March 13, 2014

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe

                    

Lesson II.C.3: The Birth of Ishmael. Gen. 16:1-16.                                                                           

 

Genesis 16:1-16 (KJV)

 

1 Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.

2 And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

3 And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

4 And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.

5 And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.

6 But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

7 And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.

8 And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.

9 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.

10 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.

11 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.

12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.

13 And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?

14 Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

15 And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.

16 And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.

 

 

 

Introduction

 

There are four parts to the chapter:

1.       Hagar’s marriage to Abram, her master (vv. 1-3)

2.      Hagar’s misbehavior towards Sarai, her mistress (vv.4-6)

3.      Her talk with an angel (vv. 7-14)

4.      The birth of Ishmael (vv. 15-16)

This episode involving Abram, Sarai, Hagar and the birth of Ishmael, the son of Abram and Hagar took place after Abram arrived in Hebron and after God renewed his promise to Abram, that he would inherit the land of Canaan (Ch. 15). Abram, was therefore, in the Negev when Ishmael was born.

Sarai, Abram’s wife was past the age of childbearing. Thus, she and her husband following the custom of the time decided that the offspring promise could find fulfillment only if they took matters into their own hands. Sari presented her slave girl to Abram as a surrogate mother. In due time a son, Ishmael, was born. This attempt to short-circuit the ways and means of the Lord was to no avail.

This account is much more than ancient history with modern consequences. It’s a good lesson for God’s people about walking by faith and waiting for God to fulfill His promises in His way and in His time. As you study the stages in the life of Abraham and Sarah, you will see how dangerous it is to depend on your own wisdom.

 

 

Commentary

 

1 Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.

 

 

To be childless was a calamity and a disgrace for any Hebrew wife, and it was much worse for Sari, because of the pressure she must have felt to give Abram a son. Both husband and wife must have sought means to help God work out the means to fulfill His promise (v. 15:4). They knew the direct teaching of God: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). They knew that husbands and wives must conform to that standard. For a man to take a secondary wife or a concubine was sinful.

 

 

The restlessness of the sin nature is seen here. Instead of waiting on God, Sarai persuaded Abram to have a son by her maid Hagar (v. 2), who was probably acquired during the ill-fated sojourn in Egypt. Though Hagar was acquired in Egypt she is characteristically a woman of the desert, not an Egyptian. God is faithful in recording the marital irregularities of His people, even if he never approved them. When men and women allow their faith to break down, they resort to human contrivance.

 

 

Now Sarai . . . had an handmaid, a female slave obtained in Egypt during Abram’s sojourn there. (See Galatians 4:21-31, where Paul uses Hagar as an illustration.)

 

 

God has a perfect timetable for all He wants to do. After all, this event is not just the birth of another baby: it was part of God’s great plan of salvation for the whole world. However, as Sarai waited for something to happen, she became impatient.

 

 

Why did God wait so long? He wanted Abram and Sarai to be physically “as good as dead”—“Therefore sprang there even of one (Abraham), and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable” (Heb. 11:12)—so that God alone would get the glory. At age eighty-five, Abram was still virile enough to father a child by Hagar; so the time for the miracle baby had not yet arrived. Whatever is truly done by faith is done for the glory of God (Rom. 4:20) and not be for the praise of men.

 

 

A willingness to wait on the Lord is another evidence that you are walking by faith. “Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste” (Isa. 28:16). These are the evidences of true Biblical faith:

1.       You are willing to wait.

2.      You are concerned only for the glory of God.

3.      You are obeying God’s Word.

4.      You have God’s joy and peace within.

While Abram and Sari were waiting, God was increasing their faith and patience and building character (James 1:1-4). Then something happened that put Abram and Sari on a painful detour.

 

 

2 And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

 

 

I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. Sarai was no longer expecting to have children herself, but her husband, at eighty-five, was still capable of fathering a child, and so she proposed to Abram to take another wife, her slave, whose children would be her property. This was according to legal customs as found in legal codes and marriage contracts of the time. But not every thing that is legal or that appears to be successful is approved of by God. Ten years had elapsed since God’s original promise of an heir (v. 3), and Abram and Sarai thought they would take matters into their own hands, as if God needed their help in order to fulfill His promise. Besides, the promise had not been expressly restricted to her. Logically, it would be Abram’s wife, but perhaps God had other plans. Sari was “second-guessing” God, and this is a dangerous thing to do. Remember, true faith is based on the Word of God (Rom. 10:17) and not on the wisdom of man (Prov. 3:5-6), because “faith is living without scheming.” Sari said it may be; she did not say “Thus saith the Lord.” Paul wrote in Galatians 4:22-31 about the negative aspects of the action they took to obtain an heir. In Galatians 4:29, he contrasts the “work of the flesh” and the product of the “Spirit of God”—“But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now” (Gal. 4:29). Both sons were born, literally speaking ‘of the flesh’, but Ishmael’s birth ‘was only in the usual way, however, Isaac’s birth came about as a result of God’s promise. You may recall that Abram was not admonished for (temporarily) making Eliezer his heir; and he is nowhere admonished for engendering Ishmael, who in God’s purposes was to be blessed and to be the father of a great nation (see 17:20). The crux of the matter rests in the protracted testing of Abram’s faith, and in the absolute sovereignty of God’s choice, which could have rested on Ishmael—but did not.

