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The Tale of Hagar, the Concubine of Abraham, is Relevant Even Today

By Edited May 4, 2016 5 6

I recently signed on to attend a series of four lectures on Women of the Old Testament, given in our parish hall. Many people are not aware of Hagar, who is perhaps one of the most significant women in religious history, whose legacy has survived even unto today.

Chapter 16 of Genesis tells us, first of all, that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, who was approaching old age, had borne no children. In that day, it was considered a punishment by God for a woman to be barren. Sarah had endured this humiliation for her entire adult life.


Sarah and Abraham

                                                   Sarah and Abraham Hosting Three Angels

 She suggested to her husband that he should have sexual relations with Hagar, her Egyptian maidservant, so that they might have sons through her. Abraham agreed and, before long, Hagar became pregnant. Sarah noticed, however, that Hagar looked on her with disdain because of her barrenness. She abused her so badly verbally that Hagar ran away. During her flight, Hagar met a messenger of the Lord (he may have been a human being) who told her to go back to her mistress and submit to her abusive treatment. The messenger then revealed to her that God would make her descendents so numerous that there would be too many to count. He said that she would have a son whom she should name Ishmael, and that Ishmael would raise his hand against everyone and everyone would raise a hand against him.

According to the Bible, Abraham was 86 years old when Hagar bore him a son and he did, indeed, name him Ishmael. Previously (in Chapter 15), the word of the Lord had come to Abraham that he would have descendents that would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. This was confirmed when three men visited their home and one prophesied that when they would return in a year’s time, Sarah would have a son. Because of her old age, Sarah laughed at the prophecy.

God fulfilled his promise, and Abraham named his son Isaac. We know that the Hebrew word for laughter is “Isaac.” Sarah’s laughter had turned to joy.


Hagar in the Desert

                                                                     Hagar in the Desert

When Sarah noticed that the two boys played together happily, she became disturbed. She told Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. She did not want Ishmael to share in their inheritance. God told Abraham to listen to Sarah’s wishes, and added that he would make a great nation of Ishmael also. Abraham was greatly distressed, and rose early to prepare some bread and a skin of water for Hagar to take on her long journey through the desert. Hagar became despondent when the food and water ran out, but a messenger of God appeared to her and told her “Don’t be afraid.” He repeated that God would make of Ishmael a great nation. Hagar then spotted a well of water, and filled the skin which she shared with Ishmael. He grew up in the wilderness and became an expert bowman.

We can learn much from this fascinating tale. First of all, in today’s world, any messenger of God would not tell Hagar to submit to the abusive treatment of her mistress. Abuse is not tolerated in religious groups nor in society as a whole. We are becoming more aware of this offense through social media where women openly tell their stories of why they left or why they stayed.

When we hear that Abraham was 86 years old when Ishmael was born, we must remember that age numbers in the Bible indicate only that a person is old, not a specific age. Throughout the Bible, we will note these wholesale use of large numbers, which cannot be taken at face value.


Geneology of Abraham

It is not difficult to detect that Abraham’s numerous descendents through Isaac are the people of Israel, and likewise, the great nation that was prophesied to Hagar is Palestine, the home of Arabs, the descendents of Ishmael. Even today, the fight goes on. The enmity between Sarah and Hagar still exists in the crisis in Israel and Palestine. There seems to be no solution.

And yes, God does speak to us today, as he spoke to Abraham and Sarah and Hagar, if we only listen in the silence of our hearts. The right thing to do will always be felt in our inner being.

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Oct 11, 2014 9:44am
This is a "keeper" -- I'm saving this bookmark. Comparative religious studies is in my wheel-house. Thanks for publishing this well written and interesting piece.
Oct 11, 2014 10:19am
Thank you. Let's see more Bible stories on this site. They are fascinating!
Nov 29, 2014 2:32pm
When I hit "like" I wrote a comment. However, I do not see it now so I will write it again. Your article is very good and well written. I do not agree with you on one point. You say the "86 years old when Ishmael was born" does not mean Abraham was literally 86 years old. I believe when the Bible says Abraham was 86 years old he actually was 86 years old.
Thanks for a good article. I do like to read articles about real people and real Bible characters.
Nov 29, 2014 2:43pm
Jane, I have to disagree with you. I have had an explanation of this several times, recently in the Bible class I attended at church, that large numbers of years in the Bible indicate only that the person was old; the exact number of years is not listed. Methusalah was said to be 100 years old, and I forget how many years Abraham supposedly lived, and Sarah too, was not really ancient but just beyond child-bearing years. In those days, if people lived until 35, that was old. I am sure that Fundamentalists who take the Bible literally will not agree, and I understand their stance, but we cannot say for sure that numbers of years in the Bible are totally accurate.
Dec 1, 2014 3:11am
Fascinating read. Is there any explanation why the Bible doesn't indicate their age? Could it be that they had different calendars during those times? In high school, we were taught that it was possible for people back then to live hundreds of years because of their diet.
Dec 1, 2014 3:20am
I had never heard that people back then lived longer because of their diet. People didn't live much longer than 35 years of age then. Only in the last hundred years have people begun to live longer and longer through medical advancements.
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