The woman who saw God

The woman who saw God

In this post, I explore the story of Hagar, a woman who responded to God. A slave, a concubine, an abused and then abandoned woman, she not only became the mother of a great nation. She was the recipient of two appearances of God (theophanies), and is the only woman in the Old Testament to name God.

The story of two wives with their sons, Hagar and Ishmael,[i] and Sarah[ii] and Isaac, are foundational to the three faiths that name Abraham as progenitor. The narratives around these women, their interaction with God, and with Abraham, shape the way that their faith descendants understand themselves in relation to God. And the tension between Abraham’s two wives has been taken up into the fraught relationships today between the communities that claim his paternity.


In the Bible, several chapters are given to Hagar, beginning with Genesis 16. It is likely that she joined the household in the encounter described in Genesis 12,[iii] when God’s promises of a land and descendants to Abraham are so quickly followed by Abraham’s departure from the promised land for Egypt, ceding his wife to the Pharaoh in return for animals and slaves; so that the one who is meant to bless the nations ends up bringing God’s curse on Pharaoh’s house (Genesis 12:10-20).


Genesis 16 tells of Sarah (seeking a surrogate pregnancy) giving her slave girl Hagar to Abraham to sleep with. When she successfully becomes pregnant, Hagar’s contempt for her mistress leads to Sara treating her so harshly that she runs away. The chapter goes on to describe Hagar’s vivid encounter with God in the desert. The angel of the Lord (a theophany) finds her by a spring of water, tells her to return to her mistress and submit to her, and promises her an uncountable multitude of descendants. Using a standard form of birth announcement, the angel goes on to predict the birth of her son, who will be called “God hears”. (Other examples include Isaac-Genesis 17:19, John the Baptist-Luke 1:13-14, and Jesus-Luke 1:31.) Anticipating the coming expulsion from Abraham’s tents, the predicted child is likened to an onager or desert wild ass, known for its speed and endurance, difficult to catch or domesticate.


Hagar herself names God as “God of seeing,” a reference both to her seeing God (Genesis 16:13), and God seeing (and hearing) her plight (Genesis 16:14). The name reflects her amazement that God revealed Himself to her, a slave girl, and that she remained alive to tell about it. And the spring where this dramatic encounter took place is also named in its honour, Beer-lahai-roi, ‘the spring of the Living One who sees me’. So Hagar returns and gives birth to Abraham’s son: and Abraham, following God’s instructions to Hagar, names him Ishmael.


In chapter 17, God reiterates his promise to Abraham. Now Sarah is named specifically as the one who will become the mother of Abraham’s promised descendants. But at the same time God answers Abraham’s prayer, giving Ishmael also the promise of fruitfulness and becoming a great nation, confirming to Abraham the promise that God had previously made to Hagar fleeing in the desert. Abraham and his son Ishmael (thirteen years old) are circumcised (purified), together with all the men in the extended household as a sign of the covenant relationship of promise and obedience with God.


In Genesis chapter 21, another quarrel erupts between the two women. Sarah, now jubilantly a mother, sees the son of Hagar ‘jesting’[iv] at Isaac’s weaning feast.

Sarah doesn’t want the son of her slave to have any share in her own son’s inheritance, and insists that Hagar and her son be sent away. Abraham is distressed, but God reiterates again (for the fourth time now) his promise of descendants and greatness to Ishmael. So Abraham sends Hagar off into the desert with some bread and water. When the water runs out, Hagar weeps with despair at the impending death of her child. God hears the voice of Ishmael, fulfilling the promise in the boy’s name: and appears again to Hagar, showing her a well of water, and promising his care for her son. And “God was with the boy” (Genesis 21:20) as he grew up in the wilderness, became an expert archer, and his mother arranged his marriage.


Muslim tradition (see the end of this post) sees this encounter as the origin of the spring of Zamzam, and the rite of running between Safa and Marwa during the Hajj. Thus the story of Hagar is taken up into the Qur’an (2:158), and physically re-enacted by Muslims every year.


We don’t hear again of Hagar: but we see in Genesis 25 that it is Isaac and Ishmael who come together to bury Abraham at his death, although Abraham’s other sons through Keturah his concubine have been sent away. Ironically Isaac settles down after the burial at the same well where God first appeared to Hagar. And the chapter recounts the twelve princes and their tribes who descended from Ishmael.


In comparison, there is little direct information about Hagar in the Qur’an. Q14:37 in the surah of Ibrahim is attributed to an allusion about Hagar and Ishmael living in the desert, and so links with the account in Q2:134-129, of Ibrahim and Ishmael building the Ka’aba. More is found in the Hadith, and I have reproduced the extensive tradition from Bukhari at the end of this post. Later tradition also tells that in Sarah’s jealousy of Hagar’s pregnancy, she swore to cut ‘three limbs’ of Hagar: so Abraham ordered Hagar to pierce her ears and have herself circumcised. Barbara Stowasser notes that the origin of Female Genital Mutilation, which is more prevalent in the Nile region, is thus linked with the Egyptian woman Hagar.[v]


What can we take from the story of Hagar?


