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“Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free and she is our mother”(Galatians 4: 25,26).
In order for these studies to be practical and fully related to the spiritual life of the reader, we have included the following biblical references, which should be read in advance, so that an attempt can be made to answer the questions posed before reading this study. As you read this article, you should also consult the references given throughout the paper.
References: Gen. 16:1-16, Gen. 21:9-21, Baruche 3:23, Gal. 4:21-31
1. Sarah gave her slave to Abraham as a wife, an act that may be seen as improper. What made Sarah behave that way?
2. When Sarah complained of Hagar in Gen. 16, Abraham let Sarah do to her as she pleased even though Hagar had conceived and was expecting Abraham’s son. But on the second time, “the matter was very distressing to Abraham”(Gen. 21:9-13). Why did Abraham take two different attitudes in the two incidents?
3. What is the difference between the moral and the spiritual interpretations of the Bible?
4. Why are all the faithful committed to the spiritual interpretation of the Hagar/Ishmael story?
5. Who are the children of Sarah and the children of Hagar in the teachings of the New Testament?
We will attempt to study the Scripture’s account of Hagar using the method of interpretation of the Theological School of Alexandria. This method studies the Holy Scriptures from three perspectives: literal, moral and spiritual. Since early Christian times, the adoption of this methodology impacted the majority of Bible interpreters all over the world. Exegetical writings based on this method can be found in many volumes of books in the East and the West, and from the Middle Ages through recent times up to the 19th century. In the first half of the 20th century, this method of interpretation was severely criticized, but it was soon revisited and regained broad interest particularly after the modern excavations in Torra, Egypt which led to the discovery of many manuscripts of the fathers of the School of Alexandria and the subsequent research on their works.
It is my hope that the reader will not be alarmed to see that each of the three meanings of the same verse (and perhaps of the same word) may seem different in many instances, and even contradictory to each other. Most noteworthy is that the teaching we get from the moral or the spiritual meanings does not preclude the historical facts implied in the literal meaning. Likewise, the meaning we get from the literal or moral interpretations - whether positive or negative (sometimes even offending) - is always a bridge leading to the spiritual meaning which ultimately accomplishes a state of greater knowledge of, and unity with the true Word of God (Logos) and the true bridegroom of the faithful souls.
Even though Hagar is one of the secondary characters in the Bible, mentioned only in parts of two chapters in Genesis (16:1-16 and 21: 9-21) and once in the New Testament (Gal.4-21-31), her story is full of contradictions. It provides an account of the attempts made by Abraham and Sarah to set their human arrangements ahead of God’s plan in order to accomplish His promise of an offspring which would be a blessing to the earth; it tells us how God interfered to foil the attempt; and how Sarah requested Abraham to marry Hagar, and then how she came back in the same chapter complaining of Hagar and how, in the following chapter she asked him to cast out the slave woman with her son. We also see how Abraham listened to her first request to take her slave woman as a wife (Gen. 16:3). On Sarah’s second request, Abraham listened to her and left Hagar at the mercy of Sarah who harassed her causing her to run away into the wilderness. When it was the third attempt, Abraham first strongly rejected Sarah’s plea to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, and the matter was very distressing to him, but he soon carried out her demand and “rose early in the morning …”(Gen. 21:14) after receiving the order from God.
In the same story we also see Hagar the slave who despised her mistress, then escaped from her to be saved by God who directly spoke to her. This was the first time God met a human being face to face after Adam and Eve were dismissed from Paradise (Gen. 16:13).
Having shed light on those contradictions, a question is posed as if we, human beings, were objecting to God’s judgement: “Was it fair and just that God consented to Sarah’s casting out Hagar with her son to the desert?” Many other questions follow, from the creature arguing with its creator, like the question, “Why did God choose Isaac and reject Ishmael? …love Jacob and hate Esau before they were born?’.
Ultimately, there remains the main question about the relationship between all this and our spiritual life.
Hagar was perhaps one of the gifts presented by the Pharaoh to Abraham when Sarah was taken to Pharaoh’s house (Gen. 12:16), or he may have bought her from one of the slave markets at that time. Her marriage to Abraham is looked upon as an abnormal incident that is extremely difficult to be readily accepted. Abraham was a godly man who evidently believed in the bonds of the monogamy – the natural law since the creation of man according to the Scriptures (Matt. 19:4). It never occurred to him to marry a second wife as evidenced by his words to God that Eliezer of Damascus became his heir (Gen. 15: 2,3). The subsequent events are explained in light of modern excavations of the middle bronze age at which time Abraham lived. In the old Somerian kingdom and other Babylonian civilizations, the main purpose of marriage was to have an offspring. The marriage was instituted with a written agreement in which the bride pledged that ‘if she did not give an offspring to her husband, she would have to get a woman from a slave market and present her to be a wife for her husband’. Laws governed this kind of marriage, giving the original wife the right to send back the slave woman to her previous status (as part of her own property) but without entitling the original wife to sell the slave.
