The Woman Who Lost a Bottle But Found a Well
Scripture References—Genesis 16; 21:9-17; 25:12; Galatians 4:24, 25
Name Meaning—Hagar, an Egyptian name, closely resembles the root of the Arabic, flight, familiar to us as the history of Mohammed, descendant of Hagar. It may be taken as an adaptation of her original name to the principal circumstances of her life, and understood to mean, fugitive or immigrant, which Hagar became.
Family Connections—While the Bible gives us no record of Hagar’s genealogy, legend has supplied her pedigree, as being the daughter of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, the same who coveted the possession of Sarah in vain. This legendary source affirms that the Egyptian princess became so attached to Sarah that she told her royal father that she would accompany her when she returned to Abraham.
“What!” cried the king, “thou wilt be no more than a handmaid to her!”
“Better to be a handmaid in the tents of Abraham than a princess in this palace,” the daughter replied.
Hagar would not stay behind and join again in the idolatrous rites of her home, so when Abraham and Sarah moved on, she went with them. Sarah was an active missionary of the faith of Jehovah among women, as Abraham was among men, and so Hagar became a convert to the worship of the true God. While this is a pleasing tradition, the likelihood is that Hagar was an Egyptian girl-slave whom Sarah secured for her household while she and Abraham were in Egypt. Hagar bore Abraham his first son, Ishmael, and thus became the foundress of the Ishmaelites and Arab peoples from whom came Mohammed, the founder of Islam.
If Hagar was a slave girl then her mistress was legally entitled to do as she pleased with her. Knowing that it was humanly impossible for her to have children by Abraham, she gave her handmaid to him, that she might have children by her—a custom consistent with moral standards prevailing at that time. Abraham reminded Sarah that her word was law to her own slave and that he had no choice in the matter. Under Sumero-Babylonian law there is this clause in Hammurabi’s Code—
If she has given a maid to her husband and she has borne children and afterwards that maid has made herself equal with her mistress, because she has borne children her mistress shall not sell her for money, she shall reduce her to bondage and count her among the female slaves.
But Sarah ran ahead of God in giving a Gentile idolater from a pagan country to Abraham to bear the promised seed. Poor Hagar—she became the helpless victim of Sarah’s scheming! The whole affair was a sin before God—a sin all three were guilty of. Sarah distrusted God when she resorted to such a wicked expedient. As a child of faith, did she not know that God was able to raise up children out of stones unto Abraham? As for this “friend of God,” in spite of current custom, he should have stoutly refused Sarah’s scheme and obeyed the law of God, and believed the divine promise made to him. The attempt to secure the Child of Promise by Hagar was the result of a lack of faith in God’s omnipotence. Then, Hagar, although the least free and the least responsible, should not have yielded to such an unholy alliance merely to gratify any ambition she may have had. What sorrow, anguish and loneliness Hagar reaped for her compliance in such a plan to forestall God’s promise of an heir for Abraham (Genesis 15:4, 5).
Although the chapter recording the unworthy method of trying to fulfill a divine purpose is only a short one, yet like the shortest verse in the Bible, it is saturated with tears. Genesis 16 is made up of only sixteen verses and with such we have these three features—
The Folly of Sarah
We have already seen that Sarah’s folly had its root in unbelief. She was impatient, and wanted the promised child without delay. Her unbelief became contagious for “Abraham hearkened unto her voice.” The pious phrases she uttered were worthless. “The Lord judge” (16:5). She should have appealed for judgment to the Lord before she took the wrong step. She was a godly woman (Hebrews 11:11), but fell into the meshes of unbelief. With distrust there came dishonor. She confessed “my wrong,” but Hagar was the real sufferer, and Sarah’s sin bore bitter fruit, for when she gave Hagar to Abraham, she originated a rivalry which has run in the keenest animosity through the ages, and which oceans of blood have not quenched.
The Flight of Hagar
Strife quickly followed the human arrangement which Sarah had made. Having conceived by Abraham, Hagar chides the childless Sarah, and the jealousy begotten between these two women was transplanted to their maternal hearts and penetrated even their children. Ishmael came to tease and vex Isaac, and discord arose between Abraham and Sarah. The ill treatment accorded to Hagar by Sarah was not only cruel, but also irrational. Had Sarah not instigated the wrongdoing that was the cause of her jealousy? Therefore it was unreasonable for her to lay the blame upon another. As things were, mistress and maid could scarcely dwell together, so Hagar fled. Better a flight than a fight! Being compelled to flee was a thing forbidden to a bondwoman.
Far from home in “the way to Shur,” the appearance of a calm and gracious angelic messenger from God must have been a relief to the poor, pregnant fugitive. As Hagar traveled further from her jealous mistress the Lord was at her heels, and said to her in her distress, “Return to thy mistress.” Hagar had left her position as handmaid without notice and without permission, so she must return. Sarah had wronged her, but she was not permitted to retaliate by doing wrong herself. Two wrongs do not make a right. It was no easy matter for Hagar to return and submit herself to Sarah, but it was the only right course, and a divine revelation helped her to pursue it.
