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What is the story of Sarah and Hagar?
Sarah was the wife of Abraham. Hagar was the servant of Sarah. God had promised Abraham many descendants, but, ten years after the promise, Sarah was still unable to have children, and they were both on the verge of becoming too old to have children at all. Sarah chose to give her servant Hagar to Abraham, in accordance with the custom of the day, so that Sarah could have a child through her (Genesis 16:2).
Hagar conceived, and Sarah despised her. Sarah began to deal harshly with her, and Hagar fled to the desert to escape the resentment of her mistress. The angel of the Lord met Hagar in the wilderness, commanding her to return to Abraham and Sarah. The angel relayed a promise from God: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 16:10). The angel also predicted Ishmael’s name and character (Genesis 16:11-12).
Later, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah gave birth to a son named Isaac (Genesis 21). Hagar’s son Ishmael would have been about 14 years old at the time of Isaac’s birth. Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away after Isaac was weaned (around age 2 or 3, making Ishmael approximately 16), according to God’s command. At that time, God repeated His promise that Ishmael would father a great nation. Hagar was in the desert and near death when the angel of God called to her, saying, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 21:17-18).
Ishmael and his mother lived in the wilderness of Paran, where he became an expert with a bow and later took an Egyptian wife (Genesis 21:20-21). He is seen once again in Scripture when he returned to help bury his father Abraham (Genesis 25:7-10).
Ishmael, the son of a bondservant, became the father of 12 sons who were called princes. He lived to 137 years of age. Sarah died at the age of 127 in Hebron, where she was buried (Genesis 23:1-2).
Many observations can be made regarding the story of Sarah and Hagar. First, God can and often does work through ways that appear unlikely from a human perspective. Abraham miraculously became a father at age 86 and again at age 99. Isaac’s mother, Sarah, was barren. God’s promise to Abraham did not depend on human strength, and with God nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37). God used a seemingly impossible situation to make Abraham the father of the Jewish people, just as He had predicted.
It is clear from this story that God works despite misguided human effort. Sarah had no business offering her servant to Abraham, and Abraham had no business sleeping with Hagar. And Sarah was wrong to mistreat her servant as she did. Yet God worked through these situations. Hagar was blessed, and Abraham and Sarah were still the recipients of the promise. God’s mercy is great, and His sovereign will is accomplished regardless of human frailty.
This unlikely family story is one readers would expect to end badly. Yet God kept His promise Isaac became the son of promise through whom the tribes of Israel would arise. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, also became a great leader. Regardless of how a situation looks from a human perspective, God continues to work both to accomplish His will and to fulfill His promises.
In Galatians 4, Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate the results of two different covenants: the New Covenant, based on grace and the Old Covenant, based on the Law. In Paul’s analogy, believers in Christ are like the child born of Sarah&mdashfree, the result of God’s promise. Those who try to earn their salvation by their own works are like the child born of Hagar&mdasha slave, the result of human effort.
Hagar is Sarai’s Egyptian slave girl, whom Sarai (later Sarah ) gives to Abram (later Abraham) as a wife who would bear a child that would be considered Sarai’s (Gen 16:3). Although it bears a resemblance to modern technological surrogate motherhood, this custom may seem bizarre. However, cuneiform texts of the second and first millennia b.c.e . attest to this custom in ancient Mesopotamia.
The first such text, from the Old Assyrian colony in Anatolia, dates from around 1900 b.c.e . A marriage contract, it stipulates that if the wife does not give birth in two years, she will purchase a slave woman for the husband. The most famous text, in the Code of Hammurabi (no. 146), concerns the marriage of a naditu, a woman, attached to a temple, who is not allowed to bear children. Her husband has the right to take a second wife, but if she wishes to forestall this, she can give her husband a slave. In the world of the ancient Near East, a slave woman could be seen as an incubator, a kind of womb-with-legs.
Sarai and Abram see Hagar in this role and never call her by name. She, however, sees herself as a person and, once pregnant, does not see Sarai as superior “she looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen 16:4). With Abram’s permission, Sarai regains authority over Hagar. She “degrades her” (NRSV, “dealt harshly with her”), possibly by treating her as an ordinary slave (Gen 16:6). The Hammurabi laws acknowledge the possibility that the pregnant slave woman might claim equality with her mistress, and they allow the mistress to treat her as an ordinary slave (law 146). This seems to be what Sarai is doing. However, Hagar is not passive.
Rather than submit, she runs away to the wilderness of Shur, where she meets God’s messenger, who tells her to return to submit to Sarai’s abuse for then she will bear a son who will be a “wild ass of a man” (Gen 16:12). Just as the wild ass was never domesticated, so too Hagar’s son would never be subject to anyone, and would live “with his hand against everyone” and “in everyone’s face” (Gen 16:12).
