How might we understand the Hagar narrative? We find the first Hagar episode in Lech Lecha, where she conceives Ishmael. Parshat Vayera swings between emotional highs and lows and is rich with lessons concerning how God’s children should properly parent their own offspring so that the legacy of creation is transmitted forward. The second Hagar episode is sandwiched between a series of powerful stories concerning Abraham, Sarah and their son, Isaac. The story that follows Hagar’s finale is surely one of the most awesome and difficult – the Akeida, the binding of Isaac. How then do the 13 verses (Genesis 21:9-21) devoted to Hagar, her numerous offspring and their exile from the nuclear family of monotheists fit into this theme of meaningful destiny for all humankind?
Negativity infuses the Hagar narratives. Her persona feels like a mistake from the start. Hagar’s basic character is suspect as she comes from Egypt, a place associated with sin, trouble and oppression throughout the Bible. Abraham and Sarah first encounter Egypt as refugees fleeing famine in Canaan. In the first “wife as sister” episode, Sarah is forced into an unwanted alliance with Pharaoh so as to protect Abraham’s life. They leave Egypt laden with possessions, including a slave woman whose name, ha’ger literally means “the stranger.” The barren Sarah decides to give her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate child-bearer (Genesis16:1-16). The alacrity with which Hagar becomes pregnant stings her mistress and is compounded by insulting behavior. Sarah in turn oppresses Hagar who on her own flees into the wilderness. Hagar finds a spring and is herself found by an angel who admonishes her to return to the family and announces the forthcoming birth and future of her wild son, Ishmael.
Enmity flares up again between Sarah and Hagar. In Parshat Vayera, scorn is transmitted to the second generation. In a continued play on the verb “tz-ch-k“, the root for “laugh” and of God’s chosen name for Isaac, Hagar’s son is “mitzachek” – he taunts Sarah’s son, Isaac. Again, Sarah perceives danger and retaliates but this time, as the stakes are higher, she seeks actively to banish Hagar. Abraham, worried about the fate of Ishmael, his and Hagar’s son, registers distress. God reassures him that Ishmael will become a nation. Abraham provides mother and son with minimal provisions and sends (vayishalcheha) mother and son into the wilderness.
The reader might imagine Hagar’s frightened state and feel sympathy for her plight. Still, Hagar’s behavior seems harsh and devoid of faith. After her water runs out, she puts (vatashlach – from the same root sh-l-ch, the verb referenced above to describe Abraham’s action) her son under a bush and sits some distance away saying “Let me not see the boy’s death” (21:16). Despite God’s prophecy of numerous offspring, she appears hopeless. Even so, should a mother not stay by her child’s side providing compassionate care to the bitter end?
The reader might contrast this scene with a similar scene of maternal desperation in the Moses story. In Exodus 2:3 more tender verbs are used to describe Yocheved’s preparation of the tiny ark in which she places (vatasem) her child. She then places the ark in the river, and deputizes Moses’ sister Miriam to witness his fate. The negativity surrounding Hagar’s character feels compounded further by her seeming obliviousness to God’s promise of future generations and her abandonment of her dying son.
An alternative reading of Hagar’s behavior might consider the term used to measure the length between her and her dying child – a bow shot. The text could have used many terms to designate this distance. A bow shot is an arc of connection between two points. More important, keshet, or bow, appears very few times in Torah and only once earlier in Genesis 9:16 when God designates the rainbow for Noah as the sign of God’s covenant never to destroy living creatures again on the scale of the flood.
And so, Hagar puts Ishmael down in the Be’ersheva wilderness, sits a bow shot away raises her voice and weeps. Perhaps she cries out in blank despair. Perhaps she cries out to claim her place in the covenant of the rainbow. The close reader of text is puzzled by what follows – though the text records no sound made by Ishmael the next verse reads “God hears the boy’s voice” (21:17). The rescue plan is put in motion. God’s angel speaks, reminding Hagar that God has a plan for Ishmael and leads her to water.
By her own standards, Hagar is successful. She raises her son, finds him a wife from her homeland, Egypt and is blessed with many grandchildren. The exegetical tradition, however, views her in a negative light. Rashi’s interpretation of God’s response to Ishmael’s voice demotes Hagar’s efforts by suggesting that the prayer of the sick is better than the prayers of others. Other commentators connect Hagar and Ishmael to cultures of idolatry and violence that continuously threaten Abraham’s family and the emerging nation.
While there is much evidence to support these points of view, we might also look at Hagar’s concluding chapter, situated between epic stories of Vayera. as having multiple meanings. The Torah commands our love in only three relationships, with God, with a friend, and with the stranger “ha’ger“. Hagar, a woman of limited endowment and possibility, is created in God’s divine image and propelled into destiny through actions taken by Sarah and Abraham. Perhaps the Hagar narrative means to teach us that lessons of love may emerge from confused, even poorly taken steps. Only after Vayera secures Hagar and Ishmael’s complicated place in destiny can Abraham approach the penultimate challenge of his Akeida.