In light of this, it is clear that Sarah had a legal obligation to give her slave woman to Abraham in order to bear an heir for him (Gen. 16:2). It was not a sacrifice on her part, or a waiver of her privilege as a sole wife. It is also clear that Hagar was legally wrong when she looked with contempt on her mistress (Gen. 16:4) and so aroused her fury at a time when Sarah was already in very low spirits, and consequently Sarah’s complaint to Abraham who supported Sarah’s right to subdue Hagar and humiliate her until she fled away from her face.
Hagar wandered in the desert toward Shur in north Sinai. She probably wished to go to Egypt her motherland when she met with ‘the angel of the Lord’ at a water spring. It was later discovered that God himself appeared to her (Gen. 16:13). This was the first appearance of God to a human being since Adam was dismissed from Paradise. We notice that the word angel (which means a messenger) was used as an allusion to the Lord in the Old Testament (Malachi 3:1). God advised Hagar to return and submit to her mistress, and He comforted her saying that he would multiply her descendants to be a great nation. Ishmael was called a wild ass of a man, a befitting epithet because wild asses in those days could be hunted only by the very skilful hunters.
Ishmael was born and he was circumcised at the age of thirteen on the same day with Abraham, and indication to his sharing in the covenant between God and Abraham. Ishmael was the sole heir of the family but this situation changed after the birth of Isaac. When Isaac was weaned, they made a great celebration but Sarah grew angry when she saw Ishmael ‘teasing’ Isaac. The Hebrew word ‘Sahoq’ has a number of meanings as portrayed by many translations of the Scriptures, including ‘play’, ‘mock’ or ‘make fun of’. The latter is the closest to St. Paul’ words in Galatians, meaning to ‘persecute’.
Until then, Ishmael had a share in the inheritance but Sarah could no longer bear the presence of Hagar and Ishmael in her house. So, she asked Abraham to deprive him of becoming an heir, saying, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac”. Contrary to what happened previously when Hagar conceived, and to Sarah’s expectation, Abraham categorically rejected her request, “and the thing was very displeasing to Abraham on account of his son” (Gen. 21:9-13).
Modern excavations help us to understand the change in Abraham’s position. Abraham observed the laws of the kingdom of Somer in practice at that time. They stated that so long as the slave had not yet conceived and given birth, she was still owned by the wife who had the right to do whatever she pleased. However, after giving birth to Ishmael, Sarah’s request to cast out Ishmael and deprive him his legitimate right to be an heir was quite an illegal act. Therefore, God interfered to resolve this domestic problem. Against all expectations, God ordered Abraham to do as Sarah would tell him. So, Abraham sent Hagar and her son to the wilderness without any provisions except the bread and water she could carry. A look at the map would indicate that Beer-Sheba oasis where Abraham dwelt was located on the borders of the barren Negeb desert. As we human beings would expect, Hagar lost her way and ran out of bread and water. She left Ishmael under one of the bushes awaiting death. Once again, God interfered as He showed himself to Hagar and led her to a well of water. She was thus able to pursue her trip to the south and live with her son in the wilderness of Paran and she took a wife for her son from the land of Egypt.
We do not hear of Hagar any more, but Ishmael performs his duty upon his father’s death (Gen. 25:9), although he did not inherit anything because Abraham “gave all he had to Isaac” (Gen. 25:5).
THE MORAL INTERPRETATION
The Hagar theme deals with two important moral issues: slavery and denying Ishmael his right to be an heir.
Slavery was known since the dawn of history. It was quite common and legitimate until the beginning of the 20th century when the human conscience realized the evils resulting from slavery. It strips off the human characteristics of people, turning them into sheer commodities traded in the market; they lose the freedom given irrevocably by God to each and every person. The Almighty God would not deny a human being his freedom regardless of any wrongdoing. The story of Hagar portrays some of the pains and hardships encountered by slaves and maidservants although Hagar lived in the only house in the world that knew God at that time. Just imagine the harshness of man to keep silent about such evil prevailing for so long in the world despite the prophets of the Old Testament (OT) and advent of Christianity with its sublime teachings.
