Illustrious Women of Bible and Catholic Church History – Agar the Bondwoman

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Though Agar the “bondwoman” and her wayward boy were dismissed with a brief mention in the chapter on Sara the Princess, it is not because they are personages of little importance, but because they are so very important that they should have a separate notice. For, if we trace back to the great princess and her son the line from which sprung the founders of Christianity and the parents of modern civilization, we are also bound to acknowledge in the tribes descended from Agar and Ismael the authors of a kindred creed and a parallel civilization, second only to Christianity in widespread influence. This shall be made manifest when we have studied a little more leisurely the historical figures of mother and son.

Abraham, after his return from Egypt, and his separation from Lot, dwelt for several years near that same Hebron where he and Sara now await the resurrection-day. An Amorrhite chief, named Mambre, allowed him to pitch his tents in a grove of lordly oaks, and to pasture his numerous flocks in the adjoining vale. It was while there, that the allied kings of Mesopotamia swooped down on the valley of the Jordan to punish a revolt of Chanaanite princes, and carried away into captivity the population spared by the sword. Among these were Lot and his family. Abraham, uniting his armed dependents with those of Mambre, followed the victors to the head-waters of the Jordan, defeated them with great slaughter, rescued the captives, and returned to the “vale of Mambre,” hailed and blessed as a conqueror and a savior.

It was at this period, while in the very height of wealth, power, and fame, and while the land resounded with his praises, that Sara, despondent at her own childless condition, gave as wife to her lord “a handmaid, an Egyptian, named Agar” (Genesis 16:1). For ten years had Sara lived on amid these fertile valleys, with their setting of majestic mountain scenery, her husband’s position becoming daily higher among the great ones of the land; but the devoted wife’s eyes looked in vain for the coming of the heir to all this wealth and greatness. In the very first age of the World, and during the lifetime of Adam and Eve, polygamy was introduced into the family by Cain’s evil brood. The practice of adding to the one lawful wife and mother inferior wives, no matter by what appellation dignified or disgraced, became general: the good themselves, even among the posterity of Seth, and, later, among the most favored descendants of Sem, yielded to the force of custom. We see it practiced by the patriarchs, apparently in good faith; and jurists and theologians have ever been divided as to its necessity and lawfulness, even at a period when humanity was in its cradle, and the young earth craved hands to till it or gather the spontaneous fruits of its teeming soil.

In these patriarchal households, none but a slave could be such an inferior wife. Bondage was an element inseparable from a condition so humiliating; and bondage was the fate of the vanquished in lawful war, or of the captives made in the incessant forays in which men indulged from the earliest historical times. War, slavery, and polygamy, like the fearful proneness to idolatry, are hard to account for in these primitive ages. God, who had given man free will, had to bear with its excesses and abuse, even as religion had to tolerate bondage and polygamy.

Agar was probably one of the female slaves bestowed on the princess by the Egyptian monarch, when he restored her with all honor to her husband. Some traditions say that she was herself of royal blood, a daughter of the Pharaohs. Her name is identical with the Arabic Hajir, “flight.” Was she some nobly-born maiden, captured in a raid like that in repelling which her present master had just distinguished himself? Did she see her home leveled, her parents massacred before the Egyptian raider had put the yoke on her neck? Egypt, in that day, extended its empire as far as Nubia and Abyssinia, and sought for slaves around those very lakes where we are now trying to trace the waters of the Nile to their head-spring. Perhaps it was because the high-spirited girl again and again broke her yoke, and fled from captivity and dishonor, that she was named Hagar; for names, in that early age, had a meaning and a purpose.

Certain it is that hers was not a tame soul; and the sequel shows her to be gifted with ardent and devoted affection. Perhaps this very trait in her character had endeared her to Sara, herself so unselfish and single-hearted. Nor is there room to doubt, that in choosing Agar to be mother to the heir of all her husband’s possessions, to be mother of the child that she intended herself to adopt and love as her own, Sara gave her handmaid no equivocal proof of her confidence and esteem.

