COURTESANS

Hagar - The First "Other Woman"
By Lauren Summerhill

 

The story begins with the married couple, Abram and Sarai. You will also see me refer to them as Abraham and Sarah, which is potentially confusing, as the names to belong to the same two personalities. In biblical texts their names start as Abram and Sarai, but after they are blessed by an angel their names are changed to Abraham and Sarah.

The biblical Hagar is the concubine of Abraham, making her possibly the first "other woman" in recorded history. Her tale is estimated to date back four thousand years, though it is potentially older. Her position as the great patriarch's concubine makes her one of religious history's most important characters. Christians, Jews and Muslims all look back onto the ancient story of Abraham as the root of their beginnings. The Old Testament itself tells us almost nothing about Hagar, only that she is Egyptian and a handmaiden to Sarah, wife of Abraham. However a clue lies in her name, as Hagar translates to "This Is Reward".

Early in the story of Abram, we learn that the One God was revealed to him. In an attempt to help his pagan people see the truth he breaks their idols, succeeding only in inspiring their wrath. Abram was forced to leave his people with his wife Sarai, and began the first monotheistic faith. Jews believe they have inherited the legacy of Abram, but so do Islamists and Christians. Ultimately, all three claim to protect the legitimate faith first revealed onto Abram, leaning on the stories of Sarai and Hagar to defend their claim and support the belief that others have strayed. This fracturing would occur even within the faiths themselves as different schools of thought sought to preserve the truth that their brothers and sisters were believed to have lost.

Having had fled his pagan people, Abram needed to build a new life. We learn the origins of his wealth in Genisis. Upon entering Egypt, he fears that his wife Sarai will attract attention with her beauty and humility. He was certain to be slaughtered so another might have her. Abram asks Sarai to claim him as a brother, hoping that in these circumstances he might curry favour instead of jealousy. In part the prophet is telling the truth with this deception, as Sarai is his half sister. They share a father, but not a mother. Abram is correct in his suspicions, and Sarai's beauty attracts the attention. Rumours of Sarai travel to the Pharaoh, who takes her into his harem. The Pharaoh then rewards her "brother" Abram, with sheep, oxen, asses, camels, and of course male and female slaves.

It is presumably during this time that Abram acquires Hagar. But who is she? In the bible we learn that God inflicts the Pharaoh and his household with many plagues, because Sarai was taken from her husband, whom God favours. Upon learning that the prophet Abram is in fact married to Sarai, the Pharoh casts them out of Egypt. However, he allows them to keep the wealth bestowed upon them. The Pharoh is impressed that God favours Sarai enough to protect her. The Midrash tells us that the Pharoh gave his daughter, Hagar, to Sarai as a handmaiden stating:

"It is better for Hagar to be a slave in Sarai's house than mistress in her own."

 

 

The Jewish Midrash is a rhetoric explanation and interpretation of biblical scripts. There are many events or individuals in biblical texts that receive only a passing mention, the Medrash gives us what is unsaid in the bible. The bible itself refers to the tradition of Midrash. This ancient evolution means that sometimes a small piece of biblical text can become long philosophical discussions. The Islamic equivalent is the Hadith composed by Muhammad's contemporaries, and the Christians have the commentaries by the early fathers and highly respected theologians.

According to the Islamic tales of the Qisas Al-Anbiya, Hagar is not the daughter of the Pharaoh, but the daughter of King Maghreb, who is the direct descendant of a prophet. The Pharaoh had killed Hagar’s father and she was taken as a slave. Her royal blood would not allow Hagar to be an ordinary servant. To honour her lineage she is made the mistress of the Pharaoh’s female slaves.

Hagar’s new life with the wealthy Abram would continue to throw her life into tumult. Despite all the riches, land and power that Abram managed to attain, he did not have an heir. His wife Sarai proved to be barren. Time and time again Abram is told by God his descendants will outnumber the stars in the heavens, or grains of sand in the dust of the earth. Yet by the time he reaches his 80s Abram still does not have a single heir. Sarai, shamed by her infertility, offers her maid Hagar to Abram as concubine, hoping Hagar would concieve on her behalf.

Hagar's tale as told By Genesis.

