Hagar and Ishmael

An example of ancient surrogate motherhood and the biblical destiny of the child.

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But the angel’s speech here parallels God’s speech to Abram in Genesis 15:13, which states that his children would be enslaved and degraded before their redemption. Both passages use the key terms that Israel uses to describe the Egypt experience. Hagar, the slave from Egypt, foreshadows Israel, the future slaves in Egypt. Her very name, Hagar, could be heard as hagger, meaning “the alien”; Hagar is an alien in Abram’s household as Israel will be aliens, gerim, in a foreign land. Hagar is to be degraded as Abram’s descendants will be degraded, and God has “given heed to affliction” as God will hear the affliction of Abram’s descendants.

Hagar is Abram’s counterpart. God speaks directly to her, forging a relationship independent of God’s relationship with Abram, and she responds in that way. She names God (“You are El-roi,” meaning “the one who sees me”; Genesis 16:13) and the place (Beer-lahai-roi, “the well of the Living One who sees”; Gen 16:14) and then goes back to Abram’s household and bears a son, whom Abram (not Sarai) names Ishmael.

Hagar and Ishmael are freed at Sarai’s instigation (Genesis 21:9–14). Here too their destiny is parallel to later Israel’s, for the newly freed slaves head to the desert and struggle with thirst. God then saves the dying Ishmael, not because of Hagar’s cries or God’s promises to Abram, but because God heard Ishmael’s voice (Genesis 21:15–21). God's relationship with Hagar is resealed with her son, as God’s relationship with Abram is resealed with Isaac and his son Jacob.

Like Jacob, Ishmael has twelve sons. Hagar is the ancestor of these twelve tribes of Ishmael (Genesis 25:12–15). She may also be the ancestor of the Hagrites, tent dwellers mentioned along with Ishmaelites in Psalms 83:7 (see also 1 Chronicles 5:10; 27:30).

The Quran, like some Jewish midrash, remembers Hagar as a princess. In more modern times, Hagar is often admired as the symbol of downtrodden women who persevere.
 

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Tikva Frymer-Kensky

Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) was a professor of Hebrew Bible at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.She was the author of many works of biblical scholarship and spirituality.She was a foremost assyriologist, biblical scholar, and feminist.