The Birth of Ishmael (16:1–16)
This tale of family strife falls into three scenes, Sarai’s scheme of surrogate motherhood (vv 2–6), Hagar’s encounter with the angel (vv 7–14), and the birth of Ishmael (v 15). The account of these events is preceded by an introduction (v 1) and followed by an epilogue (v 16).
|v 1||Introductory note on Sarai’s infertility|
|vv 2–6||Scene 1: Sarai’s scheme|
|v 2a||Sarai’s proposal||A|
|v 2b||Abram’s response||B|
|vv 3–4||Sarai’s action and Hagar’s reaction||C|
|v 5||Sarai’s complaint||Aʹ|
|v 6a||Abram’s response||Bʹ|
|v 6b||Sarai’s action and Hagar’s reaction||Cʹ|
|vv 7–14||Scene 2: Hagar’s encounter with the angel|
|v 7||Angel finds Hagar by well||A|
|v 8||First speech by angel and Hagar’s reply||B|
|v 9||Second speech by angel||C|
|v 10||Third speech by angel||Cʹ|
|vv 11–13||Fourth speech by angel and Hagar’s reply||Bʹ|
|v 14||Name of the well||Aʹ|
|v 15||Scene 3: Hagar bears Abram a son|
|v 16||Concluding note on Abram’s age|
In its present form, the tale is a tightly constructed narrative. The paragraph divisions are those suggested by the use of explicit noun subjects within the narrative. Note how the first scene is constructed of two parallel panels, I.e., two similar sequences in 2a, 2b, 3–4//5, 6a, 6b, while the second is constructed palistrophically, A, B, C, Cʹ, Bʹ, Aʹ. The first and third scenes are both set in Abram’s camp, while the central scene takes place in the wilderness. This enhances the balance of the narrative. The concluding note on Abram’s age, “when Hagar bore Abram Ishmael” (v 16), makes an inclusion with the opening, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children” (v 1), and also makes a link with v 15, “Hagar gave birth to a son for Abram.”
In each scene, women are the principal actors. Sarai takes the initiative in scene 1, while Abram merely agrees to her suggestions. The action in the second scene is prompted by Hagar’s flight. Here the angel of the Lord is dominant, and Hagar accepts his orders and his promises, while Sarai does not appear at all. In the third scene, Hagar gives birth, and Abram names the child (v 15). The tale portrays the conflict between two women vying for one man’s respect and affection. Though Sarai is portrayed as mistress throughout, not simply exploiting her maid Hagar but also telling her husband what to do, it is apparent that Hagar comes out best in the end. She becomes Abram’s wife. She receives divine promises. And eventually she bears a son not for Sarai as was planned (v 2) but, as the narrative says three times (vv 15–16), for Abram.
Van Seters has noted the affinity of this story with that in 12:10–20. In both there are:
a situation of need (16:1; Cf. 12:10)
a plan to deal with problem (16:2; Cf. 12:11–13)
plan carried out, but with complication (16:3–6; Cf. 12:14–16)
unexpected divine intervention (16:7–11; Cf. 12:17)
consequences (16:12; Cf. 12:18–20)
He therefore describes it as an anecdotal folktale. He argues that 16:13–14 is irrelevant to the story and therefore secondary. However, as our analysis of the structure shows, these verses match vv 7–8 in the second scene and should not be so quickly dismissed. Furthermore, the real resolution of the story is not to be found in the angel’s promise in v 12 but in the record of Ishmael’s birth in v 15. The mention of Hagar’s pregnancy in v 4 would normally be followed by a remark that she gave birth. This is not found until v 15, where it is then mentioned twice. There the initial problem is at last resolved.
According to standard critical theory, this story is mainly J, because “The Lord” is so frequently mentioned (vv 2, 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13). Vv 1, 3, 15–16 are generally assigned to P. The grounds for assigning these verses to P are the chronological data in vv 3 and 16, the mention of the “land of Canaan” in v 3 (a P-phrase), and the naming of the child by the father in v 15. These grounds are not strong: “land of Canaan” also occurs in E, e.g., 35:6, and in J, 44:8; and fathers name their children in 4:26; 38:3, both J. The chronological data of Genesis certainly have an important function unifying the material redactionally, but whether this proves they originated in a separate P source should be left open.
