Hagar: Midrash and Aggadah

by Tamar Kadari

This image of Hagar and Ishmael, painted by F. Baroccio and engraved by E. Smith, depicts Hagar feeding Ishmael. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In Brief

Hagar is the subject of much interpretation by the rabbis, who portray her as a spiritual and even righteous woman. The rabbis often depict her relationship with Sarah as harmful and fractious, with Sarah continuously demeaning Hagar while Abraham remained ambivalent. However, the rabbis also emphasize her ability to perceive and interact with divine messengers, demonstrating her spirituality and ability to connect with God. Some traditions identify her with Keturah, taken as a wife by Abraham in Gen. 25:1; in this interpretation, after their divorce she remarried Abraham after Sarah’s death.

The Rabbis present Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian handmaiden, as an Egyptian princess whom Pharaoh king of Egypt gave to Sarah as a gift. She grew up in the home of Abraham and Sarah, and converted. Sarah initially had to persuade Hagar to marry Abraham (to compensate for her own barrenness), but Hagar quickly became accustomed to her new status, taking advantage of it in order to vex Sarah and disparage her in the eyes of others. The A type of non-halakhic literary activitiy of the Rabbis for interpreting non-legal material according to special principles of interpretation (hermeneutical rules).midrash tells that Abraham grew close to Hagar and ceased viewing her as a handmaiden. He heeded his wife as regards Hagar, but he also took care not to harm the latter. Sarah, in contrast, treated her handmaiden harshly and abused her in various ways, causing her to flee to the wilderness. Hagar is depicted by the Rabbis as being strongly influenced by the atmosphere in the house of Abraham and Sarah. She became accustomed to seeing angels and therefore was not alarmed when an angel of the Lord was revealed to her at Beer-lahai-roi. The spiritual level of Sarah’s handmaiden was higher than that of people from later generations.

Hagar’s expulsion was a consequence of the fear of Ishmael’s negative influence on Isaac. The Rabbis describe Abraham’s difficulty in parting from Hagar and Ishmael and sending them on their way. Although some traditions depict this as a divorce, Abraham nevertheless maintained contact with Hagar and her son, and came to visit them in their home a number of times. Although they never met again face-to-face, Abraham continued to be involved in their lives, and to guide and educate Ishmael, albeit from a distance.

In some midrashic portrayals, Hagar observed the commandments and engaged in good deeds and was thus fit to be Abraham’s wife. These traditions identify Hagar with Keturah, who, in Gen. 25:1 was taken as a wife by Abraham. After Sarah’s death Abraham brought his divorcée back and she bore him additional children. Despite her divorce, Hagar’s purity was not suspect, and she remained chaste until Abraham brought her back.

Hagar, an Egyptian Princess

Hagar is first mentioned in Gen. 16:1: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.” The Torah she-bi-khetav: Lit. "the written Torah." The Bible; the Pentateuch; Tanakh (the Pentateuch, Prophets and Hagiographia)Torah does not explain how Sarah came to have an Egyptian handmaiden, nor does it specify how many years she was with her mistress before she was given to Abraham. The Rabbis connected Abraham and Sarah’s stay in Egypt during the years of famine with the Egyptian handmaiden’s joining their family. In the narrative in Gen. 12:10–20, when Abraham and Sarah went down to Egypt, Sarah was taken to the house of Pharaoh. In response, the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and all his household with mighty plagues. When, in the midrashic amplification, Pharaoh sees the miracles that were performed for Sarah in his house, he gives her his daughter Hagar as a handmaiden. He said: “It would be better for my daughter to be a handmaiden in this house [i.e., Sarah’s] than a noblewoman in another [in the palace in Egypt].” The Rabbis offer an etymological explanation of Hagar’s name: Pharaoh said to Sarah, “This is your reward [agrekh],” as he gave her his daughter as a handmaiden (Gen. Rabbah 45:1).

In another exegetical tradition, Hagar was born to Pharaoh from one of his concubines. When Pharaoh took Sarah as a wife, in her marriage contract he wrote over to her all his property: gold, silver, slaves, and lands, and Hagar also was included in Sarah’s marriage contract (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer [ed. Higger], chap. 26).

