Behind the scenes - Hagar

On the surface, Hagar's story is a sad one. What we know of her is that she was an Egyptian handmaiden to Sarai, probably acquired on the trek Abram and Sarai made into Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan. Exactly how Hagar was acquired is not known. The Bible tells us that Pharaoh gave Abram gifts of animals and servants, so perhaps she was just one of the female slaves Abram was given during that time. Perhaps Abram then turned her over to Sarai once he finally got her back from Pharaoh's clutches. In Rabbinical Literature (according to Jewish Encyclopedia) Hagar is thought to be daughter to Pharaoh. "According to the Midrash (Gen. R. xlv.), Hagar was the daughter of Pharaoh, who, seeing what great miracles God had done for Sarah's sake (Gen. xii. 17), said: "It is better for Hagar to be a slave in Sarah's house than mistress in her own." In this sense Hagar's name is interpreted as "reward" ("Ha-Agar" = "this is reward")."

The truth is, we really don't know Hagar's origins. We do know that she was Egyptian, that she was given to Abram as a wife/concubine, that when she became pregnant, she despised Sarai (showing she'd grown a bit proud over her ability to conceive) and was harshly mistreated for her attitude. She ran away from Sarai, met God in the desert, and returned to give birth to Abram's son Ishmael. Years later, when Sarah finally gave birth to Isaac and Isaac was weaned, Hagar and Ishmael were sent packing. God met Hagar again in the desert. (She was one of the few women in the Old Testament whom God appeared to twice. Not even Sarah had that privilege.) And when Ishmael was grown, Hagar took a wife for him from her homeland of Egypt.

It doesn't sound like much to go on when putting such a character into a story, but in truth, there is about as much information on Hagar as there is on Michal, Abigail, or Bathsheba. In getting to know Hagar, we need to explore her Egyptian culture, imagine what it was like for her in Pharaoh's palace, either as a slave or his daughter, imagine how it would feel to be thrust into the arms of a man old enough to be her grandfather, and then follow her path as a single mother in a household where she is despised by her mistress, knowing her son is favored by his father, but she is not.

Such knowledge gives us a lot to ponder as we put ourselves in Hagar's sandals. But what an object of grace she was! A young pregnant woman who had run away from abuse, whether physical or verbal we are not told, knowing that her "husband" would not defend her against his favored first wife. She is hungry and exhausted and emotionally spent when she stops to rest probably thinking she will die before she makes it back to Egypt. And then she hears her name spoken in such a way that arrests her attention.

The Bible says the Lord found Hagar at a spring near the desert.

“Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.” The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward  all his brothers. ”

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me, ” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Hagar heard God's voice and obeyed it. God had seen her misery and looked on her with kindness. Though He didn't change her circumstances, He gave her the ability to live with them. And eventually, she became the honored mother of the Ishmaelite and Arab peoples, whose descendants still hold her in high regard today.

So though her story may seem sad to us, and in many ways it is for she did not live an easy life, she was also valued by God, not just because she carried Abram's child, but because God saw her misery. He called her by name. Just as He does each one of us who need and seek Him.