Sarah and Hagar – On Reconstructing their Story

(What truth will children be told?)

This article appeared in Decades of Feminist Writing self-published in 2020, 16-23.

To learn about scripture is a sacred task, a task to be shared by all who claim it. The task shapes and expresses spiritual being. Texts deserve to be known as early hearers knew them, as current proclaimers attempt to explore or explain them. Each person’s interpretation includes bias. People in each era attempt to make sense of ancient texts for their own day. Segments, types of literature, and total books are examined and revised to suit current needs or views. The outcome ever-changes.

How we tell stories affects understandings of key people identified, of incidents described. Jews, Christians and Muslims link with each other, in part through characters like Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. While Jews and Christians share the Hebrew Scripture, they need serious acquaintance with the Muslim Qur’an. Considerable lore about Hagar exists among Islamic people. The Hebrew Bible names Hagar as ancestor of Arabs. Recall that “not all Arabs are Muslim; not all Muslims are Arab.” Recall too that “Not all offspring of Abraham are Israelites; Israelites stem only from Sarah. Cultural groups existed named Hagarites, Ishmaelites or other “ites” plus offspring from Keturah, Abraham’s wife after Sarah died. A resource of “exhaustive research and masterful narrative” by Frances Worthington from Bahai Publishing titled Abraham One God Three Wives Five Religions prompts “a compelling read.”1

Origins intrigue. A decade ago, thirty-some individuals from my Yoder family explored the counties of Garrett in Maryland and Somerset in Pennsylvania for facts about our roots. We looked for “proof”—the remainder of a house foundation built in 1860 and field stones in a distinct grove of trees that marked the burial of four children of my great, great-grandparents. Caught by diphtheria within a month, those siblings never made the trek westward to Iowa during America’s Civil War. We saw land deeds of “connections” continuous since the 1700s, early ones written on sheepskin. And we linked through song on seeing upright “lieder” books, on singing the memorized “606”2 while standing in a rare Amish church built in 1881. Further, one cousin had created a fine slide set with music that told the story of St. Joder and the Swiss Kapelle (chapel) in his memory. Several of us have wended our way up the hillside to that small landmark—to claim the pelican family insignia, to see in person the stained-glass story. We also claim Anabaptist faith in multiple European settings, among radical people willing to take risks for the sake of conscience.

So, what of Israel’s origins based in Sarah and Hagar? How essential to the core idea of covenant is the universal link that God first made with Noah’s family? What biblical characters “belong” to centuries of believers? Do we value contexts that differ from ours, without imposing our meanings onto their actions? Do we welcome sacred texts of all people loyal to them and honor reconstructions of them through time? Do we care if Hagar is imaged as slave, concubine and victim rather than as “Mother of a Nation?” Do we weigh a woman’s role of giving birth along with her depth of being empowered by the Divine? Traditional as well as new insight enables the essential for teaching biblical texts. While some students, colleagues or listeners value options for interpretation, others resist the same.

Hagar’s story is four thousand years old. The Genesis texts (16:1-15 and 21:1-21) were recorded 500-1,000 years after the events. Three distinct writing styles or time periods appear in these two chapters. Segments of material were collected and shaped together to suit then-current needs. For example, a new kingship era worked to unite people. It changed descent linkage to the male line. We ask what effect that shift might have had on the recording of Hagar’s story.

All readers and interpreters bring bias to content. Socialization shapes explanation as to what is included or deleted, what is valued. Sacred writing affects belief. Islamic people may wonder if the Hebrew/Christian myth of Hagar as slave causes Jews and Christians to consider Muslims to be inferior. Experience may be reflected. Then too, since the 1991 Gulf War, new interest in Arab history among seminary women includes Hagar, an important ancestor.

To re-examine an ancient time period calls us to the sacred work of reconstruction. It calls us to be honest. Scripture lives; it breathes. Reconstructing it expresses spirituality. The holy task for women and men expects God to provide insight, and for us to repent of views that limit God’s truth. Christians engage more often about Sarah and Abraham, ancestors of the Israelites, than about the Hagarites, whereas Muslims give more attention to Hagar. What difference might follow from balancing God’s promise to Abram with that to Sarai: “she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her”? Parts of Sarah’s relationship with Hagar, as tradition explains it, have troubled me, especially Sarah’s rejecting Hagar.

