She Was an Egyptian Princess

We meet Hagar in Genesis 16, where she is introduced as Sarah’s “Egyptian maid.”1 Midrashic tradition tells us that she was actually an Egyptian princess. Seeing how G‑d had miraculously saved Sarah from his clutches, Pharah concluded, “It is better for my daughter to be a maid in their home than a ruler in another."2

Full Story: Sarah in Egypt

Her Name Means “Reward”

The name Hagar is linked to the Hebrew word agur, which means “reward,” alluding to the tradition that she was Sarah’s reward for her modest and righteous behavior in Pharaoh’s house.3

Upon Sarah’s Suggestion, She Married Abraham

Deep into her seventies and still not blessed with a child, Sarah suggested that her husband Abraham live with her maid. In addition to the expectation that a child would be born to Hagar, Sarah also hoped that G‑d would bless her in the merit of her selfless deed.4

Read: Does Judaism Allow Polygamy?

Once Pregnant, She Taunted Sarah

When she saw how quickly she became pregnant, Hagar reasoned that she must be more righteous than her mistress and made it her business to be vocal about it.5

Sarah acted harshly toward Hagar to the point that Hagar fled into the wilderness.6

An Angel Reassured Her

Her first vision took place while Hagar was alone in the desert, near a spring. An angel told her to return to Sarah, however unpleasant it may be, and that she would merit to have many descendants. The angel further assured her that her son, whom she should name Ishmael (“G‑d hears”), would become a wild and powerful man.7

The sages point out that after having lived in Abraham’s household, she was accustomed to seeing angels and did not think it extraordinary.8

She Was the Mother of Ishmael

Interestingly, in Scripture we find that it was Abraham who named Hagar’s son9 Ishmael,10 even though the angel had told this name only to Hagar.

Read: How Did Ishmael Become a “Jewish” Name?

G‑d Saved Her Son’s Life

We do not hear about Hagar again for quite some time.

When Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Ishmael was already a teen and his unruly nature had come to the fore. Sarah feared he would be a harmful influence on her young son. She wished to banish Hagar and Ishmael, and G‑d told a reticent Abraham to heed her wishes.

Abraham rose early in the morning and sent the duo out into the desert with some bread and a pouch of water. When the water ran out, Hagar put the boy under a bush and sat down at a distance, as she could not bear to watch her son suffer.

G‑d called out to her, reassured her, and showed her a well, from which she was able to get water for her son.11

Read: Ishmael, Abraham’s Other Son

She Took an Egyptian Daughter-in-Law

Even after being part of Abraham’s household for so many years, she remained connected to her Egyptian roots, and when it came time to find a wife for Ishmael, she turned to Egypt for a fitting young woman.

This is evocative of the folk saying: throw a stick in the air and it will land on its root.12

The Sages Identify Her as Keturah

We read that in his old age, Abraham married a woman named Keturah, with whom he had six children.13

The sages tell us that Keturah was one and the same as Hagar. So why was she called by a different name? One explanation is that it is linguistically linked with ketoret, incense, intimating that Hagar’s deeds were as pleasing before G‑d as the incense offered in the Holy Temple. An alternative understanding is that it is connected to the Aramaic word for “knot,” reflecting the fact that she tied her garment and was not intimate with anyone during the time that she was not with Abraham.14

Read: Who Was Keturah and Why Did Abraham Marry Her?

Her Soul Returned as Jesse’s Maidservant

Jesse (father of David) came from what was then seen as questionable stock, as his ancestress was Ruth the Moabite. In order to distance himself from possible wrongdoing, he distanced himself from his Jewish wife and instead lived with a maid whom he had freed, stipulating that if he was not a kosher Jew, she was to remain a maidservant.

Meanwhile his saintly wife desired to be with him and give birth to yet more righteous souls. The maidservant saw the distress of her mistress and invited her to surreptitiously take her place one night. That union produced David, the ancestor of Moshiach himself.15

The selfless actions of the maidservant repaired the misdeeds of Hagar, whose soul she bore, who relished her position as the fertile wife and belittled her mistress, who could not conceive.16

Read: Nitzevet, Mother of David