But there was, most likely, a great difference in their respective ages. So long as there had been no thought of raising Agar above the level of her fellow-servants, she looked up to the stately beauty of her lady with an admiration which was sincere, because shared by all who gazed on a countenance from which years had not taken away a single grace, while stamping it with a serener majesty. But with the prospects of maternity came new thoughts and new aspirations. It is not that the Bible narrative gives any hint that Abraham transferred to the hand maid a share, though never so slight, of the abiding respect and tenderness with which he regarded her whose whole being was interwoven with his own. In accepting Agar, he yielded to Sara’s urgent prayer, while still hoping that the wife of his youth would yet bear the son on whose head should rest all the glories of God’s renewed promises.

It may be, that, of Agar’s companions, some sought her favor in her elevation, and first whispered comparisons injurious to their mistress; while others were but too ready to report to Sara, exaggerated or distorted, the very words of disparagement or contempt they had themselves suggested. At all events, she “despised her mistress” (Genesis 16:4).

Jealousy, especially in such as Sara, aged, childless, conscious of a long life’s unbounded devotion to one blessed and honored of God and men alike, and conscious, too, of being the unselfish benefactress of the slave who would be her rival, is all the more terrible, that it appears most just. “The Lord judge between me and thee!” Such is the passionate appeal of the lawful wife, who thinks her own place in her husband’s heart usurped by another, and her honor in her household over shadowed by unworthy assumptions of superiority.

There surely was moral imperfection in the choice made by Sara, and consented to by Abraham, both because it was a departure from the original and divinely intended unity of marriage, and because it implied a distrust in God’s power or willingness to give to Sara a son. And there is as surely injustice in Abraham’s giving over to the unreasoning wrath of a jealous woman, one who, though but a slave, was now the mother of his child. “Behold thy handmaid is in thy own hand: use her as it pleaseth thee. And, when Sarai afflicted her, she ran away.”

Nothing more powerfully moves the attentive reader to implicit trust in the truthfulness of the sacred writers than the simplicity with which they relate what is really or apparently censurable in the acts they record, as well as what is most praiseworthy. Polygamy is opposed to the perfection, at least, of nature’s holiest institution: slavery is a condition that violates the dearest rights of humanity. See how nature, when wronged, soon turns on the evil-doer to plague him! “Use her as it pleaseth thee,” is said to the mistress of her offending slave. That the “use,” under the circumstances, soon became “ill-usage,” and that the correction degenerated into intolerable oppression, the sequel tells but too well.

But He who made not man for slavery, but destined all, from the beginning, to the exalted “freedom of the children of God,” will know when and how to repair the wrongs inflicted by the abuse of man’s liberty and power. It was the duty of the patriarch, as father, king, teacher, lawgiver, and judge in his own household, to instruct the poor slave given over to him in Egypt. Indeed, Philo says expressly that Abraham and Sara, as well by their saintly examples as by word of mouth, brought their Egyptian handmaiden to the knowledge and worship of the true God. Nevertheless, they fail, in the hour of passion and wrong, to show her, in their forbearance, kindness, and parental reproof, an image of the divine mercy toward the erring. The poor, vain, hot headed, impulsive thing is made to feel, that, although a half-wife in the family, and about to become a mother, she is still but a slave. The yoke so galls her neck, that she flies, turning her face toward her native land.

The desert of Sur, into which the maddened woman plunges headlong, is now well known to the reading public from the detailed and graphic accounts published by travelers and scientific men. Even with skillful guides, and all the comforts and protection money can buy, there are great dangers in the appalling solitudes, with their trackless wastes and labyrinthine valleys, shut in by naked and jagged mountain walls.

How far she had sped on her desperate journey is not told; but she had lain down, sore of foot, and sorer of heart, by the brink of one of the fountains that dot, at rare intervals, the tracks leading toward Egypt. God, who knows of what a mixture of strength and weakness even the noblest souls are made, did not turn his eye away for one moment from the forlorn fugitive. She was his creature, whatever else she was; and he had a mission for her and her posterity. She had been also taught to call on his name in the hour of need. Perhaps her heart-cry had gone up to him before she sank down in exhaustion or in slumber beneath the scanty shade of the little oasis. Lo! God’s angel stands by her. “Agar, handmaid of Sarai, whence comest thou? and whither goest thou? ” “I flee from the face of Sarai, my mistress.” “Return,” is the injunction of the heavenly messenger, “return to thy mistress, and humble thyself under her hand.”

