New European Commentary


About | PDFs | Mobile formats | Word formats | Other languages | Contact Us | What is the Gospel? | Support the work | Carelinks Ministries | | The Real Christ | The Real Devil | "Bible Companion" Daily Bible reading plan

Deeper Commentary

16:1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar- Perhaps given to her whilst in Egypt, one of the "female servants" of Gen. 12:16, where Abram had wrongfully denied his marriage to Sarah. Hagar likely didn't have too high an impression of Abram because of that.

We note that Hagar was from Egypt. In Gen. 12, Abram had chosen Egypt over the promises of God, and had gone down there and acted faithlessly. But in Gen. 13 he refuses Sodom, which appeared fertile "like the land of Egypt" (Gen. 13:10), believing instead that the promise of all the land would come true for him at some future point. But now he slips back, again, to trust in the fertility of Egypt, or in this case, an Egyptian. The barrenness of Canaan during famine therefore matches the barrenness of Sarai. But trusting Egypt was not the answer. We see the growth of Abraham's faith; from a  very faultering faith in Gen. 11 and 12, to the peak of faith in being willing to offer Isaac in Gen. 22. And yet the growth in faith was no smooth upward curve. For in seeking fulfilment of the promise of the seed through Hagar the Egyptian , Abraham was again going back to Egypt rather than trusting in the fulfilment of the promises to him in due course. Our trust in the world and secular strength likewise goes up and down as our faith grows. It's a jagged graph. We can well speculate that Hagar was given to Abram by the Pharaoh during the shameful incident in Gen. 12. For the note is made that Abram was given "female servants" by Pharaoh, and he took those gifts with him when he left Egypt (Gen. 12:16). So the point is made that if Abram had not gone down into Egypt, he would not have acquired Hagar, and this particular source of temptation would have been absent. Any concession to the flesh makes obedience harder in the longer term. 

16:2  Sarai said to Abram, See now, Yahweh has restrained me from bearing. Please go in to my handmaid. It may be that I will obtain children by her- A recurrent weakness of the patriarchs is their attempts to as it were force God's hand when it came to which of their children should continue with the covenant blessings. As Abraham used his handmaid to try to produce the promised seed, so Jacob, Rachel and Leah did. God had told Abraham clearly that the covenant would continue through Isaac rather than Ishmael, and that circumcision was the sign of that covenant; and yet Abraham remonstrates with God: "Oh that Ishmael might live before you!" (Gen. 17:18), employing the idea of 'living before God' in a covenantal sense. When God again repeats His purpose with Isaac, Abraham goes and circumcises Ishmael, as if he was to still participate in the covenant God wished to continue through Isaac (Gen. 17:23). The fact that Abraham's circumcision of Ishmael is specifically recorded highlights his insistence on trying to make God's promises fulfil as he would like them to. Isaac did the same, insistent upon giving the covenant blessing to Esau rather than Jacob; Jacob likewise did something similar when he tried to reverse the blessing upon Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48:18).

The 300 or so Nuzi tablets record history, legal codes and case history of situations contemporary with Abraham; and the comment has been made that deciding to sleep with your wife's slave girl was almost unheard of. So it seems to me that Abraham again gave in, in a moment of weakness; but didn't take another wife, because he really clung on to his faith that he would have a child by Sarah. The whole incident with Abraham and Hagar seems to me to reflect weakness in both Abraham and Sarah. Neither of them ever refer to her by her name, but rather by her title, "handmaid", as if she were just an object. Yet God and the inspired narrator refer to her by her name, Hagar, as if recognizing the value of her person in a way that Abraham and Sarah didn't. It seems to me that Israel's later experience re-lived that of Hagar- flight into the wilderness of Sinai, miraculously provided with water, found and preserved by an Angel. God heard the cry of Israel's affliction at the hands of the Egyptians, just as He heard the cry of the mother and child whom Sarah had afflicted. This deliberate coincidence was perhaps to make Israel realize on a national scale how wrongly their forefather had treated Hagar- and it has some relevance to modern Israel's treatment of the Arabs. For Israel suffer and will yet suffer what they have put Hagar's descendants through.