Hagar's tale in Islam.

In accordance with the laws of the time, female slaves were the property of the wife and therefore any children they bore were also the property of their mistress. The bible states that Abram took Hagar "as his wife", leaving much to be questioned. Is this merely an analogy for sex, or did she take a vow? The theologian John Calvin states that the relationship between Hagar and Abram is "something between fornication and marriage". Some Islamists claim that Hagar was taken as his legitimate wife, and even some Judaic teachings suggest that Hagar always keeps her marriage vow to Abram. Many Christian schools of thought suggest that Hagar remains a slave, or at most becomes his concubine.

 

The importance of this is the status of Hagar's child. If Hagar is simply a slave to Sarai, then by law Hagar's baby is considered the child of her owner. If Hagar is the legitimate wife of Abram, then the all-important pact God made with the patriarch's bloodline applies to Hagar's son and all his descendants. This would make Muslims a legitimate part of the covenant, and makes Muhammad a legitimate prophet. Interestingly, though Hagar becomes a pivotal figure for the Islamic faith, she is never directly mentioned in the Qua'ran. This is the beginning of ancient rivalries. For all intensive purposes, the biblical literature always refers to Sarai as Hagar's mistress, meaning the status of her offspring with Abram would adhere with Babylonian law, thus the fruit of Hagar's womb would be Sarai's children.

Following his wife’s wishes, Abram impregnates Hagar, changing the relationship between the two women. Hagar's opinion of Sarai drops, and she becomes insolent towards her mistress, knowing that in her belly is the heir to Abram's wealth. Further, if she truly is a Pharaoh's daughter, the boy will also have royal blood giving Hagar much reason to be smug. Sarai blames her husband for Hagar's behaviour, perhaps for becoming more affectionate towards his concubine. If Hagar was ever elevated above her status as slave to concubine or second wife, she had the same rights as a first wife. Hagar could have gone from Sarai's slave to her equal. To ease Sarai’s frustration, Abram gives Sarai dominion over Hagar again, reminding his wife that she is the mistress and can punish her insulant maid. Sarai lashes out at Hagar so brutally, implying a beating, that the pregnant Egyptian flees into the wilderness.

 

There Hagar meets an angel of God, who promises that her descendants will be numerous, but she must return to Sarai and Abram. This makes her the first woman God speaks to since Eve. She is told her son Ishmael will be, "A wild ass of a man; His hand against everyone, And everyone's hand against him." This statement is unfortunately used by some to paint the Muslim peoples as barbaric by the divine ordinance of God. Calvin suggested that because Hagar's son Ishmael is not part of the divine covenant imparted upon Sarai's seed, his descendants will successfully preserve their rank by force of arms alone, a mixed blessing as his people will not be granted peace.

In Mohammedan tradition it is said that Ishmael's visage had the light of Muhammed. There is apparently no evidence that Muhammad believed himself to be a descendant of Hagar, however it is now commonly accepted by all three religions. The lore also states that Sarai, fueled with anger and jealousy, swears to bathe her hands in Hagar's blood. In an attempt to save the slave's life, Abram pierces Hagar and runs the blood over Sarai's hand to fulfill the vow, while preserving her life.

Thirteen years after Hagar’s conception, angels visit the house of Abram, this time to tell him that Sarai will bear a child. Abram is now almost a hundred, his wife in her ninties. Sarai is at this moment renamed Sarah by the angels, as is Abram changed to Abraham. Hagar's name remains unchanged. Sarah does indeed have a son whom she names Isaac and is now a legitimate heir, but there is a complication: Hagar's son Ishmael is the elder, and possibly of royal blood. Hagar is also a converted Jewess, putting Sarah's position and that of her son at risk. It is also at this time that God makes his everlasting covenant with Abraham requiring him to circumcise himself and his household, and Abraham circumcises Ishmael. While Judaism and Christianity believe Sarah's son, Isaac, is the only true prophet, the Islamic tradition acknowledges both as prophets and righteous men favoured above all mankind.