More recent critical studies have tended to minimize the presence of P in this chapter. Van Seters argued that without v 1, with its mention of Sarai’s barrenness, the story loses its point. Therefore, it must be part of the original folktale used by J. In this he has been followed by several writers (e.g., Rendtorff [Problem], Coats, Tsevat [“Hagar”], Knauf [Ismael]), while Westermann frankly acknowledges the force of Van Seters’ argument by saying v 1 is common to P and J. Van Seters argues similarly that v 3 is integral to the storyline while admitting that the mention of ten years of childlessness could be P. But this too is contested by Tsevat and Rendtorff, while Berg points out that the conjunction of “taking” and “giving to her husband” is very akin to 3:6 (J). The parallel between vv 3–4 and 6b (Sarai’s action and Hagar’s reaction) is also marred if v 3 is assigned to a different source. A few writers, e.g., Rendtorff, Tsevat, Alexander, hold that vv 15–16 are not P but belong to the main story; the majority say that these verses are P. But v 15 is the indispensable conclusion to the story: without a mention of Hagar giving birth, the story is left in suspense. Similarly, v 16 underlines v 15 and provides a nice inclusion with v 1. So at least in this chapter it is hard to assign any verses to P with confidence. It could all be the work of J.
Attempts to distinguish between J’s work and the sources he was using have failed to reach a consensus. The threefold mention of the angel of the Lord speaking has prompted many to suppose that J has inserted extra divine speeches into the narrative, but opinions differ over which one is original and which is secondary. Neff regards v 10 as original, but Tsevat holds it is secondary. While Van Seters regards vv 13–14 as an etiological appendix, Kilian (Die vorpriesterlichen Abrahamsüberlieferungen, BBB 24 [Bonn: Hanstein, 1966]) holds it is the core of the narrative. Eliminating any of these points would disturb the present balance of the story (see our earlier analysis). Furthermore, the central scene of the next chapter (17:1–21) also consists of five divine speeches, and this is generally considered a source-critical unity, so perhaps it is superfluous to suppose the presence of four angelic speeches here indicates multiple authorship or redaction (Cf. Form/Stucture/Setting on chap 17). However, these observations do not prove that every point in 16:10–14 is equally original, simply that it is difficult to distinguish source and redaction in this chapter. J’s theological reinterpretation of the material is clearest in v 13, where Hagar calls the deity “El,” but the narrator calls him “the Lord who spoke to her.” This phenomenon is found elsewhere in the patriarchal narratives (e.g., 28:21), but it is hardly a sufficient criterion for reconstructing the original form of the story (Cf. Introduction, “The Religion of the Patriarchs”).
1 This verse gives the background to the whole story. Frequently new episodes are marked by a circumstantial clause as here, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children” (Cf. 3:1; 4:1; 21:1), which sets the scene for the subsequent action. Sarai, the prime mover, is immediately introduced, and then motives for her activity, “no children,” are hinted at. The problem of her barrenness was mentioned back in 11:30, but it had been exacerbated by the promises made to Abram in 15:4 that he would have a real son, not just an adopted one. And as Sarai was “Abram’s wife,” that seemed to imply she would bear a child.
“She had an Egyptian maid named Hagar” spells out the relationship between Sarai and Hagar, the central woman in this story. She is here called a “maid” (שׁפחה), that is, the servant companion of a rich woman (Ps 123:2). Often such maids were part of the dowry that a rich woman brought with her into her marriage, as Bilhah and Zilpah were (30:24, 29). At any rate, the maid was not merely subject to her mistress but belonged to her as well. That Hagar is under Sarai’s control is emphasized in the following story by the personal adjectives, “my maid,” “her maid.” Sarai gives Hagar to Abram, and even afterwards Abram states, “As the maid is under your authority” (vv 2, 3, 6). In some contexts שׁפחה “maid” is interchangeable with אמה “slave-girl,” the usual feminine of עבד “slave” (e.g., Exod 20:10). However, “slave-girls” usually seem to be answerable to a master as opposed to a mistress. Indeed, they often serve as concubines, second-class wives, either because the master has another wife as well or because the girl’s family was too poor to pay a dowry for her (Exod 21:7–11). In this connection, it is interesting that 16:3 states that Hagar was given to Abram as a wife, and in the next episode where she appears, she is called an אמה “slave-girl/wife” (21:10–13). However, on the basis of 32:23(22); 33:1, 2, 6, where Jacob refers to Bilhah and Zilpah as maids (although they are slave-wives who have borne him children), Cohen (Shnaton 5–6  xxv–1iii) argues that there is no difference in meaning between the terms: אמה “slave-girl” is used in legal contexts, whereas שׁפחה “maid” is used more colloquially in narrative.