Questions surface because of how people understand God, and because truth needs to be discovered anew as well as upheld. For example, what tasks were expected of an ancient matriarch’s shifhah or “maidservant”? Did her duty include being an alternative, to conceive if there were no heir within ten years? Have believers been socialized to value a woman’s giving birth more than her sacred empowerment? Did cultural law affect characters’ “conflict”? Might Sarah’s anger have been directed toward Abraham, not Hagar? Did he prompt disrespect for either of the women? Why would God support Sarah’s abuse of Hagar? Would God ever ask a victim to return to a victimizer? Through whose or what lens have we read these accounts?

After an overview of the traditional story this paper highlights the study pursued by several other scholars. Childless, Sarah had not achieved a prime reason for being woman as promoted by her culture. After ten years, she became culturally “free” to offer her maid Hagar to husband Abraham. The concubine (likely a wrong term) conceived and then “looked down” on her childless mistress. Irked, Sarah then complained to Abraham. He excused himself and told her to do whatever seemed right. Hagar was treated harshly enough to run away.

God’s angel found Hagar by a wilderness spring and asked about her comings and goings. She admitted running away from suffering. The messenger told her to go back and submit to the harshness. For compensation, her offspring would increase. Amazed that she had seen God and still lived, Hagar named God El-r’oi.

Before long she bore a son Ishmael to 86-year-old Abraham. Name changes, circumcision and other features occurred during the fourteen years between the two recorded meetings of Hagar and Sarah. Then Sarah mysteriously conceived and Abraham named her son Isaac. A feast followed the occasion of his being weaned. Sharp-eyed Sarah noticed Hagar’s son and abruptly told Abraham to get rid of both the slave and son. This approach troubled Abraham; Ishmael was, after all, his son. But God assured him to obey Sarah; both sons would achieve.

Cast out the next morning with a few provisions, Hagar and Ishmael wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheva. With their water gone, Hagar put the child under a bush and sat two bowshots away to cry. She refused to watch her child die. An angel engaged her, asking about her trouble. Assured that the child would eventually become head of a great nation, Hagar’s eyes opened to see a well. After recovering, Ishmael grew and became an archer and Hagar found him a wife in Egypt.

Perspectives beyond traditional Jewish-Christian features include details of the Muslim tradition. For example, “Abraham and Hagar are buried in the hidjir of the Holy House, at Mecca.” Recall that both Hagarites and Ishmaelites are known in the Old Testament, plus offspring from Keturah. Riffat Hassan writes3 of Hagar’s story as recounted in the hadith Sahih Al-Bukhari. Whereas the biblical story suggests that Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away in a final sense, Muslims believe that he, “the first ‘Muslim’ or true believer in God” had a continuing relationship with them. The hadith reports conversations between Abraham and Hagar—like about her and Ismael’s being “left with Allah,” about Abraham and Ishmael’s together building the Ka’bah, a house for Allah.

Current scholars study Hagar’s story. Old Testament professor Phyllis Trible suggests that all sorts of rejected women find their stories in Hagar’s abuse and rejection. She was pivotal—the first person in scripture to be visited by a divine messenger, the only one to dare to name the deity, the first woman to hear an annunciation. African-American writer Renita J. Weens believes that Sarai knew how to enslave a slave—to humiliate her, to destroy her sense of self-worth. Mennonite biblical scholar Wilma Bailey values Delores Williams’ (Sisters in the Wilderness) seeing Hagar through the eyes of African American history with slavery. Jo Ann Hackett finds abuse of absolute power. She discovers motifs from other Ancient Near Eastern myths: threads of insult, excessive anger, appeal to a god, threat of violence, assent to overreaction, and consent to a harsh plan. Matitiahu Tsevat thinks that the original descendants of Isaac would have seen Genesis 16 as a set-back or delay of God’s promise. Further, the women’s conflict could be judged as a clash of rights, not wills. Sharon Pace Jeansonne sees conflict as inevitable. Hagar’s increased status, through pregnancy, lowered Sarah’s esteem or enabled power over her.