These midrashim present Hagar as someone who was worthy to live in Abraham and Sarah’s house because her father acknowledged the existence of the Lord. Hagar, who would bear children to Abraham, was herself a princess, and was a fitting match for the father of the Israelite nation. She likewise was suited to be the mother of Ishmael, from whom twelve chieftains would issue (in accordance with the divine promise in Gen. 17:20). The tradition of Hagar being given to Sarah as a present from Pharaoh, king of Egypt, already appears in a Jewish composition from the first century BCE (Genesis Apocryphon [ed. Avigad-Yadin], p. 37), albeit without mentioning that she was the daughter of Pharaoh.

According to another tradition, Hagar was a usufruct handmaiden (who had belonged to Sarah even before her marriage, and had come with her as part of her dowry; after Sarah wed Abraham, Hagar continued to be the property of her mistress, and not of the husband). Consequently, Abraham was obligated to provide her maintenance, and he was not permitted to sell her (Gen. Rabbah 45:1). This explains why, in the continuation of the narrative, Sarah determined Hagar’s fate: to whom she would be married, how much labor would be demanded of her, and when she would be sent away from the house.

Hagar is Given to Abraham

When Sarah saw that they had lived in Canaan for ten years and she was still childless, she told Abraham (Gen. 16:2): “Consort with my maid; perhaps I shall have a son [or: I shall be built up] through her.” The Rabbis deduced from this statement that anyone who is childless is like a ruined structure that must be rebuilt. Abraham heeded Sarah and her spirit of divine inspiration (Gen. Rabbah 45:2). The midrash characterizes Abraham’s marriage to Hagar as one of the ten trials to which the Lord subjected him (Midrash Tehilim [ed. Buber], Ps. 18:25). Sarah took Hagar and gave her to Abraham; according to the midrash, she took Hagar [i.e., seduced her] with words. Sarah told her: “Happy are you, in that you will cleave to a holy body [Abraham].” Sarah gave her to Abraham, not to another, and to be a wife, not a concubine (Gen. Rabbah 45:3).

Hagar—Sarah’s Rival Wife

The Torah’s description of Hagar’s impregnation says (Gen. 16:4), “He cohabited with Hagar and she conceived.” The exegetes understand from the juxtaposition of verbs that she immediately became pregnant; they assert that this was from the first act of intercourse (Gen. Rabbah 45:4). The aim of this exposition is to present the relationship between Abraham and Hagar as having a defined purpose: the producing of offspring.

The Rabbis were occupied by the question, how was it that the righteous Sarah did not conceive from Abraham for more than ten years, while Hagar became pregnant immediately? In their explanation of this seeming paradox, the Rabbis use a parable about a field, thorns, and wheat. A field that is neither plowed nor sown nevertheless has thorns that rise up by themselves. However, in order to grow wheat in the field, much suffering must be endured and much toil invested until it sprouts (Gen. Rabbah 45:4). This parable explains the facility with which Hagar became pregnant, in contrast with the difficulty encountered by Sarah. Both women are compared to a field. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael, who is like thorns that sprout so effortlessly, but are totally worthless. This was in sharp contrast with Sarah, who would give birth to Isaac, Abraham’s successor. Isaac is compared to wheat, from which bread is prepared, and therefore his pregnancy required much effort and exertion. Sarah’s difficulty in becoming pregnant accordingly attests to the quality of the progeny that she would eventually produce.

Another tradition has Hagar posing this question. The midrash relates that noblewomen would come to inquire about Sarah’s well being. Sarah told them: “Go and inquire about the well being of that sorry woman [= Hagar].” Hagar said to the noblewomen: “My mistress Sarah’s inner nature is not like her revealed side. She seems to be righteous, but she is not. If she were a righteous woman, would she be barren? See how many years she has not become pregnant, while I became pregnant in a single night!” Sarah would say: “Should I pay any attention to the words of that sorry one, and engage in discourse with her? Rather, I will engage in discourse with her master!” She immediately addressed Abraham (Gen. 16:5): “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘The wrong done me is your fault!’“ (Gen. Rabbah 45:4). This exposition judges Hagar severely. Based on the preceding verse (v. 4): “and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lowered in her esteem,” Hagar is described not only as one who acted disrespectfully to her mistress, but as one who caused other noblewomen to denigrate Sarah. Hagar takes advantage of her pregnancy to besmirch her mistress’s good name. Sarah is depicted in these expositions as a noble woman who is well aware of her station, and has no intention of descending to the level of her handmaiden. The fact that she does not argue with Hagar accentuates the moral and class difference between them.