Since Hagar is described as an Egyptian, it seems more likely that Sarai acquired her in Egypt (Cf. 12:16) than that she brought her from Mesopotamia in her dowry. Despite her ethnic origins, her name הגר seems to be Semitic rather than Egyptian (Cf. Arabic hegira), and it may mean “flight,” perhaps anticipating her later actions. The Bible does not make any connection between Hagar and the Hagrites, a people living in northern Transjordan (1 Chr 5:10, 18–22). Ps 83:7(6) mentions them as allies of the Ishmaelites. In Genesis at any rate, “The name ‘Hagar’ is meant purely as a personal name; suggestions that it may be the name of a people (Gunkel) or an artificial name meaning ‘the driving out’ (Noth) are unnecessary and improbable” (so Westermann 2:238).
2–6 The first scene is dominated by Sarai and cast in two parallel panels (see above). She gives the orders, and Abram and Hagar simply carry out her wishes. When Hagar is cheeky, Sarai blames Abram for the problem. He again allows Sarai to do as she pleases.
“Since the Lord has prevented me from having children.” Though the term “prevent” (עצר) is used of infertility only here and in 20:18, the idea that it is God who gives or denies conception is commonplace in the OT (25:21; 30:2; Lev 20:20, 21; Deut 28:11; Ps 113:9). It was a serious matter for a man to be childless in the ancient world, for it left him without an heir. But it was even more calamitous for a woman: to have a great brood of children was the mark of success as a wife; to have none was ignominious failure. So throughout the ancient East polygamy was resorted to as a means of obviating childlessness. But wealthier wives preferred the practice of surrogate motherhood, whereby they allowed their husbands to “go in to” (בוא אל) their maids, a euphemism for sexual intercourse (Cf. 6:4; 30:3; 38:8, 9; 39:14). The mistress could then feel that her maid’s child was her own and exert some control over it in a way that she could not if her husband simply took a second wife. So Sarai here expresses the hope that she may “have sons through her.” “The verb as it stands (אבנה) can only mean ‘I shall be built up. …; At the same time, however, it is an obvious word play on בן ‘son’” (Speiser, 117).
This practice of surrogate motherhood is attested throughout the ancient Orient from the third to the first millennium b.c., from Babylon to Egypt. Though much has been made of the closeness of certain cases of surrogacy in Nuzi and Assyria to biblical practice, it is unwise to draw any conclusions about the date of the patriarchs or the exact legal background for their conduct. Thompson (Historicity, 252–69) has given a full and judicious review of the various cases and convincingly argues that the variations between one text and another are not determined by chronology or geography but by the different concerns of those involved.
Given the social mores of the ancient Near East, Sarai’s suggestion was a perfectly proper and respectable course of action. It is therefore understandable when some commentators like Westermann suppose that the author of Genesis approved of her action. Yet a close reading of the text suggests that von Rad and Zimmerli are right to hold that the narrator regards their action as a great mistake. There is first the general consideration that Sarai’s proposal seems to be the normal human response to the problem of childlessness in the ancient world, whereas the promise of a real heir in 15:4 suggests something abnormal would happen. Second, the way in which Sarai takes the initiative to solve a problem instead of waiting for the Lord’s intervention smacks of Abram’s approach in 12:10–20, where in a difficult situation he called Sarai his sister. Third, close attention to the wording of vv 2–3 suggests the narrator’s disapproval, for he clearly alludes to Gen 3.
“Abram obeyed his wife.” The fact that the phrase “obey,” lit. “listen to the voice” (שׁמע לקול), occurs only here and in Gen 3:17 would be suggestive on its own. But more than that, in both instances, it is a question of obeying one’s wife, an action automatically suspect in the patriarchal society of ancient Israel. That this is more than a chance allusion to the fall seems to be confirmed by v 3, where further echoes of that narrative are found.
3 “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar …; and gave her to Abram, her husband.” Note the identical sequence of key nouns and verbs in 3:6: “The woman [wife] …; took …; gave it to her husband.” But as Berg points out, it is not merely the terminology that is close here but also the actions involved.
