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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 16

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Genesis 16:0


Sarai and HagarHagar and IshmaelThe Birth of IshmaelHagar and IshmaelThe Birth of Ishmael
Genesis 16:1-6Genesis 16:1-3Genesis 16:1-6Genesis 16:1-4Genesis 16:1-2
Genesis 16:3-6
Genesis 16:4-6
Genesis 16:5
Genesis 16:6
Genesis 16:7-14Genesis 16:7-14Genesis 16:7-14Genesis 16:7-8aGenesis 16:7-12
Genesis 16:8b
Genesis 16:9-12
(vv. Genesis 16:11-12)(vv. Genesis 16:11-12)(vv. Genesis 16:11-12) (vv. Genesis 16:11-12)
Genesis 16:13-14Genesis 16:13-14
Genesis 16:15-16Genesis 16:15-16Genesis 16:15-16Genesis 16:15-16Genesis 16:15-16

READING CYCLE THREE (see Guide to Good Bible Reading)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verses 1-6

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 16:1-6 1Now Sarai, Abram's wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. 2So Sarai said to Abram, "Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram's wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. 4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight. 5And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me." 6But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight." So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence.

Genesis 16:1 "she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar" The name Hagar means "to flee" (BDB 212). This is characteristic of her (cf. Genesis 16:6, Genesis 16:8). She was an Egyptian who was probably purchased for Sarai while they were in Egypt (cf. Genesis 12:10-20).

Genesis 16:2 "the LORD has prevented me from bearing children" It is obvious that the couple had discussed YHWH's revelations and also the delay in their fulfillment. Apparently they began planning how to "help" Him fulfill His promise!

The form of the VERB "prevented" (BDB 783, KB 870, Qal PERFECT) denotes completed action. Sarai must have thought she was permanently barren.

In a sense Sarai is blaming YHWH for her continued barrenness (cf. Genesis 20:18). The delay was part of the plan of God to mature their trust in Him and to clearly reveal Himself to later generations. All believers struggle with the timing of divinely promised events.

"Please go in to my maid" The VERB (BDB 97, KB 112) is a Qal IMPERATIVE used in the sense of a request (cf. Genesis 30:3). The VERB is often used as a euphemism of sexual intimacy (cf. Genesis 6:4; Genesis 16:2; Genesis 19:34; Genesis 30:3; Genesis 38:8, Genesis 38:9; Genesis 39:14; Deuteronomy 22:13; Deuteronomy 25:5; 2 Samuel 11:4; 2 Samuel 12:24; 2 Samuel 16:21-22; 2 Samuel 20:3; Proverbs 6:29).

"I shall obtain children through her" This is very much in line with the Nuzi Tablets which describe the Hurrian culture of the second millennium B.C. Hagar's child would legally become Sarai's child and Abram's heir.

"Abram listened" This almost parallels the problem of Genesis 3:0 (esp. Gen. 16:17). Abram was tempted to do something he was probably inclined to do anyway. The VERB is literally "to hear" (BDB 1033, KB 1570) in the IMPERFECT TENSE, which implies repeated action. The monogamy ideal of original creation is lost, surprisingly in an attempt to "help" God!

Genesis 16:3 "After Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan" It is significant that at least ten years have elapsed since God spoke to Abraham in chapter 15. Abraham was continuing to trust, but was trying to think of ways that he could help God. This again is God showing Abraham specifically that it was His resources, not Abraham's, that would ultimately bring forth the promise. This section is used as an allegory by Paul in Galatians 4:21-31.

"as his wife" Hagar is more appropriately his concubine. Although the Hebrew term "wife" is used here, it is obvious that she is not a wife, but a concubine (i.e., female sexual partner with limited rights).

Genesis 16:4 "her mistress was despised in her sight" The VERB (BDB 886, KB 1103, Qal IMPERFECT) can mean

1. be light

2. swift

3. to be insignificant (cf. 1 Samuel 2:30; Job 40:4)

The Hiphil stem denotes contempt (cf. 2 Samuel 19:43; Isaiah 23:9; Ezekiel 22:7). In Hebrew thought to have honor or weight is contrasted with "to be light."

Genesis 16:5 The mystery of interpersonal relationships is obvious. Sarai initiated this plan and is now distressed by its outcome. As so often in the biblical accounts, the reader is not given all the background and dialog involved in the event. Abram may have been more initially involved. In interpreting historical narrative, readers must ask themselves "why record this?" Abram and Sarai must learn that human performance is not the key to a relationship with God; faith, obedience, and perseverance are!