 

 

God did not approve of this at all. This was Sarai’s idea, and Abram listened to her. Furthermore, Sari was not concerned about the glory of God; her only goal was that I may obtain children by her. It looks like he is surrendering his position as head of the home here, and he followed her suggestion.

 

 

 

 

3 And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

 

 

And Sarai . . . gave her to . . . Abram to be his wife. The Egyptian slave was brought into Abram’s tent, so that the family might be built. Wife is used here to describe an inferior, though not degrading, relationship, in countries where polygamy prevails. In the case of these female slaves, who are the personal property of the wife, and were purchased before her marriage, or were given to her as a special present, none of them can be given to her husband as a secondary wife without her mistress’ consent or permission. This practice seems to have prevailed in patriarchal times; and since Hagar was Sarai’s slave, she had the right to spontaneously give her to Abram to be his secondary wife, in hope of obtaining the long-looked-for heir. It was the wrong step for this couple to take because it indicated a lack of faith on their part and a reluctance to rely upon God to fulfill His promise—and Sarai was the first to reap the bitter fruits of her scheme, because heartache followed as a tragic consequence. Abram, ignoring God’s reaction and assurance in response to his earlier attempt to appoint an heir (see 15:2-5), sinfully yielded to Sarai’s insistence, and Ishmael was born (v. 15). Later Christ would reduce marriage to its first principle, and make the marriage union between one man and one woman only.

 

 

This little Egyptian maid becomes a concubine, and this is not according to God’s will. God is not going to accept this offspring at all—He didn’t; He wouldn’t. Why? Because it was wrong. Don’t say that God approved this. All you can say is that this is in the record because it is an historical fact.

 

 

4 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 was acting in thorough accord with other people in her day. But Abram and Sari were expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than that of the people around them. Abram, the friend of God, exercised a richer faith and was bound by a purer code.

 

 

Abram’s unhappy marriage to Hagar very soon caused trouble in the household. Hagar’s contempt for her mistress led inevitably to the wrongful, harsh treatment of the girl by Sarai. When you follow the wisdom of the world you will end up warring like the world (James 3:13-18). Of all the fights, family fights are the most painful and the most difficult to settle.

 

 

5 And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.

 

 

Sari had given her maid to Abram, yet her relationship with Hagar had certainly gone south, and we are told that Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee, which probably means that Sarai was guilty of giving her heavy duties and of bursts of temper, or blows, directed at Hagar until she could no longer stand the abuse, and perceiving the hopelessness of her situation resolved to escape what had become to her, a house of bondage.

 

 

I was despised in her eyes—Sarai, not anticipating the contemptuous disregard by Hagar (v. 4) as a result for her solution for barrenness, blamed Abram for her trouble and demanded judgment to rectify the broken mistress-servant relationship. However, Abram transferred his responsibility to Sarai, giving her freedom to act as she wished (v. 6, thy maid is in thy hand). Sarai treated Hagar so badly that she left, or rather ran away. She ignored the wrong she was doing her mistress, whose servant she was, and to her master, whose wife she was.

 

 

Don’t assume that God approved of this. God says that it is wrong, and now Sari sees that she has done wrong. My wrong be upon thee—she is wrong, my friend. God will not accept this, and it is going to be a real heart break to old Abram. But, you see, Abram and Sari are not really trusting God as they should. After all, Abram at this time is nearly ninety years old, and sari eighty. I think they have come to the conclusion that they are not going to have a child. Sari could probably rationalize and say, “I think maybe this is the way God wants us to do it, for this is the custom of the day.” It was the custom of that day but it was not God’s way of doing things. We get the wrong impression if we think that just because something is recorded in the Bible God approves of it. The Bible is inspired in that it is an accurate record, but there are some things God does not approve of that are recorded in His Word.

 

 

The moral implications that you and I read into this are not quite here in the historical record. Abram and Sari were brought up in Ur of the Chaldees where this was common practice, and the moral angle is not the thing that for them was wrong. The terrible thing was that they just did not believe God. The wrong they committed by Abram taking Sarai’s maid Hagar was a sin, and God treated it as such. But today we reverse the emphasis and say that taking a concubine is a sin, but we do not pay much attention to the unbelief. Yet the unbelief was the major sin here; that is, it was a lot worse than the other.

