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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 16

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary

Verses 1-3

‘Now Sarai, Abram’s wife bore him no children, and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Look, now, Yahweh has restrained me from bearing. Go in, I beg you, to my handmaid. It may be that I will obtain a child by her”.’

Sarai knows of God’s promises to Abram, the covenant promises. But she has reached the age when it is unlikely she will have a child. As time passes she grieves for the dilemma of her husband. She has an Egyptian handmaid, probably one of those given to Abram by Pharaoh, and she proposes that Abram has a child by her handmaid and that they adopt the child as Abram’s heir.

She is aware what it has meant to Abram not to have an heir, and as they grow older together she is concerned to give him satisfaction. What she proposes was in accordance with custom, and it will remove her shame. It was an accepted practise that a wife’s servant, being her slave and not her husband’s, could bear a child for her through her husband, and because the slave was hers the child was hers also. If a natural son was born later many examples elsewhere allow for him to replace the adopted son.

Thus the tablets from ancient Nuzi give an interesting near-parallel to this practise - ‘If Gilimninu (the bride) will not bear children, Gilimninu shall take a woman of N/Lulluland (where the best slaves came from) as a wife for Shennima.’ The slave woman would improve in status but would remain of inferior status to the real wife. (Compare Genesis 30:3; Genesis 30:9 - there the slave woman bears ‘on the knees’ of her mistress. That is, her child will be her mistress’s).

Nuzi dates later than Genesis (15th Century BC), but similar records have been recovered from other earlier sites such as Ur, Kish, Ebla, Alalakh, Mari and Boghazkoi. However although there there was the similar practise of a barren wife arranging for a slave to bear a child for her elsewhere, it was not necessarily always the case, for regularly the husband could take his own action, or simply adopt a slave. But the way used by Sarai preserved the wife’s pride and possibly gave her greater rights.

A subsidiary wife and her child could in many cases not be sent away (compare Genesis 16:6; Genesis 21:10-11), although there is an example where it is said that the freedom obtained by expulsion compensates for the action.

But while these practises do confirm the authenticity of the background to the narratives, they cannot be used for dating, as such customs continued unchanged for hundreds of years, and varied between groups.

Genesis 16:2-3 (2c-3)

‘And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. And Sarai, Abram’s wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan for ten years, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife.’

Abram has shown great consideration for his wife by not acting on his own. Probably his confidence in Yahweh has caused him to delay action up to this point. He had probably hoped for a son by Sarai. Here it is stressed that the initiative now comes from Sarai, and at his wife’s insistence he yields. He knows it is important for his wife to have a protector in the future, and wants her to be satisfied in her heart.

“Ten years”. A round number not to be taken literally. It means ‘a good number of years’ (compare ‘ten times’ - 31:41). Probably the idea is that they have been in the land of promise without a birth resulting and the ‘ten years’ indicates a sufficient and justifiable length of time to justify secondary action in order to produce an heir, descended from Abram, as God had promised.

The twofold stress on the fact that Hagar is an Egyptian is possibly intended to make us look back and remember the first time that Abram pre-empted God, in Egypt. There too his faith faltered.

Verse 4

‘And he went in to Hagar and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived her mistress was of little account in her eyes.’

The plan was successful. But Hagar was an Egyptian and not brought up to tribal customs, and her success made her feel superior to her barren mistress. She sees herself as now the important wife and seizes the opportunity to take over that position. She begins to act in a superior way and to supplant her mistress as though her mistress were now of little importance. She does not accept her status as a producer of a child on Sarai’s behalf.

Verse 5

‘And Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be on you. I gave my handmaid for you to make love to (into your bosom) and when she saw that she had conceived I was of little account in her eyes. Yahweh judge between you and me”.’

“My wrong be on you.” This is an official plea for legal protection. Sarai now wants Abram as head of the family tribe to remedy the situation. She dare not act on her own. She has given her slave to her husband and her slave is now no longer just a handmaid. He is the one who has the authority, and all that is done in the tribe is in his hands. He must be the one to put right the wrong done to her.

“Yahweh judge between you and me.” She reminds him that he must consider what Yahweh’s verdict would be. Her insistence is that she be firmly reinstated as his principal wife with the authority going with such a position, a position that Hagar is undermining.

Verse 6

‘And Abram said to Sarai, “Look, your maid is in your hand. Do with her whatever is right in your eyes.” And Sarai treated her harshly and she fled from her face.’

Abram passes his judgment. Sarai is given authority to act as she sees fit. The woman is still her maid (it may be that this is an intentional downgrading of Hagar who had become more than just a maid). Whatever she does will be seen as having his sanction. He accepts her, in accordance with custom, as still the principal wife. Hagar possibly did not understand that Sarah was unique as a child of Terah, thus being of the tribal aristocracy.

