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Hagar (Bible)

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Pieter Pietersz. Lastman 001

"The dismissal of Hagar", 1612 by Pieter Pietersz Lastman

Hagar (Hebrew: הָגָר, Modern Hagar Tiberian Hāḡār, "Stranger"; Greek: Άγαρ; Latin: Agar; Arabic: هاجر;Hajar), according to the Abrahamic faiths, was an Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah, wife of Abraham. At Sarah's suggestion, she became Abraham's second wife. Her story is reported in the Book of Genesis in Judeo-Christian tradition. In Islam, her story is alluded to in the Qur'an, but her name is not mentioned. Her role is elaborated in Hadith. She was the mother of Abraham's son, Ishmael, who is regarded as the patriarch of the Ishmaelites i.e. the Arabs.

Hagar in the Hebrew Bible

The story of Hagar is found in the Bible in the book of Genesis, chapters 16 and 21. Genesis 16:2-3 states that Hagar was an Egyptian servant belonging to Sarah, who, being barren, gave Hagar to her husband Abraham "to be his wife", so that he might still have children. She gave birth to a son, whom she named Ishmael.

Fourteen years after this God allowed Sarah to give birth to Isaac. According to Genesis, God commanded Abraham to obey Sarah's wishes and expel Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness alone. Abraham was reluctant to send his son away, but God promised to make a great nation out of Ishmael, because he was Abraham's seed. Rising early in the morning, therefore, Abraham took bread and a container of water and sent his former consort, Hagar, and his son, Ishmael, away.

Hagar intended to return to Egypt, but lost her way, and wandered in the area of Beersheba. The water in her container failing, she placed Ishmael under one of the trees in the wilderness to cry as she herself went to cry a small distance away from him. An angel rescued them by showing Hagar a well. Hagar eventually settled in the Desert of Paran.

François-Joseph Navez003

Hagar and Ishmael in the desert
by François-Joseph Navez, 1819

Rabbinical commentary

Rabbinical commentators asserted that Hagar was "Pharaoh's daughter". The midrash Genesis Rabbah states it was when Sarah was in Pharaoh's harem that he gave her his daughter Hagar as slave, saying: "It is better that my daughter should be a slave in the house of such a woman than mistress in another house"; Abimelech acted likewise (xlv. 2). Sarah treated Hagar well, and induced women who came to visit her to visit Hagar also.

However Hagar, when pregnant by Abraham, began to act superciliously toward Sarah, provoking the latter to treat her harshly, to impose heavy work upon her, and even to strike her (ib. xlv. 9).[1] Later Sarah is said to have been motivated by Ishmael's sexually frivolous ways because of the reference to his "making merry" (Gen. 21:9), a translation of the Hebrew word 'Mitzachek'. This was developed into a reference to idolatry, sexual immorality or even murder; some rabbinic sources claim that Sarah worried that Ishmael would negatively influence Isaac, or that he would demand Isaac's inheritance on the grounds of being the firstborn. Others take a more positive view, emphasising Hagar's piety, noting that she was "the one who had sat by the well and besought him who is the life of the worlds, saying 'look upon my misery'".[2] Mackenzie Gaskin

Some Jewish commentators identify Hagar with Keturah, the woman Abraham married after the death of Sarah, stating that Abraham sought her out after Sarah's death. It is suggested that Keturah was Hagar's personal name, and that "Hagar" was a descriptive label meaning "stranger".[3][4][5] This interpretation is discussed in the Midrash[6] and is supported by Rashi, Gur Aryeh, Keli Yakar, and Obadiah of Bertinoro. The contrary view (that Keturah was someone other than Hagar) is advocated by Rashbam, Abraham ibn Ezra, Radak, and Ramban.

Hagar in Islamic traditions

Neither Sarah nor Hagar are mentioned by name in the Qur'an, but the story is traditionally understood to be referred to in a line from Abraham's prayer in Sura Ibrahim (14:37): "I have settled some of my family in a barren valley near your Sacred House".[7] While Hagar is not named, the reader lives Hagar's predicament indirectly through the eyes of Abraham.[8] She is also frequently mentioned in the books of hadiths.

According to Qisas Al-Anbiya, an Islamic collection of tales about the prophets, Hagar was the daughter of the King of Maghreb, a descendant of the Islamic prophet Salih. Her father was killed by Pharaoh Dhu l-'arsh and she was captured and taken as slave. Later, because of her royal blood, she was made mistress of the female slaves and given access to all of Pharaoh's wealth. Upon conversion to Abraham's faith, the Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah who gave her to Abraham. In this account, the name "Hagar" (called Hajar in Arabic) comes from Ha ajruka (Arabic for "here is your recompense").[8]

