And Thus God made a Covenant with Hagar in the Wilderness by Michele Stopera Freyhauf

Freyhauf, Feminism, Religion, Durham, Old Testament, Blogger, BibleWe are familiar with the covenant God made with Abraham and Moses, but are you aware that God also made a covenant with Hagar?

In the wilderness Hagar encounters a deity at the well named Beer-lahai-roi (Genesis 16). Water and wells are important because they symbolize fertility and life. Wells for women are common places where they met their future spouses. Because wanderers in the desert need water to survive, water itself becomes a symbolic of life-giving or life.

In the seemingly barren dessert, the fertile Hagar finds out that she is pregnant and going to be the mother of many children. Hagar is promised progeny in a motherless state.  According to Pamela Tamarkin Reis, this is called the “after-me” descendants, which guarantees Hagar that her children will live for “immeasurable generations;” a pattern that fits within the scope of this promise. This same promise of progeny is also given to Eve in Genesis 3:20, providing and interesting parallelism between Eve and Hagar.

It is worth pointing out the irony exists in this promise.  Sarai uses Hagar to “build her up.” According to Nahum Sarna, to be built up in terms of the number of children that you have, implies that you are mother to a dynasty.  In this pericope, however, it is Hagar, not Sarai that is built up through this divine promise.

This patterns of promise exists within the birth narrative through the annunciation of Ishmael and the promise of progeny.  It is through this narrative that Hagar enters into a covenantal relationship with the deity.  According to J. H. Jarrell, birth narratives have six common elements that establish this relationship:  mother’s status, protest, offer, son’s future forecast, Yahweh naming, and acceptance of the contract. Hagar’s story contain these elements:

  1. Mother’s Status:  Hagar is without child because she is a virgin (16:1).
  2. Protest:  Hagar flees from her mistress (16:8).
  3. Offer:  Return to your mistress and submit to her authority (16:9).
  4. Son’s Future Forecast:  He will live at the east of all his brothers (16:12).
  5. Yahweh Naming:  You will bear a son Ishmael because the Lord has given heed to your affliction (16:11).
  6. Acceptance of the Contract:  She called the name of the Lord (16:13).

This structure is common in the biblical texts with other birth announcements.  Jarrell cites the following passages that contain birth narratives:  Genesis 16, Genesis 18, Genesis 25, Judges 13, 1 Samuel 1, 2 Kings 4, Matthew 1, Luke 1, and Luke 1:26.  Hagar and Mary have the distinction of not being barren and interacting with the deity while the other seven women were barren.  These other women are Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s Mother, Hannah, Shunammite Woman, and Elizabeth.

Jarrell contends that women become necessary parties to the covenant because without their participation, the promise of progeny would not be fulfilled.  The woman’s vital role in carrying, birthing, and nurturing a child is obvious – men cannot have children alone.  It is through Hagar’s womb, this promise can be realized.   So Hagar, through the annunciation, is in a covenantal relationship with her the deity – but, there is more to consider.

In the second plot of the pericope, the character of Hagar changes. God seeks Hagar out and speaks to her; this is the first time Hagar’s speaks. According to Charlotte Gordon, Hagar also becomes linked to the divine because of her ability to be “hollow” or prophecy to hear God speak.

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” appears four times in verses 8-12. The interaction between Hagar and the deity is interesting because of her power of response and eventual naming.
Robert Wilbur Neff identifies an oracle pattern in verse 11 at the introduction of the Annunciation that consist of two items, a hinneh and naming clause. The hinneh clause begins with “behold” and is usually directed to a male.  According to Robert Wilbur Neff, the naming clause gives instruction naming the child “in accord with the character of the tradition in which the announcement is found.”According to John Currid, this interaction could be viewed as divination in Ancient Egypt. 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.” Divination in Egypt was through an oracle at sacred shrines. An Egyptian oracle consisted of a question and response between the human and deity, usually originated by the human. This story reflects the opposite situation. The deity seeks and finds Hagar, initiates the questions and she responds.