The angel’s annunciation to Hagar is similar to announcements to Hannah , to the mother of Samson , and to Mary the mother of Jesus: all would have children with special destinies, and all are addressed personally, not through their husbands. God’s request that Hagar become a slave again and return to be degraded by Sarai seems strange: why should God respect property rights over the freedom of persons? This is particularly odd, considering the legal code of Israel, which, alone among ancient law systems, specified that runaway slaves should not be returned to their masters (Deut 23:16). But the angel’s speech here parallels God’s speech to Abram in Gen 15:13, which states that his children would be enslaved and degraded before their redemption. Both passages use the key terms that Israel uses to describe the Egypt experience. Hagar, the slave from Egypt, foreshadows Israel, the future slaves in Egypt. Her very name, Hagar, could be heard as hagger, meaning “the alien” Hagar is an alien in Abram’s household as Israel will be aliens, gerim, in a foreign land. Hagar is to be degraded as Abram’s descendants will be degraded, and YHWH has “given heed to affliction” as God will hear the affliction of Abram’s descendants.
Hagar is Abram’s counterpart. God speaks directly to her, forging a relationship independent of God’s relationship with Abram, and she responds in that way. She names God (“You are El-roi,” meaning “the one who sees me” Gen 16:13) and the place (Beer-lahai-roi, “the well of the Living One who sees” Gen 16:14) and then goes back to Abram’s household and bears a son, whom Abram (not Sarai) names Ishmael.
Hagar and Ishmael are freed at Sarai’s instigation (Gen 21:9–14). Here too their destiny is parallel to later Israel’s, for the newly freed slaves head to the desert and struggle with thirst. God then saves the dying Ishmael, not because of Hagar’s cries or God’s promises to Abram, but because God heard Ishmael’s voice (Gen 21:15–21). God's relationship with Hagar is resealed with her son, as God’s relationship with Abram is resealed with Isaac and his son Jacob.
Like Jacob, Ishmael has twelve sons. Hagar is the ancestor of these twelve tribes of Ishmael (Gen 25:12–15). She may also be the ancestor of the Hagrites, tent dwellers mentioned along with Ishmaelites in Ps 83:7 (see also 1 Chr 5:10 27:30).
The Qur’an, like some Jewish A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules). Midrash , remembers Hagar as a princess. In more modern times, Hagar is often admired as the symbol of downtrodden women who persevere.
Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “Patriarchal Family Relationships and Near Eastern Law.” Biblical Archaeologist 44 (1981): 209–214.
Gossai, Hemchand. Power and Marginality in the Abraham Narrative. Maryland: 1995.
Meyers, Carol, General Editor. Women in Scripture. New York: 2000.
Rereading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. New York: 2002.
“Sarah and Hagar.” In Talking about Genesis: A Research Guide. New York: 1996, 94–97.
Trible, Phyllis. “Hagar: The Desolation of Rejection.” In Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives. Pennsylvania: 1984.
Sarai forces Hagar and Ishmael to leave
21:8 The child grew and eventually was weaned, so Abraham threw a tremendous banquet on the very day Isaac was weaned. 9 Nevertheless, when Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian—whom Hagar had borne to Abraham—making fun of Isaac, 10 she told Abraham, “Throw out this slave girl, along with her son, because this slave’s son will never be a co-heir with my son Isaac!”
11 Abraham was very troubled about what was being said about his son, 12 but God told Abraham, “Don’t be troubled about the youth and your slave girl. Pay attention to Sarah in everything she tells you, because your offspring are to be named through Isaac. 13 Nevertheless, I will make the slave girl’s son into a nation, since he, too, is your offspring.”
14 So early the next morning, Abraham got up, took bread and a leather bottle of water, gave them to Hagar, and placed them on her shoulder. He then sent her away, along with the child. She went off and roamed in the Beer-sheba wilderness. 15 Eventually, the water in the leather bottle ran out, so she placed the child under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went and sat by herself about a distance of a bowshot away, because she kept saying to herself, “I can’t bear to watch the child die!” That’s why she sat a short distance away, crying aloud and weeping.
The LORD Rescues Hagar and Ishmael
17 God heard the boy’s voice, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven. He asked her, “What’s wrong with you, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, because God has heard the voice of the youth where he is. 18 Get up! Pick up the youth and grab his hand, because I will make a great nation of his descendants.” 19 Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. So she went, filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He settled in the wilderness and became an expert archer. 21 Later he settled in the desert area of Paran, and his mother chose a wife for him from the land of Egypt.
16:1 Now Abram’s wife Sarai had not borne a child for him. She had an Egyptian servant girl whose name was Hagar. 2 So Sarai told Abram, “You are well aware that the LORD has prevented me from giving birth to a child. Go have sex with my servant, so that I may possibly bear a son through her.”
Abram listened to Sarai’s suggestion, 3 so Abram’s wife Sarai took her Egyptian servant, Hagar, and gave her as a wife to her husband Abram. This took place ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan. 4 He had sex with Hagar, and she became pregnant. When she realized that she was pregnant, she looked with contempt on her mistress.
5 Then Sarai told Abram, “My suffering is your fault! I gave you my servant so you could have sex with her , and when she discovered that she was pregnant, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”
6 Abram answered Sarai, “Look, your servant is under your control, so do to her as you wish.” So Sarai dealt so harshly with Hagar that she ran away from Sarai.
7 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the desert on the road to Shur. 8 “Hagar, servant of Sarai,” he asked, “Where are you coming from and where are you going?”