Abram listened to the voice of Sarai- "Through faith even Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed" (Heb. 11:11 RV). At this time she apparently lacked that faith. "Even Sarah herself" is clearly making a point, holding up a flashing light over this particular example. There is every reason to think, from the Genesis record, that Sarah not only lacked faith in the promises, but also had a bitter, unspiritual mind. The account alludes back to Eve's beguiling of Adam when it records how "Abram listened to the voice of Sarai" in acquiescing to her plan to give her a seed through Abram sleeping with his slave girl. The whole thing between Sarah and Abraham seems wrong on at least two counts: firstly it reflects a lack of faith in the promise; and secondly it flouts God's ideal standards of marriage. Sarai seems to have recognized the error when she bitterly comments to Abram: "My wrong be upon you" (16:5). Her comment that "the Lord has restrained me from bearing" would suggest that she thought she hadn't been chosen to bear the promised seed. Yet because of her faith, says Heb. 11:11, she received strength to bear that seed. Although it could be there that it is Abram's faith that is in view.

The theme of Abraham's weakness encountered in chapter 15 continues over into chapter 16- where Sarah asks Abraham to sleep with her servant girl in order to have a child. Why did Sarah ask Abraham to do this, at this stage in their lives? Why not earlier? Surely the promise of a seed had restimulated her pain regarding her barren state. Yet Abraham had previously worked through with the Lord the possibility of Eliezer, one born in his household, being the promised seed. And God had clarified that no, Abraham's own child would be the heir. It's as if Sarah could believe that Abraham's impotence could be cured, but not her barrenness. I can only take this incident- and the less than honourable treatment of Hagar afterwards- to be another trough in Abraham's faith graph. It's been pointed out that all historical and cultural evidence from the time points to Abraham's action as being most unusual. In the case of a barren wife, the man chose himself a second wife. It's almost unheard of in contemporary records for a man to have his wife chose him a woman to have a child by- let alone for it to be one of her slave girls. This historical background provides a window into Abraham's faithful commitment to Sarah- for it's significant that he's not recorded as taking another wife. Instead, his fine faith and character slips up in a moment of weakness by giving in to Sarah for a moment.

16:3 Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife- The idea may be that Hagar was not a casually chosen woman. The ten year period may have begun after the family re-entered Canaan from Egypt, where Hagar was presumably added to the household. Sarai had not previously suggested Abram sleep with her. The receipt of the promises about the seed in chapter 15 would have restimulated Sarai's awareness that she was barren, and so she came up with this idea. The whole story, as ever in Biblical history, is so psychologically credible that it adds yet another strand of internal evidence in the momentous proposition that the Bible is indeed the inspired word of God.

We note that 'becoming his wife' meant 'having and raising a child together', which is and has been effectively the practical definition of marriage in many cultures. The legalistic obsession with on paper documentation is something which was popular in the Western world in the 20th century, but isn't and hasn't had the same meaning for most of the world's population over time. See on :8.

16:4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived. When she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes- This again is psychologically credible; see on :3. Clearly God was working through the plan, because it is statistically unlikely that a woman conceives after one act of intercourse. The idea seems to be that she conceived immediately. God had a purpose with Ishmael and his descendants. Although what Sarai suggested was wrong, and Abram was wrong to obey her voice, God still worked through it by granting immediate conception. And we too experience His unending activity with us; and we likewise are to continue trying with others. The Hebrew for "despise" is often translated "curse". It was far more than rolling her eyes. It was the ancient superstition that a woman was barren because she was cursed by God.

16:5 Sarai said to Abram, This wrong is your fault- This could mean that the cursing of Sarai by Hagar was Abram's fault for obeying Sarai's suggestion. This is psychologically credible. Or it could be that Sarai is accusing Abram of impotence (supported by Rom. 4:19 "his own body now dead"), and on that basis blaming Abram for the whole saga. This passing of blame, including blaming others for doing what we have told them to do, is absolutely imaginable and has the hallmark of psychological veracity.

The "wrong" in view is hamas, violence; this is the extent of the persecution Sarai claimed from Hagar. The Hebrew word hamas [basically meaning 'physical violence arising from wicked plans'] is quite common in Scripture, and the usages speak of how God is provoked by hamas to bring judgment upon the enemies of His people (Gen. 6:11-13; Mic. 6:12; Zeph. 1:9) and also to intervene in order to save His people (Ps. 18:49; Ps. 72:14). How amazingly appropriate that an organization actually called hamas has arisen in these last days to do violence to Israel! If Biblical history means anything to us, clearly enough God's intervention in appropriate judgment and salvation cannot be far off. Hagar's persecution of Sarah- typical of the Arab-Jew conflict- is described here as her hamas.

