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A nomad called Hagar

Hagar was an Egyptian slave girl of Sarai, Abram’s wife. It is most likely that she joined Abram’s family when Abram and Sarai migrated to Egypt (Gen 12:10-20). Hagar’s stories have close affinity with Sarai and Abram. Biblical stories about Hagar are presented mainly in Genesis 16:1-15 and 21:8-21. Hagar would have remained unknown, like many other slaves, had Sarai not sought to alleviate the burden of her own barrenness. The joy of every married woman is complete when she has her own child. Sarai believed that her barrenness was from God and there was nothing to be done about it. Therefore, she attempted to have a child through Hagar, whom she gave to Abram for a wife. In giving Hagar to Abram, in order to have a child through her, Sarai raised her husband’s hope and at the same time elevated the status of this slave girl. Hagar conceived and joy was expected in this family of a childless couple.

The joy expected in Abram’s family turned into sorrow when Hagar, who was then pregnant, began to deride her mistress. Sarai’s pain was unimaginable because, not only did she remain barren and quite advanced in age, the slave girl from whom she hoped to have a child utterly despised her. Her pain is reminiscent of the suffering of Hannah, the mother of Samuel (1 Sam 1). In fact, Hagar disappointed and frustrated her mistress. Sarai blamed Abram for Hagar’s behaviour, and she complained bitterly: “May the wrong done to me be on you!” (Gen 16:5).

Could Abraham not resolve the problem between his wife and the slave girl? Could he not have made Hagar apologize to her mistress? This would have saved the unpleasant condition and restored Sarai’s peace of mind and, consequently, peace in their family. Hagar was unrepentant, for pride made her disdain Sarai, who in turn retaliated. The details of Sarai vengeance on Hagar are not narrated. Hagar must have suffered immensely at the hands of her mistress. The house was no longer safe for her, and she left them. It was tragic, because the hope of having a child from her was shattered, first by Hagar herself; second by the master of the house who could have settled the quarrel between the two women. He was able to settle the strife between his herdsmen and those of Lot (Gen 13), but his internal family strife was beyond him.

When Hagar left Abram’s house, she had nowhere to go; she became homeless, wandering about in the wilderness. Her suffering, which she courageously bore, continued and was aggravated by her pregnancy. She was thinking about her life and the life of the child in her womb. In spite of all this, she preferred to be a wanderer instead of humbling herself, returning to the house and submitting to her mistress. She was indeed desperate! One cannot imagine a pregnant woman alone in the wilderness! Sarai was not moved by this suffering.

Hagar’s condition changed when the Lord found her near a spring of water in the wilderness. It was at this point that the Lord intervened, speaking through an angel who asked her: “Hagar, slave girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8). For the first time in this story we hear Hagar’s voice, replying to the angel’s twofold question. She answered only one of the two questions when she responded: “I am running away from my mistress Sarai” (Gen 16:8). Of course, she could not provide any answer to the second question because she did not know where she was going to. She needed divine intervention to enable her to do what she could have done earlier to spare herself undue suffering. The angel commanded her in these words: “Return to your mistress and submit to her” (Gen 16:9).

The discussion between the angel and Hagar did not merely end in interrogation, answer and command. She also received divine promises and learned more about the child in her womb. The Lord promised her countless descendants: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude” (Gen 16:10). This calls to mind the similar promise of countless descendants that God made to Abram (Gen 13:16; 15:5). Hagar’s offspring from and with Abram would be countless. The Lord later made the same promise to Abraham concerning Hagar’s son when Abraham wanted him to be his heir and begged God to establish his covenant with him (Gen 17:20). This promise was fulfilled in Gen 25:12-17 where the twelve sons of Ishmael are mentioned. He was the eponym of the Ishmaelites.

It was to Hagar that the child’s name was revealed. A name which is not only theophoric but which also reflects Hagar’s present. The child would be called Ishmael (“God hears”). The angel explained the name in these words: “for the Lord has given heed to your affliction” (Gen 16:11). God heard the suffering of Hagar when Sarai’s harsh treatment drove her to the wilderness. She became so privileged in spite of her own attitude toward her barren mistress. However, God hears the cry of the afflicted and saves them as he saved Hagar.

Further in Hagar’s conversation with the angel of the Lord, Ishmael’s character was revealed to her. The child “will be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin” (Gen 16:12). This description seems a reflection of Hagar’s relationship with Sarai, especially from what we know about this slave girl from the time she became pregnant; she was a terror to Sarai and Sarai’s maltreatment made Hagar leave the house.

Hagar’s encounter with the Lord through his angel was a remarkable privilege. She was aware of divine intervention in her life. This is manifested in the personal name she had for God, pronounced in her condition: “You are El-roi” (Gen 16:13), which means “God of seeing” or “God who sees me”. Hagar explains this name in her own words: “Have I really seen God and remain alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13). Moreover, the name given to this place of encounter sheds more light on Hagar’s experience of the divine; the place is called Beerlahairoi, “the Well of the living God who sees me”.

