Hagar Genesis 16

Genesis 16

It is worthy of note, that Abraham’s wife had female slaves of her own, or at least one such, over whom the master  had little if any power. This is still the case in the East, with respect to all such slaves as by gift, or purchase, or dower, are the actual property of the mistress. Where, indeed, there is none but domestic female slavery, the mistress assumes the entire control of even the female slaves bought by the master for the service of his house; but, where such slaves are employed in out-door service, such as the tending of cattle, the power of the mistress is limited to those engaged in domestic service, while the others are under the more direct control of the master. This statement may serve to illustrate the relative conditions of the doubtless numerous female slaves in the camp of Abraham.

One of these women, named Hagar, was Sarah’s own slave, apparently in the highest sense, as having been presented to her, or bought by her. As this woman was an Egyptian, and was the personal attendant of Sarah, there may be reason to suppose, that Hagar had been given to her as an attendant by the king of Egypt, while she was detained in his house. When the monarch gave her “brother” men-servants and maid-servants for her sake, he was not likely to leave Sarah without some such tokens of his consideration.

Abraham had no doubt acquainted Sarah with the various promises from the Lord, which had been made to him. But she was less disposed than he to await God’s own time and mode of accomplishing the purpose he had declared. A most notable device entered her mind, which seems strange to us, but which was probably in conformity with existing customs, and such as still subsist in India and China. She proposed that Abraham should take her maid as a kind of secondary wife, so that if any children came from this union, they might, as the children of her handwoman, be accounted hers. There was nothing in this that could have appeared wrong to Abraham, though to us it wears an unpleasant aspect; and in any case, he ought to have waited in faith the fulfillment of the high promise he had received. It, however, claims to be noticed, that although Abraham had received  the assurance of a son, he had not yet been told that Sarah was to be its mother; and he may have supposed that the course which was taken was in full accordance with the Divine intention. It is clear, that Sarah herself had altogether abandoned the hope of giving birth to a child, and that it was at her urgency Abraham consented, probably against his better judgment, to become a party to this expedient. It is, indeed, remarkable, that of the three patriarchs, the two who gave their sanction to the practice of polygamy, did so not of their own free will, but were driven into it by the contrivance of others.

The evil of this measure soon appeared in its effects. It was not long before it was evident that Hagar would become the mother of a child. The prospects which this condition opened, so worked upon her mind, so exalted her in her own sight, that Sarah no longer received from her that respect to which she had been accustomed. Every indication of this sort would appear in the darkest colors to the naturally jealous mind of Sarah, who, if we do not misjudge her, by the reaction not seldom seen in human character, regarded on her part with dislike the woman who had been made the instrument of her own designs, as soon as it appeared that she would shortly enjoy that advantage, so long denied to herself, of becoming the happy mother of a child. It is far from improbable, that the whole transaction became hateful in her eyes, when its objects appeared likely to be fulfilled. That all the blame is not on Sarah’s side, appears more than probable, from the way in which she assails her husband on the subject, and lays at his door all the blame of a transaction which was entirely of her own devising. To pacify her, Abraham, who manifestly hated domestic strife, and generally avoids it by letting Sarah have her own way, told her, “Behold the maid is in thy hand, do to her as pleaseth thee.” This she could have done without his permission formerly, while Hagar was simply her own slave; but the woman had now acquired a new character, which, although it did not take her wholly out of Sarah’s power, precluded  the latter from disposing of her without his consent. But his words restored to her all her original power over her handmaid, and divested him of all right of interfering, even should her conduct towards Hagar be utterly averse to his own inclinations and wishes. It does not appear that Abraham had any knowledge of these dissensions in the interior of the women’s tent, till he was acquainted with them by Sarah; and being informed by her, in her own way, of the assumptions of Hagar, and being asked, whether he was inclined to support her in her pretensions—it does not appear to us unnatural, that he decided the matter in favor of her who had been hitherto the sole companion of his life, and the repository of all his hopes and fears—entitled, by the double tie of consanguinity and marriage, to all consideration and kindness from him. It was, therefore, doubtless under a strong impression of duty to her that, even at the risk of losing his child, he admits her full authority over her own slave. He hoped, perhaps, that her jealousy would be allayed, and Hagar’s growing arrogance repressed by this strong measure; which certainly does, under all explanation, seem unduly harsh towards Hagar, or, at least, not duly considerate for her, seeing that he divested himself of all power of interfering for her under any treatment she might receive. It is necessary to keep this fact in view, as it accounts for his subsequent passiveness. The reader may remember the incident in ancient Persian history, that when Amestris asked her husband Xerxes to give her the wife of his brother, the king, obliged by custom, consented. He foresaw the treatment which awaited his sister-in-law; but having placed her at his wife’s disposal, he took no precautions to avert the cruelty of Amestris, which was worse than barbarous. The story may be found in the ninth book of Herodotus.

So Sarah now uses her power so unsparingly, that Hagar abandons all her high prospects and aspirings, and determines to seek relief in flight. She withdrew into the southern wilderness, probably intending to find her way to Egypt. But one day, as she rested by a well of water, the angel of  God found her there, and conveyed to her the comforting assurance that she was not forsaken. He told her to return to her mistress, and behave with submission to her; and to encourage her obedience, he proceeded to disclose the destinies of her unborn child. “Thou shalt bear a son, and shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord hath heard thy affliction. He shall be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”

It was no doubt well understood by her, that this character was designed to describe, not merely the individual, but the race to spring from him. Taken in that point of view, it is a most extraordinary prediction. The character which it describes was too common in an unsettled age to excite special attention. What is remarkable in the prediction is, that this, in the case of Ishmael, was to remain, as it ever has done in the person of his Arabian descendants, the character of a race. Other nations have changed their habits of life, and not one retains its original character. The sole exception is in the descendants of this man, in accordance with a prediction published at a time when no human knowledge could foresee, nor any human power ensure, the certainty of its fulfillment. The wilderness, which is incident only to a certain stage of man’s social history, has become permanent with them; and, although they have been compacted and embodied as a nation for more than three thousand years, they have resisted those changes of habits, which it is the effect of civil union so long continued to induce. Still, as we shall ourselves have ample occasion to show, does the Ishmaelite exhibit in his manner of life, the characteristics impressed upon him by the words spoken to the run-away bondswoman in the wilderness of Shur. Nor is this all—his race was always to remain in the possession of the land originally acquired; for so the expression, that he should dwell in the presence of all his brethren, is usually interpreted. And how wonderfully true has this been of the Arabian, while other nations and tribes have again and again changed their habitations, or  have become subject to strangers in their own lands. But the Arabians have occupied one and the same country. “They have roved like the moving sands of their deserts; but their race has been rooted while the individual wandered. That race has neither been dissipated by conquest, nor lost by migration, nor confounded with the blood of other countries. They have continued to dwell in the presence of their brethren, a distinct nation, wearing, upon the whole, the same features and aspects which prophecy first impressed upon them.” Note: Davison, Discourses on Prophecy, p. 493.]