Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl in the tribe of Abraham. She belonged to Sarah, the alpha female of the tribe.
Egyptian slave girl makes good
story contains two central episodes:
See MAPS OF BIBLE LANDS for the location of this story
Read 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.
You might take a look at Egyptian love poems in Women in the Bible: the story of Potiphar's Wife: it will give you some idea of the comparative sophistication of the Egyptians.
Hagar was always disadvantaged among the Hebrew women because she was a foreigner and a slave. This was ironic, 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. In her own eyes and in the estimation of the tribe she was a failure, and her barren state was a constant torment.
She decided to offer her slave Hagar to Abraham as a surrogate. 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 and 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. Eventually, she might be the mother of the tribe's leader, which would make her Queen Bee of the tribe.
'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.'
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. Abraham 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.
'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
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.
'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 the word 'angel' meant exactly 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:
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.
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
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.
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'.
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.
Hagar - Bible Woman - Women of the Old
Testament; Bible Study Resource