“The actors correspond: in Gen 16:3 the woman takes the initiative as she does in 3:6b. The recipient of the gift is in both texts the man, in Gen 16:3 the husband, in Gen 3:6b the man for whom the woman was created as partner. In both stories the man reacts appropriately to the woman’s action. In 3:6b he eats the proffered fruit: in 16:4a he goes in to the offered Hagar. The means (of sin), the fruit/Hagar, is accepted by the man. The sequence of events is similar in both cases: the woman takes something and gives it to her husband, who accepts it.
“This leads to the conclusion. By employing quite similar formulations and an identical sequence of events in Gen 3:6b and 16:3–4a, the author makes it clear that for him both narratives describe comparable events, that they are both accounts of a fall” (W. Berg, BN 19  10).
“Ten years after Abram had settled in Canaan.” This comment may be double-edged. It obviously explains Sarai’s concern to do something about their childlessness, but it may also hint that the promise of the land is proving valid. The passing years should strengthen faith as the fulfillment of the promises is seen, but they also test it because that fulfillment is only partial.
“Sarai …; gave her to Abram, her husband, as a wife.” Normally the girl’s father gives her to be married, but in the case of a “maid” her mistress gives her away (Cf. 29:28 with 30:4).
4 “He went in to Hagar.” Note the absence of an explicit subject. In consummating the marriage, Abram and Hagar are simply instruments of Sarai. “And she conceived” leads to the expectation that Sarai’s scheme will be a success, but Hagar’s reaction, “she looked down on her mistress,” provokes so much jealousy on Sarai’s part that without divine intervention it would have been a complete disaster. ותקל “looked down” need not imply that she actually expressed her pride in conceiving by “disdaining” (piel of קלל) Sarai. To disdain Abram was to bring oneself under the divine curse (Cf. 12:3), and there is no evidence that Hagar is looked on in this way in this story. Her pride and her mistress’ antagonism were almost inevitable in a world that put such store by childbearing. Ancient marriage laws envisage the tensions that are liable to arise in such situations and seek to regulate them (Cf. Laws of Ur-Nammu 22–23; Law of Hammurabi 146 [ANET, 172]; Cf. Prov 30:21–23).
5 Her anger roused, Sarai again takes the initiative and blames Abram for the fairly predictable outcome of her scheme (Cf. a similar attempt to shift the blame in 3:12–13). Her anger comes through not only in ascribing her troubles to Abram but in calling Hagar’s new-found pride “violence” (חמס), a term used elsewhere in Genesis to describe the sins that prompted the flood (6:11, 13) and the vicious retaliation wreaked by Simeon and Levi (49:5; Cf. 34:25). Her outburst closes with what is virtually a curse: “May the Lord judge between you and me” (Cf. 1 Sam 24:13, 16 [12, 15]).
6 Abram tried to mollify his wife by reaffirming her authority over her maid. Whether he was justified in simply reasserting the status quo ante is more dubious, for Hagar was now his wife and the mother of his child and therefore worthy of his protection. However, LH 146 allows a concubine who has claimed equality with the chief wife to be reduced to a slave, but it is not clear that Hagar has gone this far. Rather, it looks as though Abram hoped his soft answer, “treat her as you see fit,” would turn away Sarai’s wrath.
But it did not. “Sarai humiliated her.” The same term (ענה) is used to describe the suffering endured by the Israelites in Egypt in 15:13; Exod 1:12. So intolerable was her suffering that she ran away (ברח), another term used of the Israelites leaving Egypt (Exod 14:5) but very frequently used of people escaping from attempts to kill them (27:43; 35:1; Exod 2:15; 1 Sam 19:12, 18).
Thus the first scene ends in total disaster for all concerned. Hagar has lost her home, Sarai her maid, and Abram his second wife and newborn child.
7–14 The second scene is set in the wilderness on one of the roads to Egypt through the Sinai peninsula. Hagar is making her way to her native land but encounters the angel of the Lord, who sends her back to Sarai. This apparently harsh intervention is viewed by the narrator as an act of divine grace that salvages at least temporarily something from the wreck of human relationships described in the first scene. The scene opens with the angel finding Hagar by a well and closes with the well being named, enhancing the scene’s concentric symmetry (Cf. Form/Structure/Setting).
