Today is Mother’s Day. As we celebrate the lives and legacies of the women who gave us birth, I want to introduce a woman who gave birth to a son who was destined not to be her son.
The story of Hagar is the story of a woman whom Phyllis Trible calls, “the slave used, abused and rejected” (Trible 1984: 1). Sarah gave her slave Hagar to Abraham, her husband, so that Hagar could conceive a son who then would be adopted by Sarah to be her son.
Hagar, The Servant of Sarah
Hagar was an Egyptian woman who was a servant of Abraham. When Abraham and Sarah went to Egypt, he was afraid for his life because of the beauty of his wife. In order to preserve his life, Abraham told the Egyptians that Sarah was his sister. When the Egyptians learned that the woman was the sister of Abraham, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s court to become his wife.
When Sarah became Pharaoh’s wife, Pharaoh gave Abraham a mōhar, the bride price given to Abraham as the guardian of “his sister.” The gifts Pharaoh gave to Abraham included “sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels” (Genesis 12:16).
It is possible that Hagar was included among the female slaves given to Abraham. Hagar was then given to Sarah to serve her as her personal attendant in the same way Deborah served Rebekah (Genesis 35:8). As a slave given to Sarah, Hagar was the property of Sarah. Sarah was Hagar’s gebîrâ, “her mistress” (Genesis 16:4).
A gebîrâ was a woman who had authority and power over people. In the Judean court, the gebîrâ was the queen mother who exercised some sort of political power during the reign of her son, the king. The word gebîrâ is generally translated as Great Lady. In the case of Sarah, the word gebîrâ implies that Sarah had authority over her servant Hagar.
When Yahweh called Abraham to leave his father’s house and go to the land of Canaan, Sarah went with him. Yahweh made several promises to Abraham. One of the most important promises that Yahweh made to Abraham was that through him “all the families of the earth would be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).
Later on, when God made a covenant with Abraham, Yahweh told Abraham: “‘Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be’” (Genesis 15:5).
Sarah was included in the promise and in the covenant that God made with Abraham. However, there was a threat to the promise because Sarah was unable to give a son to Abraham, “Now Sarai was barren; she had no child” (Genesis 11:30). In the ancient Near East barrenness was a source of embarrassment and humiliation to a woman since she was unable to give children to her husband. A sterile wife brought disappointment to her husband since barrenness implied a curse from God.
When Sarah realized that she would be unable to give Abraham a son in her old age, she gave Hagar as a wife to Abraham so that her slave would conceive and she could adopt her son as her own son: “The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her” (Genesis 16:2 NIV).
Documents found at Nuzi specify that a childless woman could give her slave girl to her husband so that the mistress could obtain children by her. Sarah said to Abraham, “perhaps I shall have a son through her” (Genesis 16:2 TNK). The Hebrew expression is “perhaps I will be built through her.” Sarah’s desire was to give her servant to Abraham so that she could build a family through Hagar.
Hagar had no voice in Sarah’s decision to give her to Abraham. As Fretheim writes, “She may have accepted the customs of surrogate motherhood current in that culture, but her vulnerability should not be downplayed. She has no legal rights in this situation, and when Abraham, having voiceless accepted Sarah’s proposal, shows up at her tent door to fulfil the ‘obligation,’ she has no choice but to acquiesce” (Fretheim 2007: 104).
“Abram agreed to what Sarai said” (Genesis 16:2). In ancient Israel, the birth of a son brought honor and security to a man’s household. In the case of Abraham, a son by Hagar meant that he would have an heir who would become recipient of the blessing which Yahweh had promised. He also would inherit the land God had promised to give to him.
Abraham had sexual relations with Hagar and she became pregnant. Hagar was a slave; she had no freedom. Hagar belonged to Sarah and Sarah had power over her. McKennah says that Hagar was the property of someone else. Nothing belonged to her, not even her own body. Hagar was “a piece of property that can be bought, given away, or treated inhumanely; she is even given over to the head of the household by her mistress to have children for her” (McKenna 1995: 174).