I gave my handmaid into your bosom, and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes. Yahweh judge between me and you- Once again, this is so true to psychological reality. It's a classic case of transference, transferring our sins and the guilt for them onto others. It's why people condemn others for the very things they themselves do. The church leader who harangues a member for adultery may well do so because he himself is having an affair. It is beyond hypocrisy; it's transference of guilt onto another and vicariously punishing personal guilt by punishing another for that same thing. Or it can be that someone falsely accuses another person of the very thing they are themselves doing, and then seeks to punish them for it. This again is transference, and Sarai blaming Abram in this matter is just a classic example. She wants Yahweh to judge him, transferring her guilt and subconscious recognition of the need for judgment onto him.


16:6 But Abram said to Sarai, Behold, your maid is in your hand. Do to her whatever is good in your eyes- As noted on :5, Sarai had transferred her guilt onto Abram. But Abram is wisely asking her to take it back and deal with it.

Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her face- Hagar was so persecuted by Sarah that she "fled from her face". "Harshly" translates the same Hebrew word, hamasthat has just been used of how Egypt would abuse the Israelites in hard bondage (Gen. 15:13; Ex. 1:11,12), and it is elsewhere used about rape and torture. Such behaviour, condoned and allowed by Abram, would warrant a prison sentence in our days. God's attitude to Hagar seems to reflect a certain amount of sympathy for the harsh way in which Sarah had dealt with her. These years of bitterness and lack of faith came to the surface when Sarah overheard the Angel assuring Abraham that Sarah really would have a son. She mockingly laughed at the promise, deep within herself (Gen. 18:15). Yet according to Heb. 11:11, she rallied her faith and believed. But as soon as Isaac was born, her bitterness flew to the surface again when she was Ishmael mocking. In what can only be described as unrestrained anger, she ordered Hagar and Ishmael out into the scorching desert, to a certain death (humanly speaking). Again, one can sense the sympathy of God for Hagar at this time. And so wedged in between incidents which belied a deep bitterness, lack of faith and pride (after Isaac was born), the Spirit in Heb. 11:11 discerns her faith; on account of which, Heb. 11:12 implies ("therefore"), the whole purpose of God in Christ could go forward.

The law of Moses often seems to allude back to the weaknesses of the patriarchs. Lev. 19:34 warns about mistreating the hagger living amongst God's people- the stranger, refugee, foreigner. This is a related word to 'Hagar'- it has the same consonants. Clearly the message to Israel was to not treat foreigners as Sarah had treated Hagar. Again we see Sarah presented in a very negative light. She comes over as wanting Abraham to have the child Ishmael for herself, and then blames Abraham for the domestic tensions that arise. Hagar is brought to Abraham by Sarah; and the record clearly presents Hagar as being used by Sarah and Abraham as if she were not a person but a thing. And yet Hagar is repeatedly described as 'seeing' things. "She saw that she had conceived... her mistress was despised in her eyes...". And she 'sees' the Angel in the wilderness. She has eyes to perceive that she has looked upon God with her eyes and lived, God has seen her as she saw Him. She was not a thing, but a perceptive person with eyes and feelings. Sarah is portrayed as the abusive slaveowner.

Abraham and Sarah doubt God's promise of a seed, and so Sarah pushes Abraham to have an affair with Hagar her servant. When Hagar gets (understandably) full of womanly pride at her conception, Sarah persecutes her and drives her out to certain death in the wilderness. True believers aren't good or nice people! God seems to take Hagar's side, He hears her affliction, He looks upon her, and makes a covenant with her (Gen. 16). Hagar believes God's promise to her, and praises Him for it. Sarah laughs at God's promise to her as being a joke (Gen. 18:12-15). And even worse, when she is reprimanded for doing this, she flatly denies she ever laughed.

I labour these weaknesses of Sarah because she is all the same set up as the mother of the faithful. But her faith was not in that she was a stellar example of spirituality. Rather that she as a weak, not very nice, bitter person- kept in with God's program for her and was used. In fact there is no particular example of her faith in the record. Abraham offered Isaac and believed the promises, but there is no corresponding account for Sarah. So her faith was in that she in her heart kept with God despite this surface level indifference, and despite serious misbehaviour. She is another example of someone with whom God almost forced through His purpose.

16:7 The angel of Yahweh found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur- See on :13. The same word translated "harsh" concerning Sarai's abuse of Hagar (:6) is later used in the Pentateuch of how in the case of such "harsh" domestic abuse, God would hear the cry of the abused (Ex. 22:22,23), just as He did with Hagar both now and at the later incident (Gen. 21:16,17). God comes over as very much on Hagar's side, and paints Sarai as a domestic abuser whose husband fully allowed her to behave in this way.

