Despite Abraham’s expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, we know that they survive. When God opens Hagar’s eyes, she sees a well of water and provides for herself and her son. He grows up, and she procures for him a wife from Egypt.
Within Islamic tradition, Abraham (known as Ibrahim) took Hagar and Ishmael (Isma’il) to Mecca in Arabia to spare them from Sarah’s jealousy (Surah Ibrahim 14:37).
In the biblical text, we hear no more of Hagar’s story as the focus turns to Isaac. Ishmael, meanwhile, is nearly forgotten such that in the following chapter Isaac is described as Abraham’s ‘only’ son (Genesis 22:2). Still, in later years, both sons come together and bury their father (25:9).
The story of Hagar is often treated as a minor incident within the larger Abraham saga. Although Genesis 21 moves quickly from expulsion (v.14) to theophany (v.17), these three representations by George Segal, Edmonia Lewis, and Karel Gomes allow us to pause and linger within the narrative. In these three representations of Hagar, two involve Hagar by herself without even her son. Although typically, we think of Hagar as part of a unit or family, these images help us to focus on her plight and her feelings as an individual.
Although Segal’s family portrait includes Hagar, she stands alone facing outward. Segal’s Hagar does not appear to be ethnically distinctive in comparison with the other figures. The viewer focuses primarily on the presumed age of each figure and their placement in relation to each other. While Sarah seems cold and distant, Abraham is portrayed sympathetically as he appears reluctant to carry out Sarah’s wishes.
Lewis’s sculpture illustrates the hopefulness of Hagar perhaps at the moment of her second theophany. It is the most optimistic of these three images as Hagar seems to be anticipating a change in her circumstances. While Segal presents Hagar facing forwards and Gomes presents her with eyes closed, Lewis shows her gazing upward in anticipation.
Like Segal, Gomes does not provide any clear clues to identify Hagar. It is the most sympathetic view of Hagar as it focuses attention on her victimization and emphasizes her impoverished state. In contrast to Lewis’s expectant Hagar, this is Hagar in anguish. In contrast to Segal’s Hagar who is leaving the household, this is Hagar in isolation.
Together, these images raise questions about the legacy of survival. Hagar does not ask for marriage with Abraham and unlike many other biblical women, she does not ask for a child. Despite being Abraham’s wife, she remains enslaved and subject to Sarah’s whims and abuse. Eventually, Hagar and Ishmael make it through their wilderness encounter. Before we are assured of their survival, these images force us to sit and reckon with the horror of the expulsion. Although Hagar and Ishmael survive, what physical and psychological scars remain? Do we consider this story a happy ending? And if so, for whom?
8 And the child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. 9But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. 10So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.” 11And the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son. 12But God said to Abraham, “Be not displeased because of the lad and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for through Isaac shall your descendants be named. 13And I will make a nation of the son of the slave woman also, because he is your offspring.” 14So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.
15 When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. 16Then she went, and sat down over against him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Let me not look upon the death of the child.” And as she sat over against him, the child lifted up his voice and wept. 17And God heard the voice of the lad; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not; for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. 18Arise, lift up the lad, and hold him fast with your hand; for I will make him a great nation.” 19Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water; and she went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink. 20And God was with the lad, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. 21He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother took a wife for him from the land of Egypt.