She answered, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”
9 The angel of the LORD told her, “You must go back to your mistress and submit to her authority.” 10 The angel of the LORD also told her, “I will greatly multiply your offspring, who will be too many to count.
11 “Look, you are pregnant and will give birth to a son,” the angel of the LORD continued to say to her. “You will name him Ishmael, because the LORD has heard your cry of misery. 12 He’ll be a wild donkey of a man. He’ll be against everyone, and everyone will be against him. He will live in conflict with all of his relatives.”
13 So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are ‘God who sees,’ because I have truly seen the one who looks after me.”
14 That’s why the spring was called, “The Well of the Living One who Looks after Me.” It was between Kadesh and Bered.
15 Hagar eventually gave birth to Abram’s son. Abram named his son whom Hagar bore Ishmael. 16 Abram was 86 years old when Hagar gave birth to Ishmael for Abram.
Also read Genesis 16:1-16.
The genealogy of Abraham appears in Genesis 5, Genesis 10:1-7, 20, 22-23, 31-32, and Genesis 11. The documentary hypothesis attributes these genealogies to the Priestly source. 
Abram and Sarai prospered materially but had no children. Abram thought to leave his estate to a trusted servant, but God promised him a son and heir. When he was 86 years old, Sarai suggested and Abram agreed that a practical way to have a child was through Sarai’s servant Hagar. Hagar conceived right away and in time Ishmael was born. This situation brought strife rather than happiness between Hagar and Sarai. Nevertheless, God saw Hagar’s suffering and promised that although this was not the child promised to Abram, he would nevertheless make Ishmael’s descendants into a great nation also. 
In chapter 17 of Genesis, "Almighty God" changed Abram’s name to Abraham, for he would be a father of many nations. In addition, his wife Sarai's name was changed to Sarah, for she would be a mother of nations. Three visitors came to Abraham and said that he would have a son. Sarah believed she was too old to have a child and laughed. Yet she did conceive (Genesis 21:1-7) and had a baby named Isaac. After the death of his mother, Sarah, Isaac married Rebekah. Abraham then married Keturah, who bore him six more sons – Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak and Shuah.
Family tree Edit
The following is a family tree for the descendants of the line of Noah's son Shem, through Abraham to Jacob and his sons. Dashed lines are marriage connections.
|Elam||Ashur||Arphaxad||Lud||Aram||4 sons||7 sons|
|Cainan ||4 sons|
|Ishmaelites||7 sons ||Bethuel||1st daughter||2nd daughter|
|1. Reuben |
|7. Gad |
|5. Dan |
The family members and descendants of Abraham are called aal-Ibrahim, figuratively "The (people of) Abraham".
فَقَدْ آتَيْنَا آلَ إِبْرَاهِيمَ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَآتَيْنَاهُم مُّلْكًا عَظِيمًا.
"… but surely, We had given the 'Family of Abraham'—the Writings and the Wisdom—and conferred to them a Kingdom of magnificence." —Sūrat an-Nisā' 4, āyāt 54 al-Qur'ān. 
Other sources, particularly the widely accepted Hadith, also gives references to the Family of Abraham:
- : aal-Abraham are the believers, based on a narrative related to Ibn Abbas of the verse: "Indeed, Allah chose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of 'Imran over the worlds" V.33, S.3.  He explained: They are the believers of the family of Abraham, the family of Imran, the family of Yaseen, and the family of Muhammad, then quoted the verse: "Indeed, the most worthy of Abraham among the people are those who followed him [in submission to Allah] and this prophet, and those who believe [in his message]. And Allah is the ally of the believers." V.68, S.3.  They are the believers.
- Tafsir As-Sa'di: Aal Abraham are the prophets who succeeded him because they are among his descendants, and the Prophet Muhammad belongs to them.   : Aal Abraham referred to Abraham himself, and has been also said that Aal Abraham are Ismael (Ishmael), Ishaq (Isaac), Ya'qub (Jacob), and Al-Asbat (the 12 children of Jacob) adding that Muhammad is one of Aal Abraham.  
Based on these interpretations, Aal Abraham are:
- His wife, Sarah, since the Angels addressed her using the term (Ahl Al-Bayt) meaning, the people of the house in the verse: They said, "Are you amazed at the decree of Allah? May the mercy of Allah and His blessings be upon you, people of the house." Indeed, He is Praiseworthy and Honorable.""V.73, S.11 
- His son Ismael (Ishmael)
- His son Ishaq (Isaac)
- His grandson Ya'qub (Jacob)
- His nephew Lut (Lot) (the 12 children of Jacob)
- Yusuf (Joseph)
- Musa (Moses)
- Harun (Aaron)
- Dawud (David)
- Sulaiman (Solomon)
- Ayub (Job)
- Al-Yas' (Elisha)
- Yunus (Jonah)
- Zakariya (Zachariya)
- Yahya (John)
- Imran (Amram)
- Maryam (Mary)
- Isa (Jesus)
- Iliyas (Elias)
These are Aal Ibrahim added to them all the believers among the descendants of Abraham. "And that was Our [conclusive] argument which We gave Abraham against his people. We raise by degrees whom We will. Indeed, your Lord is Wise and Knowing. And We gave to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - all [of them] We guided. And Noah, We guided before and among his descendants, David and Solomon and Job and Joseph and Moses and Aaron. Thus do We reward the doers of good. And Zechariah and John and Jesus and Elias - and all were of the righteous. And Ishmael and Elisha and Jonah and Lot - and all [of them] We preferred over the worlds. And [some] among their fathers and their descendants and their brothers - and We chose them and We guided them to a straight path." Vs.83-87 S.6 
21 Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. 23 One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. 24 Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia * and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above she is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written,
Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,
burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs
for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous
than the children of the one who is married.
