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International Standard Bible Encyclopedia
1. The Scornful Handmaid and Her Flight
In the first narrative (Genesis 16 ) it is related that Sarai, despairing at her age of having children, gave Hagar to Abram as a concubine. As Hagar was not an ordinary household slave but the peculiar property of her mistress (compare Genesis 29:24 , Genesis 29:29 ), any offspring which she might bear to Abram would be reckoned as Sarai's (compare Genesis 30:3-9 ). In the prospect of becoming a mother, Hagar, forgetting her position, seems to have assumed an insolent bearing toward her childless mistress. Sarai felt keenly the contempt shown her by her handmaid, and in angry tones brought her conduct before Abram. Now that her plan was not working out smoothly, she unfairly blamed her husband for what originated with herself, and appealed to Heaven to redress her grievance. Abram refused to interfere in the domestic quarrel, and renouncing his rights over his concubine, and her claims on him, put her entirely at Sarai's disposal. Under the harsh treatment of her mistress Hagar's life became intolerable, and she fled into the wilderness, turning her steps naturally toward Egypt, her native land.
2. Her Vision and Return
But the angel of Yahweh (who is here introduced for the first time as the medium of theophany) appeared to her as she was resting by a spring and commanded her to return and submit herself to her mistress, promising her an innumerable seed through her unborn son, concerning whom he uttered a striking prediction (see
Obedient to the heavenly vision Hagar returned, as the narrative implies, to her mistress and gave birth to Ishmael, Abram being then eighty-six years old.
The idea in Genesis 30:13 is not very clearly expressed. The word translated "here" generally means "hither," and there is no explanation of the "living one" in the name of the well. It has therefore been proposed to emend the Hebrew text and read "Have I even seen God, and lived after my seeing?" - an allusion to the belief that no one could "see God and live" (compare Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20 ). But there are difficulties in the way of accepting this emendation. The name of God, "a God of seeing," would require to be interpreted in an objective sense as "a God who is seen," and the consequent name of the well, "He that seeth me liveth," would make God, not Hagar, as in Genesis 30:13 , the speaker.
3. Her Harsh Expulsion and Divine Help
The other narrative (Genesis 21:8-21 ) relates what occurred in connection with the weaning of Isaac. The presence and conduct of Ishmael during the family feast held on the occasion roused the anger and jealousy of Sarah who, fearing that Ishmael would share the inheritance with Isaac, peremptorily demanded the expulsion of the slave-mother and her son. But the instincts of Abraham's fatherly heart recoiled from such a cruel course, and it was only after the revelation was made to him that the ejection of Hagar and her son would be in the line of the Divine purpose - for Isaac was his real seed, while Ishmael would be made a nation too - that he was led to forego his natural feelings and accede to Sarah's demand. So next morning the bondwoman and her son were sent forth with the bare provision of bread and a skin of water into the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was spent, Hagar, unable to bear the sight of her boy dying from thirst, laid him under a shrub and withdrew the distance of a bowshot to weep out her sorrow. But the angel of God, calling to her out of heaven, comforted her with the assurance that God had heard the voice of the lad and that there was a great future before him. Then her eyes were opened to discover a well of water from which she filled the skin and gave her son to drink. With God's blessing the lad grew up amid the desert's hardships, distinguished for his skill with the bow. He made his home in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took a wife for him out of her own country.
4. Practical Lessons from the History
The life and experience of Hagar teach, among other truths, the temptations incident to a new position; the foolishness of hasty action in times of trial and difficulty; the care exercised over the lonely by the all-seeing God; the Divine purpose in the life of everyone, however obscure and friendless; how God works out His gracious purposes by seemingly harsh methods; and the strength, comfort and encouragement that ever accompany the hardest experiences of His children.
5. Critical Points in the Documents
Genesis 16 belongs to the Jahwist, J, (except Genesis 16:1 , Genesis 16:3 , Genesis 16:15 f which are from P), and Genesis 21:8-21 to East. From the nature of the variations in the narratives many critics hold that we have here two different accounts of the same incident. But the narratives as they stand seem to be quite distinct, the one referring to Hagar's flight before the birth of Ishmael, and the other to her expulsion at the weaning of Isaac. It is said, however, that Elohist (E) represents Ishmael as a child "playing" (The Revised Version, margin, Septuagint παίζοντα ,
6. Allegorical Use of the Story by Paul
In Galatians 4:21 Paul makes an allegorical use of this episode in the history of Ishmael and Isaac to support his argument for the transitory character of the Jewish ritual and the final triumph of Christian freedom over all Judaizing tendencies. In elaborating his reference, the apostle institutes a series of contrasts. Hagar, the bondwoman, represents the old covenant which was given from Mt. Sinai; and as Ishmael was Abraham's son after the flesh, so the Judaizing Christians, who wish to remain in bondage to the law, are Hagar's children. On the other hand, Sarah, the freewoman, represents the new covenant instituted by Christ; and as Isaac was born to Abraham in virtue of the promise, so the Christians who have freed themselves entirely from the law of carnal ordinances and live by faith are Sarah's children. Thus Hagar corresponds to "the Jerusalem that now is," that is, the Jewish state which is in spiritual bondage with her children; while Sarah represents "the Jerusalem that is above," "our mother" (Revised Version (British and American)), the mother of us Christians, that free spiritual city to which Christians even now belong ( Philippians 3:20 ). By this allegory the apostle would warn the Galatian Christians of the danger which beset them from their Judaizing brethren, of their subjection to the covenant of works and their ultimate expulsion from the household of faith.
To us Paul's reference does not appeal with the same force as it would do to those to whom he was writing. The incident taken by itself, indeed, does not contain any suggestion of such a hidden meaning. Yet the history of the Hebrew nation is but typical of the history of the church in all ages, and the apostle's familiarity with rabbinical modes of interpretation may have led him to adopt this method of confirming the truth which he had already proved from the law itself.
For a discussion of the text and interpretation of Galatians 4:25 , "Now this Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia," and an account of Philo's allegory of Hagar and Sarah, see Lightfoot's notes at the end of chapter iv in his Commentary on Gal .
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Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Hagar'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/isb/h/hagar.html. 1915.
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