The mission of Judaism was to guide and train the people of God until the coming of Christ, “the law was our custodian until Christ came” (Gal. 3:24). Slavery was one of the social evils like waging war, killing prisoners of war, annihilation of other races, and social injustice. We can trace the development of the Jewish conscience in the OT as influenced by prophets and, gradually later on, the Christian conscience through the work of the Holy Spirit. The ‘Law’ included a number of comandments calling for the good treatment of slaves, particularly Hebrew slaves. The Lord reminded the Hebrews that they were slaves in Egypt (Deut. 15:15). The slaves did no work on the Sabbath, like free men (Ex 20:10). If a man struck his slave causing him a permanent disability, he had to let the slave go free (Ex. 21:26). A Hebrew slave was normally set free after six years. When the Lord came in flesh, He called for perfection, “as the heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat.5: 48). He did not bring about a new Law and ordinances but a covenant of grace (John1:17). He gathered a number of disciples, men and women, who learned from his attitude before they learned from his words. The Lord Christ did not come to lead a political or social uprising. He even likened the kingdom of heaven to a leaven that worked in silence to ferment the whole batch of dough. He asked his followers to be the salt of the earth and light of the world. He did not teach His disciples everything because until His ascension, they had a narrow, racist vision of the world (Acts 1:6), but He promised to send them the Holy Spirit who “will teach you all things” (John 14:26) when He comes.
The Lord Christ accepted the social conditions that prevailed at His time. We do, however, notice in His words and deeds uneasiness regarding the evils embodied therein. As for slavery, we know that neither Christ nor any of His disciples or early apostles owned a slave. When the centurion asked the Lord to heal his slave, the Lord did not give heed to His own bodily fatigue after the Sermon on the Mount; rather, He went immediately to heal that slave (Mat. 8:7, Luk. 7:6). The early Christian churches included slaves and their masters on equal footing, and they all exchanged the kisses of love and partook of the same communion. One of the magnificent scenes of ancient martyrdom portrays the genuine love masters shared with their slaves in the persecution of Severus of Carthage in the early years of the third century. A number of Christians were arrested, including a woman slave called Felicita who was pregnant. All were sentenced to death except this pregnant slave woman because the Roman laws did not allow capital punishment to be inflicted on a pregnant woman until she gave birth to her child. Her Christian companions feared that her faith might be shaken, so they all prayed to God in one spirit to expedite her delivery. She prematurely gave birth to the child and shared in receiving the crowns of martyrdom with her master.
Christian teachings were clear: “there is neither slave nor free, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, 1Co. 12:13, Co. 3:11). The Bible provides a whole epistle on the Christian view of slaves (the letter of Paul to Philemon) in which St. Paul describes Onesimus as, “my son, mine own bowels, a partner …as myself”, and asks Philemon to treat him “no longer as a slave but as a beloved brother”. Christianity, however, did not call for a social revolution. Everyone had to act according to his or her mission. Slaves were to obey their earthly masters, rendering service with a good will (Eph. 6:5-8, 1Co 7:21-24). Masters were to do the same to slaves, forbearing threatening (Eph. 6:19, 1Co 4:1). As a natural consequence during the first centuries A.D., many Christians opted to liberate their slaves and this trend continued until the conscience of the world became aware of the evils of slavery and laws were gradually enacted to completely prohibit it.
God’s providence: Whereas it took humanity thousands of years to remedy the issue of slavery, God in his tender mercy never neglected slaves in their hardships. When Hagar fled into the desert and when she was dismissed with her son into the wilderness, God Himself attended to her. God, as we have known Him in Christ as the good shepherd who looks for the lost sheep, shows us the grace and mercy displayed in the New Covenant, as if we were at Jacob’s well where the Lord went to meet the Samaritan woman. He did not attempt to reproach Hagar for her contempt to her mistress nor for fleeing away. But He graciously advised her to go back to her mistress in submission and He comforted her that He would greatly multiply her descendants that “they cannot be numbered” (Gen. 16:9-13).
God’s justice and man’s law: By human standards, Hagar did not benefit much by returning to Abraham’s tent. Very soon things got more complicated with Sarah who asked Abraham to cast Hagar and her son away. It was unacceptable with Abraham to submit to his wife’s request. Leaving a woman alone with her child in the desert to face certain death was unjust and brutal. On the other hand, we learn something different from the spiritual perspective: Sarah was committed to God’s promise for her son. And Abraham, in his bewilderment, his love to Hagar who gave him his first son, and his love to his son Ishmael, could do nothing except to resort to God as he often did throughout his long life of faith. God’s answer was clear, “whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you”.
