People

Hagar by Wil Gafney

Hagar is perhaps more epithet than name, ha “the,” gar “resident alien.” She is an African (Egyptian) woman or girl of childbearing age held in slavery by Sarah (Gen 16:1). Was the Hebrew-speaking audience who first heard her tale (and those of us who follow) supposed to believe that her Egyptian name just happened to sound like a Hebrew expression labeling her as other? Should we imagine that her enslavers didn’t bother with the name she had been given and called her that epithet so much it became her name as far as they were concerned? However much agency Hagar has—and it is substantial—her story is an element of someone else’s story. So no one bothers to ask, learn, remember, or record her (true) name. Her story appears in Gen 16 and Gen 21:1-21.

How can Hagar be a slave and Abraham’s wife at the same time?

Slavery is part of the cultural fabric of the world that produced the Scriptures. Though some debate whether servitude or even debt-slavery should be used to describe the institution instead, the presumption of right to sexual access marks Hagar’s status as enslaved. And at the same time, at Sarah’s instigation, she becomes Abraham’s wife (ishah), the same status Sarah has (Gen 16:3). (There was a secondary-wife category of lesser status, but Abraham and Sarah wanted Hagar’s baby to be their full heir.) Sarah controls every aspect of Hagar’s life, including the use of her body.

The larger story is about God’s fidelity to Sarah and Abraham and their failure to wait for the fulfillment of the divine promise (see Gen 12:7, Gen 15:1-6, Gen 16:1-3, Gen 17:15-22, Gen 21:1-7). When Sarah does not become pregnant she decides to create a child through a surrogate whom she owns, so that the child will be hers. After conceiving, Hagar looks down on Sarah and Sarah decides to get rid of her and the unborn child (Gen 16:4-6). Abraham affirms Sarah’s control over her slave and Sarah inflicts some sort of abuse on her. (The Hebrew verb is the same as the one used for Egyptian oppression of the Israelites in Exod 1:11, significantly more than the usual translation, “dealt harshly.”) When Hagar runs away in Gen 16:6-8, even God affirms Sarah’s ownership of Hagar. Hagar returns to her enslavement at God’s command, but her life only gets more difficult. In Gen 21:10, after Sarah has given birth to Isaac, she decides that Hagar and her son Ishmael need to go. Abraham leaves Hagar and their son in the wilderness with minimal provision, to meet their fate (Gen 21:14). Hagar’s status as slave rather than as wife dictates her fate—those who own her body use and discard it as they see fit.

Is the Israelite God Hagar’s God?

Hagar has two extraordinary encounters with God. When she runs away, a divine messenger (God in disguise) appears to her (Gen 16:7). The messenger questions and she answers. The messenger commands and she obeys. Is she only responding to the power of a supernatural being, or does she accept the sovereignty of Abraham’s God? Her response may offer a clue. Hagar receives the same sort of divine promise of offspring as Abraham and Sarah do in Gen 16:11-12 (compare with Gen 17:19-21). In that promise God self-identifies as Yhwh. Hagar does not address God by that name. Instead she gives God a new name, one of her choosing. She calls God El Ro’i: “God Who Has Seen Me” or “God Whom I Have Seen.” This naming of God by a person is without precedent, nor is there any following example of someone naming God in the Scriptures.

How does God see Hagar? In Gen 16:11 the messenger states that God has “given heed” to Hagar’s affliction (oppression). Those are the same words God says to the enslaved Israelites through Moses in Exod 3:16 and Exod 4:31. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures this language is used for God and Israel, and also Hagar. In Hagar’s second divine encounter in Gen 21:17-20, God (through the divine messenger) hears the cries (literally, “voice”) of Hagar’s son from heaven. This is God’s regular response to the Israelites: Rachel (Gen 30:6), Israel (Num 20:16, Deut 26:7), and David (2Sam 22:7, Ps 18:6) all are heard by God. God’s promise to Hagar on behalf of her son, “I will make of you a great nation,” is the same one given to Abraham (Gen 12:2), Jacob (Gen 46:3), Moses (Exod 32:10, Deut 9:14), and Israel (Num 14:12). As recipients of a dynastic promise, Hagar and Ishmael are in the company of Sarah and Abraham; others will follow, but none outside of Israel.