28 Now you, * my friends, * are children of the promise, like Isaac. 29 But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. 30 But what does the scripture say? Drive out the slave and her child for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman. 31 So then, friends, * we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.
Hagar as the Representative of Jews and Muslims
Paul, writing at a time when the Christ-believing movement was predominantly Jewish, used Hagar to represent a rival group within his own community. By the end of the first century, however, Christianity became a mostly gentile movement. Christian readers of the New Testament reinterpreted Paul&rsquos story of Sarah and Hagar as a condemnation of Judaism itself. Jerome, who wrote the authoritative Latin translation of the Bible in the late fourth century, neatly summarized the consensus interpretation, which he himself endorsed:
This interpretation remained dominant among Christians into the late 20 th century, when historical-critical scholars of the New Testament began to adopt a new perspective on Paul&rsquos relationship to Judaism.
Later Christians living under Islamic rule applied Paul&rsquos teachings to Muslims as well as Jews. They followed in Paul&rsquos footsteps by using the story of Hagar and Sarah to bolster the faith of fellow believers despite the dominance of contemporary Muslim rivals, whom they regarded as Ishmael-like persecutors.
European Christians who sought to justify the expulsion of Jews and Muslims alike also drew on both Genesis and Galatians. According to Oldradus de Ponte, a lawyer in the papal court during the early fourteenth century,
Oldradus offers identical guidance regarding Christian&ndashJewish relations and, more broadly, intentionally blurs the distinction between Jews and Muslims. In fact, premodern Christians frequently portray Jews and Muslims alike as the heirs of Hagar.  Rhetoric of this nature reinforces the notion that Jews and Muslims are inherently inferior to Christians, accounts for the ongoing enmity that Christians perceive between themselves and their Abrahamic rivals, and justifies the use of force even against subservient neighbors.
Who was Hagar in the Bible?
Hagar was an Egyptian maidservant to Sarah, the wife of Abraham. When Sarah remained barren, she gave Hagar to Abraham as a concubine (Genesis 16). Thus, Hagar became a mother to Ishmael. However, Hagar is perhaps best known for naming God El Ro'i, "the God who sees me."
During a famine in Canaan, Sarah and Abraham (still called Sarai and Abram during that time) and their household fled to Egypt. Genesis 12:16 records that Abraham gained wealth including female servants while in Egypt. Perhaps Hagar joined their household during this time. In Genesis 15:4 God promised Abraham, "your very own son shall be your heir." However, Sarah remained barren and had borne him no children. "So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife" (Genesis 16:3). This practice of having a concubine bear children on behalf of a barren wife was commonly accepted during this time as evidenced by Old Assyrian marriage contracts, the Code of Hammurabi, and the Nuzi tablets. Sarah revealed her reasoning when she said, "Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant it may be that I shall obtain children by her" (Genesis 16:2). Sarah did not believe that God would be faithful to His promise to Abraham so she took matters into her own hands to ensure this prophecy would be fulfilled. Sarah viewed Hagar simply as a useful pawn in her plans. Hagar conceived and Genesis 16:4 notes that "she looked with contempt on her mistress." This contempt led Sarah to mistreat and abuse Hagar, so Hagar fled to the wilderness.
In the wilderness, Hagar encountered God. The angel of the LORD appeared to her by a spring and instructed her to, "Return to your mistress and submit to her" (Genesis 16:9). However, He also gave her reassurance and a promise saying, "I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude… Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction" (Genesis 16:10&ndash11). God had seen Hagar's situation and had heard her suffering and came to meet her despite the fact that she had no social standing, no political influence, nor religious authority. She was a foreigner, used as a tool in someone else's plans. She did not have claim to her children or really even herself, but God knew her situation and met personally with Hagar. This unexpected attention from God moved her to say, "You are a God of seeing [El Ro'i]… Truly here I have seen him who looks after me" (Genesis 16:13). Hagar returned to Sarah and gave birth to Ishmael.
Thirteen years later, God reiterated His promise to Abraham to give him a son through his wife Sarah. At this time, God also asked Abraham to institute circumcision as a sign of the covenant between the two of them. So, at the age of 99, Abraham circumcised himself and his 13-year-old son Ishmael as well as the rest of the men in his household (Genesis 17:23&ndash25). One year later, Sarah gave birth to Isaac (Genesis 21:5). This change in status again brought strife to the relationship between Sarah and Hagar.
