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Shai Held





Hagar: An Egyptian Maidservant’s Suffering Is Seen by YHWH





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Shai Held





Hagar: An Egyptian Maidservant’s Suffering Is Seen by YHWH








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Hagar: An Egyptian Maidservant’s Suffering Is Seen by YHWH

Abused by Sarai, Hagar flees to the wilderness. An angel of God appears to her and instructs her to return and continue her suffering and enslavement under Sarai, but he promises that Ishmael will be free. Hagar responds by naming YHWH El-Roi, “God has seen me.” Hagar’s story parallels Israel in Egypt, highlighting that God cares about people beyond just Israel.


Hagar: An Egyptian Maidservant’s Suffering Is Seen by YHWH

Hagar and Ishmael in the Desert, Antonio María Esquivel, 1856. Wikimedia

Finding herself barren, Sarai gives her maidservant Hagar to Abram to bear children. Once Hagar becomes pregnant, however, Hagar’s attitude presents a new problem for Sarai:

בראשית טו:ד וַיָּבֹ֥א אֶל־הָגָ֖ר וַתַּ֑הַר וַתֵּ֙רֶא֙ כִּ֣י הָרָ֔תָה וַתֵּקַ֥ל גְּבִרְתָּ֖הּ בְּעֵינֶֽיהָ:
Gen 16:4 He went to Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem.[1]

One can surely understand why Hagar may see Sarai negatively. She has, after all, been treated as little more than a “womb with legs,”[2] an object rather than a person with a will of her own.

Affronted by the disrespect, Sarai directs her ire at Abram, who responds that Hagar is Sarai’s maidservant and she should do what she wishes with her. Hagar soon finds Sarai’s mistreatment of her unbearable:

בראשית טז:ו ...וַתְּעַנֶּ֣הָ שָׂרַ֔י וַתִּבְרַ֖ח מִפָּנֶֽיהָ.
Gen 16:6 … Sarai cause her to suffer, and she (Hagar) fled from her.

The root used of Sarai’s actions against Hagar, ע.נ.י, is a harsh term that can connote “to debase” or “to cause to suffer.” The former meaning is often associated with sexual violence[3] and the latter with slavery and oppression.[4]

Hagar’s Name and Humanity

Subtly, the text shows the reader that Abram and Sarai do not see Hagar as fully human. They refer to her simply as Sarai’s שִׁפְחָה, “maidservant,” as if the woman has no name, no identity of her own. Their behavior contrasts strikingly with the way the angel of YHWH treats her upon encountering her in the wilderness. The first word the angel speaks is “Hagar,” acknowledging her personhood in a way that neither Abram nor Sarai have done:[5]

בראשית טז:ז וַֽיִּמְצָאָ֞הּ מַלְאַ֧ךְ יְ־הֹוָ֛ה עַל־עֵ֥ין הַמַּ֖יִם בַּמִּדְבָּ֑ר עַל־הָעַ֖יִן בְּדֶ֥רֶךְ שֽׁוּר: טז:ח וַיֹּאמַ֗ר הָגָ֞ר שִׁפְחַ֥ת שָׂרַ֛י אֵֽי־מִזֶּ֥ה בָ֖את וְאָ֣נָה תֵלֵ֑כִי...
Gen 16:7 An angel of YHWH found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur, 16:8 and said, “Hagar, maidservant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

Strikingly, while all three of Israel’s patriarchs receive messages from God, Hagar is one of only two of their wives/concubines to receive a direct divine message.[6]

The angel finds Hagar at “the spring on the road to Shur,” which is close to Egypt, implying, perhaps, that Hagar is on the road back to her homeland.[7] When the angel asks Hagar about both her past and her future, however, Hagar, seemingly bereft and dejected, does not say she is going home, but responds only to the first question:

בראשית טז:ח ...וַתֹּ֕אמֶר מִפְּנֵי֙ שָׂרַ֣י גְּבִרְתִּ֔י אָנֹכִ֖י בֹּרַֽחַת:
Gen 16:8 … And she said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

Keenly aware of the miseries of her past, Hagar may be uncertain about having any future at all.

