Hagar the Egyptian

Slave and Surrogate
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Image of Hagar and Ishmael in the desert, 1870, from Getty Images

According to the biblical narrative of Genesis, Hagar was an Egyptian slave who belonged to Sarah, the wife of Abraham. When Sarah was unable to provide Abraham with a child, she proposed that her husband beget a child with her slave—a solution permitted under the law. Presumably Hagar had no choice in the matter, so she served as a surrogate mother for her mistress. But by the time Hagar was pregnant Sarah apparently regretted the arrangement. Sarah treated her so harshly that she tried to flee. But an angel of the Lord urged her to return and bear her child. She was promised, like Abraham, descendants so numerous that “they cannot be numbered for multitude.” And she was told that her child should be called Ishmael, which means “God hears.” Hagar replied in wonder: “Thou art a God of seeing. . . . Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”  

Ishmael was duly born. But after many years another child of God’s promise was born to Sarah and Abraham. Sarah now insisted that Abraham send Hagar and her son alone into the wilderness, a shocking demand, with which Abraham complied. Therefore, Hagar and Ishmael wandered into the desert and would have died, had God not heard the tears of Ishmael and comforted Hagar, at which point she discovered a well.  

Though not the main protagonist of the story of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar helps to characterize the Lord as a God of life who hears the voice of the oppressed and makes a way out of no way. 

“Thou art a God of seeing.” —Hagar (Genesis 16:13) 

© Liturgical Press.

Robert Ellsberg

Robert Ellsberg is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books and the author of several award-winning books, including All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time; Blessed Among All Women; and The Saints' Guide to Happiness.

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