Hagar, the Divine Witness, and the New Year by Jill Hammer

The Torah reading for the first day of Rosh haShanah, the Jewish new year, is not, as one might expect, the creation of the world (Rosh haShanah was Friday night, Saturday and Sunday, 9/18-9/20).  Instead, the set reading is Genesis 21, the story of how Sarah, wife of Abraham, gives birth to Isaac—a joyous occasion indeed, given that she is ninety years old.  But then Sarah becomes anxious that her husband’s other wife, Hagar, also has a son, Ishmael, who could inherit from Abraham, and demands that Hagar and Ishmael be expelled from the household.  This year, reading this tale, I am seeing a story that shows how when we think about success, abundance, and consequences, we include some people in our consideration but not others. In this tale, the Divine includes the perspectives of the unwitnessed even when we do not.

In Genesis 16, it is Sarah (originally called Sarai) who first arranges a sexual relationship between Hagar, an Egyptian woman enslaved to her, and her husband Avraham, who has been called by God to create a new nation.  God has promised her husband Avraham a great posterity, but they do not have even one child.  Sarah gives Hagar to Avraham in order to produce an heir (no consent on Hagar’s part is recorded). When Hagar becomes pregnant, the text suggests that Sarah has become “light” or “diminished” in Hagar’s eyes.  In other words, Hagar no longer treats Sarah as her owner.  Sarah complains to Avraham, and Abraham gives Sarah permission to do whatever she wants with Hagar.  Sarah abuses Hagar, and Hagar runs away. An angel arrives while Hagar is sitting by a well, and directs Hagar to return, for she is to give birth to a child who will give rise to uncountable numbers of offspring.  During this encounter, Hagar gives God a name: El Ro’I, the God who sees me.

Hagar in the Wilderness, 1835, Camille Corot

One theme we might observe in the story is that Sarah and Avraham use Hagar for their own purposes—procreation—while also demanding she act with submissiveness to her “mistress.” We are seeing here the oppressions of a patriarchal, slave-owning society where women can be used at will to produce children.  Yet the blessing the angel gives Hagar in Genesis 16:10 is almost identical to one given to Avraham in Genesis 22:17.  An angel speaks directly to Hagar twice, while in Genesis 18:12 Sarah herself only speaks indirectly to an angel who is mentioning her in the third person.  We might say that the text is elevating Hagar—treating her as a character worthy of a story, even though Avraham and Sarah treat her as a means to an end.  And Hagar names God “the one who sees me.”  The Divine witnesses Hagar even when humans do not.

In Genesis 21, Hagar’s son Ishmael is now an older boy, and Isaac has just been born.  Sarah turns from the happy moment of her son’s weaning feast and sees Ishmael playing.  She goes to Avraham, demanding that “ha’amah hazot ve’et b’nah”—”that slave-woman and her son” be cast out.  Avraham is upset by this al odot b’no, because of his son—he does not want to send Ishmael away.  God comes to Avraham and tells him not to be distressed over Hagar or his son, but to follow Sarah’s wishes, for Isaac will be Avraham’s heir– and God also promises that Ishmael will be safe.  Relying in a rather extreme way on this promise, Avraham sends Hagar and Ishmael into the wilderness with little food or water.   When Ishmael becomes weak with thirst, Hagar lays him under a bush and sits a little distance away, unable to bear watching him die.  God then hears Ishmael’s cry, and sends an angel to Hagar, saying: “What troubles you, Hagar?  Fear not, for God has heard the cry of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”  Only then does the Divine open Hagar’s eyes so that she sees the well of water nearby.

Again, Sarah and Avraham treat Hagar as an instrument of their own needs.  Now that they have an heir and no longer need Hagar’s womb or her child, they send Hagar and Ishmael away without any questions about where they will go or what will happen to them. The text says God promises safety to Ishmael, but what about Hagar?  No one promises safety to her. God simply says “don’t distress yourself,” and Avraham goes along with that.

But in spite of this, the biblical lens does not treat Hagar and Ishmael as expendable non-entities.  This is instructive to us today. Contemporary society still treats women, the poor, people of color, people from non-European countries, queer people, disabled people, and even our earth itself as not the center of the story. The lens points away from “non-central” people, no matter how much those people provide to their communities and the world.  Yet in Genesis, the textual lens follows Hagar away from the camp.  The lens stays with her while she weeps in despair and her courage fails her and she cannot even sit with her child because it is too awful to watch him die.  The lens stays with her while the angel appears to her and comforts her, while she suddenly discovers the well.  And now maybe we begin to understand why Hagar’s unique name for the Divine is El Ro’I, God who sees me.  Hagar may not be a real person to Avraham and Sarah, but she does appear to be a real person to God.