It is hard for the soul torn with a tempest of passion to listen to the divine Voice, even when it speaks in no dark or doubtful accents; and acquiescence seems impossible, when one is commanded to do what is most repugnant to the inner sense of justice. But the Author of our being knows how to touch its springs of action, and, while respecting the innate freedom of our will, to present to it such motives of action, and supply such incentives toward overcoming our inclination, that the victory of his grace becomes a sweet act of obedience. See how he deals with the rebellious spirit before us!

“Behold! [the angel here speaks in God’s own name] . . . thou shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Ismael [whom God hears]; because the Lord hath heard thy affliction. He shall be a wild man: his hand will be against all men, and all men’s hands against him; and he shall pitch his tents over against all his brethren.” So, before the eyes of this outcast and fugitive, the veil of futurity is lifted by the divine Hand, and the destinies of her babe and his posterity are disclosed. Through the long procession of ages, Ismael, living in his children, shall continue to believe in the God of Abraham; and the tents of the wild desert race shall never be far from those of the sons of Sara, whether these still hold their inheritance in Palestine, or mourn in captivity along the Mesopotamian rivers, or be dispersed by the sword of the Roman conqueror among the descendants of Japhet. There will be hostility between them, notwithstanding. No more bitter enemies of the religion and race of Israel have ever existed than the twelve sons of Ismael and their progeny, both before Mohammed and since.

In that vision, the fond mother most likely only dwelt with rapture on what flattered her ambition, the long line of war like and conquering tribes that were to look back to herself, and hail her Mother and Princess. Nor, though the Arabian sway has disappeared from Spain and Northern Africa, lingering like a sickly vegetation in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, has the progeny of Ismael yet ceased to possess in Arabia Proper the elements of an empire, warlike, cultivated, and as fanatical as the hordes which Mohammed or Omar first led to victory.

It can be truly said of the formidable Wahhabee power, nursed amid the beautiful and desert-bound valleys of Central Arabia, that their hand is against every man, and every man’s hand against them. God only, who in the present prepares the elements of future empires, revolutions, and civilizations, as he holds in his hand the nebular matter of future worlds in the dark and distant abysses of space, God alone knows and can foretell what is to come of these two or three millions of Ismaelites concealed in the very heart of a continent till the dawning of the fated day that lets them loose upon the nations.

Well might Agar exclaim as the Voice ceased, the preternatural splendors disappeared, and the mysterious form of the speaker receded from her view, “Thou the God who hast seen me!” The light of that countenance had fallen upon her in her darkest hour, and made the wilderness appear a paradise. She would go back to her mistress now, and bear the worst. God watched over her: therefore would she bide the fulfillment of his gracious promises, and meanwhile accept the humiliations that awaited her.

But no further mention is made of punishment or hard usage. With the return of the lost one, humanity asserted its claims in the bosom of Sara; and nature, its obligations in that of Abraham. They both welcomed the birth of Ismael with joy; but the mother had her own mighty secret, and she could afford to con ceal her exultation. Besides, with the knowledge of her boy s destinies, a feeling of just gratitude toward her mistress could now show itself in the offices of a more respectful love, and in the thousand graceful ways in which a heart so satisfied could pay the homage of its reverence and regard to a benefactress.

The sturdy boy had reached his thirteenth year when God made his solemn covenant with Abraham, and distinctly foretold the birth of Isaac. Sara’s son alone is God’s choice: from him is to spring the God-Man, in whom is the fullness of grace and blessing. While listening “flat on his face” to these joyous tidings, Abraham sends up one brief petition for the son already born; it sounds like a sob from a heart agonized at the prospect of some great impending evil: “Oh that Ismael may live before thee!” (Genesis 17:18)

The answer comes promptly: With Isaac “and his seed after him,” shall the “perpetual covenant” be made; “and as for Ismael I have also heard thee. Behold, I will bless him, and multiply him exceedingly.”

“The very same day” was Ismael initiated, by that sacrament prefigurative of baptism, into the special service of the Most High; nor since that day, despite the admixture of idolatrous rites in their worship, and often downright idolatry, despite their lawless life of desert warfare, blood, and pillage, have even the wandering Bedaween tribes, descended of Abraham’s eldest son, omitted to set this seal of consecration on their sons. Much more so has this fidelity to traditional usage characterized the more direct descendants of Ismael, dwelling in the civilized communities of Central Arabia.

