Tamarkin. "Hagar Requited." Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Vol. 87, 2000, pp75-109.

Teubal, Savina. Hagar the Egyptian, the Lost Traditions of the Matriarchs. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1962.

Trible, Phyllis. "The Other Woman, A Literary and Theological Study of the Hagar Narratives." Understanding the Word. ed. James Butler, et al, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement Series 37, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1985.

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