What I am learning from this story on this new year is that we as a society need to retrain our perceptions to be like El Ro’i, like the deity who sees.  The forces that invite us to see some people as peripheral, as instrumental, as there to meet our needs and then move out of view again, are forces to be resisted.  Our awareness of the experiences of women, the poor, people of color, and others whose stories are less frequently centered or witnessed, is crucial to dismantling white supremacy and the other oppressions that afflict our planet.  The earth itself needs to be seen as valuable in its own right and not something to be torn down for parts.  It is no accident that Hagar, who was dismissed by Avraham and Sarah as no longer useful, is the one who learns where the well in the desert is.  If we want to stay connected to deep sources of spirit and life, we have to let our lens widen to include what we have not yet witnessed.

I’m not sure how to resolve the two portrayals of God here—the God who encourages Avraham to send Hagar away, and the God who treats Hagar as an important spiritual personality in her own right.  I wonder if we are seeing two experiences of God, one from the privileged and one from the not-privileged.  Or maybe we might imagine that God is orchestrating Hagar’s departure from the house of Avraham and Sarah so that she can become the visionary she is meant to be.  From a feminist perspective, leaving the house of the patriarch, while scary, can be an opportunity to grow into a fuller, less fearful life.

Hagar’s name means “the wanderer” (ha-gar, from ger, stranger or wanderer).  But her name also means “one who dwells.” Maybe this year it is time to stop seeing Hagar as one who wanders in and out of the frame.  Maybe it is time to visit Hagar where she lives.  Maybe then we can journey in the footsteps of El-Roi, the witnessing God.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the co-founder of the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute and the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion.  She is the author ofThe Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for all Seasons, The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women, The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership (with Taya Shere), Siddur haKohanot: A Hebrew Priestess Prayerbook (with Taya ShereandThe Book of Earth and Other Mysteries.  Her forthcoming book is titledReturn to the Place: The Magic, Meditation., and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah. She is a poet, scholar, ritualist, dreamworker, midrashist, and essayist.

Categories: General, Jewish Feminism, Judaism

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7 replies

  1. Thanks for this. Since another teaching with you, I am determined to refer to “the Sarah and Hagaric faiths” rather than the “Abrahamic” ones.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You’re right. That god does need to pay attention to us. A god’s job is to take care of his people, not to confuse, abuse, or abandon them. A god needs to show fresh water to his people, especially to the people other people keep away from fresh water (yes, both literal water and metaphorical water).

    I have read Genesis, of course, and thought I knew about Hagar, but when I met a Jewish scholar named Savina J. Teubal in 1990 and read her two books (Sarah the Priestess: The First Matriarch and Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost Tradition of the Matriarchs), I learned a whole lot more. Savina used legal codes and information from Babylonia, Mesopotamia, and other lands to dig out what the writers of Genesis deliberately hid. I highly recommend Savina’s books to anyone who wants to scrape away the patriarchal layers that hide the stories of Sarai and Hagar and find out who they really were.

    Thanks for your good work. Bright blessings.


  3. God Who Sees reminds me of She Who Hears the Cries of the World (Kwan Yin). I like to think of Goddess as Blessed Mother Always with Us. as my grandmother used to speak of the BVM. Being there, seeing, hearing, and understanding, these are important aspects of the Divine Presence.

    I thought there might be nothing more to be said about this story but you have dwelt on the God Who Sees.

    As we know from experiences of victims of trauma, it is so important for someone to see and to name abuse: I always say: This should not have happened to anyone. This should not happen to you. If this is not said excuses are made not to name abuse as abuse.

    In this story Sarai and Abraham are abusers. And God saw!!!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Your comment about two gods reminded me of the two versions in Genesis of the creation story and the idea put forward, by some Biblical scholars, that the two differing accounts indicate two different writers- witnesses, reporters. That makes me think about the Japanese film “Rashomon” in which 4 people see the same murder and each report a different version of the event. What intrigues me most about this ancient tale and all the others, is the reason these stories survived the pick when it came to canonizing the book. The simplest explanation is because so many people believed it or knew of it. Possibly two versions represent different versions prevalent at the time. It makes sense that among twelve tribes there might be more than one interpretation, even about the nature of a god.
    How ere it be, your exposition fits our situation perfectly and I’m very grateful for it. One of our biggest challenges is to witness and refuse to turn our faces away.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hagar is the Mother of the Muslims. In Islam she marries Ibrahim and he takes her and baby Ishmael to the desert and leaves them there, prompting feminist Muslim Scholar (and former FAR contributor) Aminah Wadud to call him a Dead beat dad, which caused plenty of islamic consternation. I love this analysis of the Genesis version of the story which i was little familiar with. Don’t you think when Hagar is told directly by God that Ishmael will have a great nation that this prophesied Ishmael’s descendent –prophet Muhammad? It would be nice if you had mentioned that. Does Sarah and Ibrahims racism, classism and xenophobia (maybe not colorism since likely both Ibrahim and Sarah were very brown skinned) are the root of many Israelíes oppression of Palestinians? Thanks again for this informative piece.


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