In Gen. 16:5 Sarah comes before Abraham and tells him: “The wrong done me is your fault [alekha]! […] The Lord decide between you [u-veinekha] and me!” The word alekha is written in the Torah with superior dots. The Rabbis explain that when Sarah said: “The wrong done me is your fault,” she intended to say: “The wrong done me is her fault,” referring to Hagar (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, version B [ed. Schechter], chap. 37). The exegetes change the vocalization of the word “beinekha” and read it as binkha (your son). Sarah said to Abraham: “The Lord decide between your son and me.” Following what Sarah said, Hagar was struck by the evil eye, and she miscarried. Consequently, when she encountered the angel of the Lord, he informed her (Gen. 16:11): “Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son,” for after she returned to the house of Abraham and Sarah, she was impregnated by Abraham a second time and bore Ishmael (Gen. Rabbah 45:5).

Abraham heard what Sarah said and told her (Gen. 16:6): “Your maid is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.” In the midrashic elaboration, Abraham tells her: “I care neither for her welfare nor for her detriment [and therefore I will not act on her behalf, nor against her], for it is said (Deut. 21:14): ‘since you had your will of her, you must not enslave her’—but this one, after we grieved her, we are [nevertheless] enslaving her!” What did Sarah do? (Gen. 16:6): “Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.” Abraham said to Sarah: “I care neither for her welfare nor for her detriment, for it is said (Ex. 21:8): ‘he shall not have the right to sell her to outsiders, since he broke faith with her’—and this one, after we made her a lady [when she was given to me], shall we now turn her into a handmaiden?” What did Sarah do? “Then Sarai treated her harshly, and she ran away from her.” This midrash presents Abraham as someone who attempts to heed his wife, but also to fulfill the Lord’s commandments. The laws of the female slave mentioned here speak of a slave whose master no longer desires her (the eshet yefat to’ar, a non-Jewish woman taken captive during wartime, whose Israelite captor initially wanted to marry her, but who now decides that he is not interested in her; or a Hebrew maidservant, whose master does not want to either marry her or give her to his son). The Torah seeks to protect these women, who have already experienced humiliation and slavery; if their master no longer desires them, he may not sell them, but must emancipate them. This midrash reveals Abraham’s ambivalent attitude. The series of arguments that he unfolds discloses that, in contrast to his explicit statements, he is concerned about Hagar. He no longer relates to her as a handmaiden but as a lady, and he supports his stance with the laws of the Torah. Sarah, in contrast, is determined to put Hagar in her place and therefore mistreats her.

According to one Rabbinic interpretation of this harsh treatment, Sarah prevented Hagar from engaging in sexual relations. In another exposition, she threw her shoes in Hagar’s face. And in a third view, she had Hagar bring to the bathhouse pails and binariot (clothes used in the bathhouse) (Gen. Rabbah 45:6). In the first interpretation, Sarah wanted to give Hagar and Abraham the message that she was the real wife in the house. Although Hagar shared Abraham’s bed with her, Sarah brought her to this, and she could also withhold it from her. According to the second understanding, Sarah’s message was primarily one of class. Just as the shoes are lower than any other part of the body, so, too, Hagar is not on the same standing as her mistress; she still serves the family as a handmaiden and Sarah can demean her if she so wishes. According to the third interpretation, Sarah’s primary goal was to subjugate Hagar and subject her to extra effort, despite the latter’s pregnancy. Sarah wanted to teach Hagar that, even though she bore Abraham’s fetus in her womb, she was still a handmaiden and had to perform all the household duties.

