Sarai… had an Egyptian maid-servant whose name was Hagar. Sarai said to Abram, “Look, the Lord has kept me from bearing. Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son through her.” Abraham heeded Sarai’s request. So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took her maid, Hagar the Egyptian…and gave her to her husband Abram as a concubine. He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem. Sarai said to Abram, “The wrong done me is your fault!…now that she sees she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem. The Lord decide between you and me!” Abram said to Sarai, “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right!” Then Sarai maltreated her and she fled from her. An angel of the Lord found her by a spring in the wilderness, the spring on the road to Shur…(Bereishit 16: 1-7).
And she called the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-Ro’i,” by which she meant, “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!” (Bereishit 16:13).
Hagar shuts her eyes
to hide the jumble of emotions:
she hears she will be freed –
to be Abram’s concubine.
She strokes her pregnant belly,
her face betrays ambivalence, as
restlessly she contemplates
her future and her child’s.
She witnesses the tension,
hears the conflict in the tent:
Sarai’s pain and anger,
Abram’s mute response.
Her face deformed by bitterness,
Sarai treats Hagar unjustly
saddling her with chores
as their husband holds his peace.
Hagar’s anguish spills
in an avalanche of misery, as
she flees to seek the stillness –
an oasis in the desert.
Swollen with her unborn child
alone beneath the scorching sun,
she sets out through the sand
and turns her face to home.
Seen by God
In the silence of the dunes
she hears the voice of God:
and now she knows at last
that she is truly seen.
Phyllis Trible, a contemporary bible scholar, describes Hagar as a symbol of oppression: “As a symbol of the oppressed, Hagar becomes many things to many people. Most especially…rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth,… the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with a child…the homeless woman, …the welfare mother…” from Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984).
In the ancient Near East it was customary for a barren wife to provide her husband with a concubine to bear children. This would inevitably lead to a shifting of the dynamics in the complex relationship – the barren wife feeling diminished and her maidservant feeling superior.
The Ramban points out that Abram only conceded at Sarai’s urging. The Midrash comments that Sarai first made Hagar a free woman. Later, though, when Sarai complained to Abram and he let her do as she wished with Hagar, the Midrash adds that he cautioned Sarai that she could no longer reduce Hagar to slave status. Sarai paid no heed to this. The Ramban criticises Sarai for abusing Hagar, and Abram for permitting the abuse.
The angel found Hagar on the road to Shur, which is described in Bereishit 25:18 as being close to Egypt, so we can speculate that she fled in the direction of her native land, hoping maybe to reach home.
The Etz Hayim commentary says that when God appears to this lowly Egyptian maidservant, offering her a message of hope and comfort, the narrator’s sympathies are clearly with Hagar. It further notes that Hagar’s name for God, “El-Ro’i” can mean “God – Who – sees – me.” Her exclamation, “Have I not gone on seeing…” is understood as evidence that Hagar was spiritually stirred by her revelatory experience, and became conscious of God’s concern for the oppressed and marginalized whom human society ignores.