The Story Of Isaac And Ishmael: Hagar (peshat)

Sarah’s Plan

 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.[1]

From this opening sentence, one can already guess that since Hagar first appears within the context of Sarah’s barrenness, the girl will have something to do with childbearing. We don’t know anything about Hagar’s life before Sarah’s famous suggestion to her husband – but we do know that this girl, Sarah’s Egyptian maidservant, not only gave birth to Abraham’s firstborn son, but was so special in the Lord’s eyes that she became the only woman in the Torah whom He addressed twice.

We all know the story. Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.” And Abraham heeded the voice of Sarai.[2] Thus, Hagar became the first woman in this family to conceive a child. She became a precious vessel who carried the treasure for which Abraham had been waiting for so many years! It’s no wonder that the positions were redefined at that point; it’s no wonder that Sarah, her mistress, though free and powerful and rich, no longer seemed so elevated, because none of her power, freedom or wealth had helped her to do what Hagar did: conceive Abraham’s child! It’s no wonder that her mistress became “lighter” in her eyes (the literal expression in Hebrew). And as the distance between the women’s statuses began to shrink, the relationship between them grew increasingly tense. Hagar decided to flee…

The Angel in the Wilderness

She ran away and found herself in the wilderness—completely alone at first—then suddenly somebody was walking and talking with her. Meeting someone in the desert was unusual enough, but the stranger’s very first words proved to her that this wasn’t an occasional meeting, and that he was not a random sojourner.

    And He said, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?”[3]

 When we read the Bible in English, capital letters make it very easy; they show clearly when and where the Lord speaks. But there are no capital letters in Hebrew, so we need to recognize and distinguish God’s voice by what He is saying, not by capital letters. Our actual lives are much closer to the Hebrew text: There are no capital letters here; we need to recognize God’s voice or God’s actions without additional hints and tips. Hagar did recognize the speaker and therefore, told Him the plain truth: “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai.”[4]

 Then The Angel of the Lord said to her, “return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.” Please take a moment to think of this response. Imagine yourself in the midst of very trying circumstances and then all of a sudden, you receive an epiphany: You meet the One who can actually do anything, can change everything. Wouldn’t you expect Him to help you to change your circumstances? Hagar didn’t ask for this meeting and didn’t seek it, but since it did happen, couldn’t He at least have helped her a bit? Why does He send her back to the same very affliction she is fleeing from? He didn’t promise any good changes; He didn’t say that Sarah would change her attitude and would be more merciful and compassionate, or that Hagar’s life would become much easier now. He didn’t say any of that. He just said: “Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hand.”

Moreover, there is some amazing wordplay here that is completely lost in translation. In Hebrew, the verb that is translated as “submit” comes from the same root as the word “afflicted” in verse 6: Sarai afflicted her. In English, it is impossible to form both of these words from one root, but in Hebrew, it is the same root, though in different forms: active and passive. This makes the original meaning even stronger, as if the Lord is saying to Hagar: “Return to your mistress and be afflicted.”

When we study the use of this root (‘anah – ענה ) in Scripture, the first impression is that the word is always used in a negative sense, designating bad actions only:

And when Shechem the son of Hamor . . . saw her, he took her, and lay with her, and defiled her.[5]

Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them.[6]

Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.[7]

 And yet it goes without saying that if the Angel of the Lord used this very word in His command to Hagar, it cannot be completely negative. Indeed, we find very different occurrences of the same word referring to God’s deeds:

“And you shall remember that the Lord your God led you all the way these forty years in the wilderness, to humble you and test you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. So He humbled you…   that He might make you know that man shall not live by bread alone; but man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord.”[8]

From this Scripture we see that if and when God is the One who is causing the affliction, the purpose of His action is “to humble and test.  Thus, it was not about Hagar and Sarah, or what Sarah was doing to Hagar—it was about God and Hagar and what God was doing to Hagar through Sarah. God commanded Hagar to return to her mistress and submit under her hand because He wanted to humble and test her! Together with Hagar, we are now starting to understand: it is not under Sarah’s hand that she must submit; it is under the Lord’s hand!