According to another Islamic tradition, Hagar was the daughter of the Egyptian king, who gifted her to Abraham as a wife, thinking Sarah was his sister.[9] According to Ibn Abbas, Ishmael's birth to Hagar caused strife between her and Sarah, who was still barren. Abraham brought Hagar and their son to a land called Paran or (Faran in Arabic) which is the land surrounding Mecca, where the angel Gabriel showed him the Ka'aba.[10] The objective of this journey was to "resettle" rather than "expel" Hagar.[8]

The journey began in Syria, when Ishmael was still a suckling. Gabriel personally guided them on the journey (part of which took place on a winged steed); upon reaching the site of the Kaaba, Abraham left Hagar and son Ishmael under a tree and provided them with water.[10] Hagar, learning that God had ordered Abraham to leave her in the desert of Paran, respected his decision.[9] Muslims believe that God ordered Abraham to leave Hagar in order to test his obedience to God's commands.[11]

However, soon Hagar ran out of water, and baby Ishmael began to die. Hagar, according to Islamic tradition, panicked and climbed two nearby mountains repeatedly in search for water. After her seventh climb, Gabriel rescued her, pounding the ground with his staff and causing a miraculous well to spring out of the ground. This is called Zamzam Well today and is located near the Kaaba in Mecca.[10]

In Hajj

The story of Hagar's repeated attempts to find water for her son by running between the hills Safa and Marwah has developed into a Muslim rite (known as the sa`i, Arabic: سَعِي). During the two Muslim pilgrimages (the Hajj and Umra), pilgrims are required to walk between the two hills seven times in memory of Hagar's quest for water. The rite symbolizes the celebration of motherhood in Islam, as well as leadership of the women.[9]

To complete the rite, Muslims drink from the well of Zamzam. Muslims will often take back some of the water, regarding it as sacred, in memory of Hagar.[12]

Hagar in Christian tradition


Christian commentary on Hagar begins with Paul the Apostle's Epistle to the Galatians, which asserts that the story of Hagar is a complex allegory:

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. (Galatians 4:22-31)

Paul has been interpreted by some to be saying that Mount Sinai was also called "Agar", and that it was named after Hagar.[13] He links the laws of the Torah, given on Mount Sinai, to the bondage of the Israelite people, implying that it was signified by Hagar's condition as a bondswoman, while the "free" heavenly Jerusalem is signified by Sarah and her child.

Saint Augustine developed this view, by saying that Hagar symbolised the earthly "city", or sinful condition of humanity: "In the earthly city (symbolised by Hagar)...we find two things, its own obvious presence and the symbolic presence of the heavenly city. New citizens are begotten to the earthly city by nature vitiated by sin but to the heavenly city by grace freeing nature from sin." (City of God 15:2)[2] This view was developed by medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and John Wycliffe. The latter compared the children of Sarah to the redeemed, and those of Hagar to the unredeemed, who are "carnal by nature and mere exiles".[2]

Paul's view was also used to link Hagar to Judaism, on the basis that the bondswoman Hagar represented bondage to the "old law", which the Christian dispensation had supplanted. In this respect Jews were seen - spiritually speaking - as descendants of Hagar, not Sarah.[14] The equation of Jews with descendents of Hagar was also used to justify the subordination of Jews in medieval Christian kingdoms, and even their expulsion, on the model of the subjection and expulsion of Hagar.[14]

Arts and literature

Cecco Bravo-Hagar and the Angel mg 1780

Hagar and the Angel, by Cecco Bravo

Many artists have painted scenes from the story of Hagar and Ismael in the desert, including Pieter Lastman, Gustave Doré, Frederick Goodall and James Eckford Lauder.

William Shakespeare refers to Hagar in The Merchant of Venice Act II Scene 4 line 40 when Shylock says "What says that fool of Hagar's offspring, ha?". This line refers to the character Launcelot, who Shylock is insulting by comparing him to the outcast Ishmael. It also reverses the conventional Christian interpretation by portraying the Christian character as the outcast.[2]

Hagar's destitution and desperation are used as an excuse for criminality by characters in the work of Daniel Defoe, such as Moll Flanders, and the conventional view of Hagar as the mother of outcasts is repeated in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's play Zapolya, whose heroine is assured that she is "no Hagar's offspring; thou art the rightful heir to an appointed king."[2]

In the nineteenth century a more sympathetic portrayal became prominent, especially in America in novels and poems in which Hagar herself, or characters named Hagar, were depicted as unjustly suffering exiles. These include Hagar by Pearl Rivers, Hagar in the Wilderness by Nathaniel Parker Willis and Hagar's Farewell by Augusta Moore.

A similarly sympathetic view prevails in more recent literature. The novel The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence has a protagonist named Hagar married to man named Bram, whose life story loosely imitates that of the biblical Hagar. A character named Hagar is prominently featured in Toni Morrison's novel Song of Solomon, which features numerous Biblical themes and allusions. Hagar is mentioned briefly in Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses, where Mecca is replaced with 'Jahilia', a desert village built on sand and served by Hagar's spring.

