The story of Hagar in Genesis 16-21 has all the makings of a juicy episode of Days of Our Lives; including a discontented wife, a gutless husband, an adulterous affair, a seeming betrayal, a pregnant runaway, a mistreated servant, a tyrannical mistress, and an illegitimate heir. At the center of all that drama, we find the Egyptian maid servant Hagar.
But who was Hagar?
There are many differing opinions of what Hagar’s role was in this story. Was she simply a victim of Sarah’s impulsiveness and Abrahams lack of leadership? Or maybe she was a home-wrecker, seeking to step into Sarah’s shoes and become the matriarch of a great promise? Maybe she was simply an opportunist; making the most of the hand she was dealt? Some think she was a complete heathen, purposefully rejecting the things of God. But who exactly was Hagar? And what is the divine purpose for including her story in Scripture?
Was she a Victim?
According to Phyllis Trible, author of the feminist book Texts of Terror, “From the beginning, Hagar is powerless because God supports Sarah. Kept in her place by God, the slave woman is the innocent victim of use, abuse and rejection.”
Trible sees Hagar’s story as one focusing on a victimized woman (Hagar), a wicked mistress (Sarah), a gutless husband-figure (Abraham), and a silent God. She would have you believing that Hagar was simply a pawn in evil Sarah’s demented mind games: a servant given to her master to bear him an heir. Once pregnant, she suffered mistreatment at the hands of her mistress. She ran away and God told her to go back. Clearly, this girl suffered in some way, but how much of a victim was Hagar? Unfortunately, we can’t entirely know because the text simply is not clear.
Was she a Home-wrecker?
Two college girls admitted they saw Hagar as promiscuous and the cause of Abraham cheating on his wife.
Some would consider Hagar a textbook home-wrecker. Once she hits the scene in Sarah and Abraham’s story, it seems that everything comes unraveled. And what’s supposed to be a time of rejoicing (the birth of a child) becomes a time of great tension and jealousy. After all, Abraham is practically cheating on Sarah, even if she did give him permission, right? However, careful examination of Scripture, the whole of Scripture, shows that Sarah and Abraham’s problems started long before Hagar was introduced. Can all the blame be placed on Hagar when Sarah and Abraham did most of the “wrecking” with their own hands in defying God’s design for one man and woman in marriage (Genesis 2:24, 12:10-20)? But how big was Hagar’s role in this tragic three-way marriage? Again, we don’t entirely know, the text simply isn’t clear.
Was she an Opportunist?
According to some, they see a servant girl who jumped at the chance to elevate her status through relations with Abram.
I admit, this was my personal opinion before really studying her story. I used to skim over Hagar’s story and see a servant who tried to elevate herself through union with Abraham and at the first opportunity threw it in her mistress’s face. And scholars agree – to an extent – for a slave woman in Hagar’s position, the prospect of bearing the heir of the leader of the clan was an honor. It should have given her a rise in social status, from ordinary servant to mother of the heir. However, it doesn’t turn out so happy, for Hagar suffers far more than she gains. How much of her actions were driven by a desire to elevate herself? We don’t exactly know, the text simply isn’t clear on this either.
Was she an Unbeliever?
Numerous scholars argue that Hagar was an unbelieving Egyptian woman who didn’t worship the One True God. They reason that in her hour of distress Hagar didn’t cry out to “the God who sees,” even when her son was dying. Yet other scholars say that she was clearly too close to death to have rational thought… So did she have weak faith or did she not worship God at all?
And when it came time for Ishmael to marry, Hagar took him a bride from her own people in Egypt and not from the people of his father. This stands in stark contrast with Isaac’s marriage, where his father went to great lengths to get his bride from God-fearing people. Does this mean she rejected God in the end or that she found God-honoring people in Egypt?
Did Hagar believe in the One True God? We don’t know, the text simply isn’t clear.
Hagar’s story. It can be a confusing one, especially when trying to nail down exactly what kind of role Hagar played in Genesis 16-21. There are so many “unknowns” in this passage. And yet even with all those “unknowns,” we can still put our full assurance in the Word of God. Donald Bloesch, author of The Battle for the Trinity, suggests that while the language used in Scripture is not comprehensive for full understanding, it is adequate for right understanding. If we truly believe that God revealed every word in Scripture for a divine purpose and any “unknowns” are intentional, then the purpose of this story is clearly not to tell a detailed historical account of a slave girl – too many details are missing. Nor is Gen. 16-21 meant to be a divine position statement on slavery and slave owners – God tells Hagar to submit to her mistress and then frees her. It isn’t even the story of the Patriarch Abraham – who’s rather silent throughout the entire tale.
