Welcome to the first week of our Summer Bible journaling challenge, Women of Valor. Today, we will be studying and journaling Hagar’s story from the Book of Genesis.
This week’s reading: Genesis 16; Genesis 21:8-21
This week’s journaling focus: Genesis 16:7-13
It may be unexpected to begin a study of women of the Bible with Hagar. After all, Hagar isn’t a matriarch, like Sarah. She isn’t the subject of her own story, like Ruth. She isn’t even a free woman; instead, she is a Sarah’s servant and Abraham’s concubine. Hagar’s secondary status is woven into her very name: depending on who you ask, it may mean flight, foreigner, or stranger.1 But despite her earthly status and the fact that she is seen as ‘less-than’ in the eyes of man, God sees her, and Hagar, not once, but twice, receives something that few other women in the Bible do: a revelation from God.
We meet Hagar in Genesis 16. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had has wanted a child for years; when she cannot conceive, she brings Hagar to Abraham to serve as a surrogate. In order for Hagar to offer Abraham a legitimate heir, she had to become Abraham’s second wife (Gen 16:3), putting Sarah in what was surely an emotionally challenging position: the woman who could offer Abraham what he and Sarah so desperately wanted would now be elevated from concubine to a similar position to that which Sarah herself had with Abraham. When Hagar indeed becomes pregnant, she “looked with contempt on her mistress” (Gen 16:4). Sarah, maybe affected by hurt or jealousy, becomes furious and “dealt harshly” (Gen 16:6) with Hagar; though the Bible doesn’t tell us what she does, we know that it is enough to push Hagar to run into the wilderness, trying, it seems, to find her way back to Egypt.2
On her journey, Hagar encounters an angel of the Lord (Gen 16:7). The angel asks her where she is going, and she responds that she is fleeing from her mistress. The angel tells her to “return to your mistress and submit to her,” (Gen 16:9), and then makes her a promise:
“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”
And the angel of the Lord said to her,
“Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
He shall be a wild donkey of a man,3
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
The Bible doesn’t tell us about Hagar’s inner life, her thoughts or feelings as she processes the challenges she has had to face. But we can guess from her words what happened within her when Hagar was confronted by the angel, because Hagar says to the angel of the Lord, “You are a God of seeing… truly here I have seen him who looks after me” (Gen 16:13).
Hagar — a woman who was seen as foreign, strange, and less-than in her society, who was mistreated, abused, and too often overlooked — feels seen. She feels looked after. And when she returns to Sarah and gives birth to her son, she does as the angel told her and names him Ishmael, because God listened.
Chapters later, after Sarah and Abraham permanently banish Hagar and her son from their home, God yet again sees Hagar. As she weeps and lifts her voice, fearing the death of her son, the angel of God calls to her once again:
“What troubles you, Hagar?
Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.
Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand,
for I will make him into a great nation.”
Hagar does so, and she and Ishmael survive in the wilderness. The last we hear of Hagar, she is finding an Egyptian wife for her son, providing for his future (Gen 21:21). God kept His promises: a great people did rise from Ishmael.
In the eyes of her peers, Hagar was seen as a slave, a concubine, and among the lowest of people. But God saw Hagar, and he heard her cry. He made a way for her and her son in the desert. He fulfilled His promise.
Questions for contemplation:
- When the angel of God spoke to Hagar in the wilderness, she called God “a God of seeing.” How does God see and hear you, even when you may feel ‘lost in the wilderness?’
- Hagar was seen as less-than in her society. How does God see and hear those whom society rejects?
- What might Hagar’s story have to offer readers today?
In the margins or on the pages of your Bible, reflect on today’s readings. You may want to think about how God sees and hears His children, even and especially in times of need. For this, you could depict Hagar meeting the angel of the Lord, or hearing God’s voice in the wilderness. You could also draw the “eyes” and “ears” of God, however you see them. You could also focus on Hagar’s words, “you are a God of seeing,” lettering or illustrating them. However you choose to journal this verse today is up to you: the Word is your canvas!
Art in image courtesy of D. Smith-Harper and Raven from Artful Devo.
If you’d like to read more about Hagar and her story, please feel free to check out these resources. Links to Amazon are affiliate links.
- “Hagar” in Women of the Bible: 52 Bible Studies for Individuals and Groups by Ann Spangler and Jean E. Syswerda, pages 20-23. This is a great book that I’ll be referencing a lot in this series. It reflects on 52 different women of the Bible and includes context, prayers, and reflection questions. This book is more faith-focused than academic.
- “Sarah and Hagar: Power and Privileges” in Just Wives: Stories of Power and Survival in the Old Testament and Today by Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, pages 7-26. This is a modern reading of the story of the two women, focusing on Hagar’s experience especially, and how it related to marginalized women today. This book is in between being faith-focused and academic.
- “Sarah, Hagar, and Their Interpreters,” in Women’s Bible Commentary: Revised and Updated by Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsey (editors), pages 51-55. This is more of an academic text on the Bible, but it provides great background and summaries of scholarship on different women. This book is more academic than faith-focused.
- We don’t know the meaning of the name Hagar for certain because the root word,הגר or hgr, is not used in the Bible. One theory is that it means flight, because it resembles the root of the Arabic word for flight. Another theory is that, because the Hebrew word גר (ger) means a foreigner living in Israel, Hagar means foreigner or immigrant. Lastly, because the phrase גר הגר (ger hager) (used in Exodus 12:49, Leviticus 16:29, Numbers 15:15) literally means “the stranger who is a stranger,” it could mean stranger. Ultimately, we are unsure. ↩
- While the Bible doesn’t say that Hagar was returning to Egypt, we can guess this because she was later found “on the way to Shur” (Gen 16:7), which was likely just outside the north-eastern boundary of Egypt. ↩
- Though modern readers may see this as a bad thing, it is possible that Hagar and her contemporaries understood this quite differently. A wild donkey may have been seen as something closer to a wild stallion, a beautiful creature who had something that Hagar does not: freedom. While we hear that Hagar’s son will be like a wild animal, Hagar may have heard something else: that her son would be free. And, as we see in Genesis 21, he was. ↩