Writings to restore the image of the Goddess/feminine of Greek Mythology to contemporary lives led me to explore the ‘Goddess’ in Hebrew-Arab tradition (and by default Judeao-Christian-Islamic) though the Genesis Narrative of the story of Hagar.
Hagar, the Egyptian matriarch and Sarah, the Hebrew matriarch provide evidence that women played significant roles in the genesis of Hebrew and Arab culture. In Muslim tradition, Hagar though never mentioned by name in the Qur’an, is the wife of Abraham and mother of the Arabs. Similarly Sarah, in Hebrew tradition, is the wife of Abraham or the mother of Isaac.
Hagar, the Egyptian, the Hebrews called me - daughter of the Pharaoh.
I was twenty-three when a large contingent of Hebrews escaping famine in their own land arrived in Egypt. The Pharaoh instructed his courtiers to allocate land where these refugees might set up their tents and use to graze and water their animals.
When the courtiers told my father about a remarkable woman in the group - Sarai - my father made discreet enquiries; and, on receiving assurance that Sarai was the sister of Abram, the lead herdsman, entreated her to accept the comfort of the palace and requested I serve as a companion to her - a stranger in a strange land.
I soon came to know that, far from being Abram’s sister, Sarai was the lead herdsman’s wife. I had to tell my father the truth for I knew he planned to invite her to his bedchamber.
Sick with embarrassment - and very angry Pharaoh called for Abram and demanded to know why he had been deceived in this way. Abram fumbled over his words and tried to explain that where he’d come from brother-husband relationships were sometimes acceptable.
“The truth is, my lord,” he’d stammered. “Sarai is a beautiful woman and I feared if it were known she was my wife I might be killed in order that another man may have her.”
Insulted by the implication, my father demanded Abram leave. “Take your wife and the rest of your Hebrews together with all their belongings and get out of my land.”
A look of pain etched my father’s face as he farewelled Sarai. Overcome with remorse for the sin he had almost committed, he instructed his courtiers to give to Abram sheep and cattle and a thousand pieces of silver - as a gift to Sarai.
In the months she’d been part of our household, Sarai had become my soul mate. Her devotion and spiritual discernment led me to believe that she too was a priestess and, in communication with the divinities that surrounded us. I regarded her as my mentor and was heartbroken at the thought of us being separated. So I pleaded with my father to go with the Hebrews as Sarai’s companion.
We travelled to Hebron and set up camp by the oaks of Mamre. The air around me, breathed a great sense of peace - and I felt the presence of unseen divinities. One look from Sarai confirmed I would be safe here.
I learned much from Sarai over the next ten years about being a priestess in a Hebrew community. We worked together tending the sick, helping women in childbirth, finding herbs that cured all manner of illness - and mindful of the divinities who built our inner strength as we spent time in ritual, dance and meditation.
Sarai approached me one day with an astonishing request. Would I put aside my station as an Egyptian princess and my role as a novitiate priestess - to become her shifhah and bear a child for her to continue her lineage.
I felt torn. I’d dreamed I would one day return to the land of my father and bear an heir of my own. Becoming a shifhah called for a lifetime commitment.
After much soul-searching, and in the knowledge that the child would not be mine, I agreed. And Sarai gave me to Abram as his wife for one night.
As the child moved within me, a great sorrow took hold—the child I bore could never be mine. It would be Sarai’s and hers alone. When I tried to talk to Sarai about my confusion, she mistook my pain for insolence - or an attempt to back out of our sacred agreement.
That Abram showed more compassion, made the situation between Sarai and I worse. Distraught! I fled to the wilderness - sat down by a spring - and wept. Where was my Sarai - the woman upon whose companionship and support I’d learned to rely.
As I wept, a Presence enveloped me and a voice spoke: “Hagar, what are you doing here? Where are you going?”
”I’m running away from Sarai. She doesn’t want me anymore.”