The story of the historic relationships between Muslims, Jews and Christians finds its birth in the arguments and abuses of this polygamous relationship, and is taken up into the vexed relationships between the communities today. Analogously, Geraldine Brooks notes that the traditions around the squabbles between Muhammad’s wives now shape the daily life of Muslims today, and women visiting Muslim countries (2008:3). Stowasser comments that the development of the traditions of Sarah and Hagar within Islam reflect the tensions between Islam accepting the heritage of the Biblical narratives, and seeing itself as their “continuation but also corrective completion.” (1994:49)


In the New Testament, Paul gives the story an intriguing interpretive twist in Galatians, where Hagar becomes linked with the Sinai covenant that defined the Jewish nation, and the other woman becomes the heavenly Jerusalem. The covenantal paradox in this metaphor highlights the contrariety in self-definition between those who describe themselves as being called ‘from being slaves of men to being slaves of God’, and those who through believing in the Name are ‘given the right to become God’s children’ (John 1:12).

At the most basic level, we find in Hagar the story of a woman who was enslaved, abused, and abandoned – and to whom God himself reached out as Self-Revealing and Saving Lord, to make her and her descendants recipients of His promise. In this way, Hagar speaks to women and men all over the world, of every background, reminding us of God who hears the cries of the desolate and responds.


