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THE STRANGE CASE OF HAGAR THE MOTHER OF ARABS

Hagar and Ishmael Banished by Abraham
1781
Oil on canvas, 168 x 195 cm
Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp

Genesis Chapter 16

1    Now Sarai Abram's wife bore him no children; and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
2    
And Sarai said unto Abram: 'Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall be builded up through her.' And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. 
3    And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.

This is the English translation that is found in most Bibles today, give or take a few minimal changes. The case is obviously open and shut that Hagar is an Egyptian.

The Masoretic text (the Hebrew text) tells a somewhat different story. What is actually written is that Hagar is a Mitsriy.

It is taken for granted that Mitzriy is Egyptian without asking some very important questions.

  1. How come Sarah and later other Hebrews had Egyptian slaves?
  2. What evidence is there from the name that Hagar is Egyptian?
  3. As the Mother of Ishmael the father of the Arabs (who came from Arabia and not Egypt) are not other alarm bells rung in automatically granting her an Egyptian passport?

On the contrary, the extremely conservative Anchor Bible Dictionary goes out if its way to show that Hagar is a name from Arabia and not Egypt.

This is everything they say about the origin of the name.

"Hagar’s Egyptian nationality (Gen 16:1; 21:9, 21; 25:12) is a literary device to connect the story in Genesis 16 with Gen 12:10–20 (cf. Gen 12:16). If the first story about Hagar was written at the time of Hezekiah, Hagar’s nationality may veil the author’s opposition to Hezekiah’s foreign policy (cf. Isa 30:1–5; 31:1–5; Görg 1986).

As a female personal name, Hagar is well attested in ancient Arabia (Palmyrene and Safaitic hgr, Nabatean hgrw; to be distinguished from the male name Hâjir in Arabic, Minaean, and Nabatean; Knauf 1989: 52, n. 253). The name can be explained by Sabean and Ethiopic hagar, "town, city" (from an original meaning "the splendid" or "the nourishing"?); it is unlikely that there is any connection with hajara, "to emigrate," in more recent Arabian languages.

Just as Ishmael represents a large N Arabian tribal confederacy of the 8th and 7th centuries b.c. (see ISHMAELITES), so also can his mother be expected to have been of similar importance and antiquity. Therefore Ishmael’s mother, Hagar, should not be connected with the Hagrites, a relatively small Syrian and N Arabian tribe of the Persian and Hellenistic periods, attested in 1 Chr 5:19 and in Greek and Roman geographers (Knauf 1989: 49–53; and see also HAGRITES).

A cuneiform inscription found on Bahrain and dating to the second half of the 2d millennium b.c. mentions "the palace of Rimum, servant of (the god) Inzak, the one of A-gar-rum" (Butz 1983). Hagar is then mentioned as a country and/or people by Darius I in an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription from Susa (Roaf 1974: 135). The name, spelled hgrw, is accompanied by a representation of a typical Hagrean, whose hairdress distinguishes him from the central Arabian bedouin. This ethnographic feature suggests that Darius’ "Hagar" refers to the E Arabian country and not to a central Arabian tribe (Knauf 1989: 144–45). In the 3d century b.c. a king of Hagar issued his own coins; at the same time, trade between Hagar, the Minaeans, and the Nabateans flourished. As D. T. Potts has most convincingly shown, Hagar is nothing else but the Gk Gerrha and can be identified with the present ruins of Tâj (Potts 1984). Both Christian and Muslim authors used "Hagar" for E Arabia well into the Middle Ages (Knauf 1989: 54).

The available documentation, in spite of a gap between the LB Age and the Persian period, is more likely to connect Ishmael’s mother with Hagar in E Arabia than with another Hagar (of which there is no lack, given the meaning of the word in Old S Arabic). For the prophet Jeremiah there were only two political entities in Arabia (with the exception of the caravan cities of NW Arabia): the Qedarites (see KEDAR), surviving from the Ishmaelite confederation, and Buz, which was the designation of E Arabia current in the 7th century b.c. See BUZ (PLACE)."

Nor is this the only servant who was supposedly an Egyptian. Let us take the case of Jarha:

1 Chronicles 2:34 Sheshan had no sons, only daughters. Sheshan had an Egyptian servant named Jarha. 2:35 Sheshan gave his daughter to his servant Jarha as a wife; she bore him Attai.

Again the Masoretic text has Mitzri as the origin of Jarha.

Again the Anchor Bible can find no Egyptian connection for the word Jarha.

"JARHA (PERSON) [Heb yarhaµ ([h;r]y")].  

An Egyptian slave of Sheshan, who married his master’s daughter (Ahlai?) and became the founder of a house of the Jerahmeelites (1 Chr 2:34, 35) cf v 31. No additional information is provided for this Egyptian. His 13 descendants can not be identified with any degree of certainty with names occurring elsewhere in the OT. The identity of Jarha’s wife is a complex and unsolved problem centering on the name Ahlai. The masculine form of this name (however see Keil 1872: 67) and its appearance in the list of David’s mighty men (1 Chr 11:41) presents some problem to this conclusion. Consequently, some suggest that Ahlai of v 31 should be read Attai as in v 36; or that Ahlai (if modified to mean "a brother to me") was a name given to Jarha at the time of his adoption into the family of Sheshan; or that Ahlai, though a son of Sheshan, was born after the marriage of his daughter (however note v 34); or that different sources are reflected in this genealogy. See Williamson (1979: 352) for a recent discussion of sources in this genealogy and the conclusion that 2:25–33 and 42–50a stand as a related unit, but that v 34 reflects a different source. See also Curtis (Chronicles ICC, 83) for an analysis of older, but still-debated, theories of genealogical sources. The wording of v 35 "So Sheshan gave his daughter in marriage to Jarha his slave . . ." is considered by some commentators as equivalent to making his servant his heir (Elmslie Chronicles CBC, 19), similar to Eliezer’s relationship to Abraham (Gen 15:2–3). See NUZI for discussions of patriarchal customs possibly reflecting similar arrangements. From such records, a few scholars consider Jarha a proselyte and date this incident to the period of sojourn in Egypt; others, however, consider it difficult to understand how an Egyptian could be a slave to an Israelite at that time. Still others regard Jarha as an eponym of Jerahmeel and proceed to identify Sheshan with Sheshai of Hebron, concluding that the genealogy presents a northward movement of this tribe to the area around Hebron. Locating Jarha in time is difficult, and suggestions range from shortly before the Exodus (Keil 1872: 67) to the days of Eli, or even to some date nearer to the Chronicler’s own time (see Braun, Chronicles WBC, 46). Lacking sufficient evidence the question must remain open."

Next Week: Horses from Egypt or Arabia????

Michael S. Sanders

Irvine January 2003

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