Hagar was the Egyptian maidservant of Sarah, wife of Abraham. Sarah and her husband had lived in Canaan for ten years and still had no children. Sarah must have believed that God, who had the power to open or close wombs, had closed hers. She compelled Hagar to sleep with Abraham so he could have an heir. Hagar was to be Abraham's wife, but not have the same status as Sarah. It is unlikely that Hagar was consulted: Sarah, the free-woman, had the authority to order Hagar, the bondwoman, to do whatever she wished, and Hagar was expected to submit.
Once Hagar had conceived a child by Abraham, Sarah became jealous. Tensions between the women began to rise, escalating throughout Hagar's pregnancy. Sarah came to despise Hagar, and believed the maidservant no longer respected her. Sarah treated Hagar so harshly that the woman, pregnant and alone, fled into the desert, weeping along the way to Shur.
An angel found Hagar by a fountain and asked her where she was going. Hagar told the angel that she was fleeing from her mistress. Hagar's fear of Sarah must have been great to risk having to give birth alone in the desert without food or water or anyone to help. So many times she had cried out to God about her plight, but was he listening? The angel told her that God had heard her and that she should call her son Ishmael (meaning “God hears”), but also that she must return and submit to her mistress.
Because the societies of the ancient world were patrilineal, it was imperative to produce a son to carry forward the genes of the father. Inheritance went only to males. When a woman married, she went to live with her husband's family. If a married woman could not conceive, the husband could legally impregnate his wife's slaves, and the child was his legal heir.
Hagar lived in an uneasy accord with her mistress, Abraham, and the son she bore him. one day, God told Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son. Knowing that she was long past the childbearing years, the aged Sarah and Abraham (who was nearly 100 years old) laughed, but she soon conceived and gave birth to Isaac. As Isaac grew and was finally weaned, Sarah could no longer bear the company of Hagar and Ishmael. She told Abraham to banish them, “…for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son…” (Genesis 21:10). Abraham struggled with guilt and worry; how could Sarah have asked him to do such a thing? He didn't want to turn out Hagar and his son, but God told Abraham to let them go. God also told him that he would make a nation from Ishmael because he was the “seed” of Abraham (Genesis 21:13).
Hagar and her son in the desert
Abraham, concerned about the heat Hagar and her son in the desert of the desert, gave Hagar some bread (symbol of sustenance) and a bottle of water (symbol of life) for their journey. The banishment was effectively Abraham's divorce of Hagar, but the items of food and water signaled to all the tribal members that the two were still under his protection. With great sadness in his heart, he watched the young mother take his son and walk into the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
With the water gone, Hagar knew that death was near. Unable to watch her child die, she placed him under some shrubs and walked some distance away, where she collapsed. She could hear Ishmael's weak cries. In deep despair, Hagar called out to God and wept. The angel of God responded, “What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him in thine hand; for I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 21:17–18). God opened Hagar's eyes, and she saw a well. She filled her bottle with water and gave her son a drink.
Ishmael grew and became an archer. Hagar is last mentioned in the Bible seeking a wife for Ishmael. The place where she sought a bride for her son was not in or around the places where the Hebrews dwelled, but rather in Egypt, her homeland.
The Koran states that Mecca is the place where God showed Hagar the well and saved her and Ishmael from death. Muslims see Abraham, Hagar, and Ishmael as ancestors of the prophet Mohammed. Today, devout Muslims do pilgrimage by retracing Hagar's steps to find water.
The story of Hagar and Ishmael shows the importance to the ancients of male supremacy. God, whom the ancients considered male, had the greatest power and could make it possible for a woman to be barren or fertile. Men had power over a woman's body to create heirs to carry his seed forward to future generations. Inheritance went to the firstborn male. The narrative also addresses the issue of Abraham's rightful heir. Ishmael was his firstborn, but by an Egyptian maidservant and, in Sarah's eyes, not worthy or legitimate to receive Abraham's property. Hagar shows the challenges faced by a single pregnant woman, who is both a victim and a survivor.