Hagar Flees from Sarah and Encounters an Angel of the Lord

Gen. 16:6–14 describes that after Sarah harshly treated Hagar, the latter fled to the wilderness, where an angel of the Lord found her. The Rabbis engage in a close reading of the angel’s words to Hagar, whom he calls (v. 8): “Hagar, slave of Sarai,” and of the manner in which she answers him, when she says (v. 8): “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” The Rabbis assert that the angel aided Hagar to comprehend her true standing and under his influence she underwent a process of change. They cite a proverb in order to explain this: “If a person tells you that you have the ears of a donkey, you won’t believe him. But if two people tell you the same thing, prepare a bridle for yourself.” In line with this folk saying, Hagar heard Abraham telling Sarah (v. 6): “Your maid is in your hands”; after this, she also heard the angel calling to her: “Hagar, slave of Sarai.” Only after she heard this from two others did she herself believe it and accept her status as handmaiden, which is reflected in her statement to the angel: “I am running away from my mistress Sarai” (Gen. Rabbah 45:7). This proverb reveals the ability of other people to influence an individual’s self-perception. Thus, Hagar understood her real standing only when she heard it described, time and again, by those around her. The comparison of Hagar to a donkey is not coincidental. In other places, as well, slaves are termed “an ass-like people” (see, e.g., Gen. Rabbah 56:2; BT Kiddushin 68a), in order to emphasize their inferior status in comparison to the Israelites.

According to the midrash, many angels, and not just a single one, were revealed to Hagar. In one exegesis, Hagar saw five angels, for an additional angel was revealed to her every time the verb “amar [said]” is used. According to another view, Hagar saw four angels, corresponding to the number of times the word “angel” appears in vv. 7–14. From this, we can learn of the difference between the early generations and the later ones. Manoah saw a single angel and told his wife (Jud. 13:22): “We shall surely die, for we have seen a divine being,” while Hagar saw five angels, but was not in awe of them, thus leading the Rabbis to observe: “[It is better to be] the nail of the fathers, and not the belly of the sons.” Hagar, who was the least in the household of Abraham, was on a higher spiritual level than Manoah and his wife, who were the best in their generation. According to another opinion, Hagar’s ability to see angels without fear teaches not of her greatness, but of Abraham’s. It is said of the latter (Prov. 31:27): “She oversees the activities of her household,” since the members of his household would see [angels]. Consequently, Hagar was accustomed to seeing angels (Gen. Rabbah 45:7). This view apparently aims to diminish Hagar’s greatness. Its message is that she was a handmaiden like any other, but lived among the righteous, and therefore merited seeing angels.

The Angel’s Prophecy to Hagar

The midrash lists three individuals who were called by their name [before they were formed in their mother’s womb]: Isaac, Solomon, and Josiah. Some add to this list, from among the nations of the world, Ishmael, for the angel tells Hagar (v. 11): “Behold, you are with child and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael” (Gen. Rabbah 45:8). According to this exposition, the angel informs Hagar of her son’s name even before she becomes pregnant with him. This tradition perceives the words “behold, you are” as an announcement of a future event, because Hagar miscarried her first fetus (see above).

In Gen. 16:12 the angel portrays to Hagar the son who will be born. The Rabbis used these descriptions to cast light on Ishmael’s negative character and on the reason why he would not be Abraham’s successor (see Gen. Rabbah 45:9; 62:5).

Gen. 16:13 relates that, after the angel concluded his prophecy to Hagar, “And she called the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi [or: the God of Seeing].’” In the Rabbinic reading, Hagar said to God: “You are the God of Seeing, who sees the humiliation of the humbled.” Despite what Hagar says in this verse, the Rabbis emphasize that God spoke to Hagar through an angel, and not directly. Sarah was the only woman to whom God spoke directly. Another school of thought, however, maintains that this verse is to be understood literally (Gen. Rabbah 45:9).

Hagar further says (v. 13): “Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!” The Rabbis understand her as saying: “It was not enough that I merited to hear the word of the Lord, I also merited kingship [since the angel informed her of the greatness to which her son would aspire]. It was not enough that I saw angels when I was with my mistress, but I also saw angels when I was alone.” Another version has her saying: “Even when I was with my mistress, she nonetheless did not see an angel.” The midrash compares this to the noblewoman who was asked by the king to pass before him. She did so, while being supported by her maidservant. The noblewoman covered her face [because of the honor she gave to the king]; the maidservant saw the king, but the noblewoman did not. Thus, Sarah is the noblewoman, and Hagar the maidservant. Hagar dared to look, and so she saw the angel of the Lord, while Sarah acted with awe and respect, and therefore did not see him (Gen. Rabbah 45:10).

