As Abram and Sarai struggle with the reality that they have no children to carry on their legacy, they devise a plan that involves their servant girl, Hagar. In this lapse of faith in God's ability to provide, they head down a path that will not only bring pain and sorrow to them, but is still felt today in the unrest between these descendants in the Middle East. In this story we are introduced to the first mention of many references to the Angel of the Lord who we discover to be the presence of Jesus in the Old Testament.
A Lapse of Faith—the Birth of Ishmael
16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had not been able to bear children for him. But she had an Egyptian servant named Hagar.
This is the prelude to the drama that is about to transpire. The principal characters, Abram, Sarai and Hagar are brought on stage.
2 So Sarai said to Abram, “The LORD has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.”
The attribution of blame to God started in Eden and continues with the question, “Why did God not prevent this tragedy?” Read 1 Samuel 2:1-10 and Ruth 1:20-21 for parallel statements of blame for God for tragedy. Culturally Hagar was Sarai’s maid and she could appoint her as a surrogate mother. According to the story, having a child with the servant girl, is Sarai’s suggestion. This method of generating children seems to have been acceptable in the culture of the day. This is a story told by men for men and after hundreds of retellings and it is now recorded by a man. Perhaps this part of the story is no
more reliable than the part where God is credited with preventing Sarai having children. This is the cultural understanding. Monogamy would surface much later in Hebrew culture. Hebrews were regarded as polygamists by the Greeks and the Romans. The killing of boys in Egypt would have resulted in a preponderous of females in the Exodus group and polygamy would have been a solution. The Latter-day Saints experienced the same problem and so they also espoused polygamy for a time.
And Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal. 3 So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan.)
Hagar is a companion to Sarai rather than a servant. Sarah’s failure to conceive could have been construed as a consequence Abraham is 85, and Sarai is 75. Culture often determines our choices. Jacob will have children in the same way, via servant women. It is an agreed upon plan, like Adam eating the apple at Eve’s suggestion, Abram conceives a child with Hagar at Sarai’s suggestion. The motivation does not remove the consequences or the responsibility for a bad decision.
4 So Abram had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant. But when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt.
The power play is now in Hagar’s favour as she is the mother of the promised child and she uses this power to take revenge on her owner. Power does not corrupt as much as it reveals the latent corruption in the person.
5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The LORD will show who’s wrong—you or me!”
How can Sarai blame Abram for her suggestion? Sarai may have felt that Abram was too soft on Hagar’s bad attitude towards Sarai. Abram was most certainly spending more time with Hagar and Ishmail. Hatred blinds one to the virtue in the other. She admits her culpability and at the same time asks God to adjudicate the situation, by which she means that God needs to condemn Abram. Sarai as he could have. Sarai echoes the accusation of Adam and Eve against God.
6 Abram replied, “Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away.
Sarai is not a kind person. She is capable of making life so miserable for Hagar that she runs away into the desert, which implies possible death for her. Abram abdicated his leadership responsibility He is not a confrontational man. He prefers to get along with people, like getting along with greedy Lot. He does not stand up for Sarai as his wife. He fails in his leadership role and peace maker in the camp. This situation demonstrates another failure of Abram.
7 The angel of the LORD found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur. 8 The angel said to her, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
The angel of the Lord speaks as God, identifies Himself with God, and exercises the responsibilities of God (Genesis 16:7-13; 21:17-18; 22:11-18; Exodus 3:2; Judges 2:1-4; 5:23; 6:11-24; 13:3-22; 2 Samuel 24:16; Zechariah 1:12; 3:1; 12:8) . In several of these appearances, those who saw the angel of the Lord feared for their lives because they had “seen the Lord.” Therefore, in at least some instances, the angel of the Lord is a theophany, an appearance of God in physical form.
The angel of the Lord initiates the salvation of the desperate Hagar. As it will transpire this is a theophany. The LORD or Jesus, to be more accurate, is appearing for a short time as an angel. Hagar will realize this is the LORD by the name she gives the spring or well. This name associates the divine with this encounter (Hebrew El-roi).
“Where have you come from and where are you going?” is the introduction to this divine-human encounter. Body language could have been gentle. It is asked of people who are running away, as with Jonah and Elijah. It is the question we all need to answer. It may be rephrased as, “Who are you and what is your purpose in life?” The answer Jesus Christ will give us 1500 years later is, “You are the LORD’s
royal child and the LORD made you to love and serve you. When you have received this affection you will pass it on.”
“I’m running away from my mistress, Sarai,” she replied.
We belong to the runaways of this planet because we are afraid of the image of God we have received under the expert tutelage of Satan. We run from this picture of a harsh, authoritarian, arbitrary dictator who burns those who displease him. We prefer the familiarity of our sordid self-images to the security of God’s image of our identity as his royal children.
9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her authority.”
10 Then he added, “I will give you more descendants than you can count.”
The LORD is telling Hagar he knows her situation and he will bless her with many children. This means she will have prosperity and security and her name will survive. At times our lot is unbearable and we need to hear the LORD speak to us, “Be brave. I have seen your suffering and will make it up to you. Sometimes I make it up in this life but always on the new earth.” Jesus promises to more than make up what we lose because of following him (Matthew 19:27-29; Luke 22:28-30; Revelation 3:21; Job 42:10-16).
11 And the angel also said, “You are now pregnant and will give birth to a son. You are to name him Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’), for the LORD has heard your cry of distress.
12 This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives.”
This is the consequence of trauma while in the womb and in early childhood. When we experience this trauma in the womb our rebellion become even more overt. Our neuronal networks are deeply affected by trauma.
13 Thereafter, Hagar used another name to refer to the LORD, who had spoken to her. She said, “You are the God who sees me. (Hebrew El-roi). She also said, “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” 14 So that well was named Beer-lahai-roi (which means “well of the Living One who sees me”). It can still be found between Kadesh and Bered.
To be seen by God means to be cared for by God. In John (9:1) Jesus sees a man blind from birth. This means Jesus is going to do something for the blind man. Jesus came down to live with us to assure us he has seen us. He has done more than we could ever have imagined for us. What he did for the thief on the cross is only a shadow of what he does for each one of us.
15 So Hagar gave Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Ishmael was born.
Ishmael means God hears or listens. 14 years later Isaac (laughter) will be born when Abram is 100 years old and Sarah is 90 years of age. This is a miraculous birth for Sarah in multiple ways. She is post-menopausal, she is an old woman who would have difficult birthing a baby and feeding the baby. The promised conception of Isaac brought the laughter of unbelief to Sarai (18:9-15) and Abram (17:17). The birth of Isaac brings the laughter of joy to Sarai and Abram.
Ian Hartley, April 2023.