After Isaac was weaned, Sarah begged Abraham, "Cast out this slave woman with her son, for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac" (Genesis 21:10). God told Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, promising that through Isaac Abraham's offspring would be named but that He would also make a nation out of Ishmael because he was Abraham's son (Genesis 21:11ndash13). Genesis 21:14&ndash16 records that, after Abraham gave them some provisions, Hagar and Ishmael "departed and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba… [thinking her son would die Hagar] lifted up her voice and wept." Again, God met with Hagar in the wilderness in her distress. The angel of God called to Hagar, "Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation" (Genesis 21:17&ndash18). Indeed, God did fulfill that promise as Genesis 25:16 concludes a list of Ishmael's descendants saying, "These are the sons of Ishmael… twelve princes according to their tribes." Ishmael "grew up. He lived in the wilderness and became an expert with the bow… and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt" (Genesis 21:20&ndash21).
Hagar's story shows that God sees each individual and knows the situations each person faces. He has compassion for those who suffer injustice and has the ability to provide and will be faithful to keep His promises. Although her society afforded Hagar no honor, God esteemed Hagar, blessing her with descendants who became a great nation as well as memorializing her in Scripture with the privilege of naming God as the God who sees and looks after me.
Hagar in the Bible
Hagar, an Egyptian girl, was the servant of Sarah, Abraham&rsquos wife. The childless Sarah gave Hagar to the 85-year-old Abraham as a concubine, so that she could have her husband&rsquos child through her maid. Hagar treated Sarah with insolence when she became pregnant. Sarah complained to Abraham, who told her that Hagar was her slave therefore, she could do with her whatever she wanted. Sarah treated Hagar so harshly that the maid ran away to the desert.
An angel met Hagar at a spring and told her to return to Sarah, prophesying that Hagar would have a son whom she would name Ishmael and that her descendants would be without number. Hagar returned and, in due course, gave birth to Ishmael. Fourteen years later, when Abraham was 100 years old, Sarah gave birth to a son, who was named Isaac.
One day, Sarah saw Ishmael mocking Isaac and demanded that Abraham send the slave girl and her son away and then declare Isaac as his sole heir. Abraham loved Ishmael and did not want to yield to Sarah&rsquos demand, but God told him to do what she said and reassured him that his descendants through Ishmael would also become a great nation. Abraham rose early in the morning, gave Hagar some bread and water, and sent her away with the boy.
Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba. After they had finished drinking all the water in the bottle, Hagar, not wanting to see her son die of thirst, placed him under a shrub. Then she moved some distance away, crying and lamenting.
God heard her cries and sent an angel who told her not to fear and added that her son would grow up to be the ancestor of a great nation. God opened her eyes, and she saw a well nearby. She filled her water bottle and gave the boy a drink.
Ishmael grew up in the wilderness, became a skilled archer, and married an Egyptian girl whom Hagar chose for him. Some scholars identify Hagar with Keturah, the woman whom Abraham married after the death of Sarah and with whom he had six sons: Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.
Reprinted with permission from Who&rsquos Who in the Hebrew Bible (The Jewish Publication Society).
Retelling Hagar’s Story: Reading Trauma in Genesis 16
My husband and I were in a head-on vehicle collision north of Toronto on Highway 69 at a combined speed of about 125 miles per hour. We survived what was a fatal crash for the driver who hit us, but I was diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder, suffered a brain injury, experienced significant physical injuries, and continue to face a long road to recovery.
The motor vehicle collision gave me firsthand knowledge of the effects of trauma and has enabled me to relate to the plight of various biblical characters in new ways. Now when I read Genesis 16—the story of Sarah, Hagar, Abraham, and the events preceding the birth of Ishmael—I can understand the frustration and anger exhibited by Sarah. I can relate to the struggle Sarah likely felt when she cicepted her inability to conceive and realized that her plans for the future may not be fulfilled as she had planned. I can also sympathize with Abraham, who is directly impacted by Sarah’s infertility and abuse of Hagar yet does not know how to make the situation right or how to remove Sarah’s suffering.
Having been through my own trauma, I see how understanding trauma theory provides insight into some of the questions raised by this chapter: Why does Sarah abuse Hagar when her plan to have a child through Hagar is seemingly a success? What makes Sarah so angry? Why does Hagar run away and then return to Sarah? And finally, how can we understand the roles of Abraham and the community in the story? My experiences have convinced me that the actions of Sarah and Hagar are consistent with the responses of trauma victims and that this lens may also help to explain the response of Abraham and the community.
Trauma theory is a relatively new science, emerging out of the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. Although the effects of a wide range of traumatic experiences have since been studied, we still have much to learn about the impacts of infertility, abuse, and the refugee experience. We face the challenge that the biblical text gives us limited information. Moreover, evaluating the effects of trauma presents challenges. The impacts of trauma are highly subjective and individualized. Everyone responds to trauma and suffering differently, depending on how they have been prepared for the trauma beforehand. For example, some people develop good coping mechanisms to minor traumatic situations during their life and are better prepared to deal with major trauma than others. Even so, there are distinct symptoms that apply in varying degrees to all trauma victims. Trauma produces fear, anger, anxiety, and irritability. Trauma produces feelings of despair and hopelessness—one’s ordered world is lost and unpredictable—and unplanned responses of flight. A major element of my own recovery is the continual effort to defeat these negative feelings, to overcome the anger and frustration that erupts in expected ways, and to cultivate a hopeful outlook for the future.
