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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 16

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


Abram had long been concerned about not having an heir, and, for awhile, Eliezer of Damascus, a trusted servant, had that status in the eyes of Abram; but the renewal of the promise that a child actually his own would be given had renewed his hope and expectation. However, ten years went by, and the promised son did not arrive. It is against that background of disappointment and hope that the tragic events of this chapter must be understood. Sarai too shared her husband’s disappointment and frustration, perhaps even more than Abram, and this led to her suggestion of Abram’s having a child by Hagar, her personal maid, a suggestion in which Abram sinfully and unwisely concurred. Under the legal rules of the society of that age, such a child would indeed have been legally Sarai’s. Therefore, she and Abram thought that by such a device as this they would HELP God to fulfill His promise! Anyone can understand the rationalism that would have supported such actions on their part, but 3,500 years of hatred, wars and bloodshed attest to the tragic sinfulness of what they did.

Where indeed had Sarai procured the Egyptian maid? Possibly as a gift from Pharaoh while she was briefly in his harem, or if not, certainly Hagar the Egyptian would scarcely have come into Abram’s home from any other source than Egypt during Abram’s sinful journey into that land. This shows how sin compounds and multiplies. Abram and Sarai brought back with them from Egypt great wealth, including men servants and maid servants. And one of those maid servants would appear to have been the Achilles’ heel by which Satan pierced the unity and destroyed the harmony of Abram’s home. Moreover, there also came into being a race of people who would spend their entire history (even down to the present time) hating and killing the posterity of Abram!

The faith of both Abram and Sarai was seriously defective, as revealed in the events recorded here. God does not need human help to fulfill His promises. What is required of men is that they trust God no matter how impossible the fulfillment of His Word may appear to be. In time, Abram was to learn that truth in the offering of his son Isaac, but, at this point, Abram faltered. Sarai must share the blame too, for it was at her instigation that the whole ugly chain of events unfolded. This is a rerun of the tragedy of Eden, where Adam heeded the counsel of Eve.

Verses 1-2

“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bare him no children: and she had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, Jehovah hath restrained me from bearing; go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; it may be that I shall obtain children from her. And Abram hearkened unto the voice of Sarai.”

Well, what was wrong with this? It was a legal and commonly accepted practice after the customs of that age, and we can hardly suppose that Abram and Sarai here deliberately chose to violate God’s law. However, there are a number of things wrong:

(1) It violated the concept of monogamous marriage, which had been from the beginning.

(2) It was a sinful use of a slave girl, who was hardly in a position to deny what was demanded of her, to fulfill the personal desires of Abram and Sarai, and such an inconsiderate use of one’s fellow human beings for his own purposes can never be anything but sinful.

(3) It was a presumption upon their part that God could not fulfill His promise except through their human devices.

(4) This introduction of polygamy was to continue among the patriarchs of Israel with the most far-reaching and undesirable consequences, as in the example of Jacob. Abram and Sarai could not have exhibited a worse example for the subsequent generations of the Chosen People than that visible here.

“Whose name was Hagar” We have already noted that she was in all probability acquired in Egypt during Abram’s sinful escapade there. The name itself is significant:

“The Arabs claim descent from Abraham through Ishmael and Hagar. Her name, which means “flight,” is akin to the word Hegira, used of the flight of Mohammed from Medina to Mecca (622 A.D.), an event from which the Muslims date their era.”(F1)

This is also a convenient place to note that the extensive posterity of Hagar are the proponents of Islam, and thus the nations that came through Hagar not only proved to be inveterate enemies of the Jews, but of the Christians also. Little could Abram and Sarai have known what a Pandora’s box of perpetual troubles for all mankind they opened by the little maneuver recorded here.

Verses 3-4

“And Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar, the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife. And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.”

Sarai and Abram had not counted on such a development as this. They had their weaknesses, but Hagar also had hers. Hagar was then Abram’s wife, and although she was not on an equality with Sarai, being in fact her slave, she nevertheless despised her mistress. Thinking that, then, her child would be heir to Abram’s fortune, her essential temperament as a slave did not lead her to accept her status and treat Sarai with proper respect. Thus, the tragedy of the arrangement was soon evident. It was impossible for Hagar to be sent away by Sarai, for the laws of that period granted certain rights to slave wives, and Hagar could neither have been sold nor dismissed. The device had appeared to work. Sure enough, Hagar would soon be a mother, but the jealousies and hatreds that entered Abram’s household at that point must have been a sore trial for the whole family. Such is ever the result of sin. As Leupold expressed it, “Polygamy is always bound to be the fruitful mother of envy, jealousy, and strife.(F2)

A number of authors refer to the Code of Hammurabi in connection with this episode. It “warns expressly, that a slave girl elevated by her mistress should not and could not claim equality.”(F3)

“To be his wife” The Hebrew word rendered “wife” is the same word also rendered “concubine.”(F4) However, there was a difference, and Hagar certainly enjoyed the status of Abram’s wife, however subordinate to Sarai. It was a situation certain to produce friction, hatred, and tragedy.

Verses 5-8

“And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I gave my handmaid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: Jehovah judge between me and thee. But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her that which is good in thine eyes. And Sarai dealt hardly with her, and she fled from her face.”

Abram’s house was troubled indeed with this situation; but as Dods said it: “This is the common fate of all who use others to satisfy their own desires and purposes.”(F5) Abram was at that time powerless to find a solution to the problem; because, in fact, there really was no solution, any more than there is a solution today for the Arab-Israeli conflict that troubles the whole world. As Hagar was Sarai’s property, and since the whole situation was due to her initial suggestion, Abram simply turned the problem back to Sarai. She dealt harshly with Hagar, to the point that Hagar decided to run away, and she did so. Speiser summed up the tragedy thus:

“Beyond all the legal niceties, however, were the tangled emotions of the characters in the drama: Sarai, frustrated and enraged; Hagar, spirited but tactless; Abraham, who must have known that, whatever his personal sentiments, he would not have been able to dissuade Sarai from following the letter of the law.”(F6)

“My wrong be upon thee” Scholars render this variously; but Leupold seems to have given the true meaning as, “The wrong done me is your fault.”(F7) Therefore, we must view this as an inaccurate and unreasonable allegation on Sarai’s part, growing out of her anger and wounded pride. She herself had suggested the arrangement!

Verse 7

“And the angel of Jehovah found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way of Shur. And he said, Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, whence camest thou and whither goest thou? And she said, I am fleeing from the face of my mistress Sarai.”

“The angel of Jehovah” This being can hardly be thought of as a creature, despite the usual meaning of the word “angel.” This is one of those O.T. “intimations of personal distinctions with God Himself”(F8) and is definitely a hint of the “Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” revealed in the N.T. Those who find here a Christophany, therefore, are not necessarily wrong. The words “refer to the Lord himself.”(F9) “The Biblical writers constantly speak of the angel of the Lord as Divine, calling him Jehovah without the least reserve.”(F10) The teaching here implied of there being a plurality of Persons in the Godhead is in perfect harmony with Genesis 1:26; Genesis 11:7, etc. We shall encounter other examples of the same thing in the O.T. This is the very first occurrence in the Bible of this phraseology. “This angel was God Himself, that is, another pre-incarnate appearance of the Messiah.”(F11)

“By the fountain in the way to Shur” This was evidently a well-known watering place on the way back to Egypt, toward which Hagar was evidently going. “The word `Shur’ means `wall’ and was probably applied to the chain of fortresses on the northeast frontier of Egypt.”(F12) Hagar could flee from Sarai, but not from the presence of God. The angel of the Lord questioned her as God had questioned Adam in Eden, not for the purpose of procuring information but with a design of appealing to Hagar’s conscience. She was engaged in an illegal flight, which, according to the laws of that age, could have been punished severely, even with death. Furthermore, there were terrible dangers and hardships on the way, as she had already discovered. “Whence camest thou? and whither goest thou?” Everyone needs to ask such questions of himself when confronting any crisis in life.

Verses 9-11

“And the angel of Jehovah said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself unto her hands. And the angel of Jehovah said unto her, I will greatly multiply thy seed, and it shall not be numbered for multitude. And the angel of Jehovah said unto her, Behold thou art with child, and shall bear a son; and thou shalt call his name Ishmael, because Jehovah hath heard thy affliction.”

“And the angel of Jehovah” The threefold repetition of this in Genesis 16:9, Genesis 16:10, and Genesis 16:11, is used by critics as an excuse to cast out the last two of these verses as “an interpolation.”(F13) This is not at all reasonable, for the smoothness of the narrative would be restored completely merely by supplying the words, “Again, the angel of Jehovah said unto her” Such a device is used by translators constantly, and there is no good reason why they should not have done so here. Three definite and very important prophecies concerning Hagar were given, and it was imperative that all three be understood as having been given by the angel of Jehovah. That is clearly the reason for the repetition. The message of the angel of Jehovah was:

(1) “Return and submit” This is never easy to do; and in Hagar’s case it might have been unusually difficult; but she returned and submitted.

(2) “I will multiply thy seed” This was fulfilled on a scale that no one in that age could have believed, not even Hagar.

(3) “Thou shalt bear a son, and thou shalt call his name Ishmael” This recalls the prophecy of Gabriel to Mary. Only God can name in advance the sex of a child before it is conceived and bestow the name in the manner noted here. We have no patience whatever with the type of critic who finds a “contradiction,” no less, in the fact that here Hagar named the child, and that in Genesis 16:15 Abram named him. As a matter of fact, neither Hagar nor Abram named Ishmael, for he was named by God Himself. And there is no problem whatever with the fact that both Hagar and Abram consented to receive the God-given name. (For more, see comments at Genesis 16:12, below).

Verse 12

“And he shall be as a wild ass among men; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell over against all his brethren.”

This is a continuation of the message of the angel of Jehovah.

(1) “He shall be as a wild ass among men” The antagonistic and war-like disposition of the Arab nations has continued until the present time. Only God could have uttered a prophecy so circumstantially fulfilled over such a long period of time. Dods’ discerning comment is:

“That race has neither been dissipated by conquest, nor lost by migration, nor confounded with the blood of other countries. They have continued to dwell in the presence of their brethren, a distinct nation, wearing upon the whole the same features and aspects which this prophecy first impressed upon them.”(F14)

And thus it came to pass that the child of Abram and Sarai’s unbelief became the progenitor of the Arabs, Israel’s bitterest foes throughout history, and, as Unger noted, “And from this line also came Muhammad and Islam, one of the most demonic of religions and a foe of Christianity.”(F15)

Verses 13-14

“And she called the name of Jehovah that spake unto her, Thou art a God that seeth: for she said, Have I even here looked after him that seeth me? Wherefore the well was called Beer-lahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.”

“Have I even here looked after him that seeth me?” Scholars are much divided on exactly how to translate the words thus rendered in our version (ASV), but we are strongly inclined to allow the translation we have before us. It makes as good a sense as any, and besides, as Robinson bluntly stated it:

“As the text stands, the whole name is not explained, but it is possible that the latter part of Genesis 16:13 should read, I have seen God and have survived after seeing him … this, however, is pure conjecture, and it may well be that this part of the name of the well had no explanation at all in the original narrative.(F16)

Whatever the exact meaning of the names here, the thought is clear enough that God had seen Hagar’s distress, and that he heeded her cry, consoled her, put her feet homeward on the path of duty, and gave magnificent prophecies of the son to be born to her.

We may only conjecture as to the reaction of Abram and Sarai when they got word from the returned Hagar that God had appeared to her and that she was indeed going to have a son, and what a son! “A wild-ass of a man, destined to be the enemy of Israel forever!” It must have been hard for Sarai and Abram to hear this.

Verses 15-16

“And Hagar bare Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bare, Ishmael. And Abram was four score and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.”

The importance of this chapter in the history of the Chosen People is incalculable. Much of the future of Israel would be related to the Ishmaelites and the nations that came from them, much in the same manner as the Edomites entered the picture following the birth of Esau. The age of Abram is given here as 86, and it was not until 13 years later when he was 99 that God appeared to him again. During that long period, Abram would have to live with the situation that he and Sarai had brought upon themselves.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 16". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-16.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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