Chapter 16

The desire to have children can be very strong. In modern times, many couples have gone to great efforts and expense to have offspring. These efforts have included the use of surrogate mothers. Among people of ancient times, the only option available to barren women was to offer their female servants to their husbands so that they might have children through them. In keeping with what had become customary among barren women, Sarai, after a ten-year residence in the land of Canaan, offered her Egyptian maiden Hagar to Abram to obtain offspring by her. She must have had high regard for Hagar to have selected her for this role. Abram cooperated with Sarai in the effort to have offspring, and Hagar conceived. As a result, Hagar appears to have become arrogant, probably seeing herself as the mother of a son who would inherit everything and be the future master of the entire household. She likely regarded herself as occupying an elevated status as the mother of Abram’s child and began to look down upon her barren mistress Sarai. (16:1-4) This was the troublesome outcome from a failure to wait patiently on God to fulfill his promise to make the descendants of Abram very numerous. The first-century Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities, I, x, 4), however, seemingly did not view the situation in this light but added that Sarai acted “at God’s command.”

Although Sarai had taken the initiative in seeking to have offspring by her maid, she blamed Abram for the contemptuous manner in which Hagar looked down upon her, saying, “The wrong done to me be upon you.” (“I am being wronged by you.” [LXX]) Sarai also called upon YHWH to judge. “May YHWH judge between you and me.” (16:5) Targum Jonathan expands on the expressions of Sarai. “All my affliction is from you [Abram]. Being secure that you would do me justice, I left the land and house of my father and came up with you to a foreign land. Inasmuch as I could not become a mother, I set my handmaid free and gave her to lie in your bosom. She sees that she had conceived, and my honor is despised before her.”

Abram chose not to handle the matter personally but gave Sarai the right to deal with Hagar in the manner she considered “good in [her] eyes” [“pleasing” to her (LXX)]. Sarai then treated Hagar in a harsh way, probably like a female slave with the lowest standing in the household. This prompted Hagar to escape from her. (16:6)

At a spring in the wilderness on the way to Shur (probably to a location in the northwestern part of the Sinai Peninsula) and while Hagar appears to have been making her flight to Egypt, the “angel of YHWH” (his representative angel) appeared to her. In response to his question about from where she had come and where she was going, Hagar replied that she was fleeing from her mistress Sarai. The angel of YHWH directed her to return to her mistress and to submit herself to her. He assured Hagar that her “seed” or offspring would become numerous and that she would give birth to a son whom she was to name Ishmael (“God hears”). This name indicated that YHWH had “heard” or given attention to her distress. Her son would be a “wild donkey of a man” (a country dweller or a rough or rugged man [LXX]), indicating that he and his descendants would be fiercely independent. Ishmael’s “hand” would be against everyone, and everyone’s “hand” would be against him, and he would reside “by the face of all his brothers.” Apparently he, particularly his descendants, repeatedly would be involved in conflicts and feuds stemming from strong tribal loyalties. According to Targum Jonathan, his hands would “take vengeance on his adversaries, and the hands of his adversaries” would reach out “to do him evil.” The Hebrew expression that literally may be translated “by the face” in relation to “his brothers” could be understood to mean that he would dwell alongside his kinsman or that he would be in conflict with his kinsman (“at odds with all his kin” [REB]; “in open hostility against all his relatives” (NLT)). (16:7-12)

Hagar called the “name of YHWH,” the God who had spoken to her, “You are a God of seeing [El-roi].” There is a measure of obscurity in the Hebrew text that provides the reason for the name she applied to YHWH (“Have I even here seen after him who sees me?”). The text of the Septuagint may be translated, “For even face to face I saw the one having appeared to me.” (16:13) Modern translations vary in their renderings, with many choosing to opt for an emended reading of the extant Hebrew text. “‘You Are El-roi,’ by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’” (Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]) “Have I indeed seen God and still live after that vision?” (REB) “Have I really seen God and lived to tell about it?” (TEV) “Have I truly seen the One who sees me?” (NLT)

Hagar called the “spring” or “well” where she had seen the angel of YHWH “Beer-lahai-roi,” meaning “Well of the Living One who sees me.” This well or spring was located between Kadesh (a city on the western extremity of the region that later became Edomite territory) and Bered. (16:14)

Hagar did return to her mistress and gave birth to a son whom Abram named Ishmael (the name by which the angel of YHWH told Hagar her son should be called). At the time of the boy’s birth, Abram was 86 years old. (16:15, 16)