7 “The angel of the Lord” (מלאך יהוה) is mentioned fifty-eight times in the OT, “the angel of God” eleven times. Angels of the Lord appear either singly as here or in groups. When first seen, they are usually taken to be men, but by the end of the encounter one of them is realized to be God (18:2, 22; Judg 6:11–22; 13:3–22). When, as here, the text simply speaks of a single angel of the Lord, this must be understood as God himself appearing in human form, nearly always to bring good news or salvation. The angel of the Lord appears frequently in Genesis and in the Book of Judges but rarely in the literature dealing with later periods. The exact relationship between the angel and God himself has been the subject of much inconclusive discussion. The Fathers identified him with the Logos. Modern scholarship has seen the angel as a creature who represents God, as a hypostasis of God, as God himself, or as some external power of God. (For further discussion, see THWAT 2:900–908; Westermann, 2:289–91; EM 4:975–90; G. von Rad, OT Theology, 1:285–89.) Within Genesis, the angel of the Lord tends to appear at moments of dire personal crisis (Cf. 21:17; 22:11, 15).
This story, like others in which the angel of the Lord appears, presupposes that initially Hagar did not realize to whom she was talking. He was just a man who had come to the well, a typical setting for male/female encounter in OT narrative (Cf. 24:11; 29:2). It was only in the course of the conversation that she realized his identity, though to readers who knew the law was given at Sinai, it was perhaps not surprising that divine revelation occurred in this region.
“The way to Shur” denotes the more southerly of the routes from Canaan to Egypt, from Beersheba via Kadesh-Barnea to the Bitter Lakes. “Shur” is also the name of the desert in northwestern Sinai, next to Egypt (Exod 15:22). It may mean “wall” and be named after the frontier fortification of Egypt, “the wall of the ruler,” though this is disputed by Naaman, who thinks Shur is located between Gerar and Kadesh, possibly at Tell el-Farah (TA 7  95–109; Cf. EM 7:600–602).
8 For the first time, Hagar is addressed by name and is called “Sarai’s maid.” This may have surprised Hagar. How could a stranger have known about her identity? The reader, knowing that the stranger is the angel of the Lord, is not surprised. But the question that follows, “Where have you come from?” although sounding quite natural to Hagar, strikes the reader as rhetorical. It is as unnecessary as the Lord asking Adam “where are you?” (3:9) or Cain “where is Abel?” (4:9). This is, in fact, the first time the Lord has asked someone their whereabouts since Gen 4, and it emphasizes the parallel between this story and those earlier ones.
But whereas Adam and Cain prevaricated, Hagar is perfectly honest in her answer, “I am running away from Sarai, my mistress.” She admits that she is a runaway slave, and her chosen verb “run away” implies she has very good reason to escape (Cf. v 6).
9 The threefold repetition of “The angel of the Lord said to her” has prompted the suspicion that one or more of vv 9–12 are redactional. But it is hard to know which. At any rate, in its present setting this introduction serves to underline the importance of the angelic words and helps to explain how Hagar came to recognize his identity.
“Return to your mistress and submit.” Note how the angel reaffirms that Sarai is still Hagar’s mistress. This harsh and uncompromising command seems callous, the more so when it is realized that “submit” (hithpael of ענה) comes from the same root as “humiliate” (v 6) and “oppress” (15:13). Hagar is being told to submit not just to her mistress’ authority but to suffering at her hand. The reason for this surprising injunction begins to emerge in the subsequent promises.
10 “I shall so greatly multiply your descendants” is a regular ingredient of the promises to the patriarchs (Cf. 17:2; 22:17; 26:24). Again the phraseology “I shall greatly multiply” seems to echo Gen 3:16, but there it was part of God’s curse; here it is part of divine reassurance. Abram has been told his descendants will be too many to count (13:16; 15:5; Cf. 32:13), and now Hagar learns that her offspring are included in that promise. Just as Abram had been told in chap 15 that suffering and numerous descendants are interconnected, so too is Hagar here.
11–12 The mysterious identity of the one who can make such harsh demands and make such amazing promises is at last apparent when the angel of the Lord gives a birth oracle, an annunciation that was to become a hallmark of angelic prediction in the Bible (Cf. 18:9–15; Judg 13:3–7; Isa 7:14–17; Luke 1:31–33).