What Sarah did was wrong. Because it is descibed in terms of what Egypt did to Israel later. A Hebrew here oppresses an Egyptian, so that she flees into the wilderness"on the way to Shur"- the route from Egypt to Canaan. And Hagar finds grace in the wilderness, as did Israel.  Israel also went into the wilderness of Shur and needed water (Ex. 15:22 "Then Moses ordered Israel to set out from the Red Sea, and they went into the wilderness of Shur. They went three days in the wilderness and found no water"), and they too are described as having been found by God, through an Angel, in the same wilderness (Dt. 32:10; Hos. 9:10); Israel too found grace in the wilderness (Jer. 31:2). The parallels indicate that God had a purpose with Hagar and Ishmael, and He blesses Ishmael in terms which are clearly based upon the blessing of Abraham's seed.  The message is perhaps that anyone who is the seed of Abraham, despite their Gentile connections and broken relationship with the Hebrews, can still inherit the Abrahamic blessing. There is not simply Divine fondness for those who would later become the Arab peoples; it indicated even in Old Testament times that although Israel were His chosen people [by grace alone], He was even then open to working with others. And the similarities with Israel also being "found" in the same wilderness were to demonstrate that Israel had been chosen by grace alone, and were not at all superior to Hagar's seed. The allegory of Gal. 4:25 presents Israel after the flesh as Ishmael, as if to cement the point being made; that natural Israel were not in fact any better than Ishmael.


16:8 He said, Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid- Hagar is repeatedly seen as Sarai's maid ("my maid", :5, "your maid", :6), rather than Abram's wife. And yet as noted on :3, she was also seen on another level as Abram's wife. It was an anomalous situation, just as many marital situations today are. But God's sympathy is with her and He works through that situation, rather than turning away from it. God addresses Hagar by name. This is about the only example in the Bible, and indeed [so it has been observed] in all the contemporary literature, where any God directly addresses a woman by name. We get the strong impression that God feels sorry for Hagar and takes her side, recognizing she is indeed a 'hagar', a foreigner, a stranger. This in turn highlights His grace towards Sarah. He is the God who is gracious towards both the abused and also the abuser. In our age, the abuser is shown no grace at all.

Where did you come from? Where are you going? She said, I am fleeing from the face of my mistress Sarai- The questions begged the answers: 'From Egypt, and back to Egypt', for she was apparently making for the southern highway back home. Hagar doesn't engage with those questions at the time; she only saw the present reality. But perhaps God is suggesting to her that He has a higher purpose for her than merely being an Egyptian servant girl who was to return there. He wanted to make her, some random slave girl from Egypt, used as a pawn in a game... into something very special. It's just His way, His grace, His sensitivity to the little ones. Whether or not she will be saved isn't the issue; God was still sensitive to the loser and the abused.

16:9 The angel of Yahweh said to her, Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hands- "Submit" translates the same Hebrew word translated "harshly" in :6. Hagar was asked to submit to the abuse, just as the same word is used of the harsh bondage and abuse which God required Israel to be subject to in Egypt (s.w. Gen. 15:13). Revolt and exodus from abuse is not always God's immediate plan. But He didn't want her to return to Egypt, and fade away into Egyptian society as an anonymous single mother; He wanted to make of her seed a great nation; see on :8. This is His way, His grace. But just as Israel had to be afflicted in Egypt for this to happen, so Hagar had to be afflicted by Sarai. But she was to understand that God had given her the power of choice- her submission was to be of her choice, not because of Sarah's power over her. Had she refused that, she would not have received the promises to Abraham repeated to her (:10). And the promise to Ishmael went on to say that through submission to Sarah, there would come freedom for Ishmael. He would break free from the oppressive Sarah, and become a strong nation independent of her. This was God's way of bringing the oppressed, nobody of a refugee, fleeing, single mother, pregnant slave girl- to power and freedom. She perceived the wonder of all this when she marvels that 'You God, see [pay attention] to me'. But the path lay through submission in faith and hope. It seems Hagar and Ishmael didn't really choose to continue covenant relationship with Yahweh, because they failed to control their anger with Sarah and her line through Isaac. That anger consumed them, and obscured their relationship with the God of Abraham.  This so often happens with the abused. Their understandable anger with their abusers stunts their spiritual development. And the fact their abusers have some relationship with God is hard for them to accept. To the point many refuse any relationship with the same God. They fail to separate God from His people.

16:10 The angel of Yahweh said to her, I will greatly multiply your seed, that they will not be numbered for multitude- The same language as the promises to Abraham which were only later given in Gen. 22:17. This promise wasn't given immediately to Abram perhaps because God wanted to humble him and Sarai with the thought that the slave girl Hagar was to have a mighty seed. Maybe once they were humbled to accept that, the similar promise was given to their seed.