Keep Suffering: The Angel’s Surprising Message

Given what appears to be the angel’s sympathetic attitude to Hagar, his instruction to Hagar is surprising and even troubling:

בראשית טז:ט וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְ־הֹוָ֔ה שׁ֖וּבִי אֶל־גְּבִרְתֵּ֑ךְ וְהִתְעַנִּ֖י תַּ֥חַת יָדֶֽיהָ:
Gen 16:9 And the angel of YHWH said to her: “Go back to your mistress, and allow yourself to suffer (ע.נ.י) under her hands.”[8]

If the angel (and by extension, YHWH) wishes to affirm Hagar’s humanity, why send her back to Sarai to suffer further misery and hardship? The angel’s statement is at variance with the ethos we see later in Deuteronomy’s law of the escaped slave, which prohibits returning such slaves to their masters:

דברים כג:טז לֹא־תַסְגִּ֥יר עֶ֖בֶד אֶל־אֲדֹנָ֑יו אֲשֶׁר־יִנָּצֵ֥ל אֵלֶ֖יךָ מֵעִ֥ם אֲדֹנָֽיו: כג:יז עִמְּךָ֞ יֵשֵׁ֣ב בְּקִרְבְּךָ֗ בַּמָּק֧וֹם אֲשֶׁר־יִבְחַ֛ר בְּאַחַ֥ד שְׁעָרֶ֖יךָ בַּטּ֣וֹב ל֑וֹ לֹ֖א תּוֹנֶֽנּוּ:
Deut 23:16 You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master. 23:17 He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.[9]

So why does the angel of God send Hagar back to Sarai, her (abusive) master?[10] We will return to this question later.

Increase of Offspring

Hagar does not respond to this instruction,[11] and the angel speaks a second time:

בראשית טז:י וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְ־הֹוָ֔ה הַרְבָּ֥ה אַרְבֶּ֖ה אֶת־זַרְעֵ֑ךְ וְלֹ֥א יִסָּפֵ֖ר מֵרֹֽב:
Gen 16:10 And the angel of YHWH said to her, “I will greatly increase your offspring, and they shall be too many to count.”

The angel seems to be reassuring Hagar about returning to Sarai’s house, promising that her offspring will be numerous, a blessing similar to the one Abram receives, both before this story (Gen 13:16, 15:5) and after (Gen 22:17). Hagar does not respond to this comment either.

A Fiercely Independent Son

The angel continues with a third message about the baby that Hagar is carrying right now:

בראשית טז:יא וַיֹּ֤אמֶר לָהּ֙ מַלְאַ֣ךְ יְ־הֹוָ֔ה הִנָּ֥ךְ הָרָ֖ה וְיֹלַ֣דְתְּ בֵּ֑ן וְקָרָ֤את שְׁמוֹ֙ יִשְׁמָעֵ֔אל כִּֽי שָׁמַ֥ע יְ־הֹוָ֖ה אֶל עָנְיֵֽךְ: טז:יב וְה֤וּא יִהְיֶה֙ פֶּ֣רֶא אָדָ֔ם יָד֣וֹ בַכֹּ֔ל וְיַ֥ד כֹּ֖ל בּ֑וֹ וְעַל פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו יִשְׁכֹּֽן:
Gen 16:11 And the angel of YHWH said to her: “You are with child and shall bear a son. You shall call him Ishmael, For YHWH has paid heard your suffering. 16:12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man; his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall live at odds with his kinsmen.”[12]

The first verse affirms that God understands her predicament, telling her that she must name the boy Ishmael, “El Hears,” since YHWH has heard her suffering. The second says that her son will be a wild man, living in constant conflict with his kinsman.

The two verses about Hagar’s future son seem different in tone, but the thread that runs through both of them is that whereas Hagar experiences suffering in her subservience to Sarai as a maidservant, her son Ishmael will be free, strong, and not easily subjugated.[13] The reference to Ishmael’s “hand” being against everyone is the inverse of the angel’s instruction to Hagar to go back and suffer under Sarai’s “hand” (v. 9). Abram uses the same expression in his answer to Sarai (v. 6). הִנֵּ֤ה שִׁפְחָתֵךְ֙ בְּיָדֵ֔ךְ, “your maid is in your hand.”

As the great feminist Bible scholar, Phyllis Trible, notes, “If Hagar lives under the hand of Sarai, the hand of Ishmael will engage in ceaseless strife against such power.” Similarly, Harvard University’s Jon Levenson writes, “The fierce independence of the Ishmaelites will vindicate the humiliating thralldom of their matriarch’s life.”[14] Though Hagar has been, and will continue to be, forced to endure slavery, she is assured that her son will be spared the same fate.