Hagar’s encounter with God perhaps changed her attitude towards Sarai. She made her journey back to Abram’s house and safely gave birth to her male child. It was Abram who gave the name to the child. This means that Hagar communicated to Abram the content of her encounter with God, particularly the name of the child. Abram was 86 years old when Ishmael was born. Sarai’s reaction at the birth of the child remains unknown to the readers.

Hagar must have obeyed the command of the angel of the Lord. She submitted to Sarai. (Note that in Gen 21 the names of the couple are changed to Abraham and Sarah) Did Sarah continue to mistreat Hagar? Hagar witnessed the birth of Isaac by her elderly barren mistress when Abraham was 100 years old. She probably continued with her daily work as a slave in Abraham’s house. We are not told how long Hagar was away from the house. All we know is that she gave birth to her son in Abraham’s house. We also do not know how Sarah received Hagar when she came back and how she treated Hagar during the remaining years that they lived together.

The episode that occurred on the day Abraham held a great feast for Isaac reveals to some extent the relationship between Hagar and Sarah. When everyone was joyful on the day that Isaac was weaned, and while the two sons of the same father were innocently playing, little did Hagar and Ishmael know that it would be their last day in that house. Ishmael was about 14 years old when Isaac was born. Isaac was three years old when the weaning feast was organized for him. Weaning was at the third of a child???. Ishmael was almost a teenager when this family feast was taking place. Sarah suddenly disrupted the feast by making a perplexing demand, which became another turning point in the life of their family. She told 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 21:10). Sarah astounded the entire family with these words.

Sarah’s demand came as a surprise, especially for Abraham who was greatly distressed. Both Ishmael and Isaac were his sons; but Ishmael was the first born and principal heir of their father’s inheritance. As long as Ishmael remained in that house, Isaac would be inferior to him. Sarah was threatened by this thought. Did Abraham forget that Isaac was the promised son who would continue the covenant with God? (Gen 17:19). Was Sarah’s demand calling his attention to this promise? The tone of her words was highly malicious. For Sarah, Hagar was a slave and Hagar’s son was merely the son of a slave girl. Sarah no longer recognized Ishmael as her legitimate son whom she initially desired. Since she had her own child, Ishmael became a slave woman’s son who should have no right of inheritance.

There was again divine intervention at this trying moment in Abraham’s family. Abraham found it difficult to disown his own son by dismissing Hagar and Ishmael. God encouraged him in these words: “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring” (Gen 21:12-13). It was a consolation for Abraham to hear all this. Thus, he prepared for Hagar and Ishmael’s departure. He gave them bread and water that would sustain them for some time. Hagar left with her child. As a slave she could not do otherwise. She had to leave, suffering human jealousy and injustice.

Hagar again became a wanderer in the wilderness. At this time it was not as a pregnant woman but with her son. She who had been silent spoke when she felt that her son was in a critical condition due to lack of sustenance. She soliloquized: “Do not let me look on the death of the child” (Gen 21:16). It appears that the narrator of Gen 21 presents Ishmael as a small child who was helpless. God heard the voice of the helpless, and the angel of God spoke to Hagar: “What troubles you Hagar? Do not be afraid” (Gen 21:17). This marked the beginning of her salvation and that of her son. God was with them and provided what they were in dire need of at that time. God opened her eyes to see water, thus fulfilling the encouraging words, “Do not be afraid”.

God sustained Hagar and her son in the wilderness. Ishmael became a hunter, a nomad. Hagar took care of her son. She was both father and mother to her only child, for she did the work of a mother and that of a father. Usually it was the father to arrange for marriage of his son. Hagar did this for Ishmael. She got an Egyptian for him as a wife. The rest of the story of Hagar, whether she married and had other children, or how her life ended, remains obscure. The much we know from the Old Testament is very striking. In the New Testament she is mentioned twice and only in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians 4:24-25, where she is presented as a symbol of all who are slaves, particularly the spiritual slavery generated by sin.

Contempt breeds contempt and untold suffering. Hagar could have lived normally as a slave under her mistress had she not been consumed by pride. She was paid in her own coin and suffered the consequences of her actions against her mistress. However, God always has pity on human suffering even when we are the cause of our predicament. Hagar was a victim of jealousy and injustice; she also perpetrated similar wicked acts. Her story portrays the tragic aspect of human weakness manifested in hatred of one another. When Hagar was in trouble, God saved her by providing what she needed. God’s ways are not our ways. He saves us even when we do not merit his blessings.

Obiorah Mary Jerome

Obiorah Mary Jerome is from Nigeria. She belongs to the Congregation of the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Mother of Christ. She studied in Rome where she obtained degree in Philosophy and Theology from the Gregorian Pontifical University, and Licentiate and Doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute. Currently, she is a lecturer of Biblical languages, exegesis and theology at Blessed Iwene Tansi Major Seminary, Onitsha, Nigeria and the University of Nigeria Nsukka, Nigeria. She is the author of How lovely is your dwelling place: Desire for God’s house in Psalm 84 and many other publications on various aspects of the Bible.

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