Hagar: Attempt to Fulfill the Promises through the Flesh
Genesis 16. This chapter is like a parenthesis in the life of Abram1, in which Abram (and predominantly Sarai), knowing that the heir would come from Abram’s own body, tried to bring about the promise through human means. Abram gained a son, but not an heir. The results of his union with Hagar, Ishmael being born, accomplished no part of the promise, but instead produced great trouble for