Stating simply that Hagar was the second wife of Abraham and the mother of Ishmael simplifies an incredibly complex character whose emotions and motivations are fleshed out in the Oral Traditions and transcribed in the Midrash.
This is Hagar’s basic story: Sarah was barren, and so she gave her Egyptian handmaid, Hagar, as a wife to Abraham. When she [Hagar] “saw that she had conceived, her mistress [Sarah] was despised in her eyes” (16:4) When Sarah tried to deal with the situation, Hagar fled into the wilderness, where an angel promised her that her son would become a nation. Hagar returned and gave birth to Ishmael (Genesis 16).
Years later, when Sarah noticed that Ishmael was a bad influence on Isaac, Abraham ordered Hagar to leave, sending her and Ishmael into the wilderness with meager provisions. “And she departed, and strayed in the wilderness of Beer-sheba. And the water in the bottle was spent, and she cast the child under one of the shrubs. And she went, and sat her down over against him a good way off’ expecting Ishmael to die. (21:14-16). Hagar sat and cried. Once again, an angel rescued her by showing her a well (Genesis 21).
Let’s first start with Hagar’s origins. The Midrash relates that “Pharoah took his daughter [Hagar], and gave her to [Abraham], for he said, ‘It is better for my daughter to be a handmaid in [Abraham’s] house than a noblewoman in another house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1)
Another interesting Midrash points out that “Hagar would [mockingly] say: ‘My Mistress [Sarah] is not the same inwardly as she appears outwardly. She cannot be as righteous as she seems, for so many years passed without her having children, whereas I conceived after one night.’” (Genesis Rabbah 45:3).
Finally, it is written in the Zohar that “When Hagar parted from Abraham, she worshiped the idols of her father’s house. Later, she repented fully and bound herself to good deeds, for which her name was changed to Keturah. [After this,] Abraham sent for her and remarried her.
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