Sarai then makes clear her position to the tribe, who will have been watching the power struggle and waiting to see what Abram would do, by her harsh treatment of the slave who has tried to rise above her station and who has responded badly to her mistress’s kindness. This also was in accordance with custom. In the code of Hammurabi the punishment for a servant girl who bears a child by her master and seeks to take advantage of the situation is that she be reduced again to the status of a slave.

The harsh treatment does not necessarily involve unfair treatment, it lay in the downgrading that necessarily followed with all that that involved. But Sarai was human and felt she had right on her side, thus it is probable that Hagar had a very hard time.

Hagar cannot accept her new lack of status or her treatment and flees in the direction of Egypt, her homeland. In many ways she had given Sarai little choice. (One of the things that is said to cause the earth to tremble is ‘a handmaid who is heir to her mistress’ (Proverbs 30:23)). Her attempt to supplant her had had to be treated harshly in order to re-establish Sarai’s overt authority.

Of course her flight exacerbates her wrongdoing. She has no right to leave the tribe and she has not been turned out. Had she stopped to consider earlier none of this would have happened. She must have known the customs, even though as an Egyptian she was unwilling to subscribe to them. But she had made a bid to rise above her station and the consequence of failure was inevitable.

Yet the narrative is very sympathetic to Hagar, even though according to every custom she was in the wrong. In the light of the fact that the covenant it witnesses to, and establishes, is with her and her seed, it is clear that it was written by a sympathiser in the tribe who records it for her at Abram’s request (the whole narrative reveals what a strong minded woman she is).

Verse 7

‘And the angel of Yahweh found her by a spring of water in the desert regions, by the spring on the way to Shur.’

There is no suggestion that she is in difficulties, (unlike the next time when she tries the same move under totally different circumstances (Genesis 21:15-16)). As a young, healthy and determined woman she has made her way fairly easily and is almost on the borders of Egypt and safety. (For Shur as close to Egypt see Genesis 25:18; Exodus 15:22; 1 Samuel 27:8). But Yahweh has seen her flight and is cognisant of the fact that she carries Abram’s son. Thus He will not allow her to flee into anonymity in Egypt, and He therefore seeks to restore her to Abram.

“The angel of Yahweh found her”. He had been sent on a specific mission and ‘finds’ her where he knows she is. The angel of Yahweh is a somewhat mysterious figure. In some ways he is distinguished from Yahweh, yet in others he is identified with Him. He is as it were an extension of Yahweh when a personal physical presence is required, just as the Spirit of God is seen as an extension of Yahweh when some remarkable invisible activity occurs. He is preparatory to the revelation of Jesus Christ as God’s mediator with men.

Verse 8

Genesis 16:8 a

‘And he said, “Hagar, handmaid of Sarai, from where have you come and where are you going?” ’

It is clear that by becoming what she has Hagar has been brought within the covenant and that God will not let her go. But note that she is addressed as ‘handmaid of Sarai’ not wife of Abram. God accepts the customs of the people. Such an address from a stranger (angels are not usually recognised as such immediately) alerts her to the fact that this is an unusual visitation. Yet it also reminds her she is in the wrong. She ‘belongs’ to Sarai and the tribe.

“From where have you come?” He wants her to recognise that she shares in an unusually favourable circumstance, that of being within Yahweh’s covenant. And she is deserting it.

“Where are you going?” He also asks her to face the question as to what kind of a future there is for her and her child if she continues on her way. Life in Egypt will not be easy for a solitary woman with child. But the writer also wants us to recognise that she is, as it were, leaving the presence of God.

Genesis 16:8 b

‘And she said, “I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai”.’

Hagar must have been appalled that at this stage, when she has nearly reached safety, she has met someone who knows her status. She does not try to avoid the question or lie. She admits her guilt.

Verse 9

‘And the angel of Yahweh said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit yourself to her hands.” ’

That is the human side. She must acknowledge her status and do what is right accordingly. But in return her future is guaranteed.

Verse 10

‘And the angel of Yahweh said to her, “I will greatly multiply your seed so that it will be so great that it cannot be numbered”.’

If she returns her future will be most satisfying. She will become the mother of a great multitude, the longing in those days of every woman. We note here that the angel of Yahweh speaks as God.

Verse 11

‘And the angel of Yahweh said to her, “Behold you are with child and will bear a son. And you shall call his name Ishmael, because Yahweh has heard your affliction. And he will be like a wild ass among men. His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he will dwell in the presence of all his brethren”.’

The covenant is split into three parts, each introduced by the phrase ‘the angel of Yahweh said to her’. This is deliberate. Three is the number of completeness and the covenant is thus recognised as being totally complete in itself.

The promise of a son is what she longed for and its fulfilment would seal the covenant. The name Ishmael means ‘God hears’. It will ever be a reminder to her that God knows her situation and has provided for her. She is under His protection and He will hear her cry.