This study is necessarily generalized, but I hope it will lead to further examination of the relation of trauma to the biblical narratives.
Sarah as Trauma Victim
Our first glimpse of Sarah comes in a long passage about the genealogy of Abraham. In that passage, we only learn one thing about Sarah, that she is barren and childless (Gen. 11:29–30). We later read of her beauty, which is the occasion for complex problems involving her husband’s lies to Pharaoh and, later, Abimelech, and we read of the divine promise given to Abraham concerning his offspring. However, it is Sarah’s infertility—and the seemingly endless delay of the divine promise, which is again emphasized at the beginning of chapter 16—that seems to form the crisis of her story arc.
Contrary to experiences that can be pinpointed at a particular moment in time, Sarah’s infertility is not a traumatic moment. It is instead a gradual realization and acceptance that she will not have a child. Scholars today argue that “reproductive problems tax a woman’s inner resources to a great degree, and thus they are among the most serious life stressors a woman can experience,” and contemporary psychological research indicates that “infertility has deep, lasting effects on a women’s well-being.” Sarah may have struggled with these same stressors. Like many women today who view biological parenthood as necessary for happiness and the fulfillment of family goals, it is likely that Sarah’s experience of infertility was an ongoing trauma.
Moreover, the experience of infertility in the ancient Near East, without the fertility options we can access today, may have exacerbated Sarah’s trauma. In a culture where childbirth is necessary for survival, Sarah has to contend with the social pressure to bear children. Sarah must relive the ongoing pain of her infertility every day and come to terms with what she assumes to be an abnormality of her body. And then she faces the additional disappointment that her childlessness has left Abraham’s divine promises unfulfilled.
Sarah’s speech in Genesis 16 reveals her keen sense of personal and spiritual responsibility, for she describes God as having prevented her from having children. How is Abraham to be the father of a great nation if Sarah will not give him a child? The unfulfilled divine promise, and all the expectation that it created, surely made Sarah’s journey to accept her infertility all the more difficult and painful, as it required Sarah to surrender the expectation and hope that she will participate directly in fulfilling the divine message given to Abraham. In the biblical text, we are not told how Sarah comes to accept her infertility and involuntary childlessness, but her ensuing actions provide some insight.
Sarah offers her servant Hagar to Abraham as a way for Abraham and Sarah to build a family. Rather than returning to the hope of bearing a child herself or renewing her trust that God will give her a child through her own body, Sarah abandons those possibilities and finds a new way of coping. She transfers her hope to Hagar. This transference of hope, though, is complicated and fraught with difficulties. It is tremendously difficult to let go of the hope of someday and somehow, and I imagine that Sarah must have struggled as she contemplated the decision to have a surrogate.
When Hagar becomes pregnant, we might think that Sarah would celebrate—her goal of having a family is finally being realized! However, a new challenge arises when Hagar’s response to the pregnancy is to despise Sarah. Angered at this response, Sarah blames Abraham and then proceeds to abuse Hagar. We don’t have the details of Sarah’s abusive behavior, but her response reflects a typical response to the traumatic experience of infertility coupled with childlessness—a response of anger, frustration, and violence. And I suspect that Sarah’s negative reaction to the success of Hagar’s pregnancy is also linked to her own pain. Even before the birth, Hagar’s growing belly is a visible reminder to Sarah that she cannot bear children and that her natural role is being filled by another. Hagar’s pregnancy acts as a public confirmation of Sarah’s painful reality and her decision to procreate through other means. It is a threat to her way of life and sense of self. And so when Hagar shows resentment toward Sarah, it upsets Sarah’s equilibrium—this one part of life comes to taint all other experiences, spoiling her appreciation of the present and overwhelming her capacity to respond to Hagar with reasonable and appropriate measures.
Through Sarah, we see that trauma affects the way an individual feels about herself and the world. Commonly, the victim of a traumatic experience loses sight of the meaning in suffering and is no longer able to see its purpose. The feeling that the pain, betrayal, and loss are meaningless “is one of the painful lessons that the trauma brings the victim often feels godforsaken and betrayed by others. Usually, suffering does not bring an increased sense of love and meaning, but rather, it results in loneliness and disintegration of belief.” Like Sarah, victims of trauma come to view God as against them. And then many victims reenact their trauma by traumatizing those around them. This is not surprising. Irritability, anger, and violence are normal responses to trauma, as victims fight to remain in control, and this is precisely the response we see in Sarah’s subsequent victimization of Hagar.
Hagar as Trauma Victim
In our encounters with the narratives of those who have undergone significant traumas, we often find that traumas cluster together. When one person experiences trauma, others do as well. In this case, we don’t have to look very far from the trauma of Sarah to find Hagar, an Egyptian servant who lives with Sarah.