In 2017 Wilda C. Gafney presents a womanist, Jewish perspective with details.4 Distinct features include: an incestuous union if indeed, in addition to being wife and husband, Sarai and Abram shared father Terah (Sarai a decade younger) while no mother appears. Although co-wives of Abram, and both eventual mothers of dynasties, Sarai’s affect of sexual abuse and anger toward Hagar deserve more direct attention. Gafney wonders where Hagar was when God changed Sarai and Abram’s names, and when the mysterious visitors predicted Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy. She notes that whereas the Bible credits Hagar’s discovery of a well for Ishmael’s diminished water supply, the Muslim hadith credits that water replenished Hagar’s breast milk. Gafney also constructs a midrash (rabbinic term for exegesis) for Ishmael’s burial of his mother.

Savina Teubal’s serious study5 adds perspective. Stereotypes need not persist: if one gains esteem another must lose it; women are prone to jealousy and conflict. Original male compilers and interpreters shaped views that continued. Teubal highlights ancient cultural background. She explains deities, lineage, and shifhah. She presents characters from their point of view, less filtered through biased others. She discovers a third woman’s story (the one who births Ishmael) and calls her the Desert Matriarch. She observes the Hebrew text which refers to Hagar’s son as lad, not child. And she distinguishes the Hagarites and Ishmaelites. In other words, she seriously reconstructs. Consider her story.

Genesis 16 tells childless Sarah’s instruction to Abraham: “Consort with my maid,” my shifhah. Not a concubine of Abraham, Hagar filled a ritual or spiritual service for another woman within matriarchal society. If a priest, Sarah could have chosen childlessness. She would expect her close companion or shifhah to mother an heir in her stead. In such a circumstance the two women trusted each other. They bonded in religious ritual. For us to deprive them of this sacred depth by charging them with conflict reflects double wrong. Why might some Christians have preferred to imprison them in conflict? Why might judgments diminish women rather than credit the holy between them?

Or, why might we distort Sarah’s view? Who might have instigated Hagar’s contempt or seeming rebellion toward Sarah’s authority? Dare we ponder Sarah’s anger with law that seemed to mock? Both women had long-understood law and the spiritual service of a shifhah. Have we undermined friendship between these two, to bless an “advantage” for one? Further, what about attention to Sarah’s use of a curse formula: “May God decide between you and me!” She points out the problem and expects Divine wisdom to set and evaluate social order.

Teubal’s option questions the end of this scene as recorded—where Sarah treats Hagar harshly causing Hagar to run away. Did the writer, in compiling diverse strands, remove this desert scene from another matriarch’s story and insert it into Hagar’s? If so, might the segment deserve reordering? The next incident with Hagar would then be in chapter 21. That writer’s first paragraph focuses more the patriarch Abraham. Then comes Sarah’s laughter: God enabled her to be pregnant. She birthed in old age! Son Isaac grows and a feast marks his weaning.

Polytheism proved central to ancient life, the concept of a single, abstract God being unknown. As an Egyptian and daughter of one of Pharoah’s many wives, Hagar could have looked to Isis or Hat-hor. El Shaddai was likely known as a female deity by the ancestors who left Ur. They at times lived at Mamre, in Asherah’s sacred grove of oak trees. The weaning event could have credited goddesses who helped with delivery or supplied nourishing milk.

On seeing Hagar’s son, Sarah decided that the two sons should not share her substantial legacy. Prior to Isaac’s weaning, the two knew equal status. But a child inherited its mother’s assets and social status, like “head-of-family.” Therefore, to name a beneficiary was deemed essential. What Sarah noticed about Hagar’s son was his maturity. He had reached the age of marriage. Deciding to disinherit him, she told Abraham to cast out or release the “slave” woman and her son. While this duty troubled Abraham, God assured him that Sarah’s choice of the younger offspring to continue their line was valid. The other son would become great with another nation. Convinced, Abraham supplied food and water and sent them away. Wandering in the wilderness of Beer-sheva, but not near death, the lad grieved. He cried over their separation from Sarah, from their familiar pattern of life. Hagar became the sole parent of her son. Having been trained by Sarah, Hagar then shaped their future. She found an Egyptian wife for him. They were free to meet destiny unafraid, as an angel urged them.

