Comparison Exercises (3): Two Epiphanies  

Our next comparison is taken from the story of Hagar – a very special biblical character.  Hagar occupies quite a unique place in the Bible for many different reasons: She is the first runaway slave; the first woman in Abraham’s family to conceive and carry a child; the first slave to be freed. What puts her in an especially unique and significant position, however, is the double epiphany that she experienced: in Genesis 16 and Genesis 21. No other woman throughout the whole of Scripture is recorded as having heard God speak to her twice. She is not just the first woman in the Bible to have an epiphany twice; she is the only woman in the Bible to have an epiphany twice! How different her circumstances are though, and how different, accordingly, are God’s responses in these two cases! Let us observe the differences!

In Genesis 16, Hagar was pregnant, and when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence.

Now the Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur.  And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”

In Genesis 21, after Hagar and her teenage son Ishmael were banished from Abram’s camp:

she departed and wandered in the Wilderness of Beersheba. And the water in the skin was used up, and she placed the boy under one of the shrubs. Then she went and sat down across from him at a distance of about a bowshot; for she said to herself, “Let me not see the death of the boy.” So she sat opposite him, and lifted her voice and wept. And God heard the voice of the lad. Then the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.”

First of all, what is the same in both chapters? For a start, in both scenes we see Hagar, the angel, and the wilderness. If one decided to create a play based on this story, one might well use the same scenery in both scenes. But what are the differences?

The first and the most obvious difference, of course, is that now Hagar is not alone; she is with her son, Ishmael, and that makes the whole situation altogether different, even though the scenery is the same. A further comparison of those scenes should teach us a lot about being grateful and appreciating what we have. Hagar thought – and so did we – that she had been desperate then, back in Genesis 16. Now, when we see her in Genesis 21, we cannot help but think how much better off she had been then compared to what she was experiencing now. Then, she knew her way well and didn’t get lost (or didn’t think she was lost). Then, she was next to a spring of water and wasn’t thirsty (or didn’t think she was thirsty). Then, she was not dying (or didn’t think she was dying). Then, she didn’t need God to save her (or didn’t think she needed God to save her). Therefore, she didn’t call upon the Lord – she didn’t expect Him to appear. And yet, He came, and completely transformed her heart.

Many things are very different in Genesis 21 besides Hagar not being alone anymore. First of all, we read here that she wandered in the desert around Beer-Sheva. Can you imagine? Hagar is lost now. In Genesis 16, the girl knew her way in the wilderness very well. How and why did she get lost this time?

I imagine that being with Ishmael and feeling a huge responsibility for her son’s life made her more nervous and less strong; more vulnerable and less confident. This is probably the reason she lost her way. She feels responsible, not only for herself now, but for her son as well and as a result she got lost in the wilderness that she used to know so well.

There is an inevitable tragic consequence of getting lost in the wilderness, and they had to face this tragic consequence soon enough: they were left without water. This is the third crucial difference from the first scene. While the young girl from Genesis 16 did not have any problems with water, since she was next to a spring, now in Genesis 21, the mother and son are out of water – and they are dying without water – physically and literally dying.

Finally, we cannot ignore the fact that the pattern of epiphany in Genesis 21 differs drastically from what we read in Genesis 16. In the first scene, it doesn’t say directly where the angel was. It says he found Hagar by a spring in the desert, but for some reason, a reader is led to believe that he was disguised as a random wayfarer who just started to talk to her. Of course, in English the capital letters make it very easy: They show clearly when and where the Lord speaks, but we see nothing like this in the Hebrew Scriptures: We don’t have capital letters in Hebrew, so God’s voice can only be recognized and distinguished by what He is saying, not by capital letters. Our actual lives are much closer to the Hebrew text, by the way:  There are no capital letters in the life; we have to recognize God’s voice or God’s actions without additional hints and tips. Frequently, we fail: There are so many situations where we don’t recognize Him. But apparently, Hagar did recognize the speaker. After His question, it became clear to her that this was not somebody who just happened to be in the same place as her at the same time. She realized that the One who was asking knew everything anyway and that there was no point in hiding anything from Him. Therefore, she told Him the plain truth: She said, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.” The very fact that she answered him and they were having a conversation, suggests a more mundane situation than hearing a Voice from heaven. Therefore, indeed it differs substantially from Genesis 21, where we are told explicitly that the Angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven…


(to be continued) 


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About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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