Genesis Lesson 16 | 16:1–16:16

Prayerfully read Genesis 16 at least two times and then read the following notes.

Context: Setting the Table

After a stunning introduction, the book of Genesis divides into two unequal halves of five sections each. The first half of the book (2:4–11:26) deals with the history of humanity as a whole, from its creation to the birth of Abram. The second half of the book (11:27–50:26) focuses on the history of the patriarchs. In this fifth installment of the story of Abram, Sarai’s misguided attempt to ensure the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abram led to the birth of Ishmael.

Content: Reading the Text

(16:1–6) Sarai’s Scheme
(16:1) Given the situation described, Hagar was almost certainly a personal gift from Pharaoh to Sarai during the time that she resided in his harem. Normally the only slaves that would have been under Sarai’s personal control would have been those that were given to her as a dowry when she initially married Abram (Genesis 29:24). By this point, any of these that still remained would likely have been too old to be suitable for her scheme. It is therefore not surprising that Hagar is specifically said to be an Egyptian. The long range consequences of Abram’s “cleverness” in Egypt continued to unfold.
(16:2a) While Sarai’s proposal may sound shocking to us, it was perfectly in keeping with the moral and legal standards of her day. If Abram took a slave wife for himself, her children would not legally count as Sarai’s, nor would they take away from her the serious social stigma of being a barren wife. However, if Sarai herself provided Abram a slave-wife from among the women under her personal control, any child(ren) that resulted would legally and socially be considered to be Sarai’s. We find this same scenario played out in the life of Jacob as each of his two primary wives gave him their personal slaves in order to get credit for the children those slaves would bear (Genesis 30:3–13).
(16:2b) The phrase translated as “I may obtain children” is one word in Hebrew. Literally meaning, “I may be built,” this word sounds very much like the word for “son”—an obvious play on words. It is important to note that God’s word of promise has, up to this point, said nothing at all about Sarai. Given her persistent barrenness, she seems to have feared that she would be superseded altogether and she therefore decided to “help God out” and ensure that she would have a role to play in the promises of God. “[H]owever laudable was Sarai’s wish…in the pursuit of it, she was guilty of no light sin, by impatiently departing from the word of God, for the purpose of enjoying the effect of that word.”1
(16:2c) The language used to describe Abram’s response to his wife’s proposal quite deliberately alludes to Genesis 3:17.
(16:3a) The language used to describe Sarai’s action—“Sarai…took…and gave,” rather strikingly follows the pattern of Genesis 3:6. Though Genesis rarely comments explicitly on the rightness or wrongness of the actions of the patriarchs, it consistently uses subtle language patterns like this to provide the narrator’s perspective on what is taking place. The alert reader already knows that this is not going to end well.
(16:3b) The reference to ten years indicates how desperate the situation was from any normal human perspective. Once again, it must be stressed that, though Sarai’s plan was quite contrary to the divine plan for marriage given in Genesis 1–2, it was no more unusual in her culture than divorce and remarriage is in our own. Had Sarai had an Instagram account, all of her followers would have commented on her cleverness and good sense in finally realizing that it was time to take action.
(16:4) This doesn’t necessarily mean that Hagar engaged in any outward acts of hostility—simply that she looked down on the barren Sarai.
(16:5) The language Sarai uses to describe her treatment by Hagar is extremely passionate. Though translated here as “wrong,” it is the same Hebrew word that is translated as “violence” in Genesis 6:11, 13. As these are the only times this word has been used up to this point, Sarai seems to be equating Hagar’s pride with the violent oppression that brought on Noah’s flood, and blaming the whole thing on Abram. Her intemperate and unreasonable language shows just how badly her plan has gone awry—even as her husband’s did in Egypt.
(16:6) The word used for Sarai’s oppressive treatment of Hagar (translated as “dealt hardly”) is the same word used in Genesis 15:13 and Exodus 1:11 to refer to the later Egyptian oppression of their Hebrew slaves. There are also other textual links between the two “oppressions.” Placed in a difficult situation, Abram did nothing to protect the woman who was now bearing the only child he had yet fathered.
(16:7–16) Ishmael’s Birth
(16:7a) This is the first of 58 appearances of the “Angel of the LORD” in the Old Testament. “[T]he angel of Yahweh[=the LORD] is a visible manifestation (either in human form or in fiery form) of Yahweh that is essentially indistinguishable from Yahweh himself. The angel of Yahweh is more a representation of God than a representative of God.”2 In this passage as in others, the precise identity of this mysterious figure remain difficult to determine. While in verse 11 this angel speaks of the LORD in the third person, in verse 10 he speaks as God in the first person, and in verse 13 Hagar perceives that it is the LORD himself who has been speaking with her. While Christians differ as to the best way to understand the relationship of this mysterious “angel” to the second person of the Trinity, it seems in any case clear that the Incarnation of Christ is the final fulfillment of the reality which the mysterious Old Testament appearances of the Angel of the Lord pointed forward towards.
(16:7b) As Shur was on the way back to Egypt, Hagar appears to have been headed back home.
(16:11a) Though Hagar would not bear the son of promise, the LORD heard Sarai’s oppression of her every bit as much as he was later to hear the Egyptian’s oppression of the Israelites. God hates oppression and injustice—even and especially when it is committed by those who claim to be his followers. There is no one, however “unimportant” or “dangerous” we may consider them to be, that we can safely treat as anything less than image bearers of God.
(16:11b) The name Ishmael means “God hears.”
(16:12) While Ishmael will not be the bearer of the promise, he will grow up to experience the freedom from oppression for which his mother longed.
(16:15–16) “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.”3

Credo: Believing the Truth

God’s word of promise was clear—Abram was going to father a son. Yet Sarai was worried. In speaking to Abram, God had said nothing about her. She was running out of time. Following the example of her husband in Egypt, she came up with a clever scheme to ensure that she would be legally counted as the mother of Abram’s heir. Yet though Sarai’s scheming resulted in disaster for all involved, God’s plan to bless the nations through Abram remained as steadfast as ever.

Conduct: Reshaping Our Walk

Discuss the meaning of the text and then walk through the following application questions as you discuss the difference this meaning ought to make in our lives today.
While Sarai’s scheme was normal and fully acceptable in the culture in which she lived, it was nevertheless a destructive rejection of God’s creational plan. How might we be tempted to borrow unbiblical standards from the culture that surrounds us?

Examples: Entertainment standards; relationship standards; language standards etc.

Though Sarai saw Hagar as utterly insignificant, God himself was paying attention to the way she was treated. What are some of the ways in which we might be tempted to mistreat those we see as unimportant at any given time?

Examples: Treating our children harshly; Dealing with customer service representatives unkindly in order to get what we want; Dehumanizing criminals; Stereotyping immigrants etc.

1. Calvin 1847, 423
2. Hamilton 1990, 451
3. Wenham 1994, 11