Hagar: She Who Speaks with God by Elizabeth Tracy

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, "Hagar: She Who Speaks with God", n.p. [cited 26 Nov 2022]. Online:


Elizabeth Tracy

Elizabeth Tracy
Independent Scholar

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

A region notable for its early ancient civilizations, geographically encompassing the modern Middle East, Egypt, and modern Turkey.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

wife of a patriarch of Genesis

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

An inspired message related by a prophet; also, the process whereby a prophet relates inspired messages to others.

someone who stands in as a substitute for another individual; a woman who bears a child on behalf of another woman or man

Gen 25:13-15

13These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam,14Mishma, Dumah, ... View more

Gen 16:7-14

7The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.8And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you ... View more

Gen 16

The Birth of Ishmael
1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar,2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that ... View more

Gen 16:6

6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

Gen 16:8

8And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

Gen 16:9

9The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

Gen 16:10

10The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

Gen 12

The Call of Abram
1Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you.2I will make of y ... View more

Gen 15

God's Covenant with Abram
1After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be v ... View more

Gen 16:11

11And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;
you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your afflictio ... View more

Gen 16:12

12He 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.”

Gen 16:13

13So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

Gen 16:13

13So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

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