Bukhari’s Tradition (

“Narrated Ibn Abbas: The first lady to use a girdle was the mother of ishmael. She used a girdle so that she might hide her tracks from Sarah. Abraham brought her and her son ishmael while she was suckling him, to a place near the Ka’ba under a tree on the spot of Zam-zam, at the highest place in the mosque. During those days there was nobody in Mecca, nor was there any water So he made them sit over there and placed near them a leather bag containing some dates, and a small water-skin containing some water, and set out homeward. ishmael’s mother followed him saying, “O Abraham! Where are you going, leaving us in this valley where there is no person whose company we may enjoy, nor is there anything (to enjoy)?” She repeated that to him many times, but he did not look back at her Then she asked him, “Has Allah ordered you to do so?” He said, “Yes.” She said, “Then He will not neglect us,” and returned while Abraham proceeded onwards, and on reaching the Thaniya where they could not see him, he faced the Ka’ba, and raising both hands, invoked Allah saying the following prayers: ‘O our Lord! I have made some of my offspring dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sacred House (Kaba at Mecca) in order, O our Lord, that they may offer prayer perfectly. So fill some hearts among men with love towards them, and (O Allah) provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ (14.37) ishmael’s mother went on suckling ishmael and drinking from the water (she had). When the water in the water-skin had all been used up, she became thirsty and her child also became thirsty. She started looking at him (i.e.ishmael) tossing in agony; She left him, for she could not endure looking at him, and found that the mountain of Safa was the nearest mountain to her on that land. She stood on it and started looking at the valley keenly so that she might see somebody, but she could not see anybody. Then she descended from Safa and when she reached the valley, she tucked up her robe and ran in the valley like a person in distress and trouble, till she crossed the valley and reached the Marwa mountain where she stood and started looking, expecting to see somebody, but she could not see anybody. She repeated that (running between Safa and Marwa) seven times.” The Prophet said, “This is the source of the tradition of the walking of people between them (i.e. Safa and Marwa). When she reached the Marwa (for the last time) she heard a voice and she asked herself to be quiet and listened attentively. She heard the voice again and said, ‘O, (whoever you may be)! You have made me hear your voice; have you got something to help me?” And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zam-zam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), till water flowed from that place. She started to make something like a basin around it, using her hand in this way, and started filling her water-skin with water with her hands, and the water was flowing out after she had scooped some of it.” The Prophet added, “May Allah bestow Mercy on ishmael’s mother! Had she let the Zam-zam (flow without trying to control it) (or had she not scooped from that water) (to fill her water-skin), Zam-zam would have been a stream flowing on the surface of the earth.” The Prophet further added, “Then she drank (water) and suckled her child. The angel said to her, ‘Don’t be afraid of being neglected, for this is the House of Allah which will be built by this boy and his father, and Allah never neglects His people.’ The House (i.e. Kaba) at that time was on a high place resembling a hillock, and when torrents came, they flowed to its right and left. She lived in that way till some people from the tribe of Jurhum or a family from Jurhum passed by her and her child, as they (i.e. the Jurhum people) were coming through the way of Kada’. They landed in the lower part of Mecca where they saw a bird that had the habit of flying around water and not leaving it. They said, ‘This bird must be flying around water, though we know that there is no water in this valley.’ They sent one or two messengers who discovered the source of water, and returned to inform them of the water. So, they all came (towards the water).” The Prophet added, “ishmael’s mother was sitting near the water. They asked her, ‘Do you allow us to stay with you?” She replied, ‘Yes, but you will have no right to possess the water.’ They agreed to that.” The Prophet further said, “ishmael’s mother was pleased with the whole situation as she used to love to enjoy the company of the people. So, they settled there, and later on they sent for their families who came and settled with them so that some families became permanent residents there. The child (i.e. ishmael) grew up and learnt Arabic from them and (his virtues) caused them to love and admire him as he grew up, and when he reached the age of puberty they made him marry a woman from amongst them. After ishmael’s mother had died, Abraham came after ishmael’s marriage in order to see his family that he had left before, but he did not find ishmael there. When he asked ishmael’s wife about him, she replied, ‘He has gone in search of our livelihood.’ Then he asked her about their way of living and their condition, and she replied, ‘We are living in misery; we are living in hardship and destitution,’ complaining to him. He said, ‘When your husband returns, convey my salutation to him and tell him to change the threshold of the gate (of his house).’ When ishmael came, he seemed to have felt something unusual, so he asked his wife, ‘Has anyone visited you?’ She replied, ‘Yes, an old man of so-and-so description came and asked me about you and I informed him, and he asked about our state of living, and I told him that we were living in a hardship and poverty.’ On that ishmael said, ‘Did he advise you anything?’ She replied, ‘Yes, he told me to convey his salutation to you and to tell you to change the threshold of your gate.’ishmael said, ‘It was my father, and he has ordered me to divorce you. Go back to your family.’ So, ishmael divorced her and married another woman from amongst them (i.e. Jurhum). Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished and called on them again but did not find ishmael. So he came to ishmael’s wife and asked her about ishmael. She said, ‘He has gone in search of our livelihood.’ Abraham asked her, ‘How are you getting on?’ asking her about their sustenance and living. She replied, ‘We are prosperous and well-off (i.e. we have everything in abundance).’ Then she thanked Allah’ Abraham said, ‘What kind of food do you eat?’ She said. ‘Meat.’ He said, ‘What do you drink?’ She said, ‘Water.” He said, “O Allah! Bless their meat and water.” The Prophet added, “At that time they did not have grain, and if they had grain, he would have also invoked Allah to bless it.” The Prophet added, “If somebody has only these two things as his sustenance, his health and disposition will be badly affected, unless he lives in Mecca.” The Prophet added,” Then Abraham said ishmael’s wife, “When your husband comes, give my regards to him and tell him that he should keep firm the threshold of his gate.’ When ishmael came back, he asked his wife, ‘Did anyone call on you?’ She replied, ‘Yes, a good-looking old man came to me,’ so she praised him and added. ‘He asked about you, and I informed him, and he asked about our livelihood and I told him that we were in a good condition.’ ishmael asked her, ‘Did he give you any piece of advice?’ She said, ‘Yes, he told me to give his regards to you and ordered that you should keep firm the threshold of your gate.’ On that ishmael said, ‘It was my father, and you are the threshold (of the gate). He has ordered me to keep you with me.’ Then Abraham stayed away from them for a period as long as Allah wished, and called on them afterwards. He saw ishmael under a tree near Zamzam, sharpening his arrows. When he saw Abraham, he rose up to welcome him (and they greeted each other as a father does with his son or a son does with his father). Abraham said, ‘O ishmael! Allah has given me an order.’ ishmael said, ‘Do what your Lord has ordered you to do.’ Abraham asked, ‘Will you help me?’ ishmael said, ‘I will help you.’ Abraham said, Allah has ordered me to build a house here,’ pointing to a hillock higher than the land surrounding it.” The Prophet added, “Then they raised the foundations of the House (i.e. the Ka’ba). ishmael brought the stones and Abraham was building, and when the walls became high, ishmael brought this stone and put it for Abraham who stood over it and carried on building, while ishmael was handing him the stones, and both of them were saying, ‘O our Lord! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ The Prophet added, “Then both of them went on building and going round the Ka’ba saying: O our Lord ! Accept (this service) from us, Verily, You are the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.” (2.127)  (Bukhari, Book #55, Hadith #583)”




Brooks, Geraldine. Nine Parts of Desire. The Hidden World of Islamic Women. North Sydney: Random House, 2008.

Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

[i] In citing these women, I am following the order in which their sons are born.

[ii] In Genesis 17, the name of Abram (‘exalted father’) is changed to Abraham (‘the father of a multitude’): and similarly Sarai becomes Sarah (both names are variations meaning ‘princess’; the significance of the name change seems to be looking forward to God’s new action in the future). For consistency throughout this post, I have only used the later versions of their names.

[iii] Stowasser cites Ibn Kathir, Qisas, reporting that Pharaoh gave Hagar to Sarah as a servant (1994:47).

[iv] There seems to be both a play here on Isaac’s name (this is another verb form from the basic verb ‘to laugh’), and also possibly an allusion to Hagar treating Sarah lightly (Genesis 16:4).

[v] Stowasser, 1994:47, 147, citing Ibn Kathir’s Qisas.


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