These midrashim harmonize with the Rabbinic perception of Hagar’s inferiority to Sarah. Although the former boasts of having spoken with the Lord, she actually spoke with His angel. Sarah, in contrast, will indeed speak with God Himself [when He will inform her of the birth of Isaac]. Hagar proclaims her superiority to her mistress, because she saw the angel of the Lord face-to-face, while her mistress Sarah had not yet seen the angel. Hagar thereby reveals her incomprehension of her true standing. The above parable explains that the king wanted to see the noblewoman, and the maidservant was present only to aid her mistress. Accordingly, Hagar saw the angel of the Lord only by merit of Sarah. Hagar acted in a simple, straightforward manner, as is the way of handmaidens. She looked directly at the angel and did not realize that she should properly have covered her face. Sarah is spiritually superior to Hagar, and therefore her descendants will be worthier spiritually than the progeny of Hagar, whom they will rule

The Son of Hagar and the Son of Sarah

Hagar returned to the house of Abraham and bore him Ishmael. Since Ishmael was fourteen years older than Isaac, Abraham was eighty-six years old when he begat him (Gen. 16:16) and one hundred years old (Gen. 21:5) at Isaac’s birth (Seder Olam Rabbah 1).

Gen. 21:9–10 relates that after the birth of Isaac, Sarah feared Ishmael’s negative influence on her son and (v. 9): “Sarah saw the son, whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham, playing [mezahek].” The Rabbis differed as to the nature of the activity that aroused Sarah’s ire. The appellation given him in this verse: “the son, whom Hagar the Egyptian [or: the son of Hagar the Egyptian]” delineated the interpretive direction that Ishmael’s actions were as those of the Gentiles, leading to different understandings of the word mezahek. In one view, Ishmael engaged in idolatry and Sarah saw him building pagan altars and trapping locusts, which he offered as sacrifices. According to a second opinion, Ishmael engaged in licentious sexual acts, and Sarah saw him “conquering the gardens” [a euphemism for raping women] and mistreating them. In yet a third exegetical notion, Ishmael engaged in bloodshed. Sarah saw him take a bow and arrows and shoot at Isaac [i.e., he was trying to kill him] ((Aramaic) A work containing a collection of tanna'itic beraitot, organized into a series of tractates each of which parallels a tractate of the Mishnah.Tosefta Suspected adulteressSotah [ed. Lieberman] 6:6). The three types of behavior depicted here are the three transgressions regarded by the Rabbis as cardinal, for which a person “should be killed rather than transgress” (see BT Sanhedrin 74a). The aim of these exegetical positions is to present Ishmael’s conduct in so extreme a fashion as to be totally unacceptable to the spirit of Judaism, the spirit in which Sarah wanted to raise her son. There is also, however, a dissenting opinion that asks: Is it conceivable, Heaven forbid, that such would happen in the home of that righteous one [Abraham]? Why, it is said of Abraham (Gen. 18:19): “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord.” Could there possibly have been idolatry, illicit sexual acts, and bloodshed in his house? Rather, Ishmael’s laughter [“mezahek”] pertained to the question of inheritance. When Isaac was born, everyone rejoiced and proclaimed: “A son is born to Abraham, a son is born to Abraham! he will inherit the world and take two portions of the inheritance.” Ishmael would hear this and laugh [“mezahek”] to himself, saying: “Don’t be fools, don’t be fools. I am the firstborn, and I will take two portions.” This led Sarah to make haste to tell Abraham (Gen. 21:10): “Cast out that slave woman and her son, for the son of that slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac” (t. Sotah 6:6). According to this interpretive orientation, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael was meant to clarify to them that Isaac was Abraham’s heir.

The Expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael

When Sarah saw that Ishmael sought to kill Isaac, she told Abraham: “Ishmael did such and such to Isaac. Stand and write to Isaac all that God vowed to you and your offspring, for the slave’s son shall not inherit together with my son, with Isaac.” Sarah told Abraham: “Write a bill of divorce for the handmaiden [Hagar] and send her away from me and from my son Isaac, from this world and the next.” This was exceeding evil in Abraham’s mind, the worst of all the ills that he had suffered. God was revealed to him and said: “Abraham, do you not know that Sarah was fit to be your wife from her mother’s womb, and she is your soul mate and wife [sharing your] covenant? Sarah was not called ‘handmaiden,’ but ‘your wife,’ while Hagar was not called ‘your wife,’ but ‘handmaiden.’ All that Sarah spoke, she truly said. Let this not be evil in your eyes.” Early the next morning Abraham wrote a bill of divorce and gave it to Hagar. He took a garment and tied it to her loins, so that it would drag after her, for everyone to know that she was a handmaiden. He sent her away from him and from Isaac his son, from this world and the next. Abraham stood to see which way they would go and by his merit they did not lack water in their goatskin gourd. Once they came to the beginning of the wilderness, Hagar began to stray and engage in the idolatry of her father’s house and the goatskin immediately emptied of water (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, Ed. Higger, chap. 29). This tableau of Abraham’s difficulty in sending away Hagar and Ishmael explains the existence of a tradition that views this episode as one of the ten trials to which God subjected Abraham (Midrash Tehilim 18:25).