Factors surface within this reconstruction option. Hagar becomes the only woman in the Bible to receive a direct promise that she (through her son) will become a great nation. Thereafter, Hagarites lived close to the Wilderness of Paran, within which is Mount Sinai (titled Agar in the Second Testament). Hagarites knew power and defeat. 1 Chronicles 5 notes those who fell into the hand of Saul’s descendants plus the one hundred thousand men and thousands of animals who fell to warriors of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh tribes. 1 Chronicles 27 notes a Hagarite in charge of flocks belonging to King David, and Psalms 83 mentions the Hagarites involved in an alliance, along with Ishmaelites.

So, what about the other desert scenes in these two chapters? Teubal recombines segments from both chapters into a unit. She calls Ishmael’s mother Desert Matriarch. In summary: an angel of God (Yahweh) found the Desert Matriarch by a desert on the Way of Shur. She is told that her offspring would be endowed with military skill. The angel gives bread and water to them. When these are finished, the Matriarch leaves her child under a bush and sits a bowshot away to cry, to avoid seeing her child die. God (Elohim) opens her eyes to behold a well. Filling their waterskin, she lets the fellow drink.

Yahweh’s angel told her to call the son Ishmael (for God attended to her suffering). He became the ancestor of the tribe of Ishmaelites, she the mother. Her meeting with God was a spiritual experience. She names (God) “El-r’oi” (meaning “Have I not gone on seeing after he saw me!”) She also called the well between Kadesh and Bered “Beer-lahai-r’oi.” Genesis 25:17 concludes: “And these are the years of Ishmael: one hundred and thirty-seven years; then he breathed his last and was gathered to his kin.”

Hebrew scholar Phyllis Trible’s fine article about Hagar titled “The Other Woman”6 reflects her disciplined exegesis of Gen. 16:1-16 and Gen. 21:9-21. That she includes 84 endnotes reflects the multiple resources that she used for her study; organization of content includes an Introduction, episodes, and conclusions for both scenes (chapters). For a window into her writing flavor, read excerpts:

At the beginning, Sarai speaks in the imperative mood . . . For Sarai, Hagar is an instrument, not a person. . . No mighty patriarch is Abram, but rather the silent, acquiescent, and minor figure in a drama between two women. . . The exalted mistress decreases while the lowly maid increases. . . Speech alone reveals the divine presence. ‘Hagar, maid of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?’. . . The annunciation has three basic elements: the prediction of the birth of a male child; the naming of the child; and the future life of the child. . . Neither Hagar nor Sarai but Abram has a son whom he names Ishmael. Patriarchy is well in control. . . From being a maid (sipha) to Sarai in the first scene, Hagar has now become a slave (ama) serving the master of the house as his second wife. By contrast, Sarah, the first wife, enjoys greater power because she herself has borne a son. . . In contrast to its parallel in scene one, this wilderness episode comprises two sections. The first depicts Hagar alone with her child; no divine messenger finds her by a spring of water. . .she departed and she wandered in the wilderness; she found a place for the child to die; she kept a vigil; and she uttered the dread phrase, ‘the death of the child’. . .Now, as God opens her eyes, she sees a well of water, fills the skin, and gives the lad a drink. Life overcomes death. . . As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially, all sorts of rejected women find their stories in her.

For Genesis writers to link these women, to note a profound meeting of a troubled woman with the Divine, to cast Hagar as a slave, to pose negative features about Sarah undermines both. What might be done with Teubal’s reconstruction? How might accounts lead future children to respect the sacred faith of such biblical women? Will Christians grieve interpretations that diminish women’s sacred experience? Female ancestors have been neglected within patriarchal record-keeping which undermines plural divinity and gender. Does describing Hagar and Sarah through conflict or portraying them primarily through sex and sons undermine their sacred roles? Women’s views through church history have suffered as a result.

May Hagar and Sarah haunt us! May the Hagarites, Ishmaelites and Desert Matriarch be valued along with Israelites. May conflict between Sarah and Hagar be resolved. May victims of abuse never be told to return to victimizers. May Jews and Christians repent for depriving women of sacred depth and God-given leadership.