Hagar leaves her master Abraham’s household twice. In Genesis 16, while pregnant with his son Ishmael, she runs away to escape his wife Sarah’s abuse, but in Genesis 21 she and Ishmael are expelled.
In the wilderness, Hagar also experiences two theophanies or appearances of the divine. The angel tells her to return to her mistress Sarah in Genesis 16, while in Genesis 21, the angel appears after Hagar moves away from Ishmael so as to avoid watching him die of thirst.
The neo-classical sculpture Hagar by Native- and African-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis captures the moment when Hagar’s despair is transformed.
Lewis presents Hagar as alone in the wilderness without her son. Only the empty water jug at her feet suggests the episode in Genesis 21. Hagar seems to be in motion. Her right heel is lifted, her left leg steps forward, and her clothing is pressed to her body. Yet, she does not appear to be running or fleeing danger. Although her single bared breast and knees are visible, she is not a dishevelled desert traveller crawling in anguish or panting with thirst. While other artists focus on Hagar’s grief and agony, Lewis offers a hopeful Hagar. With hands clasped together, her upturned eyes suggest that Lewis may be depicting the point at which the angel calls to her.
In the midst of this life-and-death crisis, Hagar is expectant. God has heard Ishmael. It is not clear how things will unfold, but she and her son will live. She is anticipating what God has in store for her, her son, and the nation that his descendants will become. Lewis’s Hagar seems grateful to God who has been faithful to his promises to Abraham’s first-born son.
Buick, Kirsten Pai. 2010. Child of the Fire: Mary Edmonia Lewis and the Problem of Art History’s Black and Indian Subject (Durham, NC: Duke University Press)
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.