According to another tradition, Abraham was not grieved by his expulsion of Hagar. This notion is based on Gen. 21:14, that Abraham arose early in the morning on the day he expelled the two. The midrash explains that Abraham knew that the members of his household were indulgent, and so he rose early in the morning, fearing lest they give Hagar presents, gold, and silver (Gen. Rabbah 53:13). Gen. 21:14 states that Abraham “took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away.” In the Rabbinic exegesis, Abraham put the child on Hagar’s shoulder. According to the calculation by the Rabbis, Ishmael was twenty-seven years old at the time, so then why did Abraham place him on Hagar’s shoulder? Rather, Sarah had put an evil eye on Ishmael, thus inflicting him with a fever and illness. The Torah therefore says (v. 15): “the water was gone from the skin [ha-hemet]”—the water was finished because of Ishmael’s fever [hom], for a feverous person drinks all the time (Gen. Rabbah 53:13). This midrash might seek to explain why Ishmael is presented as a small child in the expulsion narrative: he is called “boy” and “child,” and when the water is exhausted his mother leaves him under one of the bushes. Such behavior is not suitable for a twenty-seven-year-old young man. The midrash explains Ishmael’s helplessness by the debilitating nature of his illness. This exposition presents the sending away of Hagar as a brutal act. She is expelled from Abraham’s house, despite her son being sick, and she is compelled to carry him on her shoulder. Abraham drives her out early in the morning, without taking into account her son’s physical condition. This midrash anticipates what would happen in the wilderness. Sarah’s hatred of Hagar that led to the expulsion of the latter results in a threat to the sick Ishmael’s life, just as would happen when the water was exhausted. Paradoxically, it is the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael that ensures them of continuity and life, far from the eyes of Sarah.

Gen. 21:14–15 relates that Hagar wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba, and when the water was gone, she left Ishmael under one of the bushes [sihim], which the Rabbis identify as a broom brush, which is a desert plant. Another interpretation derives sihim from sihah, conversation: Hagar put the child in the same place where the ministering angels had previously spoken with her in the wilderness (Gen. Rabbah 53:13); Hagar hoped that God would help her, as He had done in the past.

As described in v. 16, after Hagar had placed Ishmael under the bush, she sat down “at a distance, a bowshot [ki-mtahavei, literally, bowshots] away.” In one interpretation, the Rabbis specify that this distance was that of two bowshots. According to another understanding, she directed accusations [metihah] against God. She said to him: “Yesterday You told me [Gen. 16:10]: ‘I will greatly increase your offspring,’ and now he is dying of thirst!” (Gen. Rabbah 53:13).

Hagar’s prayer was answered and God sent her an angel who showed her a well. The Rabbis assert that David used Hagar’s prayer when he himself turned to the Lord (see Ps. 56:9: “You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record"). David said to God: “Just as you heard the prayer of the woman with the skin [Hagar, who was sent away with a goatskin of water], so, too, listen to my prayer. You did not remain indifferent to Hagar’s weeping, thus, do not turn away from my tears. If You say that Hagar was beloved because she was a convert [giyyoret], then so am I (Ps. 39:13): ‘for like all my forebears I am an alien [ger], resident with You’” (Gen. Rabbah 53:14). According to one exegetical tradition, God answered Hagar’s prayer by Abraham’s merit, while another tradition claims that this was by merit of Ishmael, who also prayed, and whose prayer was answered by his own merit. The Rabbis learn from this that a sick person’s own prayer is more efficacious for him than all other prayers (Gen. Rabbah 53:14). This tradition alludes to the exegesis that Ishmael was ill at the time that he was expelled from the house of Abraham and Sarah (see above).