Before our story begins, Hagar has been taken from her Egyptian home to Sarah’s household in Canaan. She has already been uprooted from her former social identity, place, family, and support system. This initial journey from Egypt to Sarah’s household may have caused Hagar physical and psychological distress. Her social standing as Sarah’s slave placed Hagar in a role of powerlessness, and it required her to adapt to life in a foreign environment. Although Hagar may have developed new strengths in this environment—resiliency and independence, for example—the impact of leaving one’s home does not disappear it disrupts one’s very identity. In its introduction of her character, the scriptural text thus positions us as readers to encounter Hagar as a lowly outsider who is far from home—a person seemingly on the margin of the narrative of Genesis itself.
A second and more obvious disruption to Hagar’s identity comes by way of her involuntary surrogacy. When she discovers she is pregnant, Hagar assumes a new identity. Hagar is now in a position of power as mother to Abraham’s child. Her pregnancy presents a transition from a state of powerlessness, as she can now look forward to a future that holds some promise, purpose, and meaning. It is not surprising, then, that Hagar develops arrogance in her newfound identity and that she comes to despise Sarah. Like Sarah, Hagar transitions from victim to victimizer. Now, Hagar reinforces Sarah’s pain of infertility by contemptuously lording over Sarah the fact that while Sarah is infertile, Hagar is now bearing Abraham’s offspring.
Hagar’s hope for a future of promise and purpose, though, is dashed. Her assumed identity as powerful is proven false, and she is caught up in a cycle of oppression and victimhood as Sarah reacts to Hagar’s pregnancy with abuse. Hagar’s basic rights to protection and safety are violated by the very family that was responsible for her well-being, and in this helpless position, there are scant possibilities for resistance. And so, despite lacking the necessities for survival in the wilderness, she flees.
In the midst of Hagar’s crisis, a divine messenger appears. When this angel meets the wandering Hagar and asks where she is going, Hagar only indicates she is fleeing her mistress she gives the angel no specific destination. She seems aimless and unprepared for the journey. This flight is characteristic of many trauma victims, who give little thought to the consequences of their flight, which puts them at increased risk for further trauma.
Hagar’s response reminds me of how I have struggled to find a place where I feel safe, where I can escape. After our collision, I felt driven to leave everything I knew in our hometown and to start a new life with my husband many miles away. Eventually we moved from Canada to the United States, and I kept thinking that if I could start a new life “far away,” perhaps we could leave our troubles and pain behind. Perhaps Hagar felt a similar instinct to flee.
When Hagar flees, she does so as a lone woman who is culturally and ethnically distinct from those around her. This exacerbates her flight, making it less likely that she will be able to successfully resettle among another group. And so when Hagar is visited by the divine messenger, she faces a difficult choice—to return home or to seek asylum elsewhere.
The angel connects with Hagar on a personal level, calling her by name. This simple act has profound implications, as so far in the biblical text, only the narrator has addressed Hagar directly—Sarah and Abraham have simply referred to her as servant. Thus, by calling Hagar’s name, the angel bestows a sense of value and worth upon Hagar. She is not an anonymous being but an individual with an identity.
The angel instructs Hagar to return to Sarah and to the setting of her mistreatment. Some readers take umbrage at this angelic injunction, for indeed, returning to Sarah may have meant continued abuse for Hagar. Like many who have experienced trauma, however, Hagar’s most immediate need is for a place of safety, security, and stability. In the wilderness, Hagar is vulnerable to a far worse future than what she may find with Abraham and Sarah. More broadly, we might read this directive as suggestive of the importance of victims integrating back into their communities after a traumatic experience.
The angel then gives Hagar a divine promise and offers her the hope of a better future. Like Abraham, Hagar is told she will have many descendants. She is also told that she will carry her pregnancy to full term and then give birth to a son—a promise of hope in the midst of the wilderness. While Hagar often found herself in situations of vulnerability and abuse, she is told that her son will be independent and free to live away from this community. Perhaps most importantly, the angel affirms that Yahweh has heard Hagar’s cry of affliction the angel acknowledges Hagar’s trauma and assures her God has not abandoned or disregarded the servant girl. The profound impact of this divine comfort on Hagar is reflected in her response: Hagar names God as the one who has seen her.
There is no doubt that Hagar’s experiences—both the trauma and the divine intervention and affirmation—change Hagar. In facing her reality, Hagar is able to begin again, to live in the present, starting not from the beginning but from the point at which her life was disjointed. We may be uncomfortable that the angel sends Hagar back to her abuser we may want a fair and just world where the angel will intervene in Hagar’s situation and prevent any future abuse or mistreatment. But in Hagar’s life—as in ours—the world is neither fair nor just. Hagar must return to Sarah, but she returns with a new sense of identity and an empowerment that comes not from an unjustified arrogance but from divine affirmation. Her future is not empty, but rather is filled with divine hope and purpose. She has seen God in the wilderness and returns a changed person.