 

 

6 But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

 

 

Hagar forgot that she was the one who initiated the trouble between herself and Sarai by despising her mistress. Peter said that those who suffer for their faults ought to bear it patiently—“For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God” (1 Pe. 2:20).

 

 

While some of the behavior in this section may have been culturally acceptable then, it is certainly irregular from a Christian standpoint. Hagar wins our sympathy, but she was legally in the wrong.

 

 

7 And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.

 

 

The Angel of the LORD was not a created being, but was most likely the preincarnate appearance of the Second Person of the Trinity (Jehovah Himself, the Messenger or Angel of the covenant, the eternal Word, and the Son of God), known as a Christophany, and the angel’s character, deeds, and power confirm this interpretation—it was Christ Himself manifesting Himself to Hagar. This is characteristic of Him: He is always out looking for the lost. It is clear from the conversation between them that Sarai believed she had seen God— Thou God seest me (v. 13). Others had the same experience and reached the same conclusion (see 22:11-18; 31:11-13; Ex 3:2-5; Num. 22:22-35; Jud. 6:11-23; 13:2-5; 1 Ki. 19:5-7). This is the first recorded visit by the Angel of the Lord to the earth. The Angel of the Lord, who does not appear after the birth of Christ, is often identified as the preincarnate Christ.

 

 

And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water, that is, a well, which tradition says lay on the side of the caravan road, in the midst of Shur*, a sandy desert located south of Palestine and east of Egypt, which indicates that Hagar was attempting to return to Egypt. By going in that direction she seems to have intended to return to her relatives in that country. She probably thought she might find peace, rest, and life in her old home country. Nothing but pride, passion, and sullen obstinacy could have driven anyone to brave the dangers of such an inhospitable wilderness, and she would have died had not the timely appearance and words of the angel caused her to reflect on her circumstances and responsibility. She was still a slave and had no right to run away.

* The Egyptians maintained a wall or strong line of forts in Shur to protect from invaders from the east. It is mentioned in Egyptian records as early as 2000 b.c.

 

 

8 And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.

 

 

Hagar, Sarai's maidboth the salutation (here) and the instruction (v. 9, “Return . . . submit”) given by the angel and the response by Hagar treated the mistress-servant relationship as if it were still intact. Rebelling and absconding was not the solution (v. 9).

 

 

Whence camest thou? Consider that you are running away, from both your duty as a servant and wife, and the privileges you are blessed with in Abram’s tent.

 

 

And whither wilt thou go? You are running into sin! If Hagar returns to Egypt, she will return to idol worship, and she will be in danger in the wilderness through which she must travel.

 

9 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.

 

 

He counseled her to return and submit to Sarai, and promised that her son would become the head of a great nation (v. 10). The words return and submit have marked great turning points in the lives of many who have had dealings with God. It would take a great deal of faith for Hagar to return, because Sari had mistreated her before and might do it again. However, Sari did not mistreat her again, for after all, God is watching.

 

 

10 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.

 

 

I will multiply thy seed exceedingly indicates that though she might have been a servant, she will become the mother of many, which made Abram the father of two groups of innumerable descendents (see 13:16, 15:5). Ishmael’s first descendents were the Ishmaelites, a group of Bedouin tribes who lived in the desert to the south of Palestine. Joseph, Sari’s great-grandson was later taken to Egypt by the Ishmaelites (Gen. 37:28).

 

 

The declaration of the Angel, “I will,shows this Angel to be the Eternal Word, the Son of God. He promised something only God could do: I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, and in verse 13, Hagar called the Angel “God.” These pre-incarnation visits by Jesus Christ to the earth were to meet special needs and to accomplish special tasks. The fact that the Son of God took on a temporary body, left heaven and came down to help a rejected servant-girl surely reveals His grace and love. His servants Abram and Sari had sinned against the Lord and against Hagar, but the Lord did not desert them.

 

 

11 And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.

 

 

God told her that she was pregnant with a son whom she should name Ishmael. While he would not be Abram’s heir in the blessing of the covenant, Ishmael would still enjoy blessings from God, since he was Abram’s son. God promised to multiply Ishmael’s descendents and make them into a great nation (vv. 21:18; 25:12-18), and He did; for Ishmael is the founder of the Arab peoples.

 

 

The name Ishmael means “God hears” and was intended to remind Hagar of God’s special intervention on her behalf. This is the first time that the Angel of the Lord appears in the Old Testament.

 

 

There are hints throughout the chapter that Ishmael shall not be Abram’s heir. In fact, the promise of verse 10 points tantalizingly in the opposite direction. However, the description of Ishmael in verse 12 seems suitable for the son of promise.

