Hagar and Ishmael

"Hagar and Ishmael" painting by Jean-Charles Cazin

Print Collector / Getty Images

The Bible and Torah record two separate accounts in the Book of Genesis of how an enslaved woman named Hagar meets the Angel of the Lord as she is wandering through a desert feeling hopeless. The angel—who is God himself appearing in angelic form—provides the hope and help that Hagar needs both times (and the second time, the Angel of the Lord also helps Hagar's son, Ishmael):

The book of Genesis records that Hagar encounters the Angel of the Lord twice: once in chapter 16 and once in chapter 21. The first time, Hagar runs away from Abraham and Sarah's household because of Sarah's cruel mistreatment of her, sparked by jealousy over the fact that Hagar had been able to conceive a child with Abraham but Sarah (then known as Sarai) hadn't. Ironically, it was Sarai's idea for Abraham to resort to sleeping with Hagar (their enslaved maid) rather than trust God to provide the son he'd promised they would eventually conceive.

Showing Compassion

Genesis 16:7-10 describes what happens when Hagar first meets the Angel of the Lord:

"The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, 'Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?'
'I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,' she answered.
Then the angel of the LORD told her, 'Go back to your mistress and submit to her.' The angel added, 'I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.'

In her book, Angels in Our Lives: Everything You've Always Wanted to Know about Angels and How They Affect Your Life, Marie Chapian comments that the way the encounter begins shows how much God cares about Hagar, even though other people don't view her as important:

"What a way to open a conversation in the middle of the desert! Hagar knew this was no human being talking to her, of course. His question shows us the compassion and decorum of the Lord. By asking her the question, 'Where are you going?' Hagar could vent the anguish she felt inside. Naturally, the Lord already knew where she was heading[...] but the Lord, in His exceptional kindness, acknowledged that her feelings were important, that she wasn’t just chattel. He listened to what she had to say."

The story shows that God doesn't discriminate against people, Chapian continues:

"Sometimes we get the idea that the Lord doesn’t care how we feel if what we feel is negative and droopy. And sometimes we get the idea that one person’s feelings are more important than another person’s. This portion of Scripture utterly destroys every notion of discrimination. Hagar was not of the tribe of Abraham, God’s chosen. But God was with her. He was with her to help her and to give her an opportunity to help her power of choice."

Revealing the Future

Then, Genesis 16:11-12, the Angel of the Lord reveals the future of Hagar's unborn baby to her:

"The angel of the LORD also said to her: 'You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael [which means 'God hears'], for the LORD has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.'"

It's not just a regular angel who is delivering all those colorful details about Ishmael's future; it's God, writes Herbert Lockyer in his book All the Angels in the Bible: A Complete Exploration of the Nature and Ministry of Angels:

"Who can claim the power of creation, look into the future and foretell what will come to pass? Hagar recognized in the angel one greater than a created being[...]"

The God Who Sees Me

Genesis 16:13 records Hagar's response to the Angel of the Lord's message: "She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: 'You are the God who sees me,' for she said, 'I have now seen the One who sees me.'"

In his book Angels, Billy Graham writes:

"The angel spoke as an oracle of God, turning her mind away from the injury of the past with a promise of what she might expect if she placed her faith in God. This God is the God not only of Israel but the God of the Arabs as well (for the Arabs come from the stock of Ishmael). The very name of her son, 'Ishmael,' meaning 'God hears,' was a sustaining one. God promised that seed of Ishmael would multiply and that his destiny would be great on the Earth as he now undertook the restless pilgrimage that was to characterize his descendants. The angel of the Lord revealed Himself as the protector of Hagar and Ishmael."

A Well of Water

The second time that Hagar meets the Angel of the Lord, years have passed since Ishmael's birth, and one day when Sarah sees Ishmael and her own son Isaac playing together, she becomes afraid that Ishmael will one day want to share in Isaac's inheritance. So Sarah throws Hagar and Ishmael out, and the homeless pair has to fend for themselves in the hot and barren desert.

Hagar and Ishmael wander through the desert until they run out of water, and in despair, Hagar sets Ishmael down under a bush and turns away, expecting him to die and not being able to watch it happen. Genesis 21:15-20 describes:

"When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, 'I cannot watch the boy die.' And as she sat there, she began to sob.
God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid;
God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.'
Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer.

In Angels in Our Lives, Chapian notes:

"The Bible says that God heard the voice of the lad. Hagar sat stunned. God created a miracle of water for Hagar and her son. He sees. He hears."

The story shows people what God's character is like, writes Camilla Hélena von Heijne in her book The Messenger of the Lord in Early Jewish Interpretations of Genesis:

"The narratives about Hagar’s encounter with the divine messenger tell us something important about God’s character. God sees Hagar’s distress and delivers her and her son, even though she is only a bondwoman; God shows her mercy. God is impartial and He does not abandon the outcast. God’s grace and blessings are not restricted to Isaac’s line."
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Your Citation
Hopler, Whitney. "Hagar and Ishmael." Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2020, learnreligions.com/angel-helping-hagar-and-ishmael-124034. Hopler, Whitney. (2020, September 16). Hagar and Ishmael. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/angel-helping-hagar-and-ishmael-124034 Hopler, Whitney. "Hagar and Ishmael." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/angel-helping-hagar-and-ishmael-124034 (accessed March 28, 2023).