Hagar was a slave. She had no rights. She could not request time off for rest and recuperation. She could not express her opinion. She couldn’t campaign for better working conditions. She did as she was told. Yes, she was a slave to a godly couple, Abraham and Sarah, but she was still just a poor slave girl.
We are first introduced to Hagar in Genesis chapter 16 verse 1 as the handmaid, or slave girl, of Sarah, called Sarai here but later to become Sarah, Gen. 17. 15. Hagar was an Egyptian, perhaps an acquisition made during the time that Abraham spent in Egypt, 12. 10-20. We are told little of her background, but probably Hagar had followed the many false gods of Egypt. Despite the poor behaviour of Sarah her master, at times, Hagar came to know the true and living God in whom Sarah and Abraham had trusted. Sometimes God, in His grace, uses us in spite of us, just as He did Sarah.
Hagar features mainly in two chapters in the Old Testament, Genesis chapters 16 and 21 (see also Gen. 25. 12), and one chapter in the New Testament, Gal. 4. 21-31.
In Genesis chapter 16, Sarah had lost patience with God, presuming that the Lord had restrained her from bearing a child, v. 2. Taking matters into her own hands, she requested that Abraham take Hagar also as his wife, v. 3. Sarah was attempting to do God’s work for him, using human ingenuity instead of waiting on Him. How important to wait God’s time instead of hastily trying to accomplish God’s purpose for our lives in our own strength. Hagar found herself caught up in Sarah’s scheme as she became the mother of Ishmael, one of seven biblical characters named before they were born.1 Although Sarah saw her plan succeed initially, it rapidly backfired as she became despised by her own servant, Hagar. Sarah’s response was to treat Hagar harshly, causing her to run away.2 In a touching scene described in Genesis chapter 16 verses 7 and 8, Hagar is in Shur making her way back to Egypt. God seeks out Hagar and the angel of the Lord gently cajoles her and asks, ‘whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?’ v. 8.
Sometimes, we find ourselves far away from the place God wants us to be. Like Hagar, we run away from trouble when we feel overwhelmed or hard done by. Perhaps God is challenging you with the same two questions He asked Hagar: where have you come from? or where are you going to? Like Hagar, perhaps God is encouraging you to ‘return’ home to the place where you really belong, v. 9.
The true faith of Hagar is expressed in verse 13, as she came to appreciate that there was One true God who looked upon her and knew all about the difficulties she faced. This Gentile slave girl came to experience the same amazing privilege as Moses, as she was permitted to look upon the God of glory, literally she saw the ‘back of him’, cp. Exod. 33. 23.
The events of Genesis chapter 21 may appear to be a repetition of chapter 16, but, on closer inspection, they reveal quite a different story. A great feast is held by Abraham to celebrate the weaning of his young son, Isaac. Ishmael, now fourteen years of age, Gen. 16. 6, mocks as he looks on the occasion.
Two types of laughter are recorded in chapter 21. Spiritual laughter is mentioned in verse 6, as Sarah says, ‘God hath made me to laugh’. This true spiritual joy arises from seeing God working in our lives, perhaps in situations where we may have given up hope. Sarah also says, ‘so that all that hear will laugh with me’. Spiritual laughter is infectious laughter, as others can share in our joy when they hear of what God has done in our lives. The second kind of laughter is Ishmael’s fleshly laughter of derision, mentioned in verse 9. Paul reminds us that Ishmael’s mockery was a kind of persecution, Gal. 4. 29. This indicates that when we are laughed at for being a Christian this is, in fact, persecution. Remember that the Lord Jesus was also laughed to scorn, Matt. 9. 24.
Sarah’s strong words to Abraham were to ‘cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac’, v. 21. Although Abraham was grieved by the situation, God confirmed he should take this course of action, since Isaac alone was the son of promise.
In the New Testament, Paul uses these events of Genesis chapter 21 to reinforce his words of warning to Christians living in Galatia, Gal. 4. 21-31. These are the only references to Hagar in the New Testament.
False teachers were imposing the Old Testament law on these mainly Gentile Christians, insisting that they needed to keep the law to be saved, thus adding works to the gospel. Paul reminds them that Abraham had two sons born to two mothers, vv. 22, 23. Ishmael, the first son, was born after the flesh to Hagar, who was a slave. In contrast, Isaac was born according to the promise of God to Sarah, a woman who was free. In other words, Ishmael was born because Sarah, in her impatience, used human effort to provide Abraham with a son. In contrast, Isaac was born because God, true to His word, had accomplished the impossible by providing a child to a couple who were beyond the years of child-bearing. The actions of Abraham and Sarah were simply to believe what God had promised.3
The passage reminds us that Old Testament events often have a profound meaning beyond what took place at the time. They are allegories, v. 24, illustrations of deep truths that now have been revealed to us. Hagar is a picture of the old covenant, the law, which was given to Moses at Mount Sinai. She was a slave and people living under the law were in a kind of slavery. Ishmael, who was born after the flesh, is an illustration of the flesh nature within us, Gal. 5. 19-21. In contrast, Sarah, a free woman, is a picture of the new covenant, and Isaac, her son, is figurative of a New Testament believer, as Paul says, ‘now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise’, 4. 28.
The Old Testament law was like slavery in that it issued commandments, but the law did not provide the power to keep it. Striving to keep the law through human effort was, therefore, an irksome and arduous task that could never actually be achieved. The purpose of the law was to reveal the true character of the flesh nature within us. The Lord Jesus said, ‘that which is born of the flesh is flesh’, John 3. 6. The flesh can never be reformed or improved and our failure to keep the law proves that. Through His death and resurrection, the Lord Jesus delivered us, not only from the power and penalty of sin, but also from the law, Gal. 2. 19.
Paul uses the strong words said by Sarah to strike home his message, ‘cast out the bondwoman and her son’, v. 30; cp. Gen. 21. 10. He was really urging the Galatian Christians to utterly reject the teaching that keeping the law using human effort can either save a person or be the means by which they can please God. In contrast, the new nature given to New Testament believers, of whom Isaac was a picture, was empowered by God through the presence of the indwelling Spirit of God. They were to ‘walk in the Spirit’, Gal. 5. 16, and to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit, ‘love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness and temperance’, vv. 22, 23.
Someone might say ‘how does this apply to me today? I am not Jewish and not under the law, so what does this have to do with me?’ It is possible to live today under self-imposed, ‘law-based’ principles that aim to gain acceptance by God through the flesh and not the Spirit. We sometimes call this legalism although we need to be careful. A Christian may be labelled as ‘legalistic’ when, in fact, they may be demonstrating greater spiritual intelligence and sensitivity to the mind of God, informed from a careful study of the scriptures. The Lord Jesus warned us of several features of legalism that we should beware of:
We last read of Hagar in Genesis chapter 21 as she is cast out of the family home of Abraham. Although God intended this for Hagar and Ishmael, He had not abandoned them altogether. In verses 14 to 16, we read of Hagar in a pitiful state, wandering in the wilderness, her water supply spent, sitting at a distance to shield herself from the trauma of seeing the suffering and death of her young son, v. 16. The God who saw her in chapter 16 now hears her and the Angel of the Lord again questions her, ‘What aileth thee, Hagar? fear not’, Gen. 21. 7. She may have felt abandoned and left to fend for herself and her son, but God had not forgotten them. God promised that Ishmael would become the progenitor of a great nation one day, v. 18. He also met their immediate need by revealing to Hagar a supply of fresh water, v. 19. How good to know that the Lord, who cared about a poor Gentile slave girl like Hagar, also cares for us. The Lord Jesus reminded us, ‘Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows’, Matt. 10. 21.
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