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The Story of Hagar - The Egyptian Slave

The story of Hagar is a puzzling, troubling story to read, particularly in the context of our study, women in relationship. In addition to the difference in their status as mistress and servant, other stresses are at work in the story—domestic violence, betrayal, sexual exploitation, jealousy, surrogate motherhood, exile, and abandonment, to name a few.

It may be that Hagar, an Egyptian, was one of the female slaves that Abram acquired in the Egyptian sojourn in chapter 12. As such, she would be from a different ethnicity but it would be a mistake to read into the story overtones of the racial tensions that typify our modern American society. Racism, as we know it today, did not exist in the ancient world. Slavery was a fact of life but was not linked to racial identity. Note that the Abraham’s descendants become the slaves of the Egyptians within several generations.

Slavery was common throughout the ancient Eastern culture and is referred to frequently in the Bible with many laws about how slaves can and cannot be treated. These scriptural prohibitions provided for a humane, fair practice but did not condemn slavery. Later, of course, this became problematic in the era of American slavery when the Bible was used to support its institutionalization. We see examples in scripture of how slaves were obtained: as captives from war—particularly virgin women (Numbers 31:7-32), as families of men, women and children to pay off their debt (Leviticus 25:39), purchased from others—since they were considered property (Leviticus 25:44) and, even, as volunteers when, for example, a male slave forsakes freedom to stay with a beloved wife slave (Exodus 21:2-6).

Women, whether slaves or not, had no sexual rights in the ancient world. Hagar was Sarah’s slave, not Abraham’s. As such, she was not acquired to be sexually available. She was not a concubine but, rather a household slave, a handmaid to her mistress, Sarah. The desperation of barrenness drove Sarah to the decision to "have sons through” Hagar. Children were not only the guarantee of social standing—a child, in this case, was pivotal to keeping alive the promise of the covenant. Since Hagar was Sarah’s possession, so also would her children be. Outrageous as that sounds to the 21st Century, such a solution to the problem was logical and acceptable in the ancient Middle East. The complications that arise are not far removed from today’s headlines over surrogate motherhood battles.

Whatever relationship Sarah and Hagar had before the pregnancy, it quickly becomes volatile once Hagar is pregnant with Abraham’s child, a child she had no choice in conceiving. She is so abused by Sarah—with Abraham’s tacit approval, that she runs away. Her encounter in the desert with the Angel of the Lord is both hopeful and troubling. God hears and responds to the plight of this oppressed, marginalized woman. But God also has her return to the place of her mistreatment.

Hagar is, most assuredly, in a dreadful situation. Without choice, without a voice, exiled from all that is familiar and driven by fear to leave all that she has come to know, an amazing thing happens to her—a personal encounter with God who intervenes to save her. Despite her lowly status Hagar is the first person in the bible, not just the first woman but the first person, who is visited by a divine messenger, the Angel of the Lord. She is the first woman to receive the divine promise of descendants, the first woman in the patriarchal story to give birth and her child becomes the father of a great nation. Additionally, she is the only biblical character to give to God a name, the God of Vision, the "God who sees me.”

In giving God the name of the "God who sees me,” Hagar speaks for all the unseen, lowly women of the world, even today. While they may not actually be slaves, many women are without power, protection, voice or autonomy.

The story of Sarah and Hagar compels us to look at the relationship between women of privilege and women who are marginalized. On a global scale, the very fact that we are educated and can read this study, means that we are privileged compared to most the world. What thought, if any, do we give to women in third world nations whose resources are a slight fraction of our own? How do relate to women who serve us whether they are in public places like restaurants, nail salons or stores or in our own homes as domestics or gardeners? In what ways have we ourselves experienced being disempowered or voiceless? What has that taught us?

For Further Consideration
The story of Hagar and Ishmael is shared by the Jews and the Muslims. Both religions claim Abraham as their father through the two different sons, Isaac and Ishmael. Judaism and Islam each recount the details somewhat differently. The Muslims, for instance, see Ishmael’s first-born status as superior to Isaac’s status as son of wife Sarah. They still visit and venerate the well that Hagar discovered. Though the details differ, how remarkable that this story has survived so many centuries and that it continues to inspire millions in three major world religions to this very day.


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