Hagar: The Immigrant

her-meneutics women's interpretation May 03, 2022

Names are important. In the book of Genesis especially, names are often playful puns. 


The name Adam (adam/אדם) in biblical Hebrew is a pun on the word adamah (אדמה) for land, soil, or ground. The name Eve (heva/חוה) is derived from the verb “to live, to be alive.” Likewise the name Abram is derived from av meaning “father” and ram meaning “respected or esteemed.” Sarah is the feminine form of an old Semitic word sar (שר) for ruler or king, meaning “queen” or “princess.” These are just examples. There are many more names in Genesis made from plays on Hebrew words.

But what does Hagar mean?

Ha-Gar is a Semitic form that comes from the root gwr in Hebrew meaning immigrant, foreigner, or sojourner. The name Hagar, thus, means “the immigrant” or “the foreigner” (a participial form with the definite article attached). 

In most ways, it is not a name at all. [1]

“Ha-Gar” is a social designation of her as the immigrant, the other, the different, the outsider. 

The Story of The Immigrant (Ha-Gar) 

The Immigrant (Ha-Gar) is first introduced in Genesis 16:1 as the slave-girl of Sarai. The text says that Sarai did not have a child, but what she does have is an Egyptian slave-girl. And so The Immigrant’s purpose in the narrative is immediately defined as the solution to Sarai’s childlessness. 

The Princess (Sarai) then tells The Esteemed Father (Av-Ram) to go to The Immigrant (Ha-Gar) in order to build (children) through her. The idea of The Esteemed Father building a family with The Immigrant (Ha-Gar) has a certain irony since The Esteemed Father is himself also an immigrant and an outsider in Canaan, but is not named as such. As Genesis 23:4 states: “I am an immigrant (ger) and sojourner…” Yet no one names him The Immigrant or the Sojourner. That designation is reserved for the Egyptian slave-girl of The Princess. Another level of irony is found in the narrative in the promise which God makes to The Esteemed Father is that his name will become great (12:2), while The Immigrant's given name remains a mystery in the text and is not remembered.

The narrative continues in Genesis 16:3 as The Esteemed Father took The Immigrant as his mistress (gebirah). This word is also used of the queen mother of Judah (2 Kings 10:13 for example) and the queen of Pharaoh (1 Kings 11:19). Yet this change in status is not reflected in a change of name, as she continues to be called The Immigrant in the narrative. 

The Immigrant realizes that she has conceived and tension grows between her and The Princess. The Esteemed Father allows The Princess to do as she wants with The Immigrant and The Princess oppresses her so cruelly that The Immigrant walks away and flees from The Princess, a sojourner once again.

The Immigrant Sees God

On the road while fleeing, The Immigrant is met by the angel of YHWH who makes a pronouncement to her. The angel tells her to return to Sarai and a promise is given: “I will make your descendants too numerous (rav arbah) to be counted.” Which sounds remarkably similar to the promise that is made to The Esteemed Father about descendants beyond counting in Genesis 13:16. It seems that Abraham is not the only one with whom YHWH makes a covenant and a promise. YHWH covenants with The Immigrant also.

Then something remarkable happens. Not only does The Immigrant speak with YHWH, but Genesis 16:13 suggests that she sees YHWH, and she gives YHWH a name. The Immigrant says, “You are El-Roi (the God Who Sees) because, didn’t I look (at God and remain alive) after seeing The One Who Sees Me?” This remarkable play on words of seeing and naming God suggests three important things.

One. God sees the Immigrant. Even if no one else does. Even if she is given a no-name name. God sees those that are cast aside, those that others choose not to see, those from whom we look away. This is important enough to Ha-Gar that she names this divine being The God Who Sees. 

Two. The Immigrant sees God with her very own eyes. In order to fully appreciate the wonder and magnificence of this, it is good to compare this narrative with Exodus 33:18-34:9 where Moses requests to see God’s glory but is denied. Moses says, “Make me to see your glory.” Here the same verb is used for seeing that we find in Genesis 16 where The Immigrant sees God. In Exodus 33, YHWH responds saying that he will make his goodness pass before Moses, “but my face… you cannot see, for no human person can see me and survive.” This sounds remarkably similar to the surprise expressed by The Immigrant that she looked at God and was able to keep looking, presumably because she was still alive.

It seems a remarkable thing that The Esteemed Father and The Princess have no similar  narrative of seeing God - only the The Immigrant does. [2]

Three. The Immigrant names God. God typically provides God’s own names in the Bible. For example, when Moses asks for God’s name in Exodus 3, the reply is “I am who I am.” In Exodus 15:27, God says, “I am YHWH, your Healer.” Yet, The Immigrant names God in Genesis 16, suggesting that she is a special person with a unique experience of YHWH. God sees her and perhaps knows her by name in a way that she is otherwise not remembered, not even by the Bible itself.

Author Melissa Ramos

Image Credit: Abel Pann, "Hagar and Ishmael"

[1] If you would like to read more on the Hagar’s name, see important works by the following authors:

Beth Elness-Hanson. “Hagar and Epistemic Injustice: An Intercultural and Post-Colonial Analysis of Genesis 16.” Old Testament Essays, vol. 34, no. 2, 2021, pp. 445–459.

Havilah Dharamraj.  “The Curious Case of Hagar: Biblical Studies and the Interdisciplinary Approach of Comparative Literature,” Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology 23:2 (2019).

Mathilde Frey. Havilah Dharamraj. “The Curious Case of Hagar: Biblical Studies and the Interdisciplinary Approach of Comparative Literature,” Journal of Asian Evangelical Theology 23:2 (2019). “The Sabbath Commandment in the Book of the Covenant: Ethics on Behalf of the Outcast,” in Journal of Asia Adventist Seminary 9.1 (2006): 3-11.

Wilda Gafney. Womanist Midrash: A Reintroduction to the Women of the Torah and the Throne (Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), pages 34ff.

[2] Abram does speak with God in Genesis 12 and have a vision of God in Genesis 15. Also, Sarah indirectly talks with God, and God listens to her in Genesis 18. However, no narrative of Abram and Sarai involves the the verb seeing (ra’a) with respect to God.

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