Hagar – Demoted Servant or Egyptian Princess? By Michele Stopera Freyhauf

A socio-political examination of Genesis 16 explores how ancient myth can influence the story of Hagar and Sarai. Socio-political events could have occurred between the Egyptians and King Solomon that influenced the writing of this text.  According to John Currid in Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament, the Egyptians and Hebrews borrowed many things from each other and because of that, an inter-relatedness exists between the languages as well as cultural and religious practices of both kingdoms (26).  It is this inter-relatedness that I wish to explore and ask the question -was Hagar an Egyptian Princess demoted to a lower position of servitude in order to make a political statement of superiority of the Israelites over the Egyptians?  Or is this a story of conflict between two of Solomon’s wives?  Finally, could this story tell us about events that occurred after Solomon’s death since the Biblical texts from the pre-exilic period began to take shape during the reign of David and Solomon?  This is a very brief exploration of these theories.

In Genesis 16, Hagar and Sarai connect Egypt and Israel in a familial relationship, one rooted in strife.  These two women, an Israelite and an Egyptian, are brought together because of Sarai’s barrenness and need to fulfill the covenantal promise. Because of this, Hagar becomes Abram’s secondary wife.  This is not the only time that marriage between an Israelite and Egyptian occurs in the Old Testament.  Joseph marries and an Egyptian, the daughter of a priest of On (Genesis 41:45).  Solomon also has an Egyptian wife who seems to have some importance because she is mentioned six times in the Old Testament (1 Kings 3:1; 7:8, 9:24; 11:1-2; 2 Chronicles 8:11).

Important is the fact that this passage could be rooted in the writings that emerged in that period that portray family strife.  Savina J. Teubal in Ancient Sisterhood: The Lost Traditions of Hagar and Sarah, states these “andocentric writing and editing” of the biblical narratives portray conflicts between women who “vie for the attention of their husbands or sons” (19).  In this case the story really could be a tale of family strife inspired by two of the wives of Solomon, one of which was Egyptian.

The theme of strife is prevalent in the first plot of this pericope that shows as seemingly passive husband and a tension-action dichotomy between his two wives.  In a table created by George VanPelt Campbell in “Rushing Ahead of God: An Exposition of Genesis 16:1-16,” common elements in this passage is identified (277-278):

Genesis 16:1-4a Common Element Genesis 16:4b-6
Sarai is barren (1) Tension Sarai is despised by Hagar (4b)
Blames the Lord (2a) Sarai’s Speech Blames Abram (5)
To Sarai regarding Hagar (2b) Abram Acquiesced To Hagar regarding Sarai (6a)
Sarai gave Hagar to Abram (3-4) Sarai’s Action Sarai treats Hagar harshly; Hagar flees (6b)

This portrayal of Sarai and Hagar as two quarrelling wives is a possible influence.  However, because the of the complexities and nuances in the text, it would seem more appropriately influenced by the events that occur after Solomon’s death.

Before examining the events that occur after the death of Solomon, it is first necessary to understand the relationship between David, Solomon, and Egypt that existed before.  Donald Redford in “Studies in Relations between Palestine and Egypt during the First millennium BC,” dates David’s presence in the Judean Hills to about the tenth century BCE or the twenty-second dynasty (3). Interactions between Egypt and David’s Kingdom were peaceful due to the sharing of common enemies and respect for the cities on the Phoenician coast. Redford points out that common enemies to David’s Kingdom and Egypt consisted of the Philistines and the Shasu of Transjordan and that the respect David’s Kingdom showed to the Phoenician cities on the coast honored the long relationship Egypt and the Canaanites had since about the third century BCE (5).

After David’s death, Solomon becomes King and takes an Egyptian wife, the daughter of the Pharaoh.  With this marriage came a large plot of land, Gezer, owned by the princess. According to Redford, lands held by important women in the 21st dynasty were fiercely guarded (5).  So much so, those oracular decrees were published evidencing ownership so that a child’s interest is under divine protection.  With Solomon’s death, the kingdom divided and Redford believes that a surprise attack by the Egyptians “devastated the country” (5).

To propose a theory from this post-death perspective influenced by Egypt’s action would fit within the imagery of disassociation, outrage, and oppression in the first plot of the pericope.  Egypt disassociated themselves from the Kingdom of Solomon when they attacked and caused mass destruction to the kingdom – a destruction that caused affliction and oppression to the Israelites.  Solomon’s Egyptian wife could have inspired the maidservant in this pericope.  A wife that because of her royal status could have been a priestess or maintained worship of her own deity. A wife that once belonged to the cult of Hathor.

