A number of womanist scholars and liberation theologians have addressed the notion that Hagar, in Genesis 16 and 21, represents for women of color a testament of God's delivering power. Furthermore, the Egyptian slave woman and her son Ishmael stand as affirmation of God's original intent that people of African descent be free.

I accept this interpretation, but I wonder about the command given Hagar the first time she went into the wilderness. By no means do I question God's wisdom; rather, I am puzzled about the directions. Yes, it was a test when the angel asked her to return to Sarai; I see that. Hagar had to be obedient to God and endure hardship. Yet, why add "submit" to the command (16:9)? Was not Hagar already under duress? Was not going back going to be a trial within itself? Was not her return proof positive that she was willing to obey God?


Hagar was not guiltless in this situation:

4 So he [Abram] went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes.

5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.” -Genesis 16:4-6 (NKJV)

God's charge to Hagar was that she go back to her mistress and submit to her. ענה (anah), from which the word "submit" is translated in verse 9, includes humility, which Hagar did not show to Sarai after she conceived Ishmael.

From John Gill's commentary on verse 9:

return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands; go back to her, humble thyself before her, acknowledge thy fault, enter into her service again, and be subject to her....


As you said, it would seem already an enormous challenge for Hagar to go back. But in fact, in the culture of the day, for her to go back at all necessitated submission. For Hagar to go back not submissive would have been for her to be sent away once again by Sarah.

Furthermore, the Hebrew word used there, anah, means literally to be afflicted. By obeying God's command, she was to go back and bear the affliction of servitude under the oppressive hand of Sarah.

  • The question was actually about "God's original intent", not "the culture of the day". – fdb Oct 27 '16 at 21:47

There is no doubt that the story of Hagar, as told in Genesis, depicts her as a slave who lacked humility towards her mistress and who was justly punished by Sarah and thrown out of the harem. By contrast, the version of the same story told in the Qur’an is very much on the side of Hagar, who is depicted as the victim of Sarah’s injustice. Perhaps that is a better place to search for a feminist reading of the story.

  • I see your point regarding the reading of other sources, but my question really focused on the command God gave in the Christian-Protestant Bible. By the way, I respectfully contend that I would bring to any research or reading encounter a womanist, not feminist perspective. I make a definite distinction between the two. – M. C. Jones Oct 28 '16 at 1:11

I'm no genius but two things strike me..

one - that your question is one that calls for insight to the operation of Hagar's mind. We cannot get all the answers without her.

two - is the fact that Hagar had just heard the voice of GOD .. So if it were me, I'd go back just for the sake of obeying HIM, would you not??

So far as any hardship she may have had to endure we should never make more of scripture than what scripture is saying to us. Consider that the life of a slave in that day is by no means what we envision in the present. Slaves were not all so oppressed but were mostly, and of their own will established in what we know today as employment. I know that's putting mildly but the truth is that the term slave meant something other then, compared to today.

Scripture does leave us some evidence that she, Hagar, may have lost sight of her 'moment with GOD' so many years after because it is evident from the Word that she demonstrated some push back toward Sarah and Ishmael himself demonstrated his hate toward Isaac. Did he not? So GOD put them out while HE also preserved and protected them on their journey out of Abraham's home.

Let me conclude by stating that 'GOD Himself' spoke to Abraham and instructed him to send her away. And don't overlook both the prophesy as well as the blessing,, that Ishmael, as a nation, would cause trouble for the nation of Israel. GOD himself made that statement. But GOD in HIS mercy would also 'Greatly' bless and make wealthy Ishmael and his decedents.


It seems to me that any theological application of Hagar's story to either African slavery, the modern struggles of people of color, or feminism is pure anachronism, and seriously distorts the central theme of the story. There are plenty of places in the OT and NT that one could cite to draw support for these movements, but this is not one of them.

In terms of your actual question, why submit - the answer is clear. Although Hagar was (presumably) now submitting to God, He required her to also submit to Sarah - something that she was entirely unwilling to do before. God's focus doesnt seem to be on the institution of slavery (whether to support it or criticize it), but rather on the inter-personal relationship between the two women, and Hagar's wrongdoing towards Sarah


The root word is [ענה] = respond/answer-to.

  • [מען] = participate as response; participate in answering-to; to cause a response

  • [למען] = (infinitive) = to respond to; due to; to address;

    • frequently translated as "for the sake of", like in Psalm 23 "for your Your Name's sake".
  • [ענוה] = (passive) = humble.

  • [עונה] = (active) = to answer
  • [עוני] = poor, lowly (perhaps having to answer to other people)

The word used in the verse is [התען] = reflexive. To have oneself to answer-to. To humble oneself.

You have to not understand the Hebrew using an English vocab mindset.

The verse simply means,

go back and return to your being servant to answer to your mistress.

No big deal, nothing significant.

  • The Hebrew lesson sheds light. Thank you - I will research the employment vs. slave concept. Up to now I did not think it applied to women in harems, who were often corralled or forced. Nevertheless, this is helpful. Blessings – M. C. Jones Oct 31 '16 at 21:28

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