Hagar the Egyptian, a Daughter of Pharaoh or a Commoner?

Posted by on Jan 16, 2024

In the narrative of Genesis, we find that Hagar was an Egyptian, a handmaid of Sarah, Avraham’s wife. We derive this from the plain reading of Genesis 16:1. However, according to the Rabbinic tradition, which is not well established, Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter from a concubine, whom he gave as a compensation for having wronged Avram (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 26:7). Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer (Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer) is a midrash (interpretation) that retells and expands upon the biblical narrative, from the beginning of the Book of Genesis through the story of Miriam’s leprosy in the Book of Numbers. Based on the oral tradition, Targum Jonathan, renders Genesis 16:1 thus,

But Sara, the wife of Abram, had not borne to him. But he had a handmaid, an Egyptian, and her name was Hagar, a daughter of Pharoh, whom he gave to him as a handmaid at the time that he received her, being struck by the Word from before the Lord.

A descendant of Hagar, the mother of Ishmael with whom the conflict with Israel began.

A descendant of Hagar the Egyptian, the mother of Ishmael with whom the conflict with Israel began.

Why is the verse in the Tanach not written the way Targum Jonathan says it should be understood? Is changing the text to something else called “translation”? As the reader can see, Targum Jonathan (Targum, an Aramaic translation of Tanach) is more than a mere Aramaic translation of the Tanach. It includes material collected from various sources as late as the Midrash Rabbah as well as earlier material from the Talmud. It is effectively a combination of a commentary and a translation. In the portions where it is pure translation, it often agrees with the Targum Onkelos (Primary Targum on the Torah accepted in the Talmud as authoritative), which in this case follows the Hebrew Tanach. And the Tanach reads as follows (notice the differences between the Tanach and Targum Jonathan),

Now Sarai Abram’s wife bore him no children; and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. (Gen 16:1 JPS)

Those who say that “an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar” refers to “an Egyptian, a daughter of Pharaoh, whose name was Hagar” are giving the verse a meaning that it does not have. Rashi says that Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh. When Pharaoh saw the miracles which had been performed for Sarah’s sake, allegedly he had said, “It is better for my daughter to be a handmaid in this man’s house than be mistress in another man’s house” (Genesis Rabbah 45:1). However, this seems to be farfetched. This is an assumption, for Rashi does not prove his point from the Tanach. It is therefore not binding and cannot be offered as proof, because nothing in the text of the Tanach suggests that Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter, as intended by the Rabbis. The text must therefore be interpreted according to its plain meaning.

So, who was Hagar, a daughter of Pharaoh, or a commoner? We will seek an answer to this question in the following, as we present the plain reading of the Tanach, and we will leave the conclusion for the reader’s consideration.

The mistakes the patriarch made

YHVH Elohim promised Avram that the land of Kana’an would belong to him and his descendants forever. And soon after the promise was made, there was a famine in the land of Kana’an. The Kana’anites were able to survive the famine, but Avram felt compelled to go down to Egypt because of the famine. There was no mass migration from Kana’an to Egypt because of the famine, but Avram went down to Egypt anyway. This was the test of faith the patriarch underwent, namely, either to stay in the land or to seek livelihood in a foreign land. Avram chose the foreign land over the land that was just promised to him. We should recall that when there was a scarcity of food in the land of Kana’an, besides the first scarcity of food which was in the days of Avraham, Yitschak went to Avimelech, the king of the Philistines. He did not go down to Egypt for YHVH appeared to him and told him to live in the land as He commanded him. In contrast, when Ya’akov faced famine in Kana’an, which was even worse than the famine in the days of his fathers, for all the land of Egypt and Kana’an was affected, he only sent his sons to Egypt to buy grain, but the family remained in the land.

The events that took place after Avram entered Kana’an span twenty-four years: from Gen 12:1-4, when he was 75 years old, to Gen 17:1-15, when he was 99. Assuming that Avraham went down to Egypt in the year of his entry in the land of Kana’an (as the context suggests) and soon after he left it, Hagar the Egyptian appears for the first time on the stage in Gen 16:1, when she got pregnant from the 85-year old Avraham; Avraham was 86 years old when Yishmael was born to him, Gen 16:16. This means that no less than ten years have elapsed between Genesis 12, when Avaram went to Egypt, and Genesis 16, when we first hear of Hagar.

Avram and all his household went to Egypt because of the famine. While Avram was in Egypt, Pharaoh had Sarai, Avram’s wife, abducted on account of her beauty to make her his wife. Avram did not say to Pharoah that Sarai was in fact his wife because he feared for his life. Pharaoh took her and treated Avram very well for her sake giving him sheep and cattle, male and female servants. Pharaoh’s intention that he wanted her as his regal wife, not just his concubine, is seen later in his rebuke to Avram,

Why did you say, “She is my sister”? so, I took her to be my wife. Look, here is your wife, take her and go. (Gen 12:19)

There are three stories concerning the patriarchs who lied on account of their beautiful wives in order to save their lives, and they are: (1) Avraham and Sarah in Egypt (Genesis 12); (2) Avraham and Sarah in Philistia (Genesis 20); and (3) Yitschak and Rivkah in Philistia (Genesis 26).