It is quite possible that what we have recorded in this verse is legal idiom. Sarai is speaking in such a way as to claim her legal rights in the situation of a slave acting in a haughty manner (i.e., Code of Hammurabi and the Nuzi Tablets). Everything she did was culturally/legally acceptable, but Hagar's attitude was not. Abram, as the head of the home, was responsible.

"may the LORD judge between you and me" The VERB (BDB 1047, KB 1622) is a Qal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense. Exactly what she wants YHWH to do is ambiguous. Apparently she is seeking divine sanction for her feelings of rejection or approval for her planned actions against Hagar. However, the phrase does show the growing tensions between Abram and Sarai.

Genesis 16:6 This seems to be somewhat cruel to us, but we must judge it in light of its own day and not ours. This fits exactly the Nuzi Tablets and the Code of Hammurabi in how to deal with concubines.

Again, in some ways this parallels the Genesis 3:11-13 account. Abram passes the responsibility from himself as family leader to Sarai. Humans tend to deflect responsibility and make excuses!

"Sarai treated her harshly" The VERB (BDB 776 III, KB 853) in the Piel stem means to humble or mistreat (cf. Genesis 31:50; Exodus 22:21, Exodus 22:22 [twice in the intensified form]; Job 30:11). Hagar's attitude and actions do not make Sarai's actions appropriate. Sinful humans are selfish, self-centered. Mature faith will solve this problem.

It is just possible that after Hagar conceived Sarai returned her to her service and removed her as a sexual partner from Abram.

"she fled from her presence" A slave running away was a serious legal matter which had serious consequences. This is very similar to the event recorded in Genesis 21:8-21. The following verses show YHWH's care and love, even for the concubine Hagar and her child. YHWH's love is not limited to Abram's family (i.e., Melchizedek, Job).

Verses 7-14

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 16:7-14 7Now the angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. 8He said, "Hagar, Sarai's maid, where have you come from and where are you going?" And she said, "I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai." 9Then the angel of the LORD said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority." 10Moreover, the angel of the LORD said to her, "I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count." 11The angel of the Lord said to her further, "Behold, you are with child, And you will bear a son; And you shall call his name Ishmael, Because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. 12"He will be a wild donkey of a man, His hand will be against everyone, And everyone's hand will be against him; And he will live to the east of all his brothers." 13Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "You are a God who sees"; for she said, "Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?" 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

Genesis 16:7 "the angel of the LORD" This personage seems to be a personification of the personal presence of God. See Special Topic: The Angel of the LORD.

"by a spring of water on the way to Shur" We do not know the exact geographical location spoken of here, but it is probably south of Beersheba on the way to Egypt. Hagar is going home.

Genesis 16:8 Verses like this (i.e., Genesis 3:9, Genesis 3:11; Genesis 4:9, Genesis 4:10), which record God or His representative asking questions, have become part of a theological movement called "Open Theism," which takes these questions literally and make the theological assumption that God does not know

1. the future

2. historical actions of persons

I do not support Greek philosophy (i.e., the philosophically developed attributes of God), nor do I deny the historicity of the Genesis accounts, but I do assert that they are literary documents which use metaphorical language (as all human communication does). The issue is the purpose of the questions in the Bible. Do they reflect a lack of knowledge on God's part or God working to develop understanding in human beings? There are too many other texts that assert God's knowledge of persons and future events for me to feel comfortable with Open Theism as anything but a reworked A. N. North's theology (i.e., Process Thought).

Genesis 16:9 The angel gives her two commands.

1. return - BDB 996, KB 1427, Qal IMPERATIVE

2. submit - BDB 776 III, KB 853, Hithpael IMPERATIVE

This message implies that it is YHWH's will that Hagar's child grow up under Abram's influence (i.e., knowledge of YHWH).

"submit" This is the same VERB translated "harshly" (BDB 776 III, KB 853) in Genesis 16:6 and the NOUN is used in Genesis 16:11, "affliction" (BDB 777). YHWH does not promise to change the situation with Sarai, but does promise to bless the male child (i.e., Ishmael).

Genesis 16:10-12 The response of the angel of the Lord to Hagar is very similar to God's response to Abram in Genesis 15:5. Some great promises are made concerning the child, as well as his physical and mental characteristics. Hagar is overwhelmed that YHWH would care for her.

Genesis 16:10 "I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count" This promise is repeated to Abram about Ishmael in Genesis 17:20.

