What does the Torah say about Hagar and Ishmael?

God spoke to Hagar and gave her prophecies on two occasions. She was a very spiritual, remarkable woman. When our father Abraham visited Egypt, Pharaoh gave him many gifts and slaves. One of the Egyptian slave girls had such special qualities that she was chosen to serve as handmaid to Abraham’s wife, Sarah. Later Abraham and his tribe had to flee Egypt quickly. In memory of this, they renamed the young woman Hagar, which means “flight” in Hebrew. (This is similar to the Arabic word, hegira.) Hagar is called Hajar in Arabic.

Abraham and Sarah had been married for many years, but still had no children. Abraham expressed his concern to God: “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.” But God promised to Abraham that “a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir” (Genesis 15:3–4 NIV). Abraham waited many years for the promise to be fulfilled, but finally Sarah became too old to have a child. So seeking to fulfill God’s promise in her own way, she gave her handmaid to Abraham to bear a child for her. This was the custom in those days: since the slave belonged to her, the child that Hagar conceived by Sarah’s husband could be considered hers.

Hagar did become pregnant, but unfortunately this caused her to look down on Abraham’s wife. Sarah therefore became angry with her slave and mistreated her. Hagar fled into the desert and stopped to rest by the spring of water. Then the Angel of the Lord—who was no ordinary angel, but the very Presence of God—appeared to Hagar and told her to return and to submit to Sarah.

Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” And the Angel of the Lord said to her: “Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has heard your affliction” (Genesis 16:10–11 NKJV).

This was the first prophecy God gave to Hagar. And the amazing thing is, Ishmael was the first person in all the earth to be named by God before birth. In the Scriptures, only four people were named by God before they were born through a divinely-granted appearance of an angel or of God Himself. God prophesied about others, but only four were named in this remarkable manner. The first was Ishmael, second was Isaac, third was John the Baptist, and the last was Jesus. (See Genesis 16:11; 17:19; Luke 1:13, 31.) And Hagar was the first person to whom God appeared and gave a child’s name.

Some years later, Sarah herself became pregnant by a miracle of God and gave birth to a son named Isaac. When Ishmael was about fifteen or sixteen, Abraham made a great feast on the day Isaac was weaned, but during the feast, Sarah saw Ishmael making fun of her son, so she insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. Abraham was grieved like any father would be, but when he asked the Lord, God told him to do what Sarah had said. God Himself promised to protect and bless Ishmael.

Sent out into the desert, Hagar and Ishmael soon ran out of water and were dying of thirst. Hagar, unable to bear watching her son die, left him in the shade of a bush then sat down some distance away to cry out to God. And the Lord spoke to her again.

Then the angel of God called to Hagar out of heaven, and said to her, “What ails you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the lad where he is. Arise, lift up the lad and hold him with your hand, for I will make him a great nation.” Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. And she went and filled the skin with water, and gave the lad a drink (Genesis 21:17–19 NKJV).

This was the second time that God in His great love and concern for Hagar and Ishmael, spoke to her and gave her a prophecy. This time He promised Hagar that He would make Ishmael into a great nation. This prophecy was fulfilled many years in the future.