Question: "What is the story of Sarah and Hagar?"

Answer: Sarah was the wife of Abraham. Hagar was the servant of Sarah. God had promised Abraham many descendants, but, ten years after the promise, Sarah was still unable to have children, and they were both on the verge of becoming too old to have children at all. Sarah chose to give her servant Hagar to Abraham, in accordance with the custom of day, so that Sarah could have a child through her (Genesis 16:2).

Hagar conceived, and she began to despise her mistress. Sarah in turn began to deal harshly with her, and Hagar fled to the desert to escape. The angel of the Lord met Hagar in the wilderness, commanding her to return to Abraham and Sarah. The angel relayed a promise from God: “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude” (Genesis 16:10). The angel also predicted Ishmael’s name and character (Genesis 16:11–12).

Later, God fulfilled His promise to Abraham and Sarah. Sarah gave birth to a son named Isaac (Genesis 21). Hagar's son Ishmael would have been about 14 years old at the time of Isaac’s birth. Abraham sent Hagar and Ishmael away after Isaac was weaned (around age 2 or 3, making Ishmael approximately 16), according to God’s command. At that time, God repeated His promise that Ishmael would father a great nation. Hagar was in the desert and near death when the angel of God called to her, saying, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Up! Lift up the boy, and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make him into a great nation” (Genesis 21:17-18).

Ishmael and his mother lived in the wilderness of Paran, where he became an expert with a bow and later took an Egyptian wife (Genesis 21:20-21). He is seen once again in Scripture when he returned to help bury his father Abraham (Genesis 25:7-10).

Ishmael, the son of a bondservant, became the father of 12 sons who were called princes. He lived to 137 years of age. Sarah died at the age of 127 in Hebron, where she was buried (Genesis 23:1-2). The Bible does not record Hagar’s death. She is last mentioned in Genesis 25:12.

Many observations can be made regarding the story of Sarah and Hagar. First, God can and often does work through ways that appear unlikely from a human perspective. Abraham miraculously became a father at age 86 and again at age 99. Isaac’s mother, Sarah, was barren. God’s promise to Abraham did not depend on human strength, and with God nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37). God used a seemingly impossible situation to make Abraham the father of the Jewish people, just as He had predicted.

It is clear from this story that God works despite misguided human effort. Sarah had no business offering her servant to Abraham, and Abraham had no business sleeping with Hagar. And Sarah was wrong to mistreat her servant as she did. Yet God worked through these situations. Hagar was blessed, and Abraham and Sarah were still the recipients of the promise. God’s mercy is great, and His sovereign will is accomplished regardless of human frailty.

This unlikely family story is one readers would expect to end badly. Yet God kept His promise; Isaac became the son of promise through whom the tribes of Israel would arise. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, also became a great leader. Regardless of how a situation looks from a human perspective, God continues to work both to accomplish His will and to fulfill His promises.

In Galatians 4, Paul uses the story of Sarah and Hagar to illustrate the results of two different covenants: the New Covenant, based on grace; and the Old Covenant, based on the Law. In Paul’s analogy, believers in Christ are like the child born of Sarah—free, the result of God’s promise. Those who try to earn their salvation by their own works are like the child born of Hagar—a slave, the result of human effort.