SARAH COULDN'T HAVE CHILDREN, so she persuaded her husband, Abraham, to have a child with her lady's maid Hagar instead. Abraham and Hagar both proved willing, and soon a child was on the way.
As you'd think one of them might have foreseen, however, there are certain problems inherent in a ménage à trois that are not solved by the prospect of its becoming a ménage à quatre. Au contraire.
As Sarah saw it, Hagar no longer walked around the house, she flounced, and whenever she had a craving for things like bagels and lox, naturally Abraham went out and got them for her. In no time at all Sarah was livid with jealousy. Eager for peace at any price, Abraham said to go ahead and fire Hagar then if that would make things better, and within a short time Hagar was out on the street with all her belongings piled around her, including a layette.
It wasn't long, however, before an angel found her there and persuaded her to go back in and try to patch things up with her mistress. Not having anything better in mind, Hagar agreed. Then the angel told her that the Lord had taken pity on her and wanted her to know that she was to name her baby Ishmael when he came. He also wanted her to know that though Ishmael was never going to win any popularity contests, he would nonetheless be the first of a multitude of descendants. It was a promise. Much cheered by this, Hagar returned to the house through the servants' entrance, ate humble pie, and was eventually given back her old job. A few months later, Ishmael was born, just as the Lord had said.
But her troubles weren't over. To the stupefaction of her gynecologists, it wasn't long before Sarah herself gave birth to a son named Isaac, who God promised would be the father of a great nation. This was so far beyond her wildest expectations, not to mention everybody else's, that for a while she was as happy as she'd ever been; but then one day she found Isaac and Ishmael playing together in the nursery, and once again the fat was in the fire.
She was convinced that her upstairs son would have to split his inheritance with Hagar's downstairs brat, so for the second time she nagged Abraham into driving them both out of the house permanently. When they got as far as Beersheba, they ran out of water. Hagar gave up her son for dead and sat down and wept.
It all ended happily, however. This time the Lord took care of her personally. First he produced a well and then he told her to dry her eyes because not only would her son live, but he gave her his word that the boy would grow up to be the father of a great nation just like his half brother, Isaac, back home. And so it came to pass.
The story of Hagar is the story of the terrible jealousy of Sarah and the singular ineffectuality of Abraham and the way Hagar, who knew how to roll with the punches, managed to survive them both. Above and beyond that, however, it is the story of how in the midst of the whole unseemly affair the Lord, half tipsy with compassion, went around making marvelous promises and loving everybody and creating great nations like the last of the big-time spenders handing out hundred-dollar bills.
Genesis 16; 21