Hagar and Ishmael

Hagar and Ishmael

The second line of descent from Abraham can be seen in Genesis 16. At this point in the narrative Abram is 85 years of age. Ten years have passed since God called him from his father's household in Haran. Sarai still has yet to produce an heir for Abraham.

God's promise was always fresh on Abram's mind, and it was a constant source of prayer and petition on both he and Sarai's part. Yet, ten years after God's initial promise God had not delivered.

Sarai decided to take matters into her own hands. Her handmaid, Hagar, according to the customs of that time, belonged to Sarai and any children that she might bear would legally belong to Sarai. Abraham's actions were in legal accordance with the rule of the day. The Code of Hammurabi was the recognized law of the day, and it allowed for the taking of concubines.

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The Setting

Flight to Egypt


"So Sarai said to Abraham, 'Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her."

Perhaps Sarai's servant had been acquired in Egypt, as scripture tells us Hagar was, in fact, Egyptian. She may have been part of the spoils given by Pharaoh when he kicked Abram out of Egypt earlier in Genesis.  In any case, Sarai offers her to Abram, who accepts and sleeps with her.

Genesis 16:4

"And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes."

Scripture then describes the tension which naturally developed between Sarai and her maidservant. It is a bit surprising Abram would naively go along with this idea. Any man can understand the tension that would naturally arise out of such an arrangement. And, eventually it became too much even for Abram's house, and Sarai confronts him with her dilemma - which she created.

Hagar had only acted in obedience with Sarai's request. Now, however, Sarai had become jealous and envious of her ability to produce a child. It is not a stretch to assume God must not have been happy with this situation - starting with Abram's decision to go along with it. This showed a moment of weakness and lack of faith on Abram's part - evidence he was, after all, human. 

Abram, however, defers to Sarai saying in effect; "She is your servant, not mine, deal with her as you see fit."

It is easy to sympathize with Hagar and Ishmael in this scenario. She simply did what she was told to do, and when a natural consequence occurred, Sarai turned on her and "dealt harshly with her". Hagar was an innocent victim, if there ever was such a thing. Consequently, she flees Sarai's presence and what follows is a remarkable encounter between Hagar, Ishmael & God.

It is interesting to note the word used to describe Sarai's treatment of Hagar - harsh - is the same word used to describe the treatment of the Israelites by their overlord Pharaohs centuries later. Hagar responded as the Israelites would as well, by fleeing into the desert. Even more interesting is that the place she flees, the wilderness of Shur, would be the exact same place that the Israelites migrate to after crossing the Red Sea on their way out of Egypt under Moses. 

The journey of Hagar and Ishmael to Egypt after they were banished by Abraham.


The journey from Mamre to Egypt, along the Way of Shur, covered approximately 210 miles. It was a long and arduous journey through the Shur Deser. The Shur Desert stretched across the northern part of the Sinai peninsula. Mother and son made it approximately 80 miles before they collapsed from the desert heat. Thus, 16:7 reveals God's deliverance of Hagar and Ishmael.

"And the angel of the Lord found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur." 

It is an extraordinary occurrence of the phrase, "angel of the Lord", seeing how this is the first time in all of scripture the phrase is used.

Linguists and Bible Scholars agree that this phrase, when taken in context with the passage, seems to indicate an appearance of God Himself. Hagar is called by name. This astonishing conversation is recorded in Genesis 16:8-13.

"And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither will thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude. And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction. And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. And she called the name of the Lord that spake unto her, Thou God seest me; for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?"

Hagar names the area where she encountered God "Beerlahairoi", which translates as, the well of the Living One who seeth me. She calls God by the name El Roi, or, the God who sees. In these respects she is the first woman to speak directly with the pre-incarnate manifestation of God Himself.

Ishmael was to become a wild man, in perpetual conflict with those around him. He would dwell in the tents of his brethren, meaning, live in and amongst them, though continually at odds with them. This phrase has erroneously been interpreted as "wild ass", or, "donkey". There is nothing to suggest such an interpretation. All that is meant is that Ishmael will live by the sword. He will be in a constant state of battle amongst his neighbors. The history of the Arab people attest to the accuracy of this prophecy regarding the descendants of Hagar and Ishmael. The Arab people made their home in the desert. There was no organized police force.

There was no court system. One had to be tough and willing to defend what was his. The Arab people had to maintain their own sense of law and order. Sometimes this required taking up arms to rectify a wrong. As history has proven, attempting to conquer the Arab people is no easy task.

As Hagar turned and went back to Abram, she likely reported this story to Abram. Abram, obediently, named the child Ishmael and raised him as his own son. Abram had a son now, even though it was not in accordance with God's will for Abraham to sleep with Sarah's handmaiden.

In the Ancient Near East, the firstborn son was the one who would receive the inheritance. In Mosaic law, the firstborn received a double portion of the inheritance and would succeed the father as head of household.

At the end of Genesis 16, Abram is 86 years old and has just been given a son, Ishmael, through the servant Hagar.

At the beginning of Genesis 17, 13 years have passed, and Abram is 99 and the father of a 13 year old son. By this time, Abram and Sarai are past the age for child-bearing, thus, Ishmael has been the accepted heir.

God, calling Himself El Shaddai, meaning "Almighty God", appears to His servant.

"...I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect." (17:1)

Abram responds by immediately falling on his face in reverence for God. Abram had experienced God's direct word many times by now, yet, each time we see Abram responding in humility. This time is no different.

"As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee." (17:4-5)

God was about to grant Abram a child through Sarai, through which He would transmit the promised "seed of the woman" (Genesis 3). Isaac would come to represent the Christian and Jewish faiths, whereas Ishmael would come to represent the Islamic faith. Isaac and Ismael were set on an irrevocable course which has maintained its direction to this day.