When the angel showed the well to Hagar, it is said (v. 19) “then God opened her eyes,” to which the Rabbis comment that everyone is presumed to be blind until God opens their eyes. Another exposition learns from this that Hagar lacked faith in God. She was afraid that there would not be enough water and the well would dry up, and so she first filled the skin, and then gave Ishmael to drink.

After this event, the Torah states (v. 20): “God was with [et] the boy.” The Rabbis understand the word et as a multiplier, meaning that God brought blessing not only to Ishmael, but also to his ass- and camel drivers and to the members of his household, all of whom were successful with him. Hagar took a wife for Ishmael from the land of Egypt (v. 21), to which the Rabbis apply the saying: “Throw a stick into the air, and it will [always] fall on its end": Hagar was an Egyptian handmaiden and she selected a wife for Ishmael from Egypt (Gen. Rabbah 53:15).

According to another tradition, Ishmael married a Moabite woman. Abraham went to visit his son three years after he had sent Hagar away. He swore to Sarah that he would not descend from the camel at the place where Ishmael was. Abraham arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s wife there. He asked her: “Where is Ishmael?” She replied: “He and his mother went to bring fruits and dates from the wilderness.” He asked of her: “Give me some bread and water, for I am tired from the rigors of the journey through the wilderness.” She answered: “I have neither water nor bread.” He told her: “When Ishmael comes, tell this to him. Say to him that an old man came from the land of Canaan to see you, and he said, ‘Change the threshold of your house, which is not good for you.’” When Ishmael returned from the wilderness, she told him this. The son of a wise man is like half a wise man himself: Ishmael understood, and he sent his mother to take a wife for him from his father’s house, named Fatima. Three years later, Abraham went to visit his son Ishmael and he swore to Sarah, like the first time, that he would not descend from the camel in the place where Ishmael dwelled. Abraham arrived there at midday and found Ishmael’s wife there. He asked her: “Where is Ishmael?” She replied: “He and his mother went to herd the camels in the wilderness.” He asked of her: “Give me some bread and water, for I am tired from the rigors of the journey through the wilderness.” She brought forth bread and water and gave them to him. Abraham stood and prayed to God, and Ishmael’s house was filled with bounty and blessing. When Ishmael came back, his wife told him what had happened and he understood that even now his father had had mercy for him as a father for his children (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, ed. Higger, chap. 29). This midrash, written after the Islamic conquest of The Land of IsraelErez Israel, both exhibits Muslim influence (Fatima was the daughter of Muhammad) and contains a Jewish-Islamic polemic surrounding the sanctity of Mecca (according to the Muslims, the Place of Abraham near the Ka’bah in Mecca bears Abraham’s footprints; accordingly, the midrash emphasizes that Abraham did not descend from the camel). Abraham is presented as continuing to guide Ishmael in the right path, even after the latter was expelled from his house. Ishmael’s success is seen as resulting from his father’s blessing and intervention.

Hagar is Keturah

Gen. 25:1 tells that Abraham took an additional wife named Keturah. The Tannaim disagree regarding the identity of this woman (see Gen. Rabbah 61:4). In most of the midrashim Keturah is identified with Hagar. The Rabbis maintain that this marriage took place only after Sarah’s death (Genesis Rabbah 60:16, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer chap. 29). One midrash relates that God was revealed to Abraham after the death of Sarah and commanded him to return his divorced wife Hagar (Gen. Rabbah 61:4), while another tradition has Isaac initiating his father’s marriage (Tanhuma, Hayyei Sarah 8).

One explanation of this identification derives Hagar’s appellation as Keturah as having the meaning of binding or sealing, since she remained chaste and had not known another man until Abraham brought her back (Gen. Rabbah 61:4). Other interpretations of Keturah as another name of Hagar reveal the Rabbis’ positive attitude to her: she was named Keturah because she was perfumed (mekuteret) with commandments and good deeds (Gen. Rabbah 61:4) and because her deeds were as fine as incense (ketoret; Tanhuma, Hayyei Sarah 8).

Hagar’s Descendants and the People of Israel

The Rabbis emphasize that the subordination of Hagar’s descendants to the people of Israel shall be eternal. Notwithstanding this, the offspring of Ishmael and Keturah continue to pose an everlasting danger to Israel, since they never ceased demanding Abraham’s inheritance.

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How to cite this page

Kadari, Tamar. "Hagar: Midrash and Aggadah." Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 13, 2024) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/hagar-midrash-and-aggadah>.