 

 

12 And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.

 

 

Ishmael will be a wild man, and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. The Hebrew actually means “in defiance/disregard” as shown in Genesis 25:18 and Deuteronomy 21:16. The language and context denote a hostility on the part of Ishmael (and his descendents) toward his brethren (Isaac and his descendents) and even among Ishmael’s own people. Thus began the Jewish and Arab conflict, due to an act of the flesh on the part of Abram. When Hagar finally gave birth, Abram was 86 years old. Eleven years had passed since God first promised an heir, and His promise was still unfulfilled.

 

 

And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren indicates that Ishmael will pitch his tents near his family and that his ancestors will maintain their independence in spite of all the attempts to destroy or subdue them. And he will be a wild man is literally, “a wild ass man,” expressing how the wildness of Ishmael and his descendents resembles that of the wild ass.  His hand will be against every man is descriptive of the rude, turbulent, and plundering character of the Arabs. Ishmael will be a hated man, “living in hostility toward all his brothers. While we must not apply these traits to every descendent of Ishmael, the centuries-long hostilities between the Jews and the Arabs is too well known to be ignored. The Arab peoples are independent peoples, dwelling in the desert lands and resisting the encroachments of other nations, especially Israel and her allies.

 

 

Have you looked at this verse in the light of about four thousand years of history in the Middle East? What is going on there today? The descendents of Ishmael are wild men—that has been the story of those Bedouin tribes of the desert down through the centuries. They are related to Abraham through Ishmael, and it is a fulfillment of the prophesy God gave. They will tell you that they are sons of Abraham, but they are also sons of Ishmael.

 

 

13 And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?

 

 

Called the name denotes the practice common in ancient times of naming places for the event or circumstance that occurred there; and the name given to this well was a grateful recognition of God’s gracious appearance in the hour of her distress. It is certain that she recognized the angel to be God, since she ascribed this new name to Him— Thou God seest me. The name arose from her astonishment at having been the object of God’s gracious attention. She saw the Lord, and it went without any consequence. He is a personal God, concerned about abused people and unborn babies. He knows the future and cares for those who will trust Him. It would be wonderful if we were always impressed with this thought Thou God seest me.

 

 

For she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me. She saw God, and she lived—an allusion to the belief that seeing God is followed by death: “And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live” (Ex. 33:20). This Angel is identified with Yahweh here, as well as in 22:11-12; 31:11, 13; 48:16; Judges 6:11, 16, 22; 13:22-23; Zech. 3:1-2.

 

 

God spoke in direct revelation, and Hagar responded in faith. God sees distress and affliction and He hears. Sarai should have known this. Since God knew Sarai was barren, she should have cried out to the Lord. Instead she had to learn a lesson the hard way—from the experience of a despised slave-wife who, ironically, came back with a faith experience. How Abram must have been rebuked when Hagar said God told her to name her son Ishmael, “God hears.”

 

 

14 Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

 

 

Beerlahairoi; means ‘well of seeing-alive.” This spot would afterward be considered holy, a place where God could be found providing for and hearing the cries of His people.

 

 

15 And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.

 

 

It must be wonderful to talk with this Angel. Hagar’s disposition greatly improved, she returned to her mistress, and by her behavior softened Sarai’s displeasure with her, and received more gentle treatment, thereafter.

 

 

Ishmael was born in the year 2079 b.c. God’s care for Hagar restored her to Abram’s household, and the patriarch duly acknowledged and named his son. Abram’s hope would now naturally be in this son, but this last resort to a natural means of bringing God’s promise to pass will end in disappointment.

 

 

16 And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.

 

 

And Abram was fourscore and six years old. When Ishmael was born, Abram was eighty six years old. He was seventy-five when he left Haran (v. 12:4). There would be a thirteen year interval until 17:1 picks up the narrative again.

 

 

In this entire episode, Abram played a rather passive role. Apparently, he did not offer to help Hagar in any way (Later, he made up for that.).

 

 

The name Ishmael means “God hears.” In this case He heard Hagar’s misery. We should remember throughout this narrative that Hagar represents the Law, and Sarai represents grace (see Gal. 4).

 

 

This story closely resembles the one which follows in chapter 21, but they are not identical. In both stories Hagar is driven from Abram’s tent by Sarai’s angry jealousy. In both, the Angel of the Lord comes to Hagar in her despondency and sends her back to Abram. But in the first story Ishmael has not yet been born; while in the second he is a youngster old enough to arouse Sari’s indignation because she thinks he is ‘mocking’ Isaac, who is old enough to be weaned.

 

 

The lesson from this story was clear for Abram, Sari, Hagar, Israel, and for Christians: God’s servants are to trust His Word and wait for its fulfillment, enduring patiently until the end. It becomes increasingly clear in Genesis that any person or any nation that owes its existence to divine election should live by faith. Human effort will not help. But the good news for God’s people is that the living God sees and hears.

  

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