God foresaw these two sons and the nations they would form. As a result, He changed Abram's name to reflect his new status as the father of a multitude. Abram meant "exalted father" - which he most definitely was. Abraham means "a father of a multitude" - which he most certainly was going to become.

God then requires, as a "token of the covenant betwixt me and you", that he circumcise himself. Not only must he circumcise himself, but his male children as well.

God gives the orders that when a male child is born, he must be circumcised when he is 8 days old. God goes even further, and states that any male bought by money or acquired, any slave or servant, must also be circumcised.

Circumcision, thus, became the sign of God on men. It was to represent the covenant between Abram and God, and to remind future generations of the righteousness and faith of Abraham.

God left no doubt as to what would happen to the man that remained uncircumcised. Verse 14 states; "that soul shall be cut off from his people".

Typically this meant being exiled from Israel, and any inheritance within it. However, some say this actually refers to capital punishment in some Scriptures.

Abram then has an extraordinary conversation with God about Ishmael, and his son to be, Isaac.


Genesis 17:17-21

"Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is a hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee! And God said, Sarah thy wife shall bear thee a son indeed; and thou shalt call his name Isaac: and I will establish my covenant with him for an everlasting covenant, and with his seed after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at the set time in the next year."

He is said to have laughed at God's promise of a child through Sarah. Yet, in his joy, he does not forget his son Ishmael. God does not forget either, and promises to make him great as well. God, however, makes it clear that His promise would be carried through Isaac, not Ishmael.

Scripture says that very same day he circumcised himself, and every male in his camp, including his 13 year old son Ishmael.

One can imagine the looks sent Abram's way by the men of his household. This act of obedience required a great act of faith, as it undoubtedly left all the males in the household disabled for a few days. The camp was vulnerable & exposed during this time.

Work was unable to get done and the family was vulnerable to attack. His possessions were left open. Yet, Abraham did not waiver in his obedience to God's commands.

Share Your Thoughts on Hagar and Ishmael. Do you feel Sarai acted unfairly? What was Abraham's chief sin in this situation? Click on the link above to give us your insight, thoughts, comments, and questions!

Study Resources

John Kaltner bridges the gap between the Quran and the Bible like never before in his stimulating book Ishmael Instructs Isaac. Kaltner explores the similar stories found in the Quran and the Bible, specifically those involving the family of Abraham. He examines the lineage of Hagar and Ishmael, and highlights the similarities of the two sacred texts. This book is a great introduction to the Quran for Christians and Jews alike. Click on the link below to re-direct to

Ishmael Instructs Isaac


Naturally, resentment would have arisen between the camps of Ishmael and Isaac, with Abram caught in the middle. Some scholars say Ishmael was 16 years old when he mocked the 3 year old Isaac .

This incident is illustrated in Genesis 21:8-21. The incident took place on the feast of Isaac's weaning. Ishmael is said to have "mocked" the young child.

How he mocked young Isaac is not said. However, Sarah witnesses the incident and becomes irate. She turns on Hagar and Ishmael, ordering Abraham to exile the two.

Abraham and Isaac were to be the ancestors of God's promised seed. Hagar and Ishmael, too, were blessed by God. After this incident, it became apparent that the two parties could not live with each other.

Sarah's words appear overly harsh and bitter in verse 10. She makes it clear that she will have no part of Isaac and Ishmael co-existing. Ishmael is to be removed.

"Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac."

One senses his despair when his wife demands such. He loved Ishmael as his own son, though not the promised son, his blessed son nonetheless. The account in Genesis states; "the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son."

However, God reassures him that He will take care of Ishmael. As is typical of God, He takes a bad situation and works it for His glory. Hagar and Ishmael would be divinely taken care of and protected.

Ishmael would become the father of a nation as well. He would become the father of 12 sons as well. God used this scenario to establish yet another nation through His servant Abraham.

It is quite remarkable the turmoil and woes of the present day are between members of the same family!

"And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed."

Meager preparations appear to be made for the departure of Hagar and Ishmael. Meager rations are given Ishmael and his mother. The rations included bread, and a bottle of water. This certainly appears cruel and harsh. God would provide for the needs of the two. Abram felt they had all they needed with God's protection.

In reality, it is a tremendous sign of the faith Abram had developed in God over the years. God had proven that His word was enough. Hagar and Ishmael appear to set out for Egypt, Hagar's homeland. They set out initially in the direction of Beer-sheba. Hagar undertook a similar journey more than 16 years ago. This time, however, Hagar and Ishmael would settle in a new land.

Archaeology has revealed that there were many settlements within this region. Scripture says she "wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba". It would seem she lost her way, and the water ran out. At this point, her son is near death, and cannot continue to wander any longer. She places him under a bush for shade, and awaits his death, and her death as well.

Genesis 21:17-18 depicts God once again saving the life of Hagar.

"And God heard the lad crying; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, 'What is the matter with you, Hagar? Do not fear, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him by the hand; for I will make a great nation of him."

The narrative comes to a close in verses 20 and 21. Scripture seems to indicate they continued on their journey to Egypt. Scripture relates Hagar took a wife for Ishmael from her people in Egypt.

Ishmael then became an archer, married, and fathered twelve sons. This was in accordance with God's plan for Ishmael. Eventually, Hagar and Ishmael settled in the wilderness of Paran.

From Paran, Ishmael would establish his nation. Certain of the Arab people today, despite shoddy arguments by certain "Christian" writers, are descendants of Ishmael, the son of Abraham.

God had promised Abraham his descendants would be as numerous as the sand. Through his sons of Isaac and Ishmael, and the others he would have in his late age with Keturah, this promise was fulfilled.

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