Hagar Feels Seen

Hagar finally breaks her silence, and responds, by giving God a name—the only character in the Bible to do so:

בראשית טז:יג וַתִּקְרָ֤א שֵׁם־יְ־הֹוָה֙ הַדֹּבֵ֣ר אֵלֶ֔יהָ אַתָּ֖ה אֵ֣ל רֳאִ֑י כִּ֣י אָֽמְרָ֗ה הֲגַ֥ם הֲלֹ֛ם רָאִ֖יתִי אַחֲרֵ֥י רֹאִֽי:
Gen 16:13 And she gave YHWH who spoke to her a name, “You Are El-roi,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!”

El-roi translates to “You are the God who sees me.”[15] While the further expansion on Hagar’s meaning is almost impossible to parse, her statement shows Hagar exulting in the fact that God has “seen” her despite the angel’s instructions to return to Sarai’s ill-treatment.

As Kathleen O’Connor notes in her commentary on Genesis:

To be seen in one’s suffering is to receive a most basic form of compassion. For another to see you as you are, to recognize your pain, shame, and dehumanization… is to have your humanity restored.[16]

O’Connor further notes, “what God hears or gives ‘heed to’ is the affliction of [an] abandoned, dehumanized, and harshly abused slave woman.” The God of Israel sees and hears the lowly, humiliated, foreign slave-woman. To be sure, God doesn’t emancipate the slave, but does shower her with blessings.

So Why Go Back and Suffer?

This brings us back to the problem mentioned earlier: Why does the angel send Hagar back to suffer oppression at Sarai’s hands?[17] Scholars offer an array of possibilities.

Not Free in Her Heart—The womanist theologian Renita Weems suggests that the angel effectively has no choice because Hagar tragically goes on seeing herself as a slave. Hagar had fled and thus signaled a yearning to be free, but “her mind remained in bonds.” No angel can liberate a slave who is not ready to see herself as something different.[18]

Survival— Wilma Ann Bailey of Indianapolis’ Christian Theological Seminary suggests a more practical reason: Hagar’s return to bondage is “a matter of survival.” She must “play the role of humble servant” until the time is right for her to be free; she must “choose to survive rather than die in the wilderness.”[19]

Abraham’s Election—Jon Levenson takes a very different approach, observing that “God’s sympathy with the oppressed is potent in Tanakh, but so is [God’s] election of Israel, and it is the latter that trumps in this instance.”[20]

Covenantal Necessity—In her From Father to Son, Devora Steinmetz writes that this episode works with the covenantal formula: Whoever receives the blessing of progeny must also undergo suffering.[21]

This fourth claim, I would argue, is the key to understanding the story.

Hagar’s Suffering and Israel’s Suffering

The story of Hagar fleeing from Sarai comes immediately after the Covenant between the Pieces, in which God gives Abram a message about the future of his progeny (note the words in bold):

בראשית טו:יג ...יָדֹ֨עַ תֵּדַ֜ע כִּי־גֵ֣ר׀ יִהְיֶ֣ה זַרְעֲךָ֗ בְּאֶ֙רֶץ֙ לֹ֣א לָהֶ֔ם וַעֲבָד֖וּם וְעִנּ֣וּ אֹתָ֑ם אַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה: טו:יד וְגַ֧ם אֶת־הַגּ֛וֹי אֲשֶׁ֥ר יַעֲבֹ֖דוּ דָּ֣ן אָנֹ֑כִי וְאַחֲרֵי־כֵ֥ן יֵצְא֖וּ בִּרְכֻ֥שׁ גָּדֽוֹל:
Gen 15:13 …Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and made to suffer for four hundred years; 15:14 but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth.

In the Exodus story itself, Israel’s suffering brings about divine intervention:

שמות ג:ז יֹּ֣אמֶר יְ־הֹוָ֔ה רָאֹ֥ה רָאִ֛יתִי אֶת־עֳנִ֥י עַמִּ֖י אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם וְאֶת־צַעֲקָתָ֤ם שָׁמַ֙עְתִּי֙ מִפְּנֵ֣י נֹֽגְשָׂ֔יו כִּ֥י יָדַ֖עְתִּי אֶת־מַכְאֹבָֽיו:
Exod 3:7 And YHWH continued, “I have seen the suffering of My people in Egypt and have heard their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their afflictions.”[22]

Like the Israelites in Egypt, Hagar is a slave and made to suffer (ע.נ.י). Moreover, her name can be read like ha-ger, “the stranger.” Indeed, Hagar, an Egyptian woman, is a stranger in the land of Canaan.