To illustrate a possible influence to this story of Hagar and a potential association with the cult of Hathor, the myth about Hathor is examined. This exploration is not intended to definitively suggest that this influenced the pericope, but is being presented to illustrate another item that can influence how one can reinterpret a myth and make it part of their cultural and religious identity. Within the context of this myth, specific rituals and roles like diviner, priestess, and royalty, become an important influence on this story and potential meanings.

In terms of Hagar, the idea that she may have been a diviner, priestess, or princess has possibilities.  The deity addresses Hagar four times, only once by name and title; “Hagar, Sarai’s maid.” To draw attention the importance of this event, the phrase “The angel of the LORD said” is four times in verses 16:8-12. The interaction between Hagar and the deity is interesting because of her power of response and eventual naming.  This interaction could be viewed as divination in Ancient Egypt. Speculated through this interaction of Hagar and the deity was Hagar as a priestess and her god was el-Roi.  According to Laurel Hersch Meyer in “Hagar’s Holiness: Genesis 16 and 21,” a god that becomes demoted in favor of Abraham’s God (146).

John D. Currid in Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament shows that divination is an “attempt to forecast the future or discover the will of the gods” and is a process “usually originated by humans (often the priesthood) and [is] then responded to by a deity” (220).  What is of interest is that scholars like Laurel Hersch Meyer suggest that Sarai could have been a priestess subjugated to the position of wife in a culture that has become patriarchal focused.  For Meyer, Hagar would have been Sarai’s assistant or companion.  According to Nahum Sarna in The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, the Laws of Hammurabi prohibited a priestess from bearing children and it would be the honor and privilege of the Priestess’s assistant to become a surrogate (119).

If Hagar is seen as a divinator or priestess, this could be another reversal in the text performed by the J writer.  Currid points out that divination in Egypt was through an oracle at sacred shrines (221).

He further states that an Egyptian oracle consisted of a question and response between the human and deity, usually originated by the human (220). This story reflects the opposite situation. The deity seeks and finds Hagar, initiates the questions that she responds.

Also examined were actions.  The same will be done with this myth that contain similarities to Hagar’s story.  Robyn A. Gillam in “Priestesses of Hathor: Their Function, Decline, and Disappearance,” summarizes the myth as follows (213):

An Egyptian myth exists that show Hathor, the goddess of fertility, residing in the desert.  Her father, Re’ was so embarrassed by this that he lured her home with magic and promises.

It should be noted that the association of Hathor to cattle as well as Shur, which also has the meaning of bull, and is also connected with constellations in the story of Joseph in Genesis.

Hathor is also connected to Horus who is represented by an eye.  It would be of interest to explore this point further to see if a connection exists between this story or figures and Hagar’s story and figures, but for now the three important items of this myth that relates to the second plot of the pericope are as follows: fertility, desert, lure, and promise.  Fertility and promise are very important in Hagar’s story, as is the wilderness of the desert.

A priestess in the cult of Hathor can be a woman of royal status, like Solomon’s Egyptian wife.   According to Robyn A. Gillam in “Priestesses of Hathor: Their Function, Decline, and Disappearance,” there are also Egyptian servants that existed in the cult of the gods (213). This role could influence the story of Hagar in her titles as well as her interaction with the deity at the well.  With the marriage of Solomon to an Egyptian Princess and the attack on the kingdom after his death, the disassociations, outrage, and oppression would be appropriate themes or responses. I prefer this theory over the theory of the battling wives.

Through the writer’s cultural influences and ideologies, stories are written, revised, and even redacted to portray a message.  Mythic influences can also serve to influence the creation of stories in symbolism and ritual.  This perspective is part of looking at the text through ideological criticism. It is a fascinating way in which to examine the biblical text through socio-political lens, but also through the revelation of literary, rhetorical, and history-of-traditions exegesis.  Could Hagar be the Egyptian princess and wife of Solomon? It certainly seems possible.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently at the University of Akron doing post-graduate work in the area of the History of “the Americas” focusing on Religion, Gender, and Culture.  She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies and is an Adjunct Instructor in Religious Studies at Ursuline College.  Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at http://johncarroll.academia.edu/MicheleFreyhauf.  Michele can be followed on twitter at @MSFreyhauf.


Categories: Bible, Childbirth, Family, Feminism, Feminist Theology, Gender and Power, General, Goddess, Herstory, Identity Construction, Infertility, Judaism, Matriarchy, Politics, Power relations, Scripture, Spirituality

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2 replies


  1. Mysteria Misc. Maxima: June 22nd, 2012 « Invocatio
  2. Hagar – Demoted Servant or Egyptian Princess? | Feminist Biblical Scholar

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