Wil Gafney, "Hagar", n.p. [cited 18 Jan 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/hagar

Contributors

Wil Gafney

Wil Gafney
Associate Professor, Brite Divinity School

Wil Gafney is associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the author of Daughters of Miriam: Women Prophets in Ancient Israel (Fortress, 2008) and coeditor of The Peoples' Bible (Fortress, 2008) and The Peoples' Companion to the Bible (Fortress, 2010). Her volumes Womanist Midrash (Westminster John Knox) and Nahum, Habakkuk and Zephaniah (Liturgical Press) are forthcoming.

Hagar, the African mother of many nations, who saw and named God, was enslaved, impregnated, abandoned, and liberated by Sarah and Abraham.

Did you know…?

  • Hagar is revered as a matriarch by many African American Christians, who find resonances between her enslavement, sexual abuse, and ultimate liberation (including her thwarted first attempt) and the experiences of enslaved African women in the Americas and Caribbean.
  • Though not mentioned in the Qur’an, in Islam Hagar (Hajar) is the mother of Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) promised heir. A portion of her wilderness flight is commemorated annually by pilgrims during the Hajj.
  • Israelites practiced two-tiered marriage. The children of a pilegesh (often mistranslated as a “concubine”), a low-status or secondary wife, were not entitled to an inheritance (Gen 25:6).
  • The “angel of the Lord” is often God in disguise. This divine messenger often speaks in the third person for God and the first person as God, sometimes switching back and forth (see Exod 3:2-4, Judg 2:1, Judg 6:11-16).

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Gen 16:1

The Birth of Ishmael


1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,

Gen 16

The Birth of Ishmael


1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,

2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that ... View more

Gen 21:1-21

The Birth of Isaac


1The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.

2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old a ... View more

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

Gen 16:3

3So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a ... View more

Gen 12:7

7Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him.

Gen 15:1-6

God's Covenant with Abram


1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Gen 16:1-3

The Birth of Ishmael


1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,

2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that ... View more

Gen 17:15-22

15God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name.

16I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son ... View more

Gen 21:1-7

The Birth of Isaac


1The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised.

2Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old a ... View more

Gen 16:4-6

4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

5Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the w ... View more

Exod 1:11

11Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh.

Gen 16:6-8

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

7The angel o ... View more

Gen 21:10

10So she 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.”

Gen 21:14

14So 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 ... View more

The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.

Gen 16:7

7The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

Gen 16:11-12

11And the angel of the Lord said to her,


“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;


you shall call him Ishmael,


for the Lord has given heed to your afflictio ... View more

Gen 17:19-21

19God said, “No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for hi ... View more

Gen 16:11

11And the angel of the Lord said to her,


“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;


you shall call him Ishmael,


for the Lord has given heed to your afflictio ... View more

Exod 3:16

16Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, s ... View more

Exod 4:31

31The people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.

Gen 21:17-20

17And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God ha ... View more

Gen 30:6

6Then Rachel said, “God has judged me, and has also heard my voice and given me a son”; therefore she named him Dan.

Num 20:16

16and when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt; and here we are in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territ ... View more

Deut 26:7

7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

2Sam 22:7

7In my distress I called upon the Lord;


to my God I called.


From his temple he heard my voice,


and my cry came to his ears.


Ps 18:6

6In my distress I called upon the Lord;


to my God I cried for help.


From his temple he heard my voice,


and my cry to him reached his ears.


Gen 12:2

2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.

Gen 46:3

3Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there.

Exod 32:10

10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”

Deut 9:14

14Let me alone that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven; and I will make of you a nation mightier and more numerous than they.”

Num 14:12

12I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”

The Muslim pillar of pilgrimage to Mecca.

Gen 25:6

6But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

Exod 3:2-4

2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.

3Then Moses said, “I ... View more

Judg 2:1

Israel's Disobedience


1Now the angel of the Lord went up from Gilgal to Bochim, and said, “I brought you up from Egypt, and brought you into the land that I had ... View more

Judg 6:11-16

The Call of Gideon


11Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wh ... View more

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