How to Live as a Slave
We are introduced to the woman Hagar in the Old Testament. She is one of those characters of the Bible whose story is told in its pages, and if that were all that there was to it, we perhaps would not think a great deal more about her. But hers is a story that is more than simply a biography of an individual, for we continue to learn more about her even into the New Testament.
First: Her story
In beginning of the story of Hagar, we must first briefly look at the account given to us of Sarah and Abraham. Hagar was Sarah’s maid, or bondwoman. She was her slave.
Sarah was barren. This fact was troubling for her. In our own times and culture of the west, we do not know the social pressure that the woman Sarah, the wife of Abraham must have experienced when she had been unable to bear a child. Even today, there are many women who want so badly to have a child, but who, for one reason or another, are unable to get pregnant. This is a sadness for very many, and I do not wish to ignore that fact. Nevertheless, for these women in these present days, at least there is usually no social stigma that is attached to their bareness.
But in the days and culture of Sarah and Abraham, there was great social shame to not having children. Having children was equated to the blessings of God. If a couple had no children, it was an indication to them and to their society that God was refusing to bless them.
Sarah, already the wife of Abraham for many years at this time, was in such a condition. She had been prevented from becoming pregnant. Whether or not she felt shame, I do not know, but at least she felt disturbed concerning her inability to have children.
Of course there was no in vitro fertilization in those days—no surrogate mothers. Sarah decided to employ the accepted method of their day.
She approached her husband Abraham. “Now behold,” she said to him. “The Lord has prevented me from having children. So I would ask that you go and sleep with my handmaid Hagar. Perhaps I will be able to have a child through her” (Genesis 16:2).
The Plan Goes Wrong from the Beginning
Hagar was an Egyptian. Sarah and Abraham had earlier spent some time in Egypt, and Sarah had most likely acquired Hagar at that time. She became Sarah’s maid, but she was also a slave. If Sarah told her to do something, Hagar had no real choice in the matter.
When Sarah approached her husband Abraham with her solution to her own bareness, he agreed to this union, and just as Sarah had wanted, Hagar became pregnant. Later however, Sarah began to have second thoughts about her plan. As she saw that the baby of her husband was growing in the womb of her slave, she began to look upon Hagar with resentment. She began to despise her.
Part of Sarah’s change of attitude may have been Hagar’s doing. Sarah later complained to Abraham that Hagar, since becoming pregnant, began also to look upon Sarah with less respect. In fact, Sarah also used the word despise.
“It’s true that I gave her into your arms,” she told Abraham. “But when she saw that she had conceived and would have your child, I was despised in her sight.” She further told him, “This wrong done to me is your fault! Let God be the judge between you and me!”
Abraham was caught in one of those positions where there is no good answer. Whatever he would say was bound to be the wrong thing. I think he did as well as he could when he told his wife, “Hagar is your slave, do whatever you think is best.”
Perhaps even that was not the best thing to say, because this simply caused Sarah to become a harsh mistress. She treated Hagar so badly that the maid decided to run away.
A Young Girl in Trouble
Hagar also was in a difficult situation now. She had taken on this role of bearing Abraham’s child, and despite the fact that she seems not to have had the best of attitudes about it all, she was now in a position where her life was actually in jeopardy. She was pregnant and alone in a strange land. She probably had a very poor grasp of the language, and she was at the mercy of a Canaanite society where women were given few protections. In fact, the only protection for a foreign slave girl was to stay with her master, and now Hagar had fled from that position.
Given that this was the situation, Sarah’s actions toward her must have been very harsh. Hagar would have not fled it they had not been harsh. Perhaps Sarah acted so because her resentment went beyond even the present situation. There was quite a lot of additional baggage with this entire affair that went back several years.
It May be Water Under the Bridge, But My Face is Still Wet
While in Egypt, Sarah in her turn had been put in a very bad situation by her own husband. At that time, Abraham instructed her to tell the Egyptian people that she was his sister instead of his wife, so that they would not kill him. The result of this was that she became part of the harem of the pharaoh.
We are not told if sexual encounter resulted from that situation, and the account does not say that Sarah harbored resentment against her husband for this, but whatever was the case, I would think that this was not something that a wife would easily forget—and for good reason. And now, this entire episode of her bareness, her maid having a child by Sarah’s own husband, Sarah’s second thoughts about Hagar, well—it is all a lot for a person to handle. In addition to have to deal with these feelings, now her servant begins to act uppity. This did not make the situation any easier for Sarah.
An Angel by a Spring
The result of it all up to this point was that Hagar was left alone and in the wilderness. She was sitting by a spring when an angel of the Lord found her.
