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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 16

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


6. The birth of Ishmael ch. 16

Sarai and Abram tried to obtain the heir God had promised them by resorting to a culturally acceptable custom of their day even though it involved a failure to trust God. This fleshly act created serious complications for Abram and his household that included Hagar fleeing into the wilderness. Nevertheless God proved faithful to His promises and responded to Hagar’s cries for help. He provided for her needs and promised her many descendants through Ishmael since he was Abram’s son.

"The account of Sarah’s plan to have a son has not only been connected with the list of nations in chapter 15, but also appears to have been intentionally shaped with reference to the account of the Fall in Genesis 3. Each of the main verbs (wayyiqtol forms) and key expressions in Genesis 16:2-3 finds a parallel in Genesis 3." [Note: Sailhamer, The Pentateuch . . ., p. 153. See this page for a chart of the parallels.]

Alluding to the Fall suggests the writer’s disapproval of what Sarai did (cf. Genesis 3:17). He continued to focus increasing attention on the problem of an heir. Sarai had borne Abram no children (Genesis 16:1). She therefore suggested a plan to obtain an heir from his own body (Genesis 15:4). It looked as if everything would work out well until a conflict developed between Sarai and Hagar (Genesis 16:4). This conflict grew into a major crisis when Hagar fled the family encampment pregnant with Abram’s unborn child (Genesis 16:6). Yahweh intervened again to resolve the crisis (Genesis 16:7). He instructed Hagar to return to Sarai (Genesis 16:9). Thus Hagar bore Ishmael in Abram’s house, but later God revealed that he would not be the heir.

Verses 1-6

Sarai and Hagar 16:1-6

Using a woman other than one’s wife (Genesis 16:2) was a method of providing an heir in the case of a childless marriage apart from adoption. [Note: Speiser, p. 130; T. Frymer-Kensky, "Patriarchal Family Relationships and Near Eastern Law," Biblical Archaeologist 44 (1981):209-14.] Hagar was Sarai’s personal servant, not a slave girl. Abram also had at least one personal servant (Genesis 24:2).

"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’ . . . their maids, a euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. Genesis 6:4; Genesis 30:3; Genesis 38:8-9; Genesis 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." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 7.]

People in Abram’s culture regarded a concubine as a secondary wife with some, but not all, of the rights and privileges of the primary wife. [Note: Bush, 1:258.] In effect Hagar became Abram’s concubine.

". . . one Nuzi tablet reads: ’Kelim-ninu has been given in marriage to Shennima. . . . If Kelim-ninu does not bear children, Kelim-ninu shall acquire a woman of the land of Lulu (i.e., a slave girl) as wife for Shennima.’" [Note: West, p. 69.]

Not only was using a concubine an option, but in Hurrian culture husbands sometimes required that if their wife could not bear children she had to provide a concubine for him. [Note: Livingston, p. 152. Cf. Edwin M. Yamauchi, "Cultural Aspects of Marriage in the Ancient World," Bibliotheca Sacra 135:539 (July-September 1978):245.]

". . . any child of the bond-slave would necessarily belong to the mistress, not the mother." [Note: Thomas, p. 147. Cf. J. Cheryl Exum, "The Mothers of Israel: The Patriarchal Narrative from a Feminist Perspective," Bible Review 2:1 (Spring 1986):64.]

This custom helps explain why Abram was willing to be a part of Sarai’s plan that seems so unusual to us in the West. Abram agreed to his wife’s faithless suggestion as Adam had followed Eve’s lead. Abram’s passivity contrasts with his earlier valiant action to save Lot from his captors (ch. 14). Like Eve, Sarai also blamed someone else for the results of her act, namely, Abram (Genesis 16:5).

Did Sarai mean that she would obtain children through Hagar by adopting them as her own or by becoming fertile herself as a result of Hagar’s childbearing (Genesis 16:2)? Most interpreters have taken the first position, but some have preferred the second. [Note: E.g., Samson Kardimon, "Adoption As a Remedy For Infertility in the Period of the Patriarchs," Journal of Semitic Studies 3:2 (April 1958):123-26. See John Van Seters, "The Problem of Childlessness in Near Eastern Law and the Patriarchs of Israel," Journal of Biblical Literature 87 (1968):401-8.] The basis of the second view is the not infrequent phenomenon of a woman who has had trouble conceiving becoming pregnant after she has adopted a child.

