Genesis 16 records the story of Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, who bears Abram’s son, Ishmael. A number of scholars say this chapter is the center, or near the center, of the Abrahamic narrative (Genesis 12-25).
That’s very odd. Hagar is never mentioned before chapter 16, but suddenly takes center stage. Her story seems tangential to the main plotline. Why would she be at the hinge of this section of Genesis?
The chapter is more tightly woven into its context than first appears. It’s obviously linked to the “seed” motif. More specifically: In Genesis 15, Yahweh tells Abram he must wait for Yahweh’s promises of seed and land. In chapter 16, Sarai tempts him to impatience: “You can have a son now.”
Abraham listens to the voice of his wife (Genesis 16:2). The phrase reminds us of Genesis 3:17, when Adam listens to the voice of Eve. This comes right after Abram is put into an Adamic “deep sleep” (Genesis 2:21; 15:12). Genesis 15-16 resembles Genesis 2-3: “Deep sleep” “listens to wife.” We anticipate a fall story.
As Alastair Roberts has noted, the Genesis 3 theme of open eyes runs throughout chapter 16. Hagar “sees” she’s conceived (v. 4) and Sarai is despised “in her eyes” (v. 4). Abram allows Sarai to do whatever seems good in her eyes (v. 6). When she flees to the wilderness, Hagar finds that Yahweh sees (vv. 13-14).
Further, Hagar is Egyptian. Abram has gone to Egypt during a famine (Genesis 12). Egypt was once a solution to the barrenness of the land, and now Abram turns to an Egyptian maid to overcome Sarai’s barrenness. Egypt and Egyptians are an oasis in the wilderness.
But chapter 16 isn’t just “woven-in.” It’s central, and that’s because Hagar is a type of future events. Let’s follow the story to see how.
Sarai suggests Hagar as a surrogate womb, presumptively fertile, certainly younger than Sarai. Things don’t go as Sarai planned. She doesn’t like the way Hagar reacts. “My maid” (16:2) begins to despise her mistress (16:4-5). The two women switch places.
Unintended as it may be, the status inversion is implicit in Sarai’s plan. When Sarai gives Hagar’s fertile womb to Abram, she raises Hagar’s status from maid to wife (16:3). Sarai says, “I gave my maid into your bosom” (16:5), a phrase with intimate erotic/romantic overtones. To Abram, Hagar isn’t a uterus. They have an affair. Abram takes the fruit.
When Sarai objects, Abram washes his hands of the situation. Hagar is demoted to her original status: “your maid,” Abram calls her (v. 6). She’s been in Abram’s bosom, but he gives her back into Sarai’s hands. Then Abram disappears from the story. Like Adam, he tries to evade responsibility.
With Abram absent, Sarai takes her revenge. She treats Hagar “unjustly” or “harshly” (v. 6) and “afflicts” her (‘anah). The verb has been used only once before in Genesis, to describe the future slavery of Abram’s descendants: “they will be enslaved and afflicted four hundred years” (15:13). It’s used again of Israel in Egypt (Exodus 1:11-12).
With this hint, we’re alerted to Hagar’s role in Genesis: Her life is a preview of Israel’s history. What happens to her and her son will one day happen to Israel. Every detail of her experience foreshadows Israel’s future.
Though afflicted, Hagar is fruitful. She flees her oppressor, as Israel fled from Pharoah. She finds springs in the wilderness where the angel of Yahweh comes to her, speaks to her, calls her by name (16:7-10). It’s His first appearance in Scripture, and He appears to Hagar!
A spring is where men pick up future brides. The Angel of Yahweh comes to Hagar as Husband, because she’s been renounced by her “husband” Abram. Yahweh proves to be husband of widows, father to fatherless Ishmael.
Yahweh promises to “greatly multiply” the children of Hagar, until there will be “too many to count” (16:10), a promise otherwise given only to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 17:20; 22:17), Isaac (26:4), and Jacob (28:3). Hagar is the first to receive the promise in this form.
Long before Moses sees the backside of Yahweh, Hagar sees God and is seen by Him. She calls God Elroi, “God of sight” and names the place, “The well of the living one who sees” (16:13-14). Note well: Hagar names God, something not even Moses attempts.
In the following chapter, Yahweh tells Abram that Ishmael will be blessed, multiply, and become a father of twelve princes (17:20). As Paul says in Galatians 4, Ishmael is the first Israel, a glorious Israel according to the flesh.
The typology has ethical-political import. The action recoils on Abram, who slunk away to the shadows. Directed by the Angel, Hagar returns to Abram’s house and bears her son. Will Abram receive Ishmael as his? Yes, Ishmael is Abram’s son, and Abram names him (16:15). Ishmael becomes the initial seed of Abram.
Abram and Sarai are put in the position of the Egyptian lords of Israel. As Alastair observes, Hagar’s name rhymes with the word for “stranger,” ha-ger. What will Abram and Sarai do? Will they be continue to be oppressors, or will they learn to treat strangers with kindness?
Abram is called to instruct his household the way of justice (Genesis 18:19). The story of Hagar shows Abram learning justice, the way of mercy to strangers and outcasts, widows and orphans. It’s a turning point in Abram’s maturation: He becomes Godlike, a father to fatherless Ishmael and a protector, if not a husband, to Hagar.
One final typological wrinkle: Up to Genesis 16, Abram’s house is infertile, dead, childless. His house comes alive from the dead when Abram receives the strangers, Hagar and Ishmael. As in Ruth, as in the first century, the incorporation of Gentiles is a resurrection.
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