Hagar's legal status in Abraham's household

What was the position of Hagar in Abraham's household? Some Muslims claim she had the status of a legal wife because they seemingly think the status of Hagar has implications for the status of Ishmael and hence for the question whether the Arabs and in particular Muhammad are righfully part of the covenant God made with Abraham, and whether Muhammad is qualified to be a prophet under the promises of God.

To prove this claim, Genesis 16:3 is quoted, stating that Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham "to be his wife". But what does this mean in the context of the passage the phrase is used in?

Let us carefully read the text in question (quoted below from the NIV translation):

Genesis 16 / TextCommentary
1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2so she said to Abram, "The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her." Abram agreed to what Sarai said. The situation is clear. Sarai is the wife of Abram, and Hagar is the servant of Sarai. It was a middle eastern custom in those times that a wife could give her slave to her husband and the child thus conceived would be counted as the child of the wife ("perhaps I can build a family through her").
3So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me." 6"Your servant is in your hands," Abram said. "Do with her whatever you think best." Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her. Even after the agreement between Sarai and Abram (v.2), Hagar is still considered her maidservant (v.3). The language is important. It is not Abram who takes Hagar into his tent, but Sarai gives Hagar to Abram. Sarai is in charge. After Abram slept with Hagar and conceived, not only Sarai (v.5) but also Abram still talks about Hagar as Sarai's servant (v.6), not as his (new) wife. Furthermore, the narrator continues to call Sarai "her mistress" (v.4).

The phrase "to be his wife" in verse 3 is merely a euphemism for sexual intercourse. That is clear from the phrase that immediately follows it as well as from the original request (v.2). The context makes it clear that Hagar remained the slave not of Abraham, but of Sarai.

All throughout Genesis we find Sarai addressed as Abraham's wife many times (11:29,31; 12:5,17,18,20; 13:1; 16:1,3; 17:15,19; 18:9,10; 20:2,7,11,12,14,18; 23:3,19) by the narrator, by Abraham, or by God himself. Hagar is never called the wife of Abraham, whether by Abraham, or by Sarah, or by God and only once by the narrator in the above discussed verse 16:3.

The custom refered to in verse 2 is well known in history and for instance in Babylonian law a wife was entitled to get children from her husband through her slave, without any idea that the slave would receive the status of a legal wife. In the Bible the same custom is employed again by Abraham's grandson Jacob with Lea and Rachel, his wives, and their maidservants Bilhah and Zilpah (Gen. 29:31 - 30:23).
7The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8And he said, "Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?" "I'm running away from my mistress Sarai," she answered. 9Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." 10The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." 11The angel of the LORD also said to her: "You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. 12He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers." 13She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: "You are the God who sees me," for she said, "I have now seen the One who sees me." 14That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. 15So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael. Hagar herself speaks to the angel about "my mistress Sarai" She does not question her status as a servant of Sarai. It is not the status but mistreatment by Sarai which is the issue.

More importantly, when the angel of the LORD appears to her he addresses her as "Hagar, servant of Sarai", not as "Hagar, wife of Abram". The messenger from God surely knows her proper title and position. And the angel gives her the command, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her".

We should, however, not overlook the mercy and love God shows for Hagar and her son as well as the prophetic promise that Lord gives regarding Ishmael. The name of the boy is first given to Hagar and Abraham follows this command to name him Ishmael.

Please also have a look at this detailed study of the Family of Abraham including God's promises to Ishmael and his descendants.

God's covenant with Abraham - continued in Ishmael or Isaac?

Since the existence of Ishmael has introduced a new situation, the next chapter clarifies the status of God's covenant with Abraham regarding Ishmael and Isaac. All of chapter 17 is about the confirmation and specification of this covenant (vv. 2, 7, 19, 21). Verses 4-6 and 15-16 (green) document the new names that God gives to Abram and Sarai (not to Hagar) and the parallel promise to make them to be respectively father or mother of many nations and that kings will come from them. This covenant is specified to refer to a son that Abraham will be given by God through Sarah and who is not yet born. The covenant will be established with this promised son Isaac who is to be born through Sarah (vv. 19 and 21). However, there is a blessing for Ishmael as well (v. 20) which is interestingly bracketed between the double confirmation that the covenant will belong to Isaac and his descendents. I take that to mean that Ishmael will only inherit the fulness of the blessing where he does not resist this covenant but accepts the blessing that is to come through the covenant to all the nations (Gen. 12:3).

Genesis 17: 1When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to him and said, "I am God Almighty; walk before me and be blameless. 2I will confirm my covenant between me and you and will greatly increase your numbers." 3Abram fell facedown, and God said to him, 4"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. 5No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. 6I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. 7I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. [ ... ] 15God also said to Abraham, "As for Sarai your wife, you are no longer to call her Sarai; her name will be Sarah. 16I will bless her and will surely give you a son by her. I will bless her so that she will be the mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her." 17Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, "Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?" 18And Abraham said to God, "If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!" 19Then God said, "Yes, but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. 20And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. 21But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year." 22When he had finished speaking with Abraham, God went up from him. 23On that very day Abraham took his son Ishmael and all those born in his household or bought with his money, every male in his household, and circumcised them, as God told him. 24Abraham was ninety-nine years old when he was circumcised, 25and his son Ishmael was thirteen; 26Abraham and his son Ishmael were both circumcised on that same day. 27And every male in Abraham's household, including those born in his household or bought from a foreigner, was circumcised with him.

Ishmael is recognized as a son of Abraham (v.26) and they are circumcised together, however that does not make Ishmael the heir of the covenant any more than the male slaves in Abraham's household who were circumcised with him as well (v.27).

After Sarah's death, Abraham takes another wife, Keturah (Gen. 25:1), and God greatly blesses him with many more children from her and possibly further concubines (Gen. 25:6) unless that is a reference to Hagar and Keturah.

However, he leaves all he owns to Isaac (Gen. 25:5) and after giving gifts to the other sons, he sends them away just as Ishmael was sent away earlier (Gen. 21). After the death of Abraham God continues to honor the covenant and blesses Isaac (Gen. 25:11).

The Torah leaves no question that the covenant relationship of God with Abraham continues with Isaac. The two sentences after the "but" in verse 19 and 21 make this unambiguously clear. Only Isaac, the son of promise, inherits the covenant and Ishmael does not. However, Ishmael is not forgotten and has a promise of God's blessing. Please study carefully the article The Family of Abraham to understand this issue including the promises to Ishmael in a deeper way.

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