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


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

    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.