“Go back,” the voice insisted. “Your place is with Sarai for now. Your pain is not forever. You will become the mother of a great nation.”
”Elro’i,” I cried, recognizing the One to whom I was speaking. “You are the god who sees me.”
The Presence left as silently as she had come. I stood up, brushing the dust and pebbles from my skirt, and quickly gathered stones and built a small cairn. I named that place Beer-la’hai-roi (“the well of the living One who sees me”) and returned to Mamre - to Sarai - to await the birth of the child.
As was the shifhah custom, the child was born ‘on the knee’ of Sarai. She cradled me in her lap as I leant back against her awaiting the moment of birth. And Sarai took Ishmael as her own and he grew into a healthy boy - and she, Abram and I loved him with all our hearts. In due course, Ishmael underwent the initiation ceremony of the Hebrew people to become a full member of the clan.
With the relationship between Sarai and I restored, together we tended the sick, helped women in childbirth, search out herbs to cure all manner of illness - and built each other up through ritual, dance and meditation.
Ishmael was nearly thirteen years old, when Sarai came to me in great excitement. The lord ‘El’ had visited her and promised a child through her own body. We both felt apprehensive about what this meant. Ishmael was her first-born. Would a second child born out of Sarai herself usurp him? I wondered - and waited.
Sarai’s time came. She gave birth to a healthy son whom she named Isaac. As Isaac grew, Ishmael carried him on his shoulders and together they explored the forests and the grasslands, collecting grasses and herbs and birds’ eggs.
In the year Isaac turned four, Abram prepared a great feast to celebrate the boy’s weaning.
Amid the preparations Ishmael visited the tents of Sarai’s kinsfolk from Mesopotamia, come to share in the celebrations - among them a girl about Ishmael’s age, whose name was Rebekah.
Seeing the two laughing and talking together, caused Sarai great alarm. Rebekah had been chosen as future wife of Isaac and Sarai couldn’t countenance a liaison between Ishmael and this girl..
Sarai poured out her concerns, revealing to me how a visiting Deity and three angels long ago had revealed to Abram and herself a separate destiny for them and Isaac from the one intended for me and Ishmael.
Was I to be rejected once more - as I’d been before the birth of Ishmael when I’d fled into the wilderness? Then I remembered how El-ro’i had spoken in the wilderness that day. “You also will be the mother of a great nation. I will give you more descendents than you can count.”
How could I have forgotten?
Sarai years were more than one hundred and her health was failing. Each day I tended what comfort I could and cooled her brow with a damp sponge. One afternoon she opened her eyes with such a look of love I almost wept.
“Hagar,” she whispered. “Hagar, my Egyptian princess, it’s time you returned to your own people. You have been my faithful companion. I have mentored you in the way of a priestess. You served as my shifhah and bore me a son when I was without hope of bearing one myself. But the gods ‘Elohim’ have shown mercy to both of us. I have received afresh the vision of our separate destinies.”
“Oh, no!” I cried.
But Sarai shushed me the way one comforts a young child. “From the beginning,” she breathed, “we were each destined to be matriarchs of two great peoples.” She raised her head. “This is my last will and testament,” she began. “Elohim has shown me the way. Hagar and Ishmael are released from their legal obligations to me and my people. Isaac is the son through whom my descendents shall be counted. Ishmael is returned to his birth mother, Hagar and is the son through whom her descendents shall be counted.”
1. Dillmann, Delitzsch, and Holzinger: Herzog-Hauck (nd) The commentaries on
Genesis Real-Encyc.E. C. D.
2. Midrash (Gen. R. xlv.
3. Teubal, Savina (1990) Hagar the Egyptian: The Lost tradition of the
4. The Story of Hagar Biblical Reference (Genesis 16:1-16; 21:9-21).
5. Wikipedia (nd) Hagar_(Bible) http://en.wikipedia.org/Hagar_(Bible)
6. Wyman, Miriam, Sarah and Hagar