Genesis 16 Study Notes


16:1 The issue of providing an heir from Abram’s own body (cp. 15:3-4) reappears. Abram’s wife, Sarai, was now seventy-five years old and well past her childbearing years. However, she did own an Egyptian slave named Hagar, probably acquired when she lived in Egypt (12:16).

16:2-3 Sarai faced a dilemma. On the one hand, the Lord had prevented her—Abram’s only wife—from bearing children. On the other hand, the Lord promised that her husband would become a father. To “fix” the problem, she ordered her husband to go to her slave and try to build a family through her. Abram, now eighty-five, agreed. Sarai likely intended to use Hagar as a surrogate mother, and then adopt the child as her own. Such a practice is mentioned in other Near Eastern texts. However, any form of polygamy recorded in the Bible is always less than ideal and introduces difficulties (4:19). In offering something that was tempting but not appropriate to her husband, Sarai was imitating Eve’s fateful actions in the garden of Eden (3:6).

16:4 The young slave girl found herself carrying the child of the most important man in the clan—something Sarai had never done. As a result, Sarai became contemptible to Hagar.

16:5 Sarai, whose inadequacies were highlighted with Hagar’s pregnancy, now found her own suffering unbearable. In one sense Abram had caused the pregnancy, thus he was responsible for Sarai’s slave girl looking down on her. Sarai called on the Lord to hold Abram accountable for her humiliation and pain.

16:6 Though Hagar was now his wife (v. 3), Abram relinquished his rights to her. Hagar was once again no more than Sarai’s slave.

16:7-8 Hagar could run away from Sarai, but not from the angel of the Lord. He found her at a spring on a road leading to Shur and Egypt, where she might have been able to get assistance from passing caravans. Hagar, like many runaways, could say where she was from, but ignored the question of where she was going.

16:9-10 The angel of the Lord directed Hagar to go back and submit to Sarai. The true source of Hagar’s problems was her own bad attitude, not her owner. By obeying the angel’s divine guidance, she and her offspring would receive a tremendous blessing. God’s promise to multiply her descendants both paralleled and enhanced the promise given to Abram (15:5).

16:11-12 This is the final and longest of three consecutive speeches by the angel to Hagar. Hagar is told that she will have a son, the more prestigious gender of offspring for a woman in the ancient Near East to bear. Then she is directed to name her son Ishmael (“God Hears”), in recognition of the fact that the Lord . . . heard her cry of affliction. In the climactic final quatrain, character and destiny are presented: the boy will live outside of cultured society like a wild donkey.

16:13-14 In wonder-filled recognition of God’s intervention in her life, Hagar gave the Lord the title El-roi (or “The God Who Sees Me”). She is thus the only person in the Bible who is said to have renamed Yahweh. The Asian custom of naming/renaming someone was always associated with the possession of authority over the one being named. To rename God would normally be considered blasphemous. Perhaps Hagar’s lack of restraint in renaming the Lord was due to the fact that she was quite young and was a spiritually uninformed Egyptian slave.

16:15-16 Exactly as the angel of the Lord had promised, Hagar gave birth to a son. The fact that Abram, the eighty-six-year-old clan leader, named his son . . . Ishmael indicates that he allowed the young slave girl to tell him her story, and he believed it.