16:11 The angel of Yahweh said to her, Behold, you are with child, and will bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because Yahweh has heard your affliction- Ishmael means 'Whom El hears'. God was open to Hagar and Ishmael, He heard and saw them- He was open to relationship even with those not in the chosen seed. God tells Hagar that He "heard thy affliction" (Gen. 16:11 AV; LXX "humiliation"), as if her situation and cry of desperation was received by Him as a prayer. The fact the Lord is mediating our prayers before the Father's throne ought to influence us as to what type of people we are. For who we are, not only our prayers, is reflected before Him in Christ. Our lives are in that sense our prayers. It was usual for the father to name the child, but Hagar, the abused, sexually used slave girl names her child. And Abraham goes along with it- Abram named the child Ishmael (:15). So Hagar is sent back into the abusive situation with an elevated status, with God's word behind her.

16:12 He will be like a wild donkey among men. His hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him- Jeremiah describes wayward Israel as a wild ass (Jer. 2:24), perhaps inviting comparison with Ishmael, the wild ass man (Gen. 16:12). I have elsewhere given many other Biblical examples of how God’s apostate people are described in terms of those who are not God’s people. And Gal. 4:25 is clear that the natural seed of Israel were paralleled in God's mind with Ishmael, which is why the promises of material blessing were spoken to both seeds in the same terms (Gen. 22:17; Gen. 16:10).

He will live opposite all of his brothers- Literally, 'to the east of', which would mean that Israel's warring half brothers would be located exactly where they are today, to the east of Palestine.

16:13 She called the name of Yahweh who spoke to her, You, God, see me, for she said, Have I even stayed alive after seeing Him?- The Hebrew word for "fountain" in :7 is literally "eye", and is the same word translated "eyes" in :5. It was as if that fountain of water was really God's eye, and Hagar perceives that by saying that God saw her, as if that fountain of water was God's eye.

The Hebrew language reflects certain realities about the nature of God’s ways. The common Hebrew word for ‘to see’, especially when used about God’s ‘seeing’, means also ‘to provide’. Abraham comforted Isaac that “God will see for himself [AV ‘provide’] the lamb” (Gen. 22:8 RVmg.); and thus the RVmg. interprets ‘Jehovah Jireh’ as meaning ‘the Lord will see, or provide’ (Gen. 22:14). The same word is used when Saul asks his servants to “provide” him a man (1 Sam. 16:17). When Hagar said “Thou God seest me” (Gen. 16:13) she was expressing her gratitude for His provision for her. What this means in practice is that the fact God sees and knows all things means that He can and will therefore and thereby provide for us in the circumstances of life; for He sees and knows all things.

There is reason to think that Abraham was humble enough to learn from Hagar's observation, that God had seen her and she had seen Him. For at the pinnacle of his faith when he offered Isaac, he in turn names the place 'Yahweh Yireh', Yahweh has seen / will see, and will provide. The idea is identical to that spoken by Hagar, that God had seen / provided for her, and she had seen God. And we note that Isaac himself chose to settle at Hagar's well, 'the well of the living one who sees me' (Gen. 24:62 "the well Lahairoi"; Gen. 25:11). In all this we see a tacit recognition that they had learnt something from Hagar, the slavegirl whom the family had used and abused.  

16:14 Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi. Behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered- "It is" again indicates that Moses was writing primarily for the wilderness generation, who would have 'beheld' that well on their journeys.

16:15 Hagar bore a son for Abram. Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael- The language twice stresses that "Hagar bore", and yet the son was Abram's. There was to be no question that this child was in a sense the legitimate son of Abram. As noted on :11, Ishmael means 'Whom El hears'. God was open to Hagar and Ishmael, He heard and saw them- He was open to relationship even with those not in the chosen seed. The fact Abram named the child was a statement that he considered the child his very own. That was standard procedure in the society of those days. This is the extent to which he went to try to find a surrogate, secular form of fulfilling God's promises. God has set eternity in the human heart, but man seeks to fulfil it in ways which are secular and pathetic, compared to the real thing. Which is His absolute gift of the real thing, in this case, a child by his legitimate wife Sarah.


16:16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram- According to Rom. 4:19, Abram's body was "dead", he was impotent, by the time of the promise of Isaac 13 year later. And yet Gen. 25 lists other sons of Abram, by Keturah and other concubines. Perhaps he had slept with other slave girls before that; or maybe the failure with Hagar led him to fail likewise with other such women, in a desperate attempt to force through God's promised purpose on Abram's own terms and in his own strength. Just as one case of taking a lower level leads us so easily into others.