At that renowned well Hagar met God, and in awe cried, “Thou God seest me.” He had given her counsel, and although not pleasing to flesh and blood, Hagar took it and went back to Sarah. Had she persisted in remaining in the desert she might have died in it. God gave her a promise that although the wrongdoing of her master and mistress had led her into a false position, yet His favor would rest upon her and she would have a son who would be the progenitor of a great multitude. The soothing promise of God was a balm for the wounded spirit of the poor and lowly handmaid. Though Ishmael, the name God gave Hagar for her coming son, might not be the Child of Promise as Isaac would be, yet he would be the child of a promise made to her.
Is it to be wondered at that she called the well where God spoke to her and revealed the future of her son “Beth-lahairoi,” meaning, “The well of Him that liveth and seeth me”? It was there that the veil fell from Hagar’s eyes, and she received the assurance that she was the object of God’s special care. Dr. Alexander Whyte extols Hagar for her submission to God in this glowing fashion—
Hagar, by reason of the extremity of her sorrow; by reason of the utter desolateness and brokenness of her heart; and by reason of the sovereign grace and abounding mercy of God—Hagar, I say, stands out before us in the very foremost rank of faith, and trust, and experience, and assurance. Hagar, to me, stands out among God’s very electest saints. Hagar has only one or two who can stand beside her in her discovery of God, in her nearness to God, in her face-to-face fellowship with God, in the instructiveness, in the comfort, and in the hopefulness of her so close communion with God.... The best and the most blessed of them all was not more or better blessed than was Hagar the polluted outcast on her weeping way to Shur. The pure in heart shall see God.
The Forecast Concerning Ishmael
In the strength of the revelation of God received in the desert, Hagar returned to her mistress and bore Abraham his child. Abraham was 86 years of age (Genesis 16:16) and then, when he reached his 100th year (Genesis 21:5), Sarah bore him Isaac. This means that for over 14 years Hagar and her son lived in the patriarch’s home with all the tension and feeling there must have been as Sarah daily looked upon the son of her husband by another woman. After Isaac was born Hagar and Ishmael began to manifest their jealousy, and when Ishmael began to maltreat Isaac, Sarah could stand it no longer, and compelled Abraham to cast out the bondwoman and her child. As Bible names often set forth some feature of the character or history of those who bore them, so Ishmael meaning “God shall hear,” was fully understood by Hagar when in the wilderness (Genesis 21:9-21) God heard the moaning of her broken heart.
How painters and poets have seized upon this pathetic incident of the poor woman and her boy in the wilderness, thirst-ridden and ready to die! One of the finest masterpieces adorning the Dresden Gallery is the painting called Hagar in the Wilderness—and cold is the heart that can gaze upon it without deep emotion. The boy is pictured on his back, dying with thirst, while his poor but beautiful mother in an agonizing prayer, “lifted up her voice and wept,” saying, “Let me not see the death of the child.” Could anything be more poignant? True, Hagar had “despised Sarah” and “mocked Isaac,” but surely she had not deserved such cruel treatment as this—death from hunger and thirst in a barren land!
But how Hagar’s extremity became God’s opportunity. When the last drop of water had gone, and Hagar tenderly places her almost dead boy under the shrubs, God heard the dying cry of the lad, and also the wail of Hagar’s broken heart, for out of heaven came His voice, “What aileth thee, Hagar? Fear not.” Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water, and both she and her boy were saved from death. Abraham had given Hagar a bottle, but it was soon empty. God gave her a well, and the lad drank and God was with him, and he grew and became an archer in the wilderness. The last glimpse we have of Hagar is of her securing a wife for her son, out of the land of Egypt, her own land (Genesis 21:21)—the land of idols and worldliness. Untaught by the piety and instruction of Abraham, and by God’s mercy to herself, Hagar failed Him in the choice of such a wife for the boy whom He had blessed.
The practical lessons to be learned from the history of Hagar have been fittingly summarized by Dr. James Crichton in his article on Hagar in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia—
The life and experience of Hagar teach, among other truths, the temptations incident to a new position; the foolishness of hasty action in times of trial and difficulty; the care exercised over the lonely by the all-seeing God; the Divine purpose in the life of everyone, however obscure and friendless; how God works out His gracious purposes by seemingly harsh methods; and the strength, comfort and encouragement that ever accompany the hardest experiences of His children.
It only remains to be said that Paul uses the story of Hagar as an allegory to distinguish law from grace (Galatians 4:21-31). Hagar the bondwoman is contrasted with Sarah the freewoman, and Ishmael “born after the flesh” with Isaac “born through promise”; thence freedom and grace appear as the characteristic qualities of Christianity. Hagar represents the Old Covenant and Sarah the New Covenant which is superior to the Old with its ordinances. Under grace all within the household of faith live by faith, and Sarah represents “the Jerusalem that is above”—“our mother” (rv), which is the free spiritual city to which all children of the promise even now belong (Philippians 3:21).