As I reread Genesis 16-21 yet again, the light bulb dawned: this is the story of the God of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham.
Personal, Protector, Sovereign, and Gracious
God is Personal
The scared, afflicted, pregnant, run-away servant stops to rest at a spring of water and the angel of the Lord comes to her (Genesis 16:7-14). He does not appear in blazing glory as He later does to Moses (Exodus 3). He does not appear a warrior, as he does to Joshua (Joshua 5:13-15). Nor does he come as a shocking messenger, as he does to the virgin Mary (Luke 1:26-38). No, he sought out a servant girl to comfort and direct her in her time of need.
The Angel of the Lord found Hagar (16:7) and he called her by name (16:8), implying personal knowledge of her situation and an invitation for a personal relationship. He told her to return and submit to Sarah, but comforted her with a promise of future freedom and prosperity (16:9-12). And Hagar recognized God as personal (16:13). Dr. Tony Maalouf, in his book Arabs In the Shadow of Israel, explains, “It is not that God was nameless, but for Hagar he became a personal through this encounter. It is as if she is saying, “the one who came to my aid in my distress, he is the ‘God who sees me.’” Whether or not she came to know God personally – he knew her.
God is Protector
Alone in the desert, God showed up and disclosed his plan for Hagar and her son (16:9-12). As Americans we read “wild donkey of a man” and “his hand will be against everyone” and it sounds positively awful to our ears. Dr. Maalouf sheds light on this often misunderstood passage, “This prophecy reverses all of Hagar’s slavery conditions. Read in light of other scriptures these qualities are a promise of freedom, strength and a home.” Not immediately, but in the right time, God reversed Hagar’s slavery, powerlessness and alienation.
In Gen. 21:15-21, God again appears as Champion for Hagar. Sent away by Abraham and Sarah, she and her son face imminent death in the desert from lack of water. But again, God sees her. He comforts her fears (21:17), reminds her of his promise of a future for her son (21:18), gave her immediate help (21:19), and fulfilled his promise to prosper Ishmael (21:20). In the life of this servant girl, we see that God is exactly who he says he is – a stronghold for the oppressed (Psalm 9:9).
God is Gracious
Hagar was a runaway slave with an attitude problem. Sarah was a bitter and abusive mistress. Abraham was a conflicted father. By personal merit, none of them deserved to be a part of God’s plan in any shape, form or fashion! One scholar explains it beautifully “God dealt with them by grace, not because of their godliness, but in spite of their lack of godliness, he chose to gradually reveal himself through them.”
It is by God’s grace that he turned Sarah’s flawed method of building a family into a blessing. It is by God’s grace that Hagar was incorporated into his plan and transformed her oppression into freedom. It is by God’s grace Abraham’s lack of faith was changed into a potential for more blessings. God – in his great grace – uses sinful, flawed people to carry out his divine plan.
God is Sovereign
Nothing about the Isaac/Ishmael rivalry in Gen. 21 seems fair in our human understanding. But God’s plan isn’t about using the most worthy or selecting the most talented to carry out his bidding. God’s choices glorify himself by proclaiming his great name throughout the world. Romans 9:8 says, “It is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” The children of the flesh were the son of Hagar and sons of Keturah (Gen. 21:12-13, 25:6).
It was God’s divine plan that Abraham’s chosen line came exclusively through Isaac (Gen. 21:12). And God’s plan for Isaac could not be fully implemented with the presence of other children in the house of Abraham (Gen. 21:12-13, 25:6). Was the selection of Isaac over Ishmael unfair? No. As Paul explains in Romans 9:14-16, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”
Personal, Protector, Sovereign, and Gracious God
Turns out, Hagar’s story wasn’t hers at all, but God’s.
It matters not who she was. It matters not who I am or who you are. What matters is who is God?
Who do you worship and serve? A god that fits neatly in a box, easily defined in human terms, who gives you everything you want? Or an All-Powerful God who is personal and righteous king, a gracious protector, and yet sovereign Lord of all? One is easy….and powerless. The other is not safe….but he is good.
The question is not ‘who is Hagar?’ but ‘who is God?’