The Story Begins
Next up in my child loss in the Bible series is Hagar. Hagar is a semi-known slave woman who belonged to the household of Abram and Sarai (Later their names were changed to Abraham and Sarah). We are not sure how she came to be in the home of Abram, but we do know Abram and Sarai had been unable to have children (Genesis 16:1). This is the first time we hear of Hagar!
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. So Sarai said to Abram, “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go into my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram’s wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. He went into Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight. Genesis 16:1-4, NASB
WOW! So Abram and Sarai could not have children of their own, so Sarai demanded that Abram conceive a child with her maidservant. If we had this in today’s society, it would be called rape. It is important to note that Hagar had no choice. As a servant of the household, she was commanded by God to submit to their authority, and namely to the authority of Sarai. Being a slave in this time period meant you gave up any rights you had to make your own personal choices.
We can see this as a parallel to today’s society for sure. How many times do we not get what we want, and we go to extreme measures to obtain it? God tells us in his word that we should “rest in the Lord and wait patiently on him” Psalm 37:7). Sarai was unable to wait on the coming promise of God that she would bear a son, so she forced the issue and caused great stress and grief on her maidservant.
Hagar’s response to forced surrogacy
Hagar had all sorts of emotions flooding her when she found out she was pregnant with Abram’s child (who wouldn’t?). We know that Sarai was grappling with the fact that Abram was able to get Hagar pregnant, however; he had never been able to get Sarai pregnant. This indicated that his seed was good, and Sarai was barren (Genesis 16:5). Sarai was bitter and treated Hagar harshly. Because of this, Hagar fled (Genesis 16:8).
After she had fled to the stream, God sent an angel to minister to Hagar (Genesis 16:8). He told her to return to the house of Abraham and submit to her authority. While this may have seemed counterproductive, God didn’t give her this command without a promise: “Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” Genesis 16:10, NASB We see in the previous verse that God promised Hagar that he would not only multiply her descendants but that they will be “too many to count”. This was a powerful promise he made her.
Hagar gives birth to Ishmael
When Hagar returned from the wilderness, we see that she gave birth to a boy named Ishmael (Genesis 16:11). We do see that she remained a part of Abram’s household. She would have likely been around Ishmael and taking care of him, knowing she was not allowed to “keep” him. This must have been extremely difficult and emotional for Hagar.
Hagar had just been forced to carry a child that she would not be able to keep and she was undoubtedly hurt and emotional. If we look at it from a medical and scientific perspective, the hormonal changes going on with Hagar would have affected her greatly. One way that God has designed these postpartum hormonal changes to regulate is through the act of breastfeeding the child you gave birth to.
Postpartum depression is a common occurrence, occurring in up to 75% of women who give birth (Source: The Cleveland Clinic). Progesterone and Prolactin are two main hormones present during pregnancy and after birth. While Hagar was not allowed to actually claim custody of her child, she would have been expected to have breastfed Ishmael (and possibly Isaac). The custom and tradition of that time was to have a nursemaid tend to nursing the babies.
To have an understanding of the bond that may have formed from the act of breastfeeding, we need to have a grasp on attachment theory. Attachment is a “deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space” (Bowlby, 1969). Attachment theory tells us that an infant must bond to a primary caregiver early in life, or they will risk maladjustment in social relationships later on. John Bowlby first coined the term as a result of his studies involving the developmental psychology of children from various backgrounds. We can extrapolate in the context of attachment theory, that Hagar would have bonded to Ishmael and potentially Isaac, but not be able to actually claim them as her own. This must have hurt her deeply, knowing that the biological bond was happening through the intimate act of breastfeeding only to be ripped away.
Hagar and Ishmael are sent away
We see that Sarah finally bore a son of her own (Genesis 21:2) and they named him Isaac, he grew until he was weaned. The weaning period in the Bible during this time would have been around 3 or 4 years of age. It was during this weaning time and celebration that they had a party for Isaac. Ishmael was teasing his brother and this despised Sarah (Genesis 21:8). Because of this, Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away.