Where is God’s justice? Ethically speaking, the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael was an immoral act. Again, as we already stated, it was an illegal decision. But God’s judgements are far greater and more comprehensive than man’s own judgements. God’s justice outweighs human earthly justice. His watchful eyes never forgot Hagar and Ishmael even for a single moment. If Ishmael was deprived an inheritance that was his, God compensated him by making him the father of twelve princes. Ishmael willingly accepted God’s judgement. Unlike Esau who, when Jacob took his birth right and his blessing, planned to kill him, Ishmael did not have hard feelings for his father, Sarah or Isaac. At the burial of Abraham, they all stood as one family, and death gathered them all together in the cave of Mac-pelah: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael.
THE SPIRITUAL INTERPRETATION
The moral significance is linked to the temporal earthly blessings and the life of virtue in our mortal world. At the cave of Mach-pelah, everything came to an end, “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised” (Heb. 11:13). By faith, Abraham sojourned; by faith Sarah herself received power to conceive…and have descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore. Even for Hagar and Ishmael, evil was turned into good and they returned to their earthly homeland, and their descendants became many nations. All these were material issues and “the flesh is of no avail” (John 6:63). The spiritual meaning, however, follows quite a different path even though the starting point is the same, namely the events and characters of the Old Testament. In the spiritual interpretation, the OT events are the shadows and symbols of the New Testament. Everything contained in the OT always point to and speak about one person, that is Christ the Word of God.
The spiritual interpretation of the story of Hagar and Ishmael does not need any effort to understand. St. Paul stated it clearly in his letter to the Galatians: “For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, the son of the free woman through promise. Now this is an allegory: these women represent two covenants. Hagar is from Mount Sinai in Arabia, bearing children for slavery. She corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. … Now we, brethren, like Isaac, are children of promise….” (Ga. 4:21-31). “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29).
Here, we notice a difference in the direction of interpretation due to the typological method involved:
1- Hagar, the slave, and her children who lived in Sinai represent the Jews (present Jerusalem), the children of Sarah and Isaac who still live according to the law given to them in Sinai. And in the epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul denounced the re-Judaization of Christians and their return to slavery under the law with its rites and bondage as this would deprive them of the grace, freedom and sonship in Christ.
2- Sarah, who is literally the mother of the Jews, children of Isaac, represents the NT, the new covenant of grace and promise instituted by the Lord Jesus Christ. She also represents the Christian Church, “Jerusalem above (in heaven)”, the city to which the Christians belong, “But our commonwealth is in heaven” (Philip. 3:20). Since Isaac was born according to the promise (not according to the material physical nature), the Christians who are born of the spirit and liberated from the bondage of the Law, living by faith not by sight, are the true children of Sarah, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:29). The Church, therefore, is the new Israel who inherited the promises, “and by you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves” (Gen. 12:3). This offspring, heir to the promise, is Christ, the only mediator of salvation which is received by every member of His body, the Church. God’s covenant with Abraham was defined to mean the offspring of Isaac and Sarah, of which the Christ came, “But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you…”(Gen. 17:21).
3- Ishmael represents the old nature in which man was born: a nature that cannot be improved, where the son of a slave remains as such even after becoming a strong nation and a father of twelve tribes. “But as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now” (Gal. 4:29). We “should put off the old man (nature) and put on the new man” (Colos. 3:10). We need a new nature and a new birth, “unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3); “that which is born of the flesh is flesh” (John 3:6). But being born of the spirit gives us a new nature, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (john 8:36). “So, brethren, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman”. So stand fast in the freedom given by Christ and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 4:31, 5:1). But, in the same letter to the Galatians, the apostle warns us again against the use of our freedom in Christ as an opportunity for the flesh (Gal. 5:16-26).