“He will be a wild ass of a man.” See Job 39:5-8. God of course knows that Ishmael cannot inherit leadership of the tribe for He knows that Isaac will be born. Thus this is a prophecy before the event. Like his mother, Ishmael will be strongminded and unwilling to submit willingly to others. The idea is that he will not be satisfied with his position in the tribe but will roam the desert places, free from all restraint and control, answerable to no one except God, and able there to do whatever he wishes. Yet he must have contact with others and they will view him as ‘not one of us’. The inevitable result will at times be conflict. To others he will appear lawless. But his brethren will always be aware that he is there. Even when not seen he will be ‘in their presence’, never to be overlooked, a typical Bedouin, sweeping in and out of their lives. He will be like his mother, a free spirit, unwilling to be dominated and very resolute.

It should be noted that this promise assumes that there will be a second leaving of the tribe. The so-called ‘doublet’ of Genesis 21:9-21 is in fact therefore simply a fulfilment of this prophecy.

Verse 13

‘And she called the name of Yahweh Who spoke to her, “You are El Roi (‘the God Who sees’)”, for she said, “Have I even here looked after Him Who sees me?” ’

She gives God a new name as being her personal God, for He has seen her need and has responded. She knows that she has met the One Who sees her always. These words emphasise how dramatic her experience has been. She knows she has experienced a theophany. From now on she is not only within Yahweh’s covenant with Abram, she also has her own personal covenant. Yet that personal covenant is within the greater covenant and acknowledged by Abram.

“Looked after” i.e. followed with her eyes. The suggestion is that she saw a partial revelation of Yahweh other than just the appearance of the angel of Yahweh in human form (compare Judges 13:20; Exodus 33:17-23).

Verse 14

‘For this reason the well was called Beer-lahai-roi (‘the well of the Living One Who sees me’). Consider, it is between Kadesh and Bered.’

We do not know whether this was a new name for the site or an old name applied to a new situation. It is possible that the name was originally given because it had been a lifesaver to someone who had arrived there in great need who gave credit to ‘the Living One’ for deliverance. Alternately it could mean ‘the well of he who sees me and lives’ referring to the well. It had no doubt been a lifesaver to many. But either way the name is given a significance, or a new significance, through Hagar’s experience. If the name was old it was taken over and converted so that it represented Hagar’s God.

“Between Kadesh and Bered” identifies its position to those unfamiliar with it, and shows the writer, or someone who added the description as a subsequent guide, knew it well.

The fact that this record is favourable to Hagar and yet retained in the covenant records of the tribe which became Israel, confirms its ancient origin. It was clearly recorded and kept in the tribe at a time when Hagar and Ishmael were an integral part of that tribe, and the probability must be that when Hagar returned to the tribe the covenant was immediately recorded as a part of God’s covenant with Abram, by a sympathetic scribe selected by Abram.

God Expands His Covenant With Abram Under the Sign of Circumcision and Promises Prosperity to All his Descendants and a Son to Abram (Abraham) Born of Sarai (Sarah) (16:15-17:27).

Events have gone forward and with the birth of Ishmael things have become more complicated, so Yahweh now renews His covenant with Abram, bringing in Ishmael and promising the blessing of the birth of peoples and nations through him as well, while at the same time signifying that the promised line will be through a son of Sarai. This is thus an advancement on previous covenants. But at the same time the position of Ishmael within the covenant situation is made clear. He will enjoy the blessings of the wider covenant, but the original more direct and personal covenant is with Isaac (verse 21).

This change in emphasis is made clear in a number of ways. Both Abram and Sarai have their names changed, a sign of a new beginning, and Yahweh speaks as ‘El Shaddai’ because He is speaking to a wider group than the original ‘chosen line’, speaking to some for whom He will not be Yahweh, the personal covenant God.

Verses 15-16

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

The end result of Sarai’s planning was the birth of a son to Abram. Now his steward was no longer his direct heir for he had a son of his own. In obedience to God’s words to Hagar (verse 11) he called his son Ishmael.

This birth took place when he was 86 years old. This figure is made up of 75 (Genesis 12:4) plus 10 (Genesis 16:3) plus the period to Ishmael’s birth. As with all numbers in Genesis it is not necessarily to be taken literally. As we have seen both the 75 and the 10 may well be expressive of ideas rather than intended as literal numbers. Thus the 86 could well be simply a composite number resulting from these two previous numbers. Its purpose here is to bring out Ishmael’s age at the birth of Isaac when compared with one hundred. (The ancients used numbers to express ideas rather than just for numerical purposes. It is questionable whether they even bothered to keep a record of age, working simply on an approximate basis. Consider how many of the ages given end either with 0, 5 or 7).

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 16". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/genesis-16.html. 2013.
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