Painting of Hagar in the wilderness by Giovanni Lanfranco. It hangs in the Musée du Louvre.
Alice C. Linsley
Hagar was the Egyptian handmaiden to Sarah, Abraham’s sister wife. She was also one of Abraham’s concubines. Though she is presented as a downtrodden slave, it is likely that Hagar was highly cultured and moved comfortably in ruling circles. There is evidence that she was the daughter of a Horite ruler-priest and as such would have been a skilled attendant to Sarah.
Sarah’s resentment toward Hagar probably had a long history. Some of the resentment may have been cultural. Sarah was from the region of Aram in Mesopotamia while Hagar was from Horite territory in northern Arabia. Sarah's resentment toward her servant apparently became blind jealousy after Isaac was weaned, when Ishmael was about 15 years old.
Genesis portrays Hagar as having a complex personality. In later life she is a strong and independent woman, contracting marriage for her son and apparently producing other offspring known as the Hagarites. They are mentioned in Psalm 83:6. The core of this psalm is believed to pre-date David. The Hagarites are distinct from the Ishmaelites in the Pslam 83 listing of allies, so it is apparent that Hagar (like Anah and Oholibamah) was regarded as a clan chief.
This picture of Hagar as a matrure clan chief differs from the picture presented in Genesis 16:5 where we are told that Hagar acted tactlessly toward her childless mistress. Sarah blamed Abraham for this and Abraham said to Sarah: “Your slave-girl is at your disposal. Treat her as you think fit” (16:6 NJB). Sarah then abused Hagar who ran away from her mistress. Hagar fled to a spring where Abraham had lived for a time (20:1). The Angel of the Lord found her at the spring and prophesied concerning her son that his name should be Ishmael meaning God Hearkens, for God heard the cry of Hagar's affliction. This story portrays Hagar as a tactless, abused runaway, but note how she has a personal encounter with the Lord at the shrine! And she knows that she has had a personal encounter because she declares that she has gone on seeing, even as she is seen (16:14). The Angel of the Lord speaks as God in the first-person, and in verse 13 Hagar identifies the visitor as God. To me, this sounds like a conversion story!
Given the times in which Hagar lived, she would have run to a place where she felt she could provide for her son. She traveled to a shrine half way between Kadesh and Bared (16:14). In Genesis, when a water system is identified as being along a road between two towns, it is a shrine to which a priest is attached. It is likely that Hagar had family there. Since this was Horite territory, an Egyptian priest (Khar or Harwa) at a water shrine here would have been a Horite priest. Horite territory extended north-south at least between Mount Hor (above Kadesh-barnea) and Mt. Harun or Hor south of Oboth. According to Genesis 14: 6, Horite territory exended as far south as the wilderness of Paran (see map below).
Horite priests were devotees of Horus, who was called “Son of God” and who was believed to be the resurrected son of Osiris. Christians know this to be Jesus Christ who is sometimes called “the Angel of the Lord.” Hagar’s visitation at the Horite shrine is the first place in the Bible where this specific expression is used. So it seems that the complexity of Hagar may be due to conversion after a personal encounter with the preincarnate Christ. Her conversion took place at a shrine dedicated to the archetype of the Son of God.
Some Church Fathers see Hagar's visitation as an appearance of the eternal Christ, who is of one essence with the Father, “for in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). Yet He is distinguished from the Father as the Son of the Edenic promise (Gen. 3:15) who came into the world to save sinners like Hagar... and me.