This is contemplated by Origen in his “Homilies on Genesis3”, homily #7:
“But as then he,” Scripture says, “who was according to the flesh, persecuted him who was according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” Notice how the apostle teaches us that in all things the flesh is opposed to the spirit, whether that carnal people is opposed to the spiritual people, or even among ourselves, if someone is still carnal, he is opposed to the spiritual (matters). For even you, if you live “according to the flesh,” are a son of Hagar and for this reason are opposed to these who live “according to the Spirit.” Or even if we inquire in ourselves, we find that “the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another,” (Gal. 5:17) and we find “a law in our members fighting against the law of our mind and leading us captive in the law of sin” (Ro 7:23). There is yet also another battle more violent perhaps than all these. Those who understand the Law “according to the flesh” are opposed to and persecute those who perceive it “according to the Spirit.” Why? Because “The sensual man does not receive the things that are of the Spirit of God, for it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand because it is spiritually discerned” (1Co 2:14).
Contemplating St. Paul’s letters in light of the story of Ishmael and his persecution to Isaac, Origen sees that the appearing of the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) in the faithful is the sign of their birth through the Spirit. And we are “the children of the free woman” as long as we use the weapons of the Spirit in our warfare (2Co. 10:3-5) and “the Spirit of God dwells in us” (Ro. 8:9). So, we are the children of the promise, born according the Spirit. Origen further asks why Sarah became angry when she saw Ishmael “playing with her son” (according to the Septuagint translation) and considered it as a catastrophe. He wonders why St. Paul considers this play of the youngsters a kind of persecution. Origen provides the answer: Ishmael who represents the flesh attracts Isaac who represents our spirit, enticing the spirit with pleasures. This kind of play between the spirit and the flesh angered Sarah and was judged by St. Paul as the worst kind of persecution to the spirit.
Origen also sees that dismissing Ishmael with no provision except a skin of water that was soon consumed, is a reference to the old people of God and all their followers who take the Law literally. When Ishmael was about to die, Hagar burst into tears and “God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water (Gen. 21:19). Here we would like to conclude this spiritual exposition of the life of Hagar with some patristic reflections on this particular verse. In a sermon on the feast of Epiphany, St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “When Hagar was dismissed from the house of Abraham and suffered to get the basic food and faced death with her son for lack of water, this was an allusion to the fact that the Law was not enough to gain eternal life. At that point the angel of the Lord appeared to her and led her to the well of living water that gave her son Ishmael salvation from death”. Here, St. Gregory is talking about the Mystery of Baptism (the living water) on the day of the feast in which it was instituted.
Origen, on the other hand, states at the end of his Homily on Genesis, “How can these words be related to history? For when do we find that Hagar has closed eyes and they are later opened? (Gen. 21: 19) Is not the spiritual and mystical meaning in these words clearer than light, that that people which is “according to the flesh” is abandoned and lies in hunger and thirst, suffering “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but a thirst for the words of God” (Amos 8:11) until the eyes of the synagogue are opened? This is what the Apostle says is a mystery: that “blindness in part has happened in Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles should come in, and then all Israel should be saved” (Ro 11:25,26). That was the blindness of Hagar who gave birth “according to the flesh,” who remains blind until “the veil of the letter be removed” by the angel of God and she see the “living water…”
“But let us beware, for frequently we also lie around the well “of living water,” that is around the divine Scriptures and err in them. We hold the Book and we read them, but we do not touch upon the spiritual sense. And, therefore, there is need for tears and incessant prayer that the Lord may open our eyes, because even the eyes of those blind men who were in Jericho would not have been opened unless they had cried out to the Lord (Mat. 20:30). But why do we need to have our eyes opened after having been opened by the work of Christ who came “to open the eyes that are blind” (Isaiah 42:7)? Yes, our eyes were opened and the veil of the Law was removed. But I fear that we ourselves may close them again in a deeper sleep while we are not watchful in the spiritual meaning, nor are we disturbed so that we dispel sleep from our eyes and contemplate things which are spiritual, that we might not err with the carnal people set around the water itself. But rather let us be watchful and say with the prophet: “I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps.132:4,5). To Him be glory and sovereignty forever and ever, Amen.”
Saint Mark's Orthodox Fellowship urges you to study the Bible and encourage others to do the same. Please feel free to make any copies from these notes and distribute them to your relatives and friends. The fellowship welcomes any questions, comments or additional references, whether for publication in these "Short Notes" or in private correspondence.
 - Spiritual Exegesis of Scripture in the School of Alexandria .. Coptic Church Review , Vol. 10:3 (Fall 1989) P.74 .
 - Al-Resala, May 1991, 10:4, “How our fathers studied the Bible” (Arabic).
3- Origen: Homilies on Genesis, Homily VII; The English translation of Origen’s Homilies on Genesis and Exodus were published by The Catholic University of America Press in Volume 71 of “Fathers of the Church”, 1982.
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