Even when the heir of the promises is born, and the whole surrounding country, as has ever been the Eastern custom, flock to the tent of the patriarch to celebrate the event, no instance is related of Agar’s having resented by word or deed the supplanting of her boy in the homage of the entire household. Still it was but natural that both the slave and her son should keenly feel the change thereby produced in their own prospects, and in the attitude of all around them. Elder brothers, when fast approaching man’s estate, and enjoying that consciousness of unlimited strength and length of years inseparable from their age, are but ill disposed to admit the superiority of a younger brother, and he a babe. Ismael was fond of warlike sports from early boyhood, and, though probably informed by both his parents of the divine promises concerning himself, he did not feel disposed to give up tamely to the infant Isaac the lovely alpine regions of Chanaan, with their exhaustless pasture-lands, broad lakes, majestic river, and delightful climate, for the myste rious and dreaded wildernesses that lay beyond, and the dark chances of building up there an independent and rival nation.

The headlong petulance and violence derived from his mother’s African blood would break out more than once, disturbing the peace of the patriarch’s tent, and filling his soul with forebodings of future strife.

Isaac was only a nursling, and could not be a playfellow for his boisterous brother. Besides, Sara watched both with that jealous affection that no word or look escapes. In Isaac’s third or fifth year came the “weaning feast,” celebrated with a splendor in keeping with the rank and wealth of the parents. In the midst of the festivities, Sara noticed a burst of Ismael’s fierce temper toward his younger. The text is obscure; but it hints at “mockery,” or “violence,” or habitual “persecution” (Galatians 4:29), which on that day culminated in some scandalous outbreak. That spirit could no longer be overlooked. Isaac was but a child, whose meek and unresisting nature was like clay in the hand of the potter; and Abraham had long passed his hundredth year. If death should cut off the father before his heir had reached man’s estate, who could protect the latter against the jealous violence of his brother, abetted and egged on by Agar’s fiery ambition?

So these two mothers and their sons must part. “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with my son Isaac. Abraham took this grievously for his son. And God said to him, Let it not seem grievous to thee for the boy and for thy bondwoman. In all that Sara hath said to thee hearken to her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. But I will make the son also of the bondwoman a great nation, because he is thy seed.” This assurance from on high came to the patriarch in the night. He could no longer hesitate, since God himself commanded the separation, and took Agar and Ismael thenceforward under his own immediate care. “So Abraham rose up in the morning, and, taking bread and a bottle (a skinful) of water, put it upon her shoulder, delivered the boy to her, and sent her away.”

Among the hardy and temperate peoples of the East, bread and wholesome water are to this day the staff of life, and the staple of the travelers food as they hurry across the desert.

The inspired writer omits the loving words of comfort with which the venerable man encouraged both mother and son to depart, and to commit themselves wholly to the care of that true Father who had just renewed the prophecy of Ismael’s greatness, and of his own especial providence over him.

Words of comfort fall chillingly on a mother’s heart when thus turned adrift into the solitude of the wide world, without home, protector, or friend among all mankind, and while the door of her child’s father is irrevocably closed upon her. It was the second time that she directed her steps toward the desolate tracts of Southern Palestine.

“She departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Bersabee (Beersheba). And, when the water in the bottle was spent, she cast the boy under one of the trees that were there. And she went her way, and sat over against him a great way off, as far as a bow can carry; for she said, I will not see the boy die. And, sitting over against, she lifted up her voice, and wept.” Man, even the most hardened, is moved by a mother’s tears falling fast over a dying child, particularly an only one: how much more He who made the mother’s heart, and created love and compassion there, like unfailing springs of succor and comfort for human misery! And He who has placed such deep wells of tenderness in woman’s soul, doth he not possess mercy the power to pity, to help, to save in its infinitude? Forgetful and blind that we are! In our distress of today, we see only what is dark and desolate in our pathway: we conjure up a thousand difficulties and dangers that beset us as with a wilderness over which there is no road, and we think not even of God’s miracles of deliverance wrought for us yesterday, nor of his nearness to us in our present need.