 

Once Isaac is wean, Ishmael apparently teases or mocks the child. The elderly mother is infuriated and demands Hagar and her boy be cast out, likely not wanting her son's inheritance split with Ishmael, the son of a slave. Abraham was distressed by this, but an angel assures him that both mother and child will be fine and instructs him to obey the demands of his wife. Given only meagre provisions, Hagar and her boy are sent into the wilderness. An interesting ancient reflection in modern times is the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland by Isreal. The place where Abraham is believed to have left the mother and child is now the location of the Kaab of Mecca. Some Islamic traditions suggest that Hagar was not thrown out but resettled, so that God might test the obedience of both Hagar and Abraham.

Mecca is also the birthplace of Muhammad in 570 CE, elegantly closing the circle of time. It is here that Muhammad experiences his own revelations and founds Islam. It was not his intention to start a new faith, initially he was a preacher to Arabs, and those who followed him submitted to the One God, Islam meaning "Submission", and "Muslim" meaning "believer". As his following grew, Muhammad viewed both Judaism and Christianity as partners, calling them "People of the Book":

"Do not dispute with the people of the Book save in the fairest way; except for those of them who are evildoers. And say: "We believe in what has been sent down to us and what has been sent down to you. Our God and your God are one and to Him we are submissive." Surah 29:46

In turn Muhammad was rejected and mocked by both Christians and Jews, his political influence becoming a point of great resentment. To Muhammad's dismay, his enemies joined forces and sought to destroy him. A reflection of the prophecy "His hand against everyone, And everyone's hand against him", and more foreshadowing to the long standing rivalry that lasts to our modern day. It was this attempt to destroy him and all that he had built that lead Muhammad to believe the Jews had strayed from the Torah, and the Christians had strayed from the Gospels, so he called the believers to gather under the name of Islam.

When Hagar wandered the desert in exile with her adolescent boy, presumably attempting to make her way back to Egypt, she ran out of water and Ishmael began to die of thirst. Anguished, she placed the boy under a bush and walked away, not wanting to witness him die. According to Mohammedan tradition, Hagar ran back and forth seven times between the hills of Safa and Marwah, praying for the life of her son and desperate for water. The pilgrimage to Mecca is in commemoration of Hagar's suffering for her son, where they walk around the Kaab seven times. Some say it honours the power of motherhood and the leadership of women. Muslim tradition states an angel was aware of Hagar's suffering and stamped his foot allowing a spring to gush forth. This is now the holy fountain of Zamzam, near the Kaaba. The Judeo-Christian story tells that God heard Hagar weeping, an angel of God comforted her and made a well of water appear. Hagar filled her waterskin at the miraculous source of water and let her adolescent son drink. Some traditions say they remained here and Abraham visited them monthly.

And so Hagar's story draws to an end… in theory.

 

"God was with the boy and he grew up; he dwelt in the wilderness and became a bowman. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt."

Once Hagar and Ishmael had settled by the miracle source of water, within the timespan of 80 - 200 years, the Ishmaelites become a tribe of traders. It is a caravan of Ishmaelites that purchase the biblical Joseph from his devious brothers and sell him to the Egyptians. Islamic tradition claims that Hagar and her son were both buried in Mecca. Part of the required pilgrimage to this holy place includes visiting the tombs of Hagar and her Son, where she is honoured of the Mother of Monotheism.

Against the North-West Wall of the Kaaba, Hijr Ismail. The tomb of Ishmael and Hagar

 

Mysteriously, Hagar is assumed to return in the bible under a new name: Keturah. This name translates to "fragrant" which according the Judaic tradition refers to her actions being as pleasant as frankincense. After Abraham's first wife Sarah dies, he remains unmarried for a time. Isaac (Sarah’s son) marries before his father does. Upon Isaac's return from the land of Be’er-la-hai-ro’i, he brings Hagar back to his father (Gen. 24:62). After this passage we learn that Abraham takes a second wife named Katurah, who bares him six children, all of whom become the leaders of nations, fulfilling God's promise that all Abraham's seed will be blessed. It is assumed that Hagar is renamed Keturah to honour her good actions as she respects her ties to Abraham even while in exile, never bedding another man. A brief mention of Keturah in Chronicals i. 32 refers to her as the concubine of Abraham, encouraging the Midrash and the Palestinian Targumim to support the idea that both names belong to one woman. However, even though Keturah is legitimately Abraham's wife, he still leaves his inheritance, and possibly the covenant with God to his son Isaac:

And Abraham gave everything he had to Isaac. And to the sons of Abraham’s concubines Abraham gave gifts while he was still alive and sent them away from Isaac his son eastward, to the land of the East. (Genesis 25:1-6)

Other sources suggest that Keturah is in fact a different woman from Hagar, a descendant of Noah of the great flood. The Bahá’í Faith is considered by some to have descendant from Keturah’s line. Whether or not Hagar and Keturah are the same person comes down to a debate regarding the ancient Hebrew in which the texts were written. This ancient language has many subtleties that are not easily translated into English. The plural word "concubines" in Gen. 25:6 leaves room for interpretation. On one hand it could mean Abraham had two concubines. On the other hand, it is spelled deficiently in the original text, without the letter yod, which would suggest it is still singular, and thus there was only Hagar.

 

Muslim’s are not alone in inheriting the conflict born of Hagar’s legacy. The rivalry between Christians and Jews also draws on Hagar's story. In Paul's letter to the Galatians, he claims that Christians are represented by Isaac and Hagar's descendants are representative of the Jews. He compares Ishmael's mockery of Isaac to the Jews persecuting early Christians. Interestingly he suggests Hagar's conception is physical, whereas Sarah’s is a miracle, sometimes interpreted as an immaculate conception like the Mother Mary:

"However, the son by the handmaid was born according to the flesh, but the son by the free woman was born through promise. These things contain an allegory, for these are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children to bondage, which is Hagar. For this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answers to the Jerusalem that exists now, for she is in bondage with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Now we, brothers, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But as then, he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. However what does the Scripture say? “Throw out the handmaid and her son, for the son of the handmaid will not inherit with the son of the free woman.”* So then, brothers, we are not children of a handmaid, but of the free woman.

Stand firm therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and don’t be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Behold, I, Paul, tell you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will profit you nothing. Yes, I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. You are alienated from Christ, you who desire to be justified by the law. You have fallen away from grace."

Here we see the early hints of what would later become the long persecution of the Jewish people, as the very act of circumcision, which in their culture honours their covenant with God, is portrayed by Christians as proof that they have fallen from Grace. Though not everyone is as blatant as Paul, eventually the words "Hagar" and "Sarah" become associated with Synagogue and Church.

Interestingly Jewish tradition doesn't really try to derive much from the story of Hagar. Views of her vary from one rabbi to the next, seeing both good and bad qualities in her story. It is often noted that unlike other biblical characters, Hagar does not fear the angel of God when he appears before her. Also it is believed that she kept her honour by never having sex with any other man, despite her exile. The counter arguments are that Hagar was vicious toward Sarah, and that she is considered to have reverted back to idolatry while left in the wilderness. Worse yet, she married her son off to an Egyptian woman, not a man from God's Chosen People. This is considered evidence that she had greater faith in the paganism of her previous people, rather than in the truth of the One God.

As time has steadily prodded on, Hagar’s tale continues to echo through culture. She was long seen as mother to all who are abandoned, almost a patron saint of sorts. We see Shakespear mention her in the Merchant of Venice, when Shylock says “What says that fool of Hagar’s offspring, ha?”. Then again we see a similar reference in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's play Zapolya, when a woman is told she is "no Hagar's offspring; thou art the rightful heir to an appointed king." Many authors refer to Hagar when discussing destitution and desperation. Poets and artists too have paid homage to her ancient tale. Women fighting for their rights found themselves drawn to Hagar’s story, relating to her struggle and suffering at the hands of a world which made decisions for her. In Margaret Atwood’s famous tale The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist is cast in the role of Hagar. In this dystopian novel, Handmaiden’s are fertile women, otherwise seen as unfit for marriage as a result of breaking gender or social roles, used to produce children for their masters.

This early tale of marital strife seems to have struck a cord with humanity, Hagar’s light feels as though it has traveled as far as a starlight, reaching a great distance into our modern modern world, leaving a fingerprint so subtle it’s almost invisible, yet never forgotten.