By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bare him no children: and she had an handmaiden, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened unto the voice of Sarai.” -Gen. 16: 1-2, KJV
Some time during the late Bronze Age, between 2000 and 1500 B.C., roughly coinciding with the Middle Kingdom Era of Egypt, an Egyptian handmaid belonging to the wife of the nomadic clan leader would enter history, along with her tribe-woman mistress, as mothers of two great nations.
The handmaid’s tale begins long before there was a kingdom known as Israel, before there were even the Twelve Tribes of Israel. It begins with a wandering clan leader, Abram (later Abraham) and his wife Sarai (later Sarah).
Abram and Sarai are entering their twilight years, childless. Since God had already promised Abram some time ago that he would one day be the father of a great nation, the current situation presents quite a quandary: How is he to be the father of a great nation…with no heirs?
It is here that Sarai’s handmaid, Hagar (whose name means “stranger”), enters the narrative.
At Sarai’s insistence, Abram takes Sarai’s handmaid as a surrogate to provide him with heir. We do not know exactly how they first acquired an Egyptian handmaid, although their sojourns did take them through Egypt at times, but because of their position as head of their clan, we can surmise that they likely had an entire retinue of other servants as well.
Hagar most likely came from an Egyptian household, a place of cities, temples and elaborate burial customs, with a complex political system and a thriving trade and market economy. If so, she must have found life among this nomadic tribe quite primitive. Coming from such a cosmopolitan background, she may have even considered it a step downward.
As a slave or servant, it is unlikely that she had any say in becoming the chosen surrogate for a child that would be considered Sarai’s upon birth. There is no indication in the narrative of her being consulted. The decision was apparently made without her, and it was done. In fact, throughout the entire narrative, neither Sarai nor Abram refer to her by name, always speaking of her as “the handmaid.”
It was not an unusual situation at the time; texts from many writings of that time period, including the Code of Hammurabi, allude to the custom of childless wives providing female slaves as surrogates for their husbands.
Tivka Frymer-Kensky, author of Patriarchal Family Relationships and Near Eastern Law, summarizes the situation thusly in the Jewish Women’s Archive: “In the world of the ancient Near East, a slave woman could be seen as an incubator, a kind of womb-with-legs.”
However, this is not how Hagar views herself. She is now a person of importance, carrying the child of the clan leader, in a society that values mothers over childless women. Perhaps for the first time, she is even getting a little respect from other members of the household. In such a society, a female slave carrying a leader’s child could rise dramatically in status, sometimes to the position of favored concubine or secondary wife.
Yet, there was the knowledge that her child would be lawfully considered the fruit of that barren woman who still continued to lord it over her as if she were still a mere nothing; that barren mistress who had so completely failed in her childbearing function for the tribal leader. In the resulting mix of sexual jealousy and resentment,
Hagar begins to see herself as equal to, or even superior to Sarai.
Sarai, on the other hand, already upset by her childlessness, does not take kindly to Hagar’s new attitude. She responds with her own mix of jealousy and resentment, dealing harshly with that little nobody of a handmaid and her delusions of grandeur. Abram cannot intervene, for the women of the clan are ruled by Sarai, and under Sarai’s jurisdiction.
There were some protections in the legal codes for slaves in this region; Sarai cannot kill Hagar outright. However, Hagar either fears for her life, or the situation becomes so intolerable she decides to take her chances in the unforgiving desert. Pregnant and desperate, she flees south, down through the Sinai Peninsula, back toward her homeland in Egypt.
Following the road to Shur, she almost reaches Egypt. But, while resting at a wellspring in the wilderness of Shur, an angel of the Lord tells her that she must go back, for she will bear a son who will have descendants without number; a mighty nation will rise from him. He will be called Ishmael.
With new purpose, and understanding the destiny of the child she carries, she turns and retraces her steps back to Egypt, giving birth to Ishmael when Abram (now Abraham), is 86 years old.
Things appear to go well enough for the next 14 years until, Sarai (now Sarah), miraculously gives birth to a son, Isaac, whom the Lord has also promised will give rise to a great nation.
The old rivalry soon reasserts itself, for whose son will now be Abraham’s heir? Hagar’s, who was born first, or Sarah’s, because Sarah is the wife?
Things once again come to a head, and this time, Sarah has Abraham banish Hagar and Ishmael into the desert, where they soon run out of food and water.
Believing that she is dying, Hagar places her son under the shade of a bush and cries out to the Lord, who shows her a well of water that she had previously overlooked.
She and Ishmael survive, and make their home in the wilderness of Paran, where Ishmael grows to manhood.
The story of Hagar is that of the outsider, the one who was never accepted by the people she lived among, and was eventually expelled from their society. It is the story of being absolutely alone, with no one to turn to in a harsh environment, both figuratively and literally, no one except God. When she cried out to God in the wilderness, she was protected by Him and survived, along with her child, living her life as a free woman, no longer a slave, raising a son who would one day be regarded as the father of the Arab nations.
According to the Koran, it is at Mecca that God saved Hagar and Ishmael with the live-giving wellspring, and later brought forth from Ishmael’s descendants the great nation he had promised Hagar so long ago. Like Jacob, Ishmeal had 12 sons, who gave rise to twelve tribes.
Today, the Koran as well as the Jewish Midrash regard Hagar as a princess. In more modern times, she is a symbol of women who persevere and survive, especially when the odds are stacked against them.