After Hagar became pregnant, she began to be disrespectful to Sarah. Hagar “looked with contempt on her mistress” (Genesis 16:4). Hagar expressed contempt toward Sarah because she was fertile and Sarah was barren. Sarah was highly offended by Hagar’s actions. Sarah complained to Abraham, telling him that Hagar had insulted her. Abraham refused to intervene in the quarrel between Sarah and Hagar.
Abraham handed Hagar to Sarah and said to her, “‘Here, your slave is in your hands; do whatever you want with her.’ Then Sarai mistreated her so much that she ran away from her” (Genesis 16:6). Sarah’s harsh treatment enraged Hagar. She decided to run away from her mistress’s house and flee to the wilderness of Shur.
Hagar and Abraham
When Sarah asked Abraham to have sex with Hagar, without a word, Abraham agreed to her request. When problems arose between the two women, Sarah accused Abraham of causing this situation, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering” (Genesis 16:5 NIV). Abraham could act and solve the problem between his two wives, but he chose not to intervene.
Abraham did not do anything to solve the tension between Sarah and Hagar. With the permission of Abraham, Sarah tormented Hagar. The Hebrew word used to describe what Sarah did to Hagar implies that Sarah used violence to oppress Hagar. In the conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Abraham was almost powerless to act even though his future son was in Hagar’s womb.
After Hagar’s son was born, the conflict between Sarah and Hagar continued. Abraham could have made sure Hagar and Ishmael were cared for, but he left their fate up to Sarah whose jealousy caused her to deal cruelly with Hagar.
The turning point in their relationship came one day when Sarah saw Isaac and Ishmael together: “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac” (Genesis 21:9).
English translations differ on what was happening between Ishmael and Isaac. The NIV says that Ishmael was “mocking” Isaac. The NLT says that Ishmael was “making fun of Isaac.” In Genesis 26:8, the same Hebrew word is used to describe Isaac “fondling his wife Rebekah.”
The Hebrew word tsāhaq literally means “laughter,” and it seems to be a play on the name Isaac, which also means “laughter.” Because of Sarah’s reaction to what she saw, some scholars have suggested that there was abusive sex behavior on the part of Ishmael. The text, however, is silent. It is possible that Ishmael was laughing at Isaac to convey to him that he was the firstborn son of Abraham.
Whatever happened between the two boys, Sarah’s reaction indicates that she saw Ishmael as a threat to her son since Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn son, although by his secondary wife. Sarah 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” (Genesis 21:10).
Sarah’s ultimatum to Abraham forced him to choose between his two sons. Abraham was not happy with Sarah’s request: “Sarah’s demand displeased Abraham greatly because Ishmael was his son” (Genesis 21:11 NET).
Abraham was concerned for Hagar and Ishmael because the boy was his firstborn son whom he loved dearly (Reiss 2002: 254). However, God calmed Abraham’s fear by telling him that he would provide for them, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman. . . . As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Genesis 21:12–13).
At the request of Sarah and with the encouragement of Yahweh, Abraham sent Hagar away, to an uncertain fate, “So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba” (Genesis 21:14).
Hagar and God
Hagar must have felt that no one cared for her when she was banished into the desert to an uncertain fate. And yet her concern was more for her young son, Ishmael, than for her own life.
God appeared to Hagar twice. The first time God spoke to Hagar was when she first fled Abraham’s house at the time Sarah mistreated her so harshly that Hagar ran away from her mistress into the wilderness of Shur (Genesis 16:6).
The Angel of the Lord appeared to Hagar by a spring of water and said to her, “‘Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’ She said, ‘I am running away from my mistress Sarai.’ The angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Return to your mistress, and submit to her’” (Genesis 16:7–9).
Hagar was fleeing from the cruel treatment Sarah had inflicted on her and now God tells Hagar to return to Sarah and submit to Sarah’s mistreatment, “You must go back to your mistress and submit to her mistreatment” (Genesis 16:9 CSB).
