Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Hagar: Mother of Abraham’s Eldest Son

   Hagar is someone about whom very little is known, but she is someone who had a major impact on an entire group of people, namely those who follow the Prophet Muhammad.  We know more about Sarah since she is a rather central character in the Book of Genesis.  Even though very little is known about Hagar, she is an interesting figure because of her relationship to Abraham.
    We first encounter her in Genesis 16.  Sarah was barren and an old woman. She knew how important it was that she provided Abraham with an heir to carry on the covenant, so she gave her servant Hagar to Abraham as a concubine (second wife) knowing that any child born to Hagar would be her child according to Ancient Near East custom.  
   Hagar conceived and in no time at all there was tension between these two women.  Sarah goes to Abraham and says, “May the wrong done to me be on you!  I gave my slave girl to your embrace and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt.  May the Lord judge between you and me!”  It must have been extremely painful for Sarah to come to the realization that it was not Abraham who was incapable of producing a child, but it was because of some personal issue of her own.  The shame of being childless must have been overwhelming for her.  The slightest glance from this slave girl could easily have been taken as a sign of contempt by Sarah. 
   The challenge is that she does not immediately confront Hagar, but rather she confronts Abraham.  He did not do anything wrong.  Sarah encouraged him to have relations with Hagar and he agreed, but now that Sarah feels slighted she attacks Abraham.  He responds by telling her that Hagar is in her power and she should do as she pleases.  Sarah dealt harshly with Hagar, so Hagar decided to run away.
    Here we have this pregnant Egyptian slave girl roaming through the desert, perhaps on her way back to Egypt when she is found by an angel of God by a spring of water in the wilderness.  The angel asks her where she is coming from and where she is going.  She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarah.”  The angel said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel also said, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted.”  This is the very same promise that God made to Abraham earlier. The angel continued,
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael 1, for the Lord has given heed to your afflictions.  He shall 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.”
   If I were about to become a father and the mother of my child ran away into the desert with no provisions, I would be beside myself with worry.  However, there is no emotion shown by Abraham when she returns.  I realize that she is a slave girl; however, she is also the mother of his child and his second wife. The only details we receive from the text are that Hagar bore Abraham a son, and named him Ishmael.  Abraham was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.
   In the intervening chapters we read about Abraham being visited by three men/angels who tell him that when they return the same time the following year his wife Sarah would have a child of her own.  Sarah laughed at the idea of becoming a mother at such an advanced age, but the man/angel told her that “nothing is impossible for God”.  Then we read of the birth of Isaac in the beginning of Chapter 21.
   After Isaac had grown, Abraham made a great feast on the occasion of his son being weaned.  Sarah saw Ishmael playing with Isaac, so 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.”  Abraham was greatly distressed over this, but God said to him, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and 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 great nation of him also, because he is your offspring.” (Gen. 21:12-13)  Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and putting Ishmael on Hagar’s shoulder, he sent them both away.  Hagar departed and they wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.  
   What was Abraham feeling at this moment? Sure, God told him to follow Sarah’s directive and send the boy and his mother away, but this is his son and she is his wife.  There is no mention of any emotions on the part of Abraham. Did he kiss them goodbye, promise to pray for them, and wish them well?  We do not know.  There is no mention that Abraham even watched them leave the camp and head off into the wilderness.  Surely a loaf of bread and a skin of water will not last all that long in the harsh desert surroundings!
   When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the brushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him, a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.”  As she sat near him, she lifted up her voice and wept. God heard the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven saying, “What troubles you, Hagar?  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.”  Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.  
  God was with the boy, and he grew up and lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. This is the last mention of Hagar in the Book of Genesis.  What became of her after her son grew up?   We have no idea.
   It was probably during this period that Hebrew women enjoyed greatest freedom and prestige. The stories in Genesis and Exodus show them as independent, strong, and smart, displaying leadership and initiative. The women in these stories almost always got their way when they wanted something.
This was because women were necessary for the survival of the tribe, and they knew it. They performed a wide range of tasks without which the clan or family simply could not have managed. They moved freely in society, were not confined within the home, and seem to have spoken and acted confidently.
  Their contribution to the culture of the time was significant. The stories as we have them in the Bible were edited much later by male priests, but there are hints that women had a thriving cultural tradition of their own. These stories dealt with families, children, food, security/safety and home-places, all things related to women’s lives, and scholars suggest that many of the stories of Genesis were originally women’s stories, preserved by women down the centuries. 2
   Even though Hagar is not mentioned all that often in the Bible, she did give birth to Abraham’s eldest son and he too received the same blessing from God that his father received.  There is a midrashic (Jewish folklore) tale that Keturah, the woman Abraham marries following the death of Sarah (Gen. 25:1-6) was actually Hagar who had returned to him and perhaps had been given a new name wherever she had settled.
    Hagar may not have been one whose grandson had become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel; however, she certainly was faithful to God.  When the angel told her to return and submit to Sarah she did so and she was rewarded by God with a son who became the father of a great nation.

                                                  End Notes

1) The name, Ishmael, in Hebrew means “God heard”.
2) “Hagar”

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