Hagar and Sarah
Hagar’s story is relatively brief in Genesis chapters 16, 17, and 21. As Sarah’s servant, she was given to Abraham so that the family could have a child. But her pregnancy meant new jealousies within the family unit, and so the pregnant Hagar fled.
While in exile an angel told her to return to Abraham and Sarah because her son was destined to be a father of a great people. She called God “you are the one who sees me.” Hagar returned to Abraham’s household, and she gave birth to Ishmael, which means “God hears.” God heard her in the wilderness and will hear her and Ishmael again. If Sarah laughed, Hagar cried, and God heard both.
God’s covenant with Abraham meant that his descendants will be a great nation, through Sarah’s birth of a son named Isaac. This covenant is marked through the practice of circumcision, which Abraham did immediately to all the males of his household, including himself and his 13 year old son Ishmael. Ishmael was circumcised before Isaac was even born.
With the birth of Abraham and Sarah’s son Isaac and an intensified rivalry, Sarah exiles Hagar and Ishmael. Desperate in the desert, she and the boy sob in despair. God hears their cry, and God reveals water and renews the promise that Ishmael will be a father to a great nation. Ishmael’s 12 sons become tribal leaders and, according to tradition, the Arabic people.
Traditions outside of Genesis add other details. Ancient rabbis suggested that Hagar was an Egyptian princess, as does Islamic tradition. Rabbis also suggested that after the death of Sarah, Abraham’s later wife Keturah was actually Hagar. (This makes for a moving love story.) For Islam, Ishmael is an equal to Jacob. Both are promised children, patriarchs, and sources of monotheism. Ishmael, as the father of the Arabic peoples, is the ancestor of Muhammad. Abraham and Ishmael together built the Qabah in Mecca. Ishmael is buried in the Great Mosque at Mecca, where Malcolm X found peace and the end of his great racial bitterness when he fully embraced traditional Islam.
In Galatians 4, Paul uses Hagar in a symbolic way; she is an apocalyptic or esoteric archetype of being under the law. The later tradition will follow this path and see Hagar as a source of rebellion, sin, and sinful human kingdoms. Hagar is an outsider in Christianity, because she was Sarah’s human attempt fix her problem rather than trust in God.
The Genesis account is more enigmatic. Archetypes are not that simple, and neither is the reality of human living. It’s easy to make a system, harder to live in the reality. The promises to Hagar and Ishmael remain, as does his mark of the covenant. God sees, hears, and cares for Hagar and Ishmael. Their experience reflects the Jewish experience of covenant, blessing, slavery, and emancipation. Like Israel, Hagar and Ishmael find God in the desert in the midst of struggle with slavery and freedom. Hagar is a parallel and archetype of Israel itself.[^1] She is not an archetype for works-righteousness or human sin, as if sin could be cast off so quickly and ably, and the elect could exile the unredeemed.
Hagar and Sarah, Ishmael and Isaac, are different, yet both are loved by God and blood relations. Israel cannot live without the Ishmaelites that surround them. Sometimes there is rivalry and violence, other times there is peace, trade, and marriage. The differences have the possibility of co-existence and belonging, because difference doesn’t necessarily entail violence, and otherness doesn’t have to lead to alienation. Israel’s destiny is not that different from other peoples and nations.[^2]
God sees and hears all. And in the end, Ishmael and Isaac bury Abraham together, the father they both loved, and who loved them both.
[^1]:Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 2002), p. 233.
[^2]: Fryer-Kensky, p. 236.