Hagar in contemporary politics


The story of Hagar's expulsion to the desert has acquired some political connotations in modern Israel, being taken up as a symbol of the Palestinian Nakba, being depicted as such by some Israeli writers and artists.

It was also the subject of a famous debate on the floor of the Knesset between two women parliamentarians - Shulamit Aloni, founder of Meretz (Civil Rights Movement) and Geula Cohen of Tehiya (National Awakening Party) - who argued about the right interpretation which the Bible in general and Hagar's story in particular should be given in curriculum of Israeli schools.

Since the 1970s the custom has arisen of giving the name "Hagar" to newborn female babies. The giving of this name is often taken as a controversial political act, marking the parents as being left-leaning and supporters of reconciliation with the Palestinians and Arab World, and is frowned upon by many, including nationalists and the religious. The connotations of the name were represented by the founding of the Israeli journal Hagar: Studies in Culture, Polity and Identities in 2000.[15]

The Israeli Women in Black movement has unofficially renamed Jerusalem's Paris Square, where the movement has been holding anti-occupation vigils every Friday since 1988, as "Hagar Square". The name commorates the late Hagar Roublev, a prominent Israeli feminist and peace activist, who was among the founders of these Friday vigils.[16]


Several black American feminists have written about Hagar as though her story was comparable to that of slaves in American history. Wilma Bailey in an article entitled "Hagar: A Model for an Anabaptist Feminist", refers to her as a "maidservant" and "slave". She sees Hagar as a model of "power, skills, strength and drive." In the article "A Mistress, A Maid, and No Mercy", Renita Weems argues that the relationship between Sarah and Hagar exhibits "ethnic prejudice exacerbated by economic and social exploitation."[17] According to Susanne Scholz,

Enslaved, raped [sic], but seen by God, Hagar has been a cherished biblical character in African-American communities. Womanist theologian Delores S. Williams explains:
The African-American community has taken Hagar's story unto itself. Hagar has ‘spoken’ to generation after generation of black women because her story has been validated as true by suffering black people. She and Ishmael together, as family, model many black American families in which a lone woman/mother struggles to hold the family together in spite of the poverty to which ruling class economics consign it. Hagar, like many black women, goes into the wide world to make a living for herself and her child, with only God by her side.

The story of Hagar demonstrates that survival is possible even under harshest conditions.[18]

See also


  1. Jewish Encyclopedia, Hagar
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Jeffrey, David L., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1992, p. 326 ISBN 0802836348
  3. "The Return of Hagar", commentary on Parshat Chayei Sarah, Chabad Lubavitch.
  4. "Who Was Ketura?", Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center, 2003.
  5. "Parshat Chayei Sarah", Torah Insights, Orthodox Union, 2002.
  6. Bereshit Rabbah 61:4.
  7. Barbara Freyer Stowasser, Women in the Qur'an, Traditions, and Interpretation, Oxford University Press US, 1996, p.47.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Fatani, Afnan H. (2006), "Hajar", in Leaman, Oliver, The Qur'an: an encyclopedia, Great Britain: Routeledge, pp. 234–236 
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 'Aishah 'Abd al-Rahman, Anthony Calderbank (1999). "Islam and the New Woman/ ﺍﻹﺳﻼﻡ ﻭﺍﻟﻤﺮﺃﺓ ﺍﻟﺠﺪﻳﺪﺓ". Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics (19): 200. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Firestone, Reuven (1992). "Abraham's Journey to Mecca in Islamic Exegesis: A Form-Critical Study of a Tradition". Studia Islamica (76): 15–18. 
  11. Schussman, Aviva (1998). "The Legitimacy and Nature of Mawid al-Nabī: (Analysis of a Fatwā)". Islamic Law and Society 5 (2): 218. 
  12. Delaney, Carol (August, 1990). "The "hajj": Sacred and Secular". American Ethnologist 17 (3): 515. 
  13. Charles Forster, The Historical Geography of Arabia, Duncan and Malcolm, 1844, p.182
  14. 14.0 14.1 Deeana Copeland Klepper, "Jewish Expulsion and Jewish Exile in Scholastic Thought", International Medieval Congress, Leeds, UK, July 2002
  15. Oren Yiftachel, Launching Hagar: Marginality, Beer-Sheva, Critique, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva.
  16. Even the Trees are Suffering in Palestine, Luisa Morgantini, The People's Voice, 29 November 2008
  17. Bailey, Wilma Ann Black and Jewish women consider Hagar, Encounter, Winter 2002
  18. Susanne Scholz, "Gender, Class, and Androcentric Compliance in the Rapes of Enslaved Women in the Hebrew Bible", Lectio Difficilior (European Electronic Journal for Feminist Exegisis), 1/2004 (see especially section "The Story of Hagar (Genesis 16:1-16; 21:9-21)".

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Hagar (Bible). The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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