Though using a woman other than one’s wife to bear one’s children was a custom of the day, it was never God’s desire (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:4-5). Abram and Sarai here repeated the failure of Adam and Eve, namely, doubting God’s word. This episode ended in total disaster for everyone involved. Hagar lost her home, Sarai her maid, and Abram his wife’s servant and his child by Hagar.

"A thousand volumes written against polygamy would not lead to a clearer fuller conviction of the evils of that practice than the story under review." [Note: Bush, 1:259. See also Waltke, Genesis, p. 339.]

Sarai tried to control the will of God by seizing the initiative from God (cf. Genesis 3:17). She and Abram chose fleshly means of obtaining the promised heir rather than waiting for God in faith (cf. Genesis 25:21). [Note: See George Van Pelt Campbell, "Rushing Ahead of God: An Exposition of Genesis 16:1-16," Bibliotheca Sacra 163:651 (July-September 2006):276-91.] They let their culture guide them rather than God.

"It’s a shame that she [Sarai] hadn’t comprehended the fact that her infertility could be used by the Lord to put her in a place of dependence on Him so that fruit could be born in her life." [Note: Don Anderson, Abraham: Delay Is Not Denial, p. 93.]

Verses 7-14

The angel of the LORD and Hagar 16:7-14

This is the first of 48 references to "the angel of the Lord" in the Old Testament. Sometimes, as here, the Angel is deity, and in other places he appears to be an angelic messenger from the Lord.

"The prophetic description of Ishmael as a ’wild ass of a man’ [Genesis 16:12] (RSV) is rather intriguing. The animal referred to is the wild and untamable onager, which roams the desert at will. This figure of speech depicts very accurately the freedom-loving Bedouin moving across vast stretches of land." [Note: Davis, p. 189. Cf. Jeremiah 2:24; Hosea 8:9.]

This prophecy was not an insult or a curse. Ishmael would enjoy the freedom his mother sought. The Lord named Ishmael (Genesis 16:11), whose name means "God hears," and Hagar named the Lord (Genesis 16:13) "the One who sees." These two names constitute a major revelation of God: He hears and He sees. This may be the only instance in Scripture of a human being conferring a name on God.

Abram and Sarai’s action proved to be a source of much difficulty for everyone involved (cf. Abram’s error in going to Egypt, Genesis 12:11-13). God, however, took care of and blessed Ishmael even though he was the fruit of Abram’s presumption. This is another occasion when Abram did not trust God as he should have (cf. Genesis 12:10-20).

"Both Hagar and Mary [the mother of Jesus] stand as examples of women who obediently accepted God’s word and thereby brought blessing to descendants too many to count." [Note: Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 13.]

Paul wrote that this story contains (not is) an allegory (Galatians 4:24). An "allegory" today means a story without factual basis. Paul did not deny the factuality of Genesis 16, but he used this story as the basis for a comparison. "Illustration" or "comparison" would be better words to use. Hagar represents the Mosaic Covenant, and Ishmael is its fruit (slaves). Sarai is the Abrahamic Covenant, and Isaac is its fruit (free sons). Children of the flesh persecute children of the promise (Galatians 4:29).

There is much irony in this story. Barren Sarai lived in a fertile land whereas fertile Hagar ended up living in a barren land. The Egyptians, to whom the attacked Hagar fled for freedom, later enslaved the attacker, Sarai’s descendants.

Resorting to fleshly means rather than waiting for God to provide what He has promised always creates problems. This story also shows that human failure does not frustrate God’s plans ultimately.

"If we have made mistakes which have led us into sin, the primary condition of restoration is complete submission to the will of God, whatever that may involve." [Note: Thomas, p. 149.]

When in great distress, people should pray because God is aware of their needs and will fulfill His promises to them.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 16". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-16.html. 2012.
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