The Egyptians took Sarai from him, and Elohim punished them with great plagues because of her. And when Pharaoh found out that she was Avram’s wife, he commanded his men to send him away with his wife and all that he (Avram) had (servants, stock, and possessions). The oral tradition has it that Pharaoh also gave his daughter, Hagar, as a servant of Avram. But this is nowhere recorded in the Torah, neither in Genesis 12, nor elsewhere in the Tanach. The first time we hear of Hagar is four chapters later in Gen 16:1 and the last time in Gen 25:12, where she appears in the genealogy of Ishmael, with no indications in the Torah that Pharoah gave his daughter, while he was in Egypt. The only text that refers to Avram having male and female servants in Egypt reads,

And he (Pharaoh) treated Avram well for her sake. And he had sheep, and cattle, and male donkeys, and male and female servants, and female donkeys, and camels. (Gen 12:16)

This text is ambiguous. It is unclear if Avram acquired these male and female servants from Pharaoh, or he had already had when he arrived in Egypt. Either way, one is sure, the following text does not claim that any daughter of Pharaoh left Egypt with Avram. The most pronounced example of this is in the passage of the last verse of Chapter 12 and the first two verses of Chapter 13. We read thus,

And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him, and they sent him away, with his wife and all that he had. And Avram went up from Egypt into the South, he and his wife and all that he had, and Lot with him. And Avram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. (Gen 12:20-Gen 13:2)

Avram returned to Kana’an, he and his wife, but an Egyptian princess called “Hagar” was not with them. This seems quite astounding. Why did the Torah fail to mention this detail? Hagar the servant of Sarai is indeed called “the Egyptian” but this is not sufficient for the Rabbinic claim, for it would have been proper for Scripture to say, “And Avram went up from Egypt into the South, he and his wife, and Hagar, the daughter of Pharaoh”. Another difficulty in this passage is that the Torah does not mention Hagar, even as a commoner among the female servants. And when Hagar became pregnant by Avram and ran away from her mistress, she indeed attempted to return to Egypt, which is the most natural thing for her to do, but this does not prove at all that she was in fact an Egyptian princess.

So, where did Hagar come from, and how did she become a member of Avram’s household? The ambiguity comes from the fact that there is no explicit record anywhere in the Torah that Hagar was Pharoah’s daughter. So, if Hagar were an Egyptian princess (as per the oral tradition), why is she not mentioned in Gen 12:20-Gen 13:2? She was indeed mentioned but only in Genesis 16, where she appears ten years later, but only as a servant to Sarai. Or, if she was not a daughter of Pharaoh but a commoner, how did she become a servant of Sarah? The Torah saw fit not to disclose this, perhaps, on account of irrelevance. The Torah does not make a vague commentary.

However, if some were to argue that Hagar was Pharaoh’s daughter and that the Rabbinic tradition should be held as authoritative, there is no merit to such an argument. The fact is that this is not made clear, as it is made clear for the daughter of Potiphar, whom Pharaoh gave to Yoseph as wife. With that being said, the want of trustworthy accounts in the Rabbinic sources precludes the possibility of Hagar being a daughter of Pharaoh.

And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him to wife Asenath the daughter of Poti-phera priest of On. (Gen 41:45 JPS)

Thus, it will be clear to the reader that the perception of “Hagar the daughter of Pharaoh is expressed only in the Rabbinic literature, not in the Tanach. And we leave the question open on which side the facts lie.

Now, when Sarai realized that her husband was already 85 years old, and she still had not been able to bear a child for him, while she herself had already reached the age of 75, she thought that she had no longer hope of procreating and becoming a mother, and decided to give her servant, Hagar the Egyptian, to Avram in order to obtain an heir through her. It was a custom and practice in the ancient world if a wife could not produce an heir for ten years, she might be obligated to provide her husband with another woman through whom the husband would have a son [from Genesis Rabbah 45:3]. The wife’s position in the family was protected by keeping the second woman in a servile status to her. And this was indeed what Sarai did. She gave her servant Hagar to her husband in order for him to obtain an heir. But when Hagar saw that she was pregnant, she despised her mistress (Gen 16:4). Hagar the Egyptian must have concluded that if the God of Avram had not blessed her mistress with children, He had blessed her, and in her eyes that was a good reason to rebel against Sarai.

Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Ramban, was a leading Torah scholar of the Middle Ages who authored commentaries on Torah and the Talmud. Ramban makes the argument that whatever is written concerning the patriarch Avraham is also written concerning his descendants. He wrote in his commentary on Genesis 12:10 thus,

Know that Avraham our father unintentionally committed a great sin by bringing his righteous wife to a stumbling-block of sin on account of his fear for his life. He should have trusted that God would save him and his wife and all his belongings for God surely has the power to help and to save. His leaving the Land, concerning which he had been commanded from the beginning, on account of the famine, was also a sin he committed, for in famine God would redeem him from death. It was because of this deed that the exile in the land of Egypt at the hand of Pharaoh was decreed for his children.

Rabbeinu Bahya makes the same argument that Avraham committed two sins: first, when he left the land of Kana’an on account of the famine, instead of demonstrating faith in God, and second, when he caused his wife to sin on account of his own fear of being killed. “This was an inadvertent sin committed by Avram; it caused the eventual exile in Egypt of his descendants”, said Rabbeinu Bahya.

Hagar bore Avraham a son, Ishmael. Years later, when Yitschak was born, they both were expelled to the desert, so that the promised son would remain in the family. Hagar and Ishmael were rescued by an angel, and Ishmael became the ancestor of the people known today as Arabs. The rest is history with severe consequences, which we witness today in the Land of Israel.

Suggested reading: Ishmael and Israel: From Rivalry to Accord – Time of Reckoning Ministry

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