“Hagar, Sarai’s maid,” the angel addressed her. “Where have you come from and where are you going?”
Hagar perhaps did not even know where she was going. She simply said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress.”
The angel told her to return to her mistress and to submit to her—not an easy thing for Hagar to make herself do.
But the angel of the Lord told her that he would greatly multiply her descendants, so many that they would be impossible to count. He went on to wax eloquent:
Behold, you are with child, and you will bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has given heed to your affliction.
He will be a wild donkey of a man. His hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him. He will live to the east of all his brothers. (Genesis 16:11-12 NAS)
With these words and with this prophecy, Hagar knew that this one who appeared to her was no ordinary angel. Like few other people in history, she had spoken to God himself!
“You are a God who sees,” Hagar told the angel. Then she asks with wonderment, “Have I remained alive even after have seeing him?”
Whether it was Hagar who named the spring or if it was someone else at a later date, the spring came to be called “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me” (Beer-lahai-roi).
Hagar returned to Sarah, and sometime later, she gave birth to a boy. They named him Ishmael. That name also has a meaning: “God hears.”
The Promise Reiterated
It was a full thirteen years after the birth of Ishmael that God again came to speak to Abraham. “Sarah your wife will have a child by you, and she will be the mother of many nations.”
Sarah was eighty-nine years old by this time, and even if we do read of cases of longevity in the Bible, even at that time, this was extremely old to have a child. It is not a great deal different with Sarah than if we would hear of this taking place in our own present day. It would have to be truly a miraculous birth.
This, of course was the very point that God wanted to make. The "many nations" that he speaks of that would arise from this child would nations that had their beginnings with a miracle.
But Abraham was tired. “Oh that Ishmael might live before you,” he replied to God. His meaning in this was that he did not want to go through all the trouble of having another child, but he simply wanted God to make Ishmael the promised one.
But God would have none of it. “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son and you shall call his name Isaac, and I will establish my covenant with him—an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”
When the time appointed by God arrived, Sarah gave birth to a son. The old parents called him “Isaac,” just as God had told them to do. The name means laughter.
Trouble in the Abraham Household
In due time, probably when Isaac was no longer a baby, Sarah saw Ishmael mocking her son. We do not know the manner or the subject of the mocking. We only know that the mockery angered Sarah. But most people know how cruel an older brother can be, and especially in this case, since the birth of Isaac had stolen much of the affection of Abraham away from him.
“Drive out this maid and her son!” she said to Abraham. “That boy Ishmael cannot be an heir along with my son!” Sarah never had been happy with her maid Hagar and her son, and this ended up being all that Sarah could take.
Abraham did not want to do it. He loved Ishmael. However, God instructed him to do just that—drive Hagar away. But God promised Abraham that Ishmael would also become a nation, just as he had also told Hagar when she was at the well in the wilderness. Nevertheless, God also once again made it clear that it would be through Isaac and not Ishmael that the true family line would be continued.
Early on the following day, Abraham took some bread and a skin full of water, put them on the shoulder of Hagar, and sent her away. It seems to me a bit of a cruel send-off. There apparently was no donkey or pack animal, no supplies—only some bread and water. I believe there was a reason for this type of send-off. We shall see it in the next blog post when we look at the story of Sarah.
Once again Hagar was in the wilderness, this time not alone, but having her son with her made it even more difficult. The two wandered about aimlessly. The water in the skin was soon gone and extreme thirst had set in. Hagar could perhaps manage to die by herself, but she could not bear to see her son die of thirst.
She left Ishmael in the shade of a bush, and stumbled away to sit down where she could not see him. Then she lifted up her voice and wept. “Do not let me see my son die,” she said to no one.
A Voice from Heaven
But God had heard her anguishing cries, and he also heard her son. The angel of God called to her from heaven. “Do not fear, Hagar! God has heard the voice of the lad. Arise, go and take him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”
God also opened the eyes of Hagar to something that she had not before seen. There before her was a well of water. Joyfully, Hagar filled the skin with new water and ran to give her son a drink.
On to the New Testament
That is the story of Hagar. We do not know what took place immediately after, but only that she and Ishmael survived, and ended up living is the wilderness of Paran, which is south into the Sinai Peninsula. Also, just as God had said, Ishmael eventually became the patriarch of a great nation.
We learn further of Ishmael in the Bible, but the name of Hagar does not appear again in the Old Testament, except once in a listing of genealogies.
It is only the Apostle Paul who gives us instruction as to the significance of this Egyptian handmaid of Sarah’s. Hagar’s importance is allegorical in teaching us about our own spiritual lives. Paul’s writings on this are found in the fourth chapter of the letter to the Galatians.
