The Bible doesn’t mention anything about what Hagar may have done to hurt Abraham or Sarah, except to say that Sarah was despised in her eyes once Hagar became pregnant. If one were to be satisfied with a simple reading of the text, it could lead to the understanding that Hagar was grossly mistreated by her masters. After all, what did she really do but bear Abraham’s child, which is what Sarah wanted in the first place. If there developed a little rivalry between the women, is Hagar to blame for it all, or might some of the rivalry be due to Sarah’s jealousy over Hagar bearing Abraham’s child rather than her? With the understanding that I am deriving something out of the text that offers only meager hints of what may have been, let’s consider what could have occurred.
We know that Hagar was an Egyptian (Genesis 16:1) whom Sarah no doubt acquired from Pharaoh while she (Sarah) was in his harem (cp. Genesis 12:15-16). This infers Hagar would be familiar with the politics of women seeking to increase their importance to and even in becoming the favorite of the man in authority. It is possible that Hagar mentioned to Sarah that she (Sarah) could legally acquire a child by her maidservant. In doing so, she would provide the desired heir for her husband, Abraham (cp. Genesis 16:1-2). I have to ask: didn’t Sarah already know this? Why didn’t it occur to her before this time? Since Abraham was wealthy, Sarah no doubt had several maidservants throughout their marriage. Any one of them could have played the part of a surrogate for Sarah before Hagar arrived on the scene?
The Hebrew word used for despised in Genesis 16:4 (H7043) is an interesting one. It is often translated curse (40 out of 88) but only 3 times as despise. It is also translated several times into light, as in to make light of a matter or a person. In other words Hagar no longer had any respect for Sarah. Sarah’s response seems to be one of betrayal in Genesis 16:5, which infers that she and Hagar may have been close, perhaps more like friends than mistress and maidservant. Of course, the text makes no mention of their being friends, but one can’t read Sarah’s response without thinking that at least Sarah perceived she had been betrayed.
I think Hagar had a lot of chutzpah. If any of this is close to the truth, not only did she feel important enough to Sarah to suggest that she give Sarah the heir she longed to give Abraham, but once Hagar saw she was pregnant, she began cutting ties with Sarah and warming up to Abraham. Sarah was no longer important in Hagar’s eyes; she was a mere steppingstone to where she wanted to be. One could infer that she wanted her own tent and her own maidservant, and why wouldn’t Abraham provide such thing for the woman bearing his child?
Meanwhile Sarah needed to replace Hagar. The child she thought she would raise as the heir to her husband, now seemed to be a forgotten option. More and more Hagar seemed to be taking over the position that Sarah once had to herself. Considering Genesis 16:2 once more, I am struck with the words: “…that I may obtain…” Sarah intended to raise Hagar’s child. Hagar would nurse him, but once the child was weaned, the plan was that Sarah would raise him, and Abraham knew this from the beginning. No wonder Sarah wants God to judge between her motives and Abraham’s (Genesis 16:5). Yet, I don’t believe Abraham was fully aware that he was mistreating his wife, and I draw this from his decision to put Hagar back under the authority of Sarah (Genesis 16:6).
Didn’t Sarah see this coming? I don’t believe she did, and this is also implied in the Hebrew word translated despise in Genesis 16:4. Cursing is by far its most frequent usage. Leviticus 19:14 says we are not to curse the deaf. In other words, we are not to threaten them in a manner that would leave them defenseless. The second half of the verse forbids us to lay a stumbling block before the blind. Hagar’s schemes were hidden. Sarah didn’t see any of this coming. She acted out of the integrity of her heart, but Hagar planned and worked in the shadows.
When Sarah saw Ishmael mocking Isaac in Genesis 21:9, she acted like a mother bear protecting her cub. There was no way that Sarah would allow circumstances to develop, so that Isaac would have to deal with the treachery and betrayal of his brother. The bondwoman was cast out with her son (Genesis 21:10). Although the idea displeased Abraham, who had grown attached to Ishmael, God intervened in the matter and told Abraham what he must do. Nevertheless, I don’t think the matter was settled as quickly as the text reads. Genesis 21 occurs over 17 years after chapter 16, and Abraham had grown to love his son, Ishmael, regardless of the character of his mother. I believe Sarah had to pray over what had to be done, and only then did Abraham comply. The fact that it was God, who told Abraham to do as his wife said, tells me that it was prayer and not a family heart-to-heart that got the job done. The schemes of Hagar ran that deep into Abraham’s household.