Commentary on Genesis 16

Last updated: June 30, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” 6But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

7The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11And the angel of the LORD said to her,

“Behold, you are pregnant

and shall bear a son.

You shall call his name Ishmael,

because the LORD has listened to your affliction.

12He shall be a wild donkey of a man,

his hand against everyone

and everyone’s hand against him,

and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

13So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

Notes

1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar.

This verse serves as an introduction to the main participants of the episode. Sarai is old, free, and barren. Hagar is a young, fertile slave. Sarai is Abram’s wife while Hagar is Sarai’s maidservant. A “maidservant” (sipha) is not a common slave but the personal servant of the wife1.

2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

Sarai attributes her barrenness to the LORD2. It was a known practice in the ancient Near East for a barren wife to give a concubine slave to her husband to remedy childlessness3. Abram’s compliance is cast in the same terms as Adam’s obedience to Eve (3:17)4.

3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife.

The ten years in Canaan had made Sarai impatient. It would be another fifteen years before the birth of Isaac (17:17; 18:14). That Sarai “took” and “gave” Hagar to Abram portrays her as another Eve (3:6)5. One wife was the ideal (2:24).

4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

The Hebrew word qalal (“contempt”) echoes the word qallel (“curse”) in 12:36. Recall that 12:3 states that anyone who dishonors Abram will be cursed. However, nothing in this verse requires us to believe that Hagar “actually expressed her pride in conceiving by ‘disdaining’ Sarai”7.

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

In Sarai’s mind Abram is culpable for her pain even though she gave Hagar to Abram. Nahum Sarna suggests that since Abram has been given Hagar he is responsible for controlling her behavior8.

6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

Abram replies by pointing out that Hagar is in Sarai’s power. This has the additional effect of clarifying Sarai’s place as the chief matron of the household. The Hebrew behind the phrase “do to her as you please” has the sense of “do to her the good” (hattob)9. In other words, Abram instructs Sarai to handle things the right way. Sarai fails to do this by treating Hagar harshly. The specific form of mistreatment cannot be ascertained. Hagar’s flight was a desperate measure because her survival depended on Abram’s household (21:14-19).

Sarai’s treatment of the Egyptian Hagar foreshadows (or is reversed in, or governs) Israel’s experience in Egypt. These exact words recur there: Egypt degraded them (Exod 1:12), and they fled (14:5). And note that, like Israel, Hagar fled to the wilderness (v. 7).10

7 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

This is the first mention of the angel of the LORD in the Hebrew Bible. The relationship between the angel of the LORD and God is puzzling. In this passage, the angel of the LORD is equated with God (vv 11, 13). “Shur was a wilderness region in northwest Sinai, situated between southwest Canaan and the northeast border of Egypt”11. Perhaps Hagar the Egyptian (v 1) was trying to return to Egypt (but see v 8).

8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”

The questions from the angel of the LORD point out the dim prospects for Hagar. Note that she does not say where she is going.

9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.”

The command to return and submit to Sarai may have been terrifying. The angel of the LORD does not say how Sarai will react but the ensuing promises suggest Sarai will not abuse her to the extent that she will lose her child. Hagar offers no resistance and obeys the angel of the LORD.

10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”

Hagar is the only woman in Genesis to be promised innumerable offspring in a divine revelation.

11-12 And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

The angel tells Hagar she will have a son. The son promised to Abram by God appears, for the moment, to have been provided. The name Ishmael means “God hears”12. The Hebrew word behind “affliction” is a figure of speech referring to the cries of affliction13. To be “a wild donkey of a man” (pere’ adam) means to live outside accepted social conventions (Hosea 8:9) and anticipates Ishmael’s desert residence (Job 24:5; 39:5-8). His violence will extend as far as breaking familial bonds (“he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen”). This prophecy is fulfilled in 25:18. Hostility towards one’s “brother” also characterizes the non-elect lines of Cain (4:8, 23-24) and Esau (27:39-40).

13 So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”

Hagar calls the LORD El-roi. This could be translated “God of seeing”, “God of my seeing”, or “God who sees me”14. This is the only time in the Hebrew Bible that a human provides a name for the deity. The literal translation of her explanation is: “Have I also here (or hither) seen after the one who sees me?”15 Its exact meaning is uncertain.

14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

The well was called “the well of (belonging to) the Living (One) who sees (has seen) me”16. Its location was in the Negev17.

15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.

Ishmael’s place in Abram’s household is ambiguous. Abram’s naming of his son “signals acknowledgement of the child as his own and acceptance of the Lord’s plan for Ishmael as revealed”18. Sarai is absent from this scene. “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”19.

16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

The notice of Abram’s age makes it seem less and less likely that Abram and Sarai will have a son. It is another thirteen years before the promise of a son is renewed (17:1).

Bibliography

Friedman, Richard E. Commentary on the Torah. HarperOne, 2003.

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament Volume 1A. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1990.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

Wenham, Gordon. Genesis 16-50. Vol. 2. Word Biblical Commentary. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 184; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 119.

2cf. Genesis 25:21; 30:2; Leviticus 20:20, 21; Deuteronomy 28:11; Psalm 113:9

3Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 184-185; Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 444-445; Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 119; Walton, Genesis, 445-446.

4Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 185.

5Ibid.

6Ibid., 185-186.

7Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 2:8.

8Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 120.

9Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 186.

10Friedman, Commentary on the Torah, 59.

11Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 187.

12Ibid., 190.

13Ibid.

14Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 121.

15Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 456.

16Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 192; Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1-17, 457.

17Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 192.

18Ibid.

19Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 2:11.

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