In the other biblical oracles, the statement about pregnancy usually refers to the near future; here the angel comments on Hagar’s present condition. The promise of a son looks to the future as does his name Ishmael. This is a common Semitic name meaning “El [God] has heard” the parents and given them a son, or “May El [God] hear” the boy and help him. The particular interpretation given here is closest to the first, “The Lord has noticed [lit. ‘heard’] your oppression.” As elsewhere in the patriarchal stories, El/God is identified with the Lord (Yahweh), the God of Israel. עני “oppression” is the noun derived from the verbal root ענה used in vv 6, 9. So although Hagar was not promised relief from oppression, she was reassured that her suffering had been and would be taken note of by God. Similarly, Leah says “The Lord has seen my oppression” in 29:32, as does Hannah in 1 Sam 1:11. It is also used of the sufferings of Israel in Egypt (Exod 3:7; 4:31; Deut 26:7).
12 This verse describes Ishmael’s future destiny, to enjoy a free-roaming, bedouinlike existence. The freedom his mother sought will be his one day. The “wild ass” (פרא, Equus hemoinus hemippus) lives in the desert, looks more like a horse than a donkey, and is used in the OT as a figure of an individualistic lifestyle untrammeled by social convention (Jer 2:24; Hos 8:9). “He will be against everyone.” “Ishmael’s love of freedom will bring him into mutual conflict in his dealings with all other men” (Gispen, 2:128). “He shall dwell apart from his brothers” describes the bedouin living on the fringes of a more permanent settlement. על־פני “apart from,” “opposite” suggests the haughty, defiant attitude of Ishmael toward those caught up in a more conventional way of life (Cf. 25:18).
13 The scene comes to a climax with Hagar recognizing God’s presence in the angel and his mercy toward her. But as usual in such situations, “As man comes to realize the presence of God, as he recognizes Him, God has disappeared” (Tsevat, 65).
“You are El, who sees me.” In Scripture when God sees, he cares (Cf. 29:32; Exod 3:7). In appearing to Hagar, the Lord has shown he cares for her. Note though that she calls God El, whereas the narrator calls him the Lord, Yahweh, the name of God revealed to Moses (Exod 3:14–15; 6:3). The God who rescued Hagar in the wilderness is the one who redeemed Israel from Egypt.
“Truly here I have seen him who looks after me?” The Hebrew of this half-verse has caused much perplexity and prompted many emendations (see Notes). However, Booij and Koenen have plausibly argued that emendation is unnecessary and have suggested a translation that makes a satisfying climax to the narrative. The emendation most commonly adopted (e.g., BHS), “Have I seen God and lived after seeing him?” merely expresses astonishment. Booij’s rendering expresses not just surprise but a recognition of God’s care for Hagar even in the most unlikely situations, a theme most beautifully developed in Ps 139:1–12; Cf. Amos 9:2–3.
14 The mention of the well rounds off the scene. Like Ishmael’s name, its name stands as a permanent reminder of God’s merciful care. “Well of the living who sees me.”
However, the precise location of the well is uncertain. Kadesh (Cf. 14:7) is well known, but Bered is mentioned only here. Targum Jonathan renders it Halusa, but this may reflect the importance of this town in the Roman and Byzantine period. Another identification is Umm el Bared on the western side of Wadi el-Jerafi (Cf. EM 2:337; GTOT, 368). Delitzsch (2:24) prefers the old traditional site of Muweileh on the caravan route south of Beersheba.
15 The third scene finds Hagar back with Abram bearing him a son Ishmael. The absence of Sarai is noteworthy. The child was intended to be Sarai’s, but three times the text says “Hagar gave birth to a son for Abram.” In fulfillment of the angelic prediction, he is called Ishmael. So although Sarai’s scheme finally succeeded, she seems to have been shut out from enjoying its success. There may also be a hint that Abram is protecting Hagar.
16 The note on Abram’s age (Cf. 12:4; 16:3) rounds off the story. Eleven years have passed since his arrival in Canaan; another thirteen are to elapse before the promise of a son is renewed (17:1).
The opening verse of the chapter, “Now Sarai …; had no children,” explains both its relationship to the other stories about Abram and the particular issues addressed here. It focuses on Sarai’s childlessness, which was discussed in the previous chapter. There it was Abram who had raised the problem. He had been reassured that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven. And his trust was “counted to him as righteousness.”
