Hagar’s story is recorded in Genesis 16:1-16 and 21:9-19. An Egyptian slave owned by Sarah, Hagar likely joined Sarah while Sarah was part of Pharoah’s household in Egypt, (Gen. 12:10-15). As Sarah lost faith that she would bear a child, she gave Hagar to Abraham to bear a son in her name. It was common practice in the Ancient Near Eastern culture to offer concubines in overcoming infertility.1 In this particular case, Scripture indicates that in bearing a child, Hagar became Abraham’s wife, while remaining Sarah’s slave.
When Hagar became pregnant, her household status increased, inciting Sarah’s jealousy and vindictiveness. With Abraham’s permission, Sarah abused Hagar to the point that she escaped to the desert. Destitute in the desert, God saw Hagar and assured her of his presence and concern for her survival and future by asking her to name her son Ishmael which means “God has heard.” In response, Hagar called God El Roi, the “God who sees.” Hagar is the first person to name God in all of scripture. Womanist, Delores Williams, speculates that for the sake of Hagar and her unborn son’s survival, God asked her to return to her abusive situation.2
Years later Hagar cries out to El Roi. Expelled to the desert by her husband Abraham, at the behest of Sarah, freed from slavery but without resources, Hagar realizes death is closing in. Hearing Ishmael’s cry, God spoke to Hagar. He pointed her to water for their survival and reignited her hope by repeating his promise that he would make her children into a great nation. True to God’s word, her son’s people did become a great nation, with Ishmael’s descendants recorded in Genesis 25:18.
African American women find great affinity with the story of Hagar. They identify with Hagar’s slavery, abuse by an abused woman, escape, and freedom paired with great economic peril. But Hagar also speaks to their experience because God sees, hears, and provides for Hagar’s survival. The gold-standard exegesis of Hagar’s story was written by Womanist author Delores Williams in her book, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk.
To see artwork created by Edmonia Lewis remembering Hagar, see: Six Black Female Artists Christians Should Know by Cara Quinn.
Amy R. Buckly explains Hagar’s story, and God’s amazing interventions to preserve both her and Ishmael’s life in: “In the Midst of the Mess: Hagar and the God Who Sees,” in Mutuality.
To go deeper read: “Cast Out and Cast Off: Hagar, Leah, and the God who Sees,” by I. Daniel Hawk.
- Frymer-Kensky, Reading Women of the Bible, 226-227.
- Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), 20-21.