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 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
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.
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.