Let’s look at the woman, Hagar, a little bit. We don’t know a whole lot about her, but she had quite a role to play in establishing the heritage begun by Abraham. Unfortunately for her and her offspring, the role they played was an antagonist role. It appears The Lord allowed their emergence as major persons in the narrative in order to teach us something about Himself and His will regarding the “great nation” He was placing in the earth. There are some lessons we would not be able to see without their participation in the narrative.
In Genesis 12 we are shown a sort of “back-story” that is probably the entry of Hagar into the patriarchal history. On the occasion of Abram’s journey to Egypt and the return to Canaan, he acquired much wealth. Much of that wealth was given to him by the Egyptians when he first arrived in Egypt. In their great hurry for him to leave them, they permitted him to retain all those gifts. Included in the wealth was some number of slaves. Hagar might well have been included among those gifts (Genesis 12:14-20), however, some ten years then passed before she actually appeared in the narrative.
We may assume that she was a woman of considerable skill as a personal servant. She became the servant of the mistress of the camp, Sarai herself. She might even have been given to Sarai rather than Abram to begin with. This would have occurred (if it did) while Sarai was a presumed-bride-to-be of the Pharaoh. That particular status was thrust upon Sarai because of Abram’s fears, by the way. Either way, it appears that she entered Canaan in the service of Abram’s wife. From that humble emergence as a servant, she went on to become a well-known figure in patriarchal history.
Alas, it was the plight of slaves that they had no right of ownership. This included sovereignty, even over their own bodies. When Sarai decided that Abram was to have Hagar as a concubine, it is not at all likely that Hagar had the right to a veto. So far as we know, the only people involved in that decision were Sarai and Abram. We may assume that the two women were fairly close and that Sarai at least informed Hagar of these developments, but we don’t actually know how the plan developed.
While we may be offended that Hagar was treated in this manner, there were some real benefits for her. In the context of the camp, she had no right to assume she could become married. If some servant in the camp wanted to marry her, permission would have to be given by Abram and Sarai before such a wedding could proceed. This would involve decisions as to her living arrangements. If she performed her domestic duties well she would be very well treated. However, her somewhat special status might well induce Sarai to not allow her to marry because of the impact that marriage might have on the services she performed for her mistress. When Sarai decided, though, that Hagar would become a concubine to Abram, Hagar would have some of the rights of marriage, even though for a limited purpose.
The more important benefit would be that if she were to become impregnated with a child for Abram, particularly a son, her status would be much elevated in the camp. She would be the woman who had done for Abram what no other woman – including Sarai – had done. She would bear the likely heir to the estate. No other servant woman could even come close to such a status. Even Sarai had not had such a blessing.
Sarai’s plan was that a son born to Hagar would be declared to be the son of Sarai. In some sense the plan would be okay. Hagar, as a slave, had no right to her future offspring. The mistress of the camp could make such a determination as the proposed one. However, everyone would always know the womb from which the heir had come, and that was not the womb of Sarai.
Mostly the plan worked. Hagar conceived. It was assumed that the child would be a boy and that, in time, he would be reckoned to be the son of Sarai in some manner. More importantly, he would be the biological son of Abram. As such, he would become the heir of Abram’s estate as far as anyone was concerned.
But during the pregnancy things went wrong. Hagar began to despise Sarai. Perhaps her situation as the mother of a child Sarai could not have caused her to think too much of herself. Perhaps her imagination encouraged her to presume some things that would not come true. Whatever the source of the contempt, she began to manifest that to Sarai. We may infer that previously the two had gotten along pretty well. So it must have been the pregnancy itself that caused the rift to develop. In a relatively short period of time, the situation had become so bad that Sarai began to torment Hagar in some manner.
When Sarai brought these frictions to Abram, she blamed him for the troubles, even though she had been the originator of the plan. Abram’s response made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Hagar was Sarai’s servant and not his. The persecution continued and became so severe that Hagar fled from the camp and made her way toward Egypt. Subsequently she had an encounter with God, Who prophesied about her son. After that she returned and found a way to live peacefully in the camp.
Some fourteen years passed before Isaac was born. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was being raised in the camp. It is probably true that the expectation remained that he would be the heir. Sarai might have dreaded such a possibility, but Hagar would likely relish the possibility. However, the narrative provides not even a hint that Sarai ever claimed Ishmael as her own son. That was the original plan, but it is likely the enmity between the two women made it impossible to move in that direction. Ishmael, though, was the biological son of Abram.
About a year before Isaac was born, things began to change somewhat dramatically for Hagar and Ishmael. It began to be reported in the camp that Abram’s God was causing upsets. Abram began to call himself Abraham after one particular visit. And, he put out the word that Sarai would henceforth be called Sarah. If that was not alarming enough, it probably slipped out soon that Sarah was to have a son after all. These developments portended nothing good for Hagar, who probably still hoped for an affluent future once Abram died. So, even before Isaac was born, Hagar would have been under a cloud.
The time of Isaac’s birth came, and it was made very clear that he was the heir to his father Abraham. Among other things, this meant simply that Ishmael was not the prime heir. Even if Ishmael was an heir, his would be a lesser portion of the estate when the time came. There was nothing that could be done about that. Both Hagar and her son knew their situation had changed. There is no reason, though, to assume they were treated unkindly. She probably needed to avoid Sarah, and almost for sure did not have her original position as a personal servant to her mistress, but there is no evidence they were mistreated. In fact, Abraham loved his biological son Ishmael (Genesis 17:17-20) in spite of his ambiguous status.
After some period of time had passed (probably five years), Abraham held a big celebration in honor of the weaning of Isaac. It was surely a time of great revelry in the camp. It is likely that Abraham invited many of the important men from among the Canaanites as well. It was, in a sense, to be a sort of coronation. Isaac was no longer a baby. He was now a child to be introduced as the heir and to be schooled henceforth in the pattern of his father’s life.
In a sense, this would be the last nail in the coffin lid for the hopes of Hagar. Now, not only did the camp know that Ishmael was not the main youngster, the whole relevant world knew. There was no court of appeal. It simply was what it was. Hagar was henceforth little more than the servant woman she had been. Oh sure, Abraham loved Ishmael and probably treated her fairly well, but her status and her dreams were gone.
Ishmael was fourteen when Isaac was born. Now he was a young man almost twenty years old. He had been definitively displaced by this little boy. His contempt came out during the festival and Sarah witnessed it. Perhaps it just “popped” out. At that point she petitioned Abraham to do something about it. Abraham grieved, but after consulting with God, he took action the very next day to expel the two of them from the camp. God would take care of Ishmael, but Isaac was to be the uncontested heir. They left.
Again Hagar took off in the direction of Egypt. Somewhere near Beer Sheba they came on hard times and nearly died, but God rescued the two of them. Apparently they stayed in that country. After a while, Hagar arranged for an Egyptian wife for her son, and they remained in the desert country and built their lives there.
That is what we know of Hagar. She is discussed in Birth of The Holy Nation, volume 1, in the context of the life of her mistress Sarai. The book will soon be available from ravensfood.com. Look for it in March or April of 2015.