Hagar is the recipient of both of these clauses and is provided a name that is derived from the wilderness tradition. Abram interacts with Yahweh three times (Genesis 15:4-6, 17:3, 9, 15).  Moses interacts with the deity and the deity reveals his name to Moses; another reversal in the story (Exodus 3:14-15).  Hagar not only interacts with the deity, she names the diety.

The naming of the deity also stems from Hagar’s tradition and experience. Naming in this passage is unique for two reasons:

1) It is the only time that a human names a deity in the biblical text.  To name or call would mean to exercise control over the god.

2) The second reason is Hagar’s gender.

The interaction between Hagar and the deity is unique as is the promise of progeny that she receives.  This uniqueness displays a special relationship that is rooted in a covenantal promise.  Oddities and reversals exist in this portion of the story, but through the nuances, small pieces help understand the writer’s influence in creating this narrative.  Sometimes these oddities may even reveal the original story about Hagar that existed in another tradition or part of someone’s socio-political situation.  Here, this oddity is manifested in a covenant –a covenant made with a woman.

Michele Stopera Freyhauf is currently a doctoral student in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University. She has a Master of Arts Degree from John Carroll University in Theology and Religious Studies, performed post-graduate work in History focusing on Gender, Religion, and Sexuality at the University of Akron, and is an Adjunct Instructor in the Religious Studies Department at Ursuline College. Her full bio is on the main contributor’s page or at Michele can be followed on twitter at @msfreyhauf.

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Categories: Ancestors, Belief, Bible, Childbirth, Community, Family, Feminism, Feminist Theology, General, God, Infertility, Interreligious dialogue, Islam, Matriarchy, Myth, Naming, Politics, Prayer

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5 replies

  1. I am surprised you make no reference to feminist scholars Delores Williams and Savina Teubal, if only to disagee with their powerful intepretations of this story. Or to the Muslim understanding of the covenant with Hagar. I am not sure what you are proposing we should think about this story. That it is good that a male God chose to use the womb of a female slave and rape victim? That it was a fair bargain that he sent her back to her abusers? Or???? Unless we have no knowledge of Islam or of the history of feminist interpretations of this story, feminists would be aware of the covenant with Hagar. So, just asserting its existence is not enough to advance the discussion. What do you make of this story? I no longer consider myself part of the Biblical traditon. So what would I say? God is not a liberator of the oppressed in it. God may be the shadow rapist (like Zeus), in this case claiming the child that Abraham sired. Hagar may be the ancestor, but it is her son and his patriline that will be celebrated, not her daughters and their daughters. Great that a woman named God, I suppose, or is it? Too bad the story does not mention if she had a relationshop with female divinities. Sad that she lived in a slaveholding culture where she could be forced to submit to her owner’s wife’s husband by her owner, another woman. Sad that there was such a culture in which women used women that way. Did she ever have daughters? That about does it for me.


    • The story of Hagar is complex and through redaction and authorship has many moving parts. I am well familiar with Teubal and Willliams work, and I don’t disagree with them nor do I disagree with you. My focus here was on covenant and how it is overlooked that a covenant was made with a woman, the only woman to have the power to name God (and the only person in the biblical text to do so). Without women, the covenant, really no covenant of dynasty/progeny can be fulfilled. To exegete this passage in its totality would fill up at least 30 pages, if not a book or two. There is so much to say and so many different stories that are presented in a continuous narrative containing at least 2 to 3 different authors and redactors.

      The story at the well in isolation is one of the oldest kernels in the bible we have. It is a very small piece of a bigger, and very different story. In this very small section in isolation, I believe that Hagar is elevated and important for us as feminists. She is shown to have great power over her god, and the fate of the covenant resides in her.


  2. Reblogged this on Feminist Biblical Scholar.



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  2. And Thus God made a Covenant with Hagar in the Wilderness | Feminist Biblical Scholar

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