The Girl Names the Lord

However, before Hagar turns back, she does something absolutely unique, something no-one else in the Bible does: She names the Lord! We do have several examples in Scripture where a place was named according to what God did there:

So Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up for a burnt offering instead of his son. And Abraham called the name of the place, The-Lord-Will-Provide.[9]

And Moses built an altar and called its name, The-Lord-Is-My-Banner.[10]

 Hagar, however, doesn’t just name a place. She does something altogether different from what Abraham or Moses did: She gives the name, not only to the place (the place gets the name as well: Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi), but to the Lord Himself, and this is something very unusual. In fact, it is absolutely unique in all Scripture:

Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here seen Him who sees me?”[11]

 Of course, nobody can adequately describe what is happening in a heart during an encounter with God. It is different for each person, because only God knows what is in the heart—only God knows the deepest secrets and wounds of that heart, and He is the only One who can touch and heal them. Although we, the readers, can also hear the message the Angel delivered to Hagar, the absolutely overwhelming presence of God that embraced her in the wilderness—the warmness of God’s closeness that completely melted her heart, His love, His compassion, His tenderness—all of this remains hidden between the lines for us. Yet it was so real for her that the only thing she could utter was: El Roi. The-God-Who-Sees-Me – one of the most profound names of God in the whole Bible.


 Much, much more can be said about Hagar, as well as about Abraham and Sarah in this complex story, but due to the limitations of the current format (blog post), I have to omit here many fascinating details and Hebrew insights. If you are interested to learn more, I invite you to read my book “Abraham had two sons”.  Click here to get  the book:   

[1] Genesis 16:1

[2] Genesis 16:2

[3] Genesis 16:8

[4] Genesis 16:8

[5] Genesis 34:2

[6] Exodus 1:11

[7] Exodus 22:22

[8] Deuteronomy 8:2,3

[9] Genesis 22:14

[10] Exodus 17:15

[11] Genesis 16:13

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.

You might also be interested in:

Join the conversation (6 comments)

Leave a Reply

  1. GP

    Powerful. Thank you so much.
    At the moment I am a mother, and am homeschooling my youngest son with special needs (as well as leading a worship team)….so I am feeling that maybe next year may be the right time to embark on studies with the Israel Institute. In the meantime I am learning to be wise with my time and priorities. I sense there are chunks of time that I will be able to spend in more prayer, study and worship that at present are wasted in an inefficient use of computer time, emails and admin, and watching less news and political commentaries 😀
    (I don’t watch TV but even news and world events can be an unhealthy focus. Your thoughts on this?)
    In the meantime you are greatly blessing me with these wonderful articles.
    Please can you share some insights into the true biblical understanding of praise and worship to our great God.
    I feel that we have so much more to learn in this area…..especially in relation to reverence, awe and obedience.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words, I am very happy to hear that this blog is a blessing to you. As for my thoughts on praise and worship, I am afraid I don’t have ant special insights to share, it’s not my area of expertise – besides the fact that both in the Bible and in the Jewish tradition praise and worship are seen as our constant and solemn responsibility. The prayer “Aleinu leshabeach” (“[it is] our duty to praise”) is a closing prayer of every service in synagogue (you can find this prayer in every siddur).

  2. David Susen

    Julia, toda toda toda raba 🙂 A great article! So great I’m buying your book! “The God who Sees”. I thought it just meant “my sheppard”. I always thought tho “hmm it kind of looks like the word ‘to see'” and thought that would make sense because a sheppard is a guys with much more vision than a sheep. You have confirmed my suspicions. Reading the Bible in Hebrew is so wonderful – so many treasures! Thank you again Julia!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you so much David for your excitement and for your kind words! You are absolutely right: reading the Bible in Hebrew (or at least with Hebrew) can unearth so many hidden treasures! So many things are completely lost in translation – and “God Who sees me” is just one example! By the way, i don’t know what book you bought, but if you wanted to read more about Hagar, you had to buy “Abraham had two sons”. I have a book by name ” The One Who sees me Lives” (“Hai Roi”- the name she gave to the well) , but it’s a different story, it just happened to have this name.

  3. David Hereford

    Julia thank you so much for sharing what Father is showing you in His Word!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you David, I really appreciate your words!