Abram was apparently content to wait for the fulfillment of the divine promise in the divine time. But Sarai was not. Here ten years after their settlement in Canaan, she grasps the initiative. Blaming God for her infertility and following long-established Near Eastern practice, she proposes that Abram should cohabit with her maid Hagar. For if Hagar had a baby, this could count as Sarai’s child. Her husband consents, and Hagar soon conceives. So Sarai’s initiative seems vindicated, at least in the short term.
Nevertheless, it is clear from the outset that the narrator does not endorse Sarai’s scheme. Her very first words blame her creator for her predicament, suggesting that she is in her own way going to sort out God’s mistakes, hardly a model of piety. Then in the deliberate echoes of Gen 3, Abram “obeying his wife,” Sarai “taking and giving to her husband,” the narrator suggests we are witnessing a rerun of the fall. Though the consequences are not as calamitous as the disobedience in Eden, they were sufficient to abort Sarai’s enterprise had not the Lord intervened to salvage the situation.
Once she is pregnant, the social standing of Hagar, though not her legal standing, is transformed. Whereas in Western societies pregnancy is a state that women often try to avoid, in more traditional societies it was and is a most desirable objective, and quite naturally, if unadvisedly, Hagar looks down on her mistress. In angry jealousy Sarai blames her husband for this situation, despite the fact that she had originated it. He, rather weakly, abjures any responsibility for the one whom he has recently made his wife and encourages Sarai to take her feelings out on Hagar. “Treat her as you see fit.” That Sarai does with a vengeance. She humiliates and oppresses Hagar (the same term as is used later of the Egyptian slave masters) to such an extent that Hagar fears for her life and flees.
Hagar attempts to return to her native land of Egypt, but beside a spring of water, she meets the angel of the Lord. As usual in such encounters, the human person involved initially fails to realize who the angel of the Lord is. But the dialogue gradually discloses his supernatural knowledge and power. He first orders Hagar to return and submit to her oppressive mistress. But then he goes on to promise Hagar a progeny beyond counting, a son whose name “God has heard” and whose career as a free bedouin will demonstrate divine concern for the oppressed and his desire for their liberation.
As the angel disappears, Hagar realizes to whom she has been talking and therefore gives the Lord a new name, “El-Roi,” “God who sees me”; for even in the wilderness he sought her and cared for her. And the well too commemorates that divine concern: Beer-lahay-roi means “Well of the living one who cares for me.” In her moment of greatest distress, Hagar has discovered God’s concern for her.
So strengthened in spirit, she returns to Abram and bears him a son. Nothing is said about the child being Sarai’s, which had been the original intention. Ishmael is the child of Hagar and Abram, not of Sarai: it is Hagar who suffers and is vindicated in this story, not Sarai, despite all her authority and scheming. At the end Abram has a son. But is he the son of promise (15:4) or not? The story in chap. 16 leaves us wondering. The fulfillment of the angelic word to Hagar shows that conception and birth are certainly under divine control and may be suggesting that Sarai should hope for her own child. The unhappy circumstances surrounding the conception of Ishmael leave question marks: only time will tell whether he is the child of promise.
In the longer perspective of Genesis, it emerges that Ishmael’s birth was a diversion. Indeed, Sarai’s anxiety to have a child seems to have delayed the promise’s fulfillment some fourteen years. Hasty action springing from unbelief does not forward the divine purpose. Yet human error can be redeemed at least partially by God’s grace. Ishmael becomes the much-loved son of Abram (17:18). And in God’s protection of Hagar, we see how he is concerned with the afflicted, whoever they may be, particularly downtrodden foreigners living in Israel (Exod 22:21–23). Her experience of suffering as an Egyptian slave of Sarai is a counter-type to the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt. “What the Egyptians would later do to Sarai’s children, Sarai did to a child of Egypt. But God listened to both; His compassion is with all his creatures” (Ps 145:9; Tsevat, “Hagar,” 70). And it was Hagar who was the first to receive an angelic message: “You will give birth to a son and name him Ishmael for the Lord has noticed your oppression.” Two thousand years later Mary, handmaid of the Lord, was to be similarly addressed: “Behold, you will conceive …; and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Both Hagar and Mary stand as examples of women who obediently accepted God’s word and thereby brought blessing to descendants too many to count.