Hagar: What She Lost and What She Found
The challenge of life is to endure, survive and enjoy the journey with our total selves in tact; but everyday struggles have a subtle way of wearing us down.
Take Hagar, for example. In her story presented in Genesis 16 (The Bible), she was a slave-maid turned surrogate mother for her mistress. She was abused and abandoned by the people she trusted for ten years. Hagar may not have labeled her losses with the same terms that modern women use; but it is safe to say that her life was headed in a direction she never intended for it to go.
Hers is a cautionary tale for women who act without weighing the consequences; it is also an exemplary tale of perseverance and courage.
Hagar Lost Identity
Sarai, Abram's wife . . . had an Egyptian maid named Hagar. (16:1)
Commentators in both Jewish and Islamic traditions believe that Hagar descended from royal blood. They believe that Abraham and Sarah acquired her when the couple traveled to Egypt to avoid the famine in Canaan (Genesis 12). It was probably they who gave the young Egyptian woman a Hebrew name meaning “stranger,” a constant reminder that she was not at home.
The emotional fallout of Hagar’s experience is similar to that of men and women who are forced to adjust to new situations: unemployment, divorce, a failed venture. For them, life cannot continue as usual; but personal inner strength can remain the same.
Loss of identity is what onlookers see; what the sufferer must feel is the resolve to maintain it. Hagar was a slave, without rights of her own and without an opportunity to change her situation. That was temporary.
Hagar Lost Focus
Sarai said to Abram, "God has not seen fit to let me have a child. Sleep with my maid. . . . But when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt. (16:2-5)
Sarah developed a fantasy and forced Hagar to participate. There is no evidence that the slave-maid agreed, or that she was even consulted. This was a story of conflict between women: a prominent, wealthy socialite and a slave. Hagar felt exalted, for what woman has not felt empowered by a surge of female power and prestige during her first pregnancy?
As the conflict progressed, Hagar lost focus. She thought, like some modern women do, that pregnancy was a certain pass to the affection of the child’s father and a probable pass to an improved social status. She was still a slave although she was carrying Abraham’s heir.
With two women in one man’s life, the women can be sure of unequal loyalty. Even for Hagar in a culture that accepted concubinage, and where it seemed that fertility would guarantee her a place in the household, life became miserable. For the arrangement to work, she would have had to retain the posture of slavery, allowing Sarah to own her and her child. That was the reality, but she lost focus.
Hagar Lost Connections
Sarai was abusive to Hagar and Hagar ran away. (16:7)
With her identity and purpose lost, Hagar needed friendship, advice, refuge. She stood alone, disconnected. Sarah, with permission from her husband began to dole out the punishment she thought Hagar deserved. Eventually, the pregnant mother ran away.
She headed toward the desert of Shur, making scholars suspect that she tried to return to Egypt, 150 miles across the wilderness. The History of Israel points out that the Hebrew Sarah had treated the Egyptian Hagar the same way the Egyptians treated the Hebrew slaves years later; and that the wilderness of Shur was the same location the Hebrews migrated to after they crossed the Red Sea. Hagar seemed to relive the experience of the Hebrew slaves; only making the journey in reverse, and by herself.
Hagar Found Faith
She answered God by name, praying to the God who spoke to her, "You're the God who sees me! "Yes! He saw me; and then I saw him!" (16:13)
Hagar’s story began to change when alone, weary and searching for water, an angel found her. Several other people made their greatest spiritual find when God found them alone. Jacob, the son of Isaac, as well as the prophet Daniel and the apostle John were alone when they received special revelations from God.
In conversation with the angel, Hagar was instructed to return to Sarah’s house. That idea might have crippled her, were it not for the good news that the angel added: God knew everything about her, and had already planned a future for her child. In response, she claimed God as her own, not only the God of Abraham and Sarah. She found the faith necessary to obey Him and follow His plan without understanding it.
Hagar Found Freedom
Meanwhile, God heard the boy crying. The angel of God called from Heaven to Hagar, "What's wrong, Hagar? Don't be afraid. . . I'm going to make of him a great nation." (21:16-18)
For fourteen years Ishmael, Hagar's son, enjoyed his father’s presence. Then Sarah miraculously gave birth to her own child, and her resentment for Hagar and Ishmael caused them to leave again.
God appeared to Hagar, this time in the wilderness of Beersheba, when her food was finished and she feared that her son would die. He assured her of His protection and predicted Ishmael’s future as a great nation, making Hagar the mother of a great nation. Ishmael’s sons are listed as descendants of Hagar (1 Chronicles 1: 28-30).
The Muslims believe that Muhammad is the descendant of Ishmael. Every year, they retrace Hagar’s steps searching for water. Julia Klein in US News (January 25, 2008) points out that Arabs trace their lineage to her, and that African-Americans see her as the symbol of the slave woman’s plight.
Christians see Hagar as the symbol of the legal covenant handed to Moses at Mount Sinai; as opposed to Sarah, symbol of the covenant of grace made possible by Jesus. Yet, Hagar is more than a symbol. She is in reality, a woman who searched for salvation from bondage. In the process she taught us that our search for whatever good thing we need, is complete when we find God.
Bible quotations are from The Message Translation. Read the complete story in Genesis 16 and 21.
© 2012 Dora Weithers