The Promise of a Son
“Abraham had two sons,” Paul writes. “One son by a slave woman and one by free woman” (Galatians 4:22).
God had long before promised Abraham that he would have a son who would become his heir—long before the promise was actually fulfilled. I believe that Abraham was a patient man, but anyone, when given a promise, immediately begins to wonder about when it is going to occur.
This must have especially been the case with Abraham and Sarah concerning this promised son, and even more so when Sarah came to believe that she would never even be able to have children. Thus, instead of relying on the promise of God, the two decided to rely upon their own efforts and planning. The result of this plan, as we have seen, was Ishmael.
But Ishmael was not the son of promise. Ishmael represents to us the fact that God does not employ human effort in fulfilling his promises. When God makes a promise, it will only be fulfilled my God’s miraculous works.
Despite the fact that we may personally empathize with Hagar concerning the situation in which she was placed and the difficulties that she was forced to deal with, the woman Hagar represents to us our own inability to achieve the promises of God by using our own resources. This is how Abraham and Sarah used the slave woman.
God promised Abraham and Sarah a son: they used Hagar to make it happen. Hagar was a bondwoman—a slave. She had no personal choice in the matter. All of the choices were made by her masters. Hagar is to us the methods that we use, and our own efforts in trying to fulfill what God has promised.
From the beginning, it was obvious that this method used by Abraham and Sarah could not be the fitting fulfillment to the promise of God. When Hagar became pregnant, she began to despise Sarah. The word actually means to belittle her or to diminish her. Hagar began to feel superior.
The Promise of Righteousness
God promises us that we can live in righteousness. What does it mean to live in righteousness? It means that we live by the standards of living that were given to Moses in the Law. These are not only the Ten Commandments, but also the six hundred or so additional laws given to Moses at that time. Keeping all of these laws becomes so overwhelming that we often just give up. We find that we cannot do it.
Yet Jesus tells us to “seek first the Kingdom God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). He tell us, “blessed is the man who hungers and thirsts for righteousness.” And much more than that, he says that those who do “will be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6).
Of course, many people do not even want to begin to live according to God’s standards, but those of us who seek righteousness do, because we realize that it is the righteousness that God promises that leads to true happiness and fulfillment in living. This of course is contrary to what the world tells us. The world tells us that happiness can only come when all of our needs are met. The world tells us that things give us contentment—clothes to wear and food to eat. They are partially correct in their thinking, but only partially correct.
Jesus tells us that God knows that all of this is necessary for our fulfillment, but he teaches us that if we first seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, he will also give us all of these things that the world anxiously seeks.
Our Inabilities Illustrated in Hagar
But if we have no ability to keep the Law of God, how then are we to achieve righteousness? It is clear that it is not through human effort. As it was for Abraham and Sarah when they used Hagar to achieve the promise of God, using only human effort in an attempt to achieve the righteousness of God will lead only to frustration and quarreling.
Hagar represents to us human effort. I do not speak of the woman herself as a person, but only in an allegorical sense. This is also how Paul speaks of her. He tells us that “Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia.”
Mount Sinai was where Moses received the Law of God. It is where we not only first learn of God’s standards of righteousness in a codified manner, but also of our complete inability to achieve that righteousness. On our own, we can only fail. The Law of God represents and is the standard of complete righteousness, but it also represents and demonstrates our failure.
Mount Sinai in Arabia demonstrates human effort. It represents to us slavery to a system that we cannot overcome. Hagar was Abraham and Sarah’s human effort to fulfill the promise of God. Their efforts did not achieve the results that they hoped for. They achieved only bickering and conflicts and utter failure. Interestingly, it also produced a sense of superiority and pride in Hagar, and apparently, also in Ishmael.
Likewise, those who seek to fulfill the standards of God using only their own efforts tend to become very proud of their efforts. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they like to parade around, carrying with them a pompous air of superiority. They try to give the impression that since they do this thing and that they do not do another thing, they are indeed superior to others who do not do the first thing and who do do the second thing. It all becomes rather complicated and muddled.
Paul says that he is speaking allegorically when he tells us these two women, Hagar and Sarah, are two covenants. Both represent the standards of God, but the covenant that Hagar represents is that which stems from Mount Sinai. It is the covenant where we have only human effort to fulfill the requirement. The children that this covenant produces can only be slaves. They have been born of a slave and they are trapped in their slavery. They are slaves to trying to live righteously, while all the time not even having the ability or the power to do so.
The covenant that is represented by Sarah is not Mount Sinai, but it is called covenant of the “Jerusalem from above.” This covenant does not produce children who are slaves, but children born in freedom.
Allegorically speaking, Sarah is the mother of all who are free in Christ. We shall look at this part of the story in the next post.