Genesis 16: Hagar Gives Birth to Ishmael

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Ten years have passed since Abraham and Sarah have left Haran. For the first time, we realize that Sarah has known about the promises, too. In this chapter, Sarah's stark realization of her infertility reaches a critical point. She knows only too well that the Divine promise said nothing about her being the mother of Abraham's offspring. The son was to be from Abraham's body; there was no mention of her. It goes without saying that it is her barrenness that is preventing God's promise from being fulfilled. So she decides to assist God out of His dilemma.

She says to Abraham, "Because the Lord has prevented me from bearing children, go in to my maid." Sarah attributes her barrenness to God, because ultimately, God is understood to be the cause behind all of life's experiences.

Just as Sarah was silent when Abraham gave her to Pharaoh, Hagar is silent when Sarah gives her to Abraham. And for his part, Abraham simply "agreed to what Sarah said." Neither Sarah nor Abraham speaks directly to Hagar; she is Sarah's servant and was bound to perform whatever was asked of her. As a slave, Hagar would have had no parental rights. Sarah could adopt the child as her own.

Ironically, Hagar gets pregnant with ease. But then, "When she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress was slight in her eyes." Suddenly, Hagar realized that it would be through her that the promise would be fulfilled. Of course her heart beat with pride. She was no longer a nothing; she was, indeed, someone. As she perceived, or saw, that she was pregnant, she had a new vision of Sarah. Some of those societal boundaries fell away. The level of the lowly maid increased just as the level of the esteemed wife decreased.

Sarah complained bitterly to Abraham, blaming him, in fact, for the situation. "May the wrong done to me be upon you! I gave my maid to your embrace but when she saw that she had conceived, then I was slight in her eyes. May the Lord judge between you and me." Her outburst cast Abraham in the role of both defendant and judge. Ultimately, she stated, "Let God choose between you and me."

Clearly, things are not working according to plan, and commentators have various views. Traditionally, Abraham was defended -- just trying to help out, you know. After all, all of this was done at Sarah's bequest. Sarah and Hagar come off looking like typical squabbling women. Since the rise of women theologians, however, some new views have arisen. Perhaps Abraham wasn't all that helpful. Imagine his unmitigated joy at realizing he was about to become a father. Did he put Hagar on a pedestal? Perhaps he doted on her night and day, raising her status far above that of a servant girl. This is hardly idle speculation in that Sarah's accusation suggests their marriage is at risk. Given that insight, Sarah, then, becomes the victimized party in the story, once again dispensable, expendable.

Most recent scholarship, however, focuses on the vulnerability and oppression of Hagar. In this text, she is merely an instrument, a tool in her masters' lives. She is not only a servant, but also an alien. Sarah and Abraham don't even speak to her; they only speak about her. Hagar's role is the pristine foreshadowing of the suffering servant or the foretelling of Israel's servitude in Egypt. The terrible irony, of course, is that, here, Hagar is the Egyptian being oppressed by the Israelites.

So, depending on whose point of view a scholar chooses, this story can be told in three different ways. One might actually argue that conflict was inevitable as soon as Abraham and Sarah decided to assist God out of His dilemma. Once this process was set in motion, it quickly grew out of control. The resulting conflict would not only plague these immediate participants, but would create a chain of events that would cause trouble between these families for eons.

In response to Sarah's accusation, Abraham said, "Your servant is in your hands, do with her whatever you think best." Hagar was, after all, her maiden. Then, Sarah, the oppressed, immediately became the oppressor and "afflicted her. And Hagar fled from her." The Hebrew words for "afflicted" and "fled" will be repeated in Exodus to describe the Israelites' treatment at the hand of the Egyptians. The deliberate linguistic connection between these two situations underscores their severity.

Some scholars try to soften them by pointing to laws of the Ancient Near East that proscribed harsh treatment if a slave became insolent. In that case, Abraham and Sarah were simply following custom. Yet, it raises distressing aspects of the covenant ratified between God and Abraham and provides a disconcerting note in the history of a people who were "blessed to be a blessing."

So, Hagar fled from Sarah into the wilderness. She chooses almost certain death to the abuse that she felt at Sarah's hand. She heads in the direction of Egypt, back to her own people. She stops at a spring on the road to Shur, located along the southern border of Canaan, a considerable distance for an unprotected woman. There, an angel of the Lord asks, "Hagar, where have you come from and where are you going?" It's the first time someone speaks to her directly and addresses her by name. And for the first time, she is given a voice. Her reply is simple, "I am running away from my mistress, Sarah." There is no expressed element of surprise in this encounter.

However, the angel's message is grim. "Return unto your mistress and submit to her." Placing the two imperatives together serves to highlight their severity. "Return and submit." These commands are harsh, but they are accompanied by two promises. In the first promise, the angel states, "I will increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." The second is a birth announcement. Hagar will give birth to a son, named Ishmael, because "God has heard your cry." Hebrew names often reflect a statement of belief, and Ishmael's was to be no exception. It means, "God hears, or may God hear." His name will forever commemorate Hagar's plight and her need of God's help and God's response. The announcement continues with a description that her descendants will, indeed, be numerous, but they will live lives filled with tension and strife, free like the untamed beasts of the wild.

Now, who else in this story has been given commands followed by promises? Abraham, of course! Isn't this interesting? Abraham, the father of God's people, was given difficult commands followed by promises of innumerable descendants. Hagar, an alien who is not even an Israelite, is given difficult commands followed by promises of innumerable descendants. And, she is the only woman ever to receive such a promise. She is also the first person in the Bible to be visited by a divine messenger and the first to be given a birth announcement. This passage stands as a wonderful reminder that God is no respecter of persons. While He may have chosen Abraham's descendants for a special people, His blessings and providence continue for everyone. Of course, Hagar's story is not as well developed as Abraham's, but the fact that it's there at all serves as a reminder to us of God's universal scope.

Unlike Abraham, who simply did what God commanded without comment, Hagar bursts forth with a cry of joy and praise. She does not argue about the demand to return or the danger that might await. Instead, she "calls the name of the Lord who had spoken to her. You are the God of seeing." The Hebrew cannot be translated, "She calls upon the name of the Lord." Instead, Hagar actually names the Lord. There is no other place in the Bible where this happens. This is a hard thing for scholars to explain, because naming usually confers upon it some sense of dominion, as when Adam named the animals. Clearly, Hagar is not given any dominion over the Lord.

Rather, this is Hagar's way of saying, "Regardless of what other people may call You, for me You are a God of seeing, who saw me in my distress, who came to my aid." It could also have the connotation of the "God whom I have seen." In other words, several meanings can be apparent simultaneously. When God sees, He expresses concern and lends aid. When Hagar sees, she experiences God's self- manifestation.

She then names the well where this occurred, "the well of the Living One who sees me." The emphasis is on the fact that God revealed Himself to her, on His graciousness, not on any special status for herself. This portrait stands in stark contrast to her earlier posture of maternal pride, which is what set all these untoward events in motion.

Finally, at the end of this chapter is a brief statement of the fulfillment of the promise. She has the child and Abraham names him, "Ishmael," thereby legitimizing him. But, Sarah is conspicuously absent from this moment. This is suggestive of the fact that her dream of being "built up" by Hagar was not realized. Yet, this ending serves to verify the fact that Hagar returned to Sarah. This chapter, then, is not only a demonstration of Hagar's faith, but also of her unquestioning obedience, just like Abraham's.