“and she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. 12 But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you because it is through Isaac that your offspring[b]will be reckoned. 13 I will make the son of the slave into a nation also because he is your offspring.” Genesis 21:10-12New American Standard Bible
We see that Abraham had a change of heart toward Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 17:18). Because of this, he provided them with food and water for the journey. Unfortunately, the water quickly ran out (Genesis 21:14). During this time, Hagar decided to leave her son under the shade of a tree thinking he would surely die (Genesis 21:16)
Hagar’s grief over Ishmael
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[c] began to sob. (Genesis 21:16)
The Bible tells us that after Hagar left Ishmael under the tree, she “wept bitterly” (Genesis 21:16). In looking at the context of what was going on, we can learn some things from this incident:
- Hagar was grieving the possible death of her son Ishmael. Even though he had been whisked away from her at birth, she was still his birth mother. There would have been an indelible bond and I can imagine that Hagar had great distress under the prospect of her son possibly dying.
- As a mother, she wants to naturally provide for her child (Matthew 7:9). A loving and kind parent wants to make sure their child has all their physical, spiritual, emotional, and social needs met. Being unable to provide more water or food for her child must have been devastating.
- Hagar began to sob. She could not bear to see her child possibly die, so she left him to fend for himself in hopes that he would be taken care of and protected, but was trying at the same time to protect him from certain death.
- Hagar went to spend time with God. We are told that the boy was crying (Genesis 21:17). We see great sorrow and grief from not only Hagar but Ishmael. However, GOD speaks to Hagar!
God ministers to Hagar and Ishmael
“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. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 21:17-18)
We see in the above verse that God ministered not only to Hagar but to Ishmael. When God heard the boy crying, we can assume his heart was broken on behalf of Ishmael. “Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the [m]skin with water and gave the lad a drink.” (Genesis 21:19). We see that God provided some very much needed water for their survival. Water is a significant element throughout the Bible and gives life. After God declared that Ishmael would become a great nation, he provided the water to prevent their untimely death. In the midst of some very real distress and grief, GOD provided relief and life.
Water is used as a metaphor throughout the Bible to indicate life. Some notable times are when Jesus was ministering to the woman at the well (John 4:7), he referred to water as the “living water” and told her that anyone who drank of it would thirst no more. Likewise, in Ephesians 5:26-27, we are told that the Bride will be cleansed by the washing of the word. Another time, in Revelation 21:6 we see God’s promise of provision to receive water from the spring of life “without payment”. We know water is essential for life and God knows this as well! The way he took care of Hagar and Ishmael shows his providing nature of love for us.
Hagar was a woman who dealt with a lot of grief, sorrow and mourning. She had to be around Ishmael and not actually mother him for 17 or so years. Though we do know that in the end, she was blessed and was able to live with her son and obtain custody. She found him a wife and he lived in the land of Paran (Genesis 21:20-21). What can we learn from Hagar’s life?
- Hagar was faithful to what God asked of her. When God told her to return to the house of Abram, she did so without complaint. As Christians, sometimes it is very difficult to do what God asks. However; as we see in the story of Hagar, she was ultimately blessed by her obedience.
- Hagar was a single mother. She gave birth to Ishmael and along with it took on all the grief and sorrow of not actually being able to “keep” him at first. We can extrapolate that the frustrations of being a single mother without any help would have taken their toll. However; Hagar remained strong and leaned on God.
- Hagar had few resources, but she did what she could with what was dealt to her. Throughout her life, we see where God provided for her needs and the needs of Ishmael. As somebody who is unable to have children of her own and who has lost a child, the reliance on Christ to meet that need and fill that void has had it’s shares of ups and downs. Ultimately, I know Christ rules supreme and nothing happens without him, but sometimes the feelings are so overwhelming that facts and logic don’t always line up.
- Hagar looked toward the future. Even though she was unable to be with her son at first, she would have found solace in that he would be blessed. I can’t be with Rachel, but I do find solace that she is with Jesus and I will one day be able to hold my baby girl.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.