The parallels between the story of Hagar in Abraham and Sarah’s household and that of Israel in Egypt are profound:

  • The stronger (Egypt, Sarai) “causes suffering” (ע.נ.י) to the weaker (Israel, Hagar);
  • The weaker is a slave;
  • The victim is “freed” through “banishment” (ג.ר.שׁ);
  • God sees the affliction of the victim;
  • God speaks to them in the wilderness,
  • God blesses them and transforms them into a great nation.

Thus, the divine promises made to Hagar are starkly reminiscent of the promises made to Israel.[23] Hagar’s story mirrors—and more significantly, anticipates—Israel’s. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky puts it, “The story of Hagar parallels the story of Israel; she is the archetype.”[24] Similarly, Phyllis Trible refers to Hagar as “the precursor of Israel’s plight under Pharaoh.”[25]

Suffering Is a Precondition

Thus, while we may ask why Hagar must endure suffering before she can experience the blessings that God promises, Abram could have asked the same question at the Covenant Between the Parts. Frymer-Kensky explains: “The pattern of Hagar and Abram and of later Israel shows that the way to God’s reward is through the margins of society and the depths of degradation....” This pattern, “offers hope to the oppressed, but it remains an unexplained aspect of God’s behavior in the world.”[26]

The Babylonian Talmud already picks up on this troubling pattern in divine providence (b. Berakhot 5a):

רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אומר: שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל, וכולן לא נתנן אלא על - ידי יסורין. אלו הן: תורה וארץ ישראל והעולם הבא.
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai says: “The Blessed Holy One gave Israel three precious gifts, all of which were given only by means of suffering: Torah, The Land of Israel, and the World-to-Come.”

The Final Banishing of Hagar

Hagar appears again in the biblical narrative[27] after Isaac is born, when Sarah has her and her son banished.[28]

בראשית כא:י וַתֹּ֙אמֶר֙ לְאַבְרָהָ֔ם גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת בְּנָ֑הּ כִּ֣י לֹ֤א יִירַשׁ֙ בֶּן הָאָמָ֣ה הַזֹּ֔את עִם בְּנִ֖י עִם יִצְחָֽק:
Gen 21:10 She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave-woman[29] and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”[30]

Again, Sarah avoids saying Hagar’s name, and Ishmael’s as well. To the reader’s surprise (and consternation) God appears to side with Sarah, telling Abraham that כִּ֣י בְיִצְחָ֔ק יִקָּרֵ֥א לְךָ֖ זָֽרַע, “through Isaac will your seed be called.” Nevertheless, God reveals to Abraham the divine plan of making Ishmael a great nation alongside Isaac:

בראשית כא:יג וְגַ֥ם אֶת בֶּן הָאָמָ֖ה לְג֣וֹי אֲשִׂימֶ֑נּוּ כִּ֥י זַרְעֲךָ֖ הֽוּא:
Gen 21:13 And as for the son of the slave-woman, I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.[31]

Disturbingly, God echoes Sarah’s pejorative language for Hagar and Ishmael—they are the slave and the son of the slave. Or perhaps God speaks this way in order to lessen the pain Abraham feels at what he is being asked to do. Whatever the case, God views both Isaac and Ishmael as the seed of Abraham, and each will have a great many offspring of their own.

Phyllis Trible here observes that the two verses taken together make a powerful point:

Juxtaposed, these two promises of progeny, first to Hagar through Ishmael and now to Abraham through Isaac, seem to allow Hagar the singular honor of being the first female ancestor of a nation.[32]

God Hears Ishmael’s Cry

Abraham sends Hagar away the next morning; she loses her way in the wilderness and soon runs out of water. Seeing her son on the brink of death, she lays the boy down under a bush and sits an arrow-shot away to avoid having to witness the inevitable, and cries— becoming the first character in the Hebrew Bible to cry. Again, an angel appears. This time, however, it is not as a result of her sorrow, but of her son’s:

בראשית כא:יז וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע אֱלֹהִים֘ אֶת ק֣וֹל הַנַּעַר֒ וַיִּקְרָא֩ מַלְאַ֨ךְ אֱלֹהִ֤ים׀ אֶל הָגָר֙ מִן הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וַיֹּ֥אמֶר לָ֖הּ מַה לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר אַל תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י כִּֽי שָׁמַ֧ע אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶל ק֥וֹל הַנַּ֖עַר בַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר הוּא שָֽׁם: כא:יח ק֚וּמִי שְׂאִ֣י אֶת הַנַּ֔עַר וְהַחֲזִ֥יקִי אֶת יָדֵ֖ךְ בּ֑וֹ כִּֽי לְג֥וֹי גָּד֖וֹל אֲשִׂימֶֽנּוּ:
Gen 21:17 God heard the cry of the boy, and an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, "What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is. 21:18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him."

Although Ishmael’s name is not explicitly mentioned in the chapter, the promise implicit in his name is fulfilled: The boy cries and God hears (Yishma-El) him.[33] The angel then repeats God’s promise to make a great nation of the boy, and opens her eyes so that she sees a well, where she fills the skin with water and lets Ishmael drink.

Note again how Hagar’s experience parallels and prefigures Israel’s. Just as Hagar wanders thirsty through the desert until God provides her with water, so too will the Israelites when they depart Egypt. “In slavery and in freedom,” Frymer-Kensky writes, “Hagar is Israel.”[34] This does not seem quite right to me. Hagar is not in fact Israel, and that is the point: God’s concern for Israel and God’s care for non-Israel directly mirror one-another.

The Story’s Epilogue

The story ends with a brief statement of Ishmael’s growing up:

בראשית כא:כ וַיְהִ֧י אֱלֹהִ֛ים אֶת הַנַּ֖עַר וַיִּגְדָּ֑ל וַיֵּ֙שֶׁב֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וַיְהִ֖י רֹבֶ֥ה קַשָּֽׁת:
Gen 21:20 God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman.

The statement that God was “with Ishmael” is said about Abraham shortly after (21:22), and the same is subsequently said about Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Like them (the elect), Ishmael (the non-elect) too is blessed with God’s presence and active assistance.[35] The last detail is also important:

בראשית כא:כא וַיֵּ֖שֶׁב בְּמִדְבַּ֣ר פָּארָ֑ן וַתִּֽקַּֽח ל֥וֹ אִמּ֛וֹ אִשָּׁ֖ה מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:
Gen 21:21 He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

The reference to Hagar finding him an Egyptian wife suggests her desire to ensure that Ishmael is her own son and not just Abraham’s; he will be part of her people, not only his father’s.[36]

Chosenness—Not the Only Marker of Divine Favor

Hagar’s story makes a powerful point in a dramatic way. As Tikva Frymer-Kensky states:

At the heart of the Abraham-Sarah cycle is a story demonstrating that the destiny of the people around Israel is not utterly different from Israel’s.[37]

The person God sees, and reveals Godself to, is, in Israelite terms, a foreigner and an outsider. God’s promise to Hagar indicates that God is concerned with, and active in the life of, people—and peoples—beyond Israel.[38] As the contemporary biblical scholar John Goldingay observes,

God has not exclusively committed [Godself] to Abraham-Sarah. God’s concern is not confined to the elect line. There is passion and concern for the troubled ones who stand outside that line.[39]

God sees and hears Israel’s afflictions, and also Hagar’s; God blesses Israel with abundant offspring, and also Hagar; God liberates Israel from slavery, and also Hagar; God is with Israel in the wilderness, and also with Ishmael. In fact, Ishmael’s near-death experience in chapter 21, being saved by an angel at the last minute, parallels that of Isaac on Mount Moriah, in the next chapter.[40]

Careful readers are “reminded by this story that [Israel has] no monopoly on God’s redemptive concern, let alone God’s promises.”[41] Israel is God’s elect, but God’s love and concern most assuredly extend beyond Israel’s borders.


September 2, 2021


Last Updated

April 11, 2024


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Dr. Rabbi Shai Held is President, Dean, and Chair in Jewish Thought at the Hadar Institute. He holds a Ph.D in Religion from Harvard University and Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence (Indiana University Press, 2013), and his two volume collection of divrei Torah called The Heart of Torah (JPS 2017). In 2011, Held was a recipient of the Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education.