With the wailing of the poor mother arose cries of distress from Ismael. “And God heard the voice of the boy; and an angel of God called to Agar from heaven, saying, What art thou doing, Agar? Fear not; for God hath heard the voice of the boy from the place wherein he is. Arise, take up the boy, and hold him by the hand; for I will make him a great nation. And God opened her eyes; and she saw a well of water, and went and filled the bottle, and gave the boy to drink. And God was with him: and he grew, and dwelt in the wilderness, and became a young man, an archer.”

To mothers oppressed with care, and bereft, to all appearance, of all earthly aid and resource, what a lesson is here! But why limit its teaching and consolations to them? There are few homes within this broad Christian land, in which hours of darkness and desolation do not fall, blotting out every green and refreshing spot on the face of the earth, and quenching the light of every star in the heavens. God himself, in these terrible moments, we think, has utterly forsaken us, withdrawing the presence that once filled the soul with joy and song. Oh! when we deem him far off, that ear is close to our lips, listening to the first whisper of our prayer, that heart is throbbing to pour forth its grace, and the succoring hand already outstretched to raise up the poor sufferer.

In the Arabian traditions, the desert in which Agar and Ismael wandered is placed near Mecca. There, too, is shown the fountain which the angel caused to burst forth for the boy s need. All the honors paid by the Israelites to Isaac and Sara the Arabs transfer to Agar and Ismael. She is the princess who introduced into Arabia the long robes, still distinctive of Arab women, and whose touch is sure protection to the stranger or the culprit, as if Agar still cast over them her royal mantle.

The last act related of her is her choosing an Egyptian wife for her son, probably from among her own kinsfolk. It was a fresh addition of wild impulsiveness to the blood she had given him. Was she present at the death of Sara, or the burial of Abraham? On all this, history is silent; but it is not likely that she ever returned to the scenes of her bitter humiliation. Her tomb, it is claimed, is in Mecca, with that of her son; the presence of their relics being one of the chief causes that render the spot so peculiarly sacred to Mohammedans.

A well-known passage of Saint Paul (Galatians 4) establishes a parallel between Sara and Agar and their respective offspring. Agar the bondwoman represents the religious system solemnly promulgated in fear from Mount Sina, whose privileges were local and temporary, and whose rewards were earthly: a slave herself, she could only beget slaves, subject to the yoke of the Mosaic ceremonial law. Sara, on the contrary, prefigures the Church, born of Christ, promulgated as a law of love on Cal vary; the true spouse of Christ, a free mother, and giving birth to free children, opening her arms to the whole human race, bestowing on them the divine adoption, and with it conferring the right of co-heirship to a supernatural eternity.

Without pursuing the comparison, one reflection may be indulged in: that the Christian Church is the continuation and completion of the Jewish; that the one leads to the other, and finds in her the realization of the promises made to the patriarchs. We possess and adore what was foreshown to Abraham and to Moses, to Isaias and to Daniel; and, wondrous phenomenon, unlike every thing else in the present and the past, there are the synagogue and the church side by side on every land, after a lapse of nearly nineteen centuries, believing both in the same Redeemer, with this difference, that the Jew still looks forward to his coming, while the Christian believes in him as already come. There is that ancient race, as distinct from all others with whom it mixes as oil is from water: it lives and subsists side by side with the great Christian society to which it has given birth, just as the seed-leaves of some marvelous tropical tree, which never wither or fall off, remain a part of the giant trunk that issued from them, even when the latter shoots up, and towers above the lords of the forest. Nor is it to be forgotten that the race of Agar, even when becoming the apostle of a monstrous creed, rejected alike by Jew and by Christian, has always professed its belief in the God of Abraham, and proclaimed Christ Jesus to be his true prophet.

It must be our duty, as a new epoch draws nearer the nations to each other, to labor, by saintly lives and miracles of beneficence, to win our way to the hearts of the children of Sara and Agar. If we live as we ought, and love them truly, they will be ready to confess that, where true charity is, there, also is the true faith.

MLA Citation

  • Monsignor Bernard O’Reilly, D.D., L.D.. “Agar the Bondwoman”. Illustrious Women of Bible and Catholic Church History, 1877. CatholicSaints.Info. 12 October 2020. Web. 28 October 2020. <>