In her book Text of Terror, Phyllis Trible explains the severity of God’s command to Hagar. She writes that God’s two commands to “return and submit to suffering, bring a divine word of terror to an abused, yet courageous, woman. . . . Inexplicably, the God who later, seeing the suffering of a slave people, comes down to deliver them out of the hands of the Egyptians, here identifies with the oppressor and orders a servant to return not only to bondage but also to affliction” (Trible 1984: 16).
The second time God appeared to Hagar was after Abraham sent her away to the wilderness of Beer-sheba. In the wilderness, Hagar and her son were in distress. When the water in the container was gone, she feared that she and her son would die there. So, Hagar put her son under one of the bushes, left him there alone, and went away from him fearing the worse. She said, “I cannot watch the boy die. And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears” (Genesis 21:16).
While Hagar was weeping, the Angel of the Lord appeared to her and said, “Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him” (Genesis 21:17–18). Hagar and her son lived because of divine intervention. Because Ishmael was Abraham’s firstborn son, God also made a promise to Hagar that her son would become a great nation.
Hagar, A Caring Mother
Hagar had a very difficult life. Hagar was the suffering servant of Sarah. Hagar was taken away from her family and given as a slave to Abraham. She then became a servant to Sarah, her mistress. Without her consent, Hagar was forced to become a surrogate mother for Sarah. She was going to give birth to a son only to give her son away to her mistress.
Sarah was so cruel to Hagar that she ran away to escape the brutal treatment she was receiving at home. While she was in the wilderness, God told her to return to Sarah and submit to the harsh treatment imposed by Sarah. During the many years of conflict between Sarah and Hagar, Abraham, her husband, did not act to protect Hagar. At the urging of Sarah, Abraham sent Hagar away into the wilderness.
What distinguishes Hagar in the midst of her suffering was the love and concern for her son. Although the text says little about Hagar’s relationship with Ishmael, the scene in the wilderness shows the broken heart of a mother who was contemplating a painful death for her son.
When there was no more water for her and her son, Hagar knew that her son would soon die from dehydration. At that time she made a very difficult decision. She placed her son under one of the bushes, sat down by herself at a distance from him, leaving him alone to die, “I refuse to watch my son die.”
Alone and afraid for the fate of her son, Hagar wept uncontrollably. Her tears were the tears of a loving and caring mother who was about to lose the son she loved. Hagar’s attitude was not one of hopeless resignation in the face of Ishmael’s certain death. Rather, it was a request to God for help. As Jansen and Noble write, “Hagar’s words, together with her weeping, constitute a prayer that Ishmael’s life may be spared” (Jansen and Noble 2020: 519).
Hagar’s tears elicited a response from God: “Hagar, do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there” (Genesis 21:17).
Hagar’s love for her son is reflected in the actions of a mother in distress. Her words, her emotions, and her anguished heart reveal a mother who loved her son, a mother who was in agony because she was afraid that her son would die in his young age.
On this Mother’s Day, Hagar’s story reflects the lives and oppressed conditions on many women in today’s society. Hagar’s story reflects the story of surrogate mothers, pregnant women who are left alone, divorced mothers with children, and abused wives.
May these suffering mothers find comfort in the God who helped Hagar. When Hagar was alone in the wilderness, afraid for her life and without anyone to help, she met God and called him “You are El-roi,” “You Are the God Who Watches Over Me” (Genesis 16:13 GWN). In the midst of her loneliness, Hagar discovered that she was not alone.
NOTE: For other studies on the mothers of the Old Testament read my post Studies on Old Testament Mothers.
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on all the women in the Old Testament, read my post All the Women of the Old Testament.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Fretheim, Terence E. Abraham: Trials of Family and Faith. Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2007.
Janzen, J. Gerald and John T. Noble. “Did Hagar Give Ishmael Up For Dead?: Gen. 21.14–21 Re-visited.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 44 no 4 (2020): 517–531.
McKenna, Megan . Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories from the Bible. New York: Orbis Books, 1995.
Reiss, Moshe. “Ishmael, Son of Abraham.” Jewish Bible Quarterly 30 no 4 (2002): 253–256.
Trible, Phyllis. Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.