In its present form, Genesis narrates the story of how Hagar is forced to depart on account of Sarah’s bitterness on two separate occasions: Genesis 16:1-14 and Genesis 21:8-21. Yet each account of Hagar’s forced expulsion gives two different reasons for why this happens, two different reasons for why Hagar’s offspring is blessed, two different etiologies for the name Ishmael (#37), and two different blessings for Ishmael (#38). Such differences bear witness to the fact that we are not dealing with a story by the same author, but rather two distinct traditions that told the story differently, and which were stitched together at a later date. The editor(s) that safeguarded both traditions placed the Yahwist version earlier in the combined JE narrative and the Elohist version later. Thus as we now have it, it appears as if Hagar is expelled twice, in Genesis 16 (J) and Genesis 20 (E). But in fact these were once two separate tellings of the same story.
In the Yahwist rendition of the story, Sarah feels unjustly scorned and outraged by the very fact that her maid has become pregnant, and she hasn’t. It is for this reason that Sarah forces Hagar to depart while pregnant (16:4, 11). The story is presented from Sarah’s perspective: she feels lowered or degraded in the sight of the now pregnant Hagar, and so she expels Hagar for this “injury.” This plot motive is then flipped around. By having Yahweh’s angel command Hagar to return to Sarah, it is now Hagar who must suffer the degradation of Sarah, and for this suffering Hagar is rewarded by having her seed multiplied. Additionally, Abraham and Abraham’s point of view are completely absent in the Yahwist version of the story.
Not so when we turn to how the Elohist told this story. First, it is now Hagar and Ishmael’s expulsion, and they are cast out not because Sarah is vexed with Hagar, but rather with Ishmael.
And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham: “Cast out this handmaid with her son, because the son of the handmaid will not inherit with my son, with Isaac” (21:9-10).
The Elohist version of the story also accentuates themes that are absent in the Yahwist version, such as Abraham and his seed’s inheritance, and the role of divine revelation. In E’s story the issue is inheritance. As the firstborn, Ishmael has legal rights to the inheritance. But this cannot be and Sarah casts them out. The question of the inheritance of the land is resolved at the end of the Elohist story by presenting Ishmael as opting out of his rightful inheritance by marrying outside of the clan. “And Hagar took him a wife from the land of Egypt” (21:21). Since the theme of inheritance is naturally tied to Abraham’s seed, it is therefore not surprising that Abraham plays an important role in the Elohist account. In the Elohist narrative we perceive Abraham’s grief at the fact that his firstborn is expelled by Sarah. God intervenes at this point in the narrative and promises Abraham that Ishmael will be made into a great nation, “because he’s your seed” (21:13). As in the previous Elohist story (#26), so too here: the plot is moved according to divine revelation.
Thus while the Yahwist version progresses as a dialogue between Abraham and Sarah, leaves the action in the hands of Sarah, doesn’t develop the character of Hagar, and places Yahweh’s intervention at the end of the narrative, the Elohist’s telling develops the characters’ pathos more by providing insightful internal details, places God as a character in dialogue with Abraham, leaves the decisive action in the hands of Abraham who now acts according to divine revelation, and presents us with a more developed Hagar.
Finally, both traditions play on the theme of sight, only it would seem that each one recorded this differently. In the Yahwist version Hagar names the god who visited her as El-roi, “the god who sees me”—that is the god who sees Hagar in her plight. Thus we also have an etiology on the name of the well: Beer-lahai-roi, “well of the living one who sees me.” But in the Elohist version nothing is mentioned of this; rather it is the god who opens up Hagar’s eyes so that she sees the well and is thus able to provide water for the boy. Additionally, and typical of E, E’s angel calls “from heaven” while in J Hagar directly encounters the angel of Yahweh, which is a staple feature of the Yahwist.
In the end, these types of stories attempted to account for the existence of other ethnic peoples in the region, such as the Ishmaelites of the Arabah, by retrojecting the author’s own knowledge about peoples of his time period onto an archaic story about two women, a maid and a mistress, who both engendered a son from Abraham.