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Hagar, She Who Speaks with God

Hagar, fleeing Abraham and Sarah’s household, is found by an angel of the Lord in the desert and receives a covenant blessing and a personal birth annunciation from God.

Edmonia Lewis

Hagar, the Egyptian slave and handmaid who lives with Abraham and Sarah, is one of the Abrahamic traditions’ primary women. She is the mother of Abraham’s oldest son, Ishmael, and, through him, the matriarch of multiple Arab tribes, revered by Islam and acknowledged by Hebrew and Christian traditions (Gen 25:13-15). More strikingly, Gen 16:7-14 portrays her as a woman who knows the Hebrew God personally.

In Gen 16, Hagar becomes an important component in Abraham and Sarah’s desperate need for a child. She is Abraham’s concubine (a common family arrangement in the ancient Near East) and yet they fail to see Hagar as a whole person, never calling her by name. She is an object to be used as a surrogate for the child Sarah is unable to conceive. Sarah treats her “harshly” (Gen 16:6) and Hagar flees from this abuse to the wilderness.

An angel of God calls Hagar by name in direct opposition to her previous experiences (Gen 16:8). The verse continues, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” The questions aren’t just about her situation at that moment. They reflect her past and her future. Hagar answers truthfully but not completely. She states where she has come from but does not say where she is going. By focusing only on the past, Hagar confesses that she envisions no future.

The angel’s command to “return and submit” (Gen 16:9) reverses Hagar’s flight. To some this command is insensitive and oppressive. The verses that follow, however, display God’s focus on Hagar’s future. She won’t return defenseless or with the same status. She will return with strong promises received directly and personally from God.

Hagar, not a man, husband, or patriarch, also receives a covenant blessing (Gen 16:10). She is one of four people to hear the covenant directly from God. Unlike Abraham’s more general promises in Gen 12 and Gen 15, the promise to Hagar has details supplied in Gen 16:11— the first full birth annunciation. To further solidify this event, the angel also tells Hagar, “Behold, you are pregnant.” Statements like this usually refer to future pregnancies, not a present condition. Here, scholars often shift the focus of their commentaries from Hagar to her son. However, the meaning of the name Ishmael (“God hears”) forces the focus back to Hagar—“God has heard of your afflictions”—meaning Hagar’s situation. Gen 16:12 describes Ishmael as a “wild ass of a man,” the connotation being that he’ll live an unfettered life worthy of his defiant mother. The dialogue that began with a command to return and submit concludes with the disclosure of the identity of Ishmael, whose name acknowledges the cruelty Hagar has endured and provides a prophecy for mother and son that is anything but meek and dutiful.

Gen 16:13 is an extraordinary moment in Scripture. The narrator introduces Hagar’s words with a striking expression afforded no one else: Hagar calls the name of the Lord who spoke to her. By literally calling God “He sees me” (El roi), Hagar testifies to her personal experience. There is no standard translation for the remaining section of Gen 16:13. Though the text is difficult, it must be stressed that the sentence references a mutual seeing for both God and Hagar. The effect of claiming to have been seen by God is Hagar’s way of asserting her personhood and a relationship with God that even Sarah doesn’t have.

When Hagar is removed physically from those who control every aspect of her life, a personal identity and relationship materializes. As a socially marginalized woman, her most intimate relationship, it turns out, is with God.

  • Elizabeth Tracy

    Elizabeth Tracy is an independent scholar with a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the University of St. Andrews.