Abraham and the Community as Trauma Victims
Trauma studies prompt us to consider not only Sarah and Hagar as victims and victimizers but also the role of Abraham and the community. Abraham is characterized throughout Genesis 16 as passive: he follows Sarah’s initial directive to sleep with his servant, and when conflict arises, he does not intervene. Yet we would do well to remember that Abraham is a witness of trauma within his own family structure. Abraham is personally affected by Sarah’s infertility and the unfulfilled divine promise, and his passiveness in the conflict between Sarah and Hagar is reflected by the community, which also neglects to protect Hagar or to intervene. We may criticize Abraham for not intervening, but we may also understand his actions as a typical response to the challenge that trauma presents to a society and its bystanders, who are often deeply affected by witnessing the trauma endured by others but unsure of how to respond.
Remarkably, however, in Genesis 16 we see an acknowledgement of Hagar’s experience. Her story is commemorated by the community in the naming of the well. The community thus retains memory of Hagar’s traumatic experience in a positive way by a symbol that serves as a reminder of her divine encounter. This act gives the traumatic experience of abuse and the flight response a new meaning. It serves as a way for the community to partially redeem itself and bring justice to Hagar. The community that failed to protect Hagar now publicly recognizes her value as one who may be a foreign servant but who has encountered the living God in a dramatic and personal experience. Abraham also participates in Hagar’s process of healing by confirming the divine encounter when he names the child Ishmael, indicating his acknowledgement of and obedience to Hagar’s divine instruction.
Again, Hagar returns to the abusive situation, but the dynamics have changed. She has a new sense of identity and worth through her divine encounter, she has hope for the future through the divine birth annunciation, and she has been affirmed by the communal and divine acknowledgement of her painful experience.
Learning from Trauma
It is reasonable to infer that Hagar has retold the narrative of her divine encounter to the community. By retelling the story, she is able to regain a sense of dignity and reclaim her history by framing the traumatic experiences in her own terms. By retelling the story, she demonstrates that the victimization no longer paralyzes her.
Because we can encounter Sarah and Hagar’s story in the biblical text, we can enter into what Wendy Williams describes as a “dynamic process of interaction” where we “as listeners and readers” can connect to the biblical text through “a relatedness and recognition of the other.” This in turn enables us to see that “the story is as much a journey as an arrival, wherein the listening becomes an active and resourceful opportunity to become forever changed.” Viewing the biblical text through the perspective of trauma and its effects can equip us to apply the text to the experiences of trauma victims today. Hagar’s plight, for instance, is similar to what is happening in many places every day—we see her as a refugee, as someone who is sexually exploited, and as someone who then becomes an aggressor, and finally we see her fleeing her abuse. These are real-life situations.
We find answers to painful experiences in this passage—Yahweh does see the pain Hagar experiences and responds to her. For trauma victims who feel forsaken by God and abandoned by their communities, this is a powerful story of reassurance and hope. Her story does not necessarily conclude with a happy ending, but it is nevertheless one of victory and empowerment. Hagar demonstrates that in the midst of suffering, we can be empowered by the presence and affirmation of God.
Understanding the effects of trauma may also inspire a more compassionate view of Sarah. Though her abuse of Hagar is inappropriate and inexcusable, we may characterize Sarah not only as an aggressor and victimizer but also as a broken character, as a woman who herself is the victim of the traumatic experience of infertility and childlessness despite the divine hope given to her husband.
Retelling this biblical narrative can help us learn as a community. We often fail to protect members of our community from trauma, and this story shows us that when a community fails to protect one of its members, there is redemption in acknowledging the suffering of trauma victims and in celebrating their triumph over trauma and redefinition as a person of worth. As I have personally witnessed, I think that many people find dealing—even interacting—with a trauma victim to be awkward and difficult. Instead of avoiding interactions with trauma victims, we can follow the example of the angel by affirming their worth and creating a place of safety, empathy, and healing. We can listen to their stories and integrate them into our communal narratives. To readers of this narrative who are also trauma victims, I hope you find consolation in knowing that often, like Hagar, those who experience great suffering also encounter the divine in profound and transformative ways. This has certainly been my experience.
 Marianne Amir, Netta Horesh, and Tami Lin-Stein, “Infertility and Adjustment in Women: The Effects of Attachment Style and Social Support,” Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings 6, no. 4 (1999): 463–71 and Kami Schwerdtfeger and Karina Shreffler, “Trauma of Pregnancy Loss and Infertility Among Mothers and Involuntarily Childless Women in the United States,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 14, no. 3 (2009): 222.
 For more on how traumatic experiences can have this effect, see Bessel A. van der Kolk and Alexander C. McFarlane, “The Black Hole of Trauma,” in Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, ed. Van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (New York, NY: Guilford, 2007), 4.
 Van der Kolk and McFarlane, “Trauma and Its Challenge to Society,” in Traumatic Stress, 26.
 There are many excellent resources available for refugee studies. See Miranda Alcock, “Refugee Trauma—the Assault on Meaning,” Psychodynamic Practice 9, no. 3 (Aug 2003): 291–307.
 See Miriam George, “A Theoretical Understanding of Refugee Trauma,” Clinical Social Work Journal 38, no. 4 (Dec 2010): 379–87.
 Wendy Williams, “Complex Trauma: Approaches to Theory and Treatment,” Journal of Loss and Trauma 11, no. 4 (2006): 332.