Part 1 looked at the cultural/political and religious/ethical situation in the time of Hagar, Sarah and Abraham, and the impact this may have had on their story. Part 2 delves more deeply into Hagar’s life.
Sarah and Hagar had more in common than either realised – in a patriarchal culture and a violent and cruel society, both of them were extremely vulnerable at some points in their lives. Most particularly, they were potentially vulnerable to sexual exploitation at the hands of both strange and known men.
Genesis 16:1 is specific about the fact that Hagar was Sarah’s slave, not Abraham’s. This would appear to suggest that she is a household slave, perhaps with responsibilities which included the personal care of her mistress, rather than, say, a slave who works the fields. When Sarah became frustrated at her inability to conceive, she came up with the notion of using Hagar to bear a child for herself and Abraham. Sarah took Hagar – she gave her to Abraham. In line with Sarah’s wishes, Abraham slept with Hagar for the purpose of conceiving a child.
Let us make no bones about it – we would call this rape today. Hagar’s situation did not give her the option of saying no. There is no evidence of any laws at that time to protect slaves in any way. Laws about how the Hebrews should treat their slaves were first set down by Moses (and weren’t always perfectly adhered to anyway). Whether or not she perceived the possible personal advantage of bearing the master’s child is irrelevant – she simply had no choice, making her a victim of sexual exploitation.
As many people do in difficult situations, Hagar reacted unwisely in an attempt to preserve her own situation that clearly went very wrong. Gen 16:4 says that during her pregnancy, “she began to despise her mistress” – a feeling she could not keep hidden. The story we have clearly only tells us some of the details – although it is Sarah who insists on Abraham taking this alternate route to conceiving a child, when Hagar is pregnant and giving her trouble, Sarah says to Abraham, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.” Something else has clearly gone on between, “Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her,” and this point. Perhaps Abraham has become romantically and sexually entangled with Hagar beyond what was strictly necessary for conceiving a child. Abraham washes his hands of the situation and gives Sarah responsibility. The result is that Sarah, who is at breaking point, severely mistreats the pregnant Hagar to the point that she flees.
Desperation is a peculiar thing, and so often deprives us of good judgement. Hagar obviously felt her situation was utterly unbearable, so she leaves the wealthy home of Abraham and flees into the desert – a lone, pregnant woman disappearing into the desert. It seems to be almost a suicide mission. What was behind her was emotionally distressing, but what lay in front of her was physically treacherous and very possibly fatal.
Genesis 16:7 records that when Hagar stopped at a spring in the desert, she came face-to-face with the angel of the Lord. In the Old Testament, there are instances where the appearance of an angel mediates the presence of the Lord, and this is one such occasion.
Note that the angel asks “where have you come from, and where are you going?” but Hagar only answers the first half of the question (“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai”). She is simply running from and has no thought at all about to. As far as Hagar is concerned, this is a flight with a one-way ticket.
The angel’s command seems harsh – “go back to your mistress and submit to her.” In the context of the circumstances, it was simply a command for survival. The desert held only the promise of death. Hagar needed to embrace life for herself and her unborn babe, however imperfect it would be.
Then the angel tells Hagar something unexpected. “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” Why is this unusual? Well, Hagar’s child was intended to be adopted by Sarah and become her legal descendant (remember that Sarah had said “I can build my family through her”). The Lord clearly has other plans for this child – and as we know, Sarah would eventually bear a child who would become her heir, Isaac. Note how these words reflect God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars (Gen 15:5).
And, sans ultrasound technology, the angel announces the sex of the baby – a son. An independent path for the child, who would become known as Ishmael, was promised – he was compared to a wild donkey, which could not be easily caught and tamed. With such a son, there was perhaps a hope for a future where she would not merely be a slave in someone else’s household.
As a slave, Hagar would have been property. Her needs and wishes were not important. Her hopes and dreams would have been as dust. She would not have been seen as a person with dignity, desires and a destiny. But God promises her more, including that a great nation would descend from her. He speaks to her deep desires. She recognises the divine Person in the One who could see into the womb and know the sex of a foetus, and who could tell the direction of future generations. In response, Hagar does something unprecedented – she gives a name to God. No-one else in Scripture is specifically recorded as naming God. “You are the God who sees me (El Roi),” she declares (Gen 16:13). She was no invisible slave in God’s eyes, but a person with needs and hopes.
Hagar did not keep this encounter with God to herself. It becomes sufficiently well known that the spring becomes known as Beer Lahai Roi – the Spring of the Living One Who Sees Me.
Hagar’s struggles did not miraculously end when she returned to Abraham and Sarah. There are hints that the bad blood between them continued, and were passed on to her son Ishmael. After Isaac was weaned, Sarah found an excuse on the basis of Ishmael’s attitude and insisted that Hagar was turned away. God had assured Abraham that the child would become the father of a great nation, so he trusted that the child would survive. He gave Hagar some provisions and sent her away.
Once again, Hagar heads into the desert. Why? It does not seem this time that she wants to die – she wants her child to live. It is unlikely that Abraham’s large estate with all its livestock exists as some sort of oasis in the midst of the desert. In at least one direction, there would have been towns and other farming lands. In another direction lay the desert. So there were other choices available to her. Perhaps the context of the violent society of that day provides a clue as to the rationale behind her choice. In the direction of settlements lay violent men, who would not hesitate to rape a woman (and possibly a male child). Perhaps she perceived even less hope of safety in this direction than in the harshness of the desert.
The provisions ran out, and Hagar believed she and the child were about to die. God rescued her once again, this time with the miraculous provision of a well of water. Again, God had seen Hagar and her needs. Although they remained living in the desert, God clearly kept Hagar and Ishmael safe, and Hagar was free from her life of slavery. Ishmael, with an Egyptian wife found by his mother, became the father of twelve sons who founded twelve powerful tribes. Hagar’s safety and destiny were assured by God.
Hope and a Future
Does Hagar’s story have relevance for us? Her life stands as a powerful reminder that when we think that there is no hope to be found and life offers no possibilities or choices for a better future, and when our past abuse or present situation weighs heavily on us, God sees us, hears us and offers life-giving water that will help us to survive and ultimately thrive.
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 Hagar’s situation meets the definition of sex trafficking. Some people find this hard to grasp, primarily because when we hear the word “trafficking,” we tend to think about the movement of enslaved people. For an adult, the United Nations definition of human trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons by improper means (such as force, abduction, fraud, or coercion) for an improper purpose including forced labour or sexual exploitation.” To apply this to Hagar’s situation:
- Hagar is described as a slave – she is received as a slave by Abraham in Egypt, transported out of Egypt and harboured in his home as a slave – this makes her a victim of human trafficking.
- Hagar is required by her owners to have sex with her master. There is no indication that she has any choice in the matter – this makes the situation one of sex trafficking.
Thanks go to Dalaina May for this information.
 Ishmael means “God hears.” Hagar names God as “the God who sees me,” and God says her son will be named “God hears” – an ongoing reminder that God does not just know Hagar’s situation (“sees”), but that He responds (“hears”).
 It is clear that Abraham was very wealthy and powerful. Remember, the number of trained warriors born into his household is 318, not including those brought into his household at some later stage, men who are not warriors, women or children. It does not seem unreasonable to conclude that his estate includes somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 persons.