The VERB is intensified by the combination of the INFINITE ABSOLUTE and the IMPERFECT VERB of the same root (BDB 915, KB 1176, both Hiphil). Contact with, knowledge of, and trusting in YHWH's words brings blessing! In a sense Hagar responds to Deity in the same manner as Abram. She does not even question (or at least none are recorded) as Abram does. Both encounters involve the promised blessings of a child, yet the revelation of difficult times. Genesis 15:6 is a salvation point for Abram. Hagar surely responded in like manner! For me, whose biases see an eternal redemptive plan, God's acceptance of Hagar and Ishmael is powerful witness to His purpose of redemption beyond Israel (see Special Topic at Genesis 12:3). In a sense this is an example of "the nations" being welcome in the same manner as Abram-by faith which issues in obedience. There are several clues/hints of an OT Great Commission! God's heart beats for a lost world, a broken fellowship must be restored! The universal visions of Isaiah, the story of Jonah, and the NT ring with these truths.

Genesis 16:11-12 The NASB prints Genesis 16:11-12 as poetry (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 14:19-20; Genesis 15:1, Genesis 15:18; Genesis 17:1-2, Genesis 17:4-5). Verse Genesis 16:12 describes what kind of a man he will be.

Genesis 16:11 "you are with child" This is not new information (cf. Genesis 16:4), but that the child will be a son is new.

"Ishmael" The name means "El heard" or "may El hear" (BDB 1035, KB 447). In the previous phrase the angel says "YHWH has given heed," which is literally "heard" (BDB 1033). Notice the child is not named by the father, but by God (cf. Matthew 1:21, Matthew 1:25; Luke 1:31, Luke 1:35; Luke 2:21).

Genesis 16:12 "a wild donkey of a man" This root (BDB 825) means

1. Akkadian - mule

2. Assyrian - wild mule

3. Arabic - wild ass

4. Hebrew - wild ass or horse (the Anchor Bible Commentary on Genesis, p. 118)

But make note this was not a derogatory comment in the Ancient Near East. These animals were used for sacrifices in Mesopotamia. They were highly valued and admired. It denotes his isolationistic tendencies (i.e., nomadic herdsman). Ishmael is going to love his freedom and will live a nomadic life. The next two poetic lines describe this nomadic existence (self reliant, trust no one, make no alliances).

NASB“he will live to the east of all his brothers" NKJV“and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren" NRSV“and he shall live at odds with all his kin" TEV“He will live apart from all his relatives" NJB“living his life in defiance of all his kinsmen"

This phrase, "to the east," seems to have two possible etymologies: (1) to the east of (lit. "before the face of," BDB 815) and (2) "in defiance of." Both etymologies seem to be related in this context and describe exactly the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East.

Genesis 16:13-14 The phrase "a God (El) who sees" is related to the name for the well which is found in Genesis 16:14. In these early parts of Genesis God is called by many names that are commensurate to His actions. By looking up all of these names, we are overwhelmed by the love of God for fallen mankind (and here an Egyptian slave woman).

Genesis 16:13 "I even remained alive here after seeing Him" It was understood in the Ancient Near East that to see God was to die (cf. Genesis 32:30 and Exodus 33:20). Hagar is shocked that God (i.e., Angel of the Lord) would come to her and that she would see Him and still live.

It is difficult in the context to know if

1. she was amazed to see a physical manifestation of Deity (i.e., I saw Deity)

2. she was amazed God saw her and came to her with such encouragement and care (Deity saw me)

I think #2 fits the context best and the later name of the well in Genesis 16:14. Anchor Bible Commentary on Genesis says the name is pointed in the MT in an unusual manner to allow both possibilities (p. 110).

This is the only place in the OT where someone gives Deity a name. Usually Deity reveals Himself by giving a combination name (i.e., El plus, YHWH plus, Elohim plus). Also note that this unique naming was done by a persecuted Egyptian slave girl. YHWH seeks her out and confronts her. His love is amazing!

Verses 15-16

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Genesis 16:15-16 15So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.

Genesis 16:15-16 Moses continues to update the reader on the age of Abram so that we can follow his life in some kind of chronological sequence, which becomes significant in God's promise of a special son with Sarai in his old age.

Genesis 16:15 The Bible records no question or hesitation on Hagar's part about YHWH's promise, as it does with Abram.


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

1. What are the major theological truths presented in chapters 15 and 16?

2. List the references where God makes a covenant with Abraham. Are the promises conditional or unconditional? What does this imply for us?

3. Who is the angel of the Lord? Why?

4. What is so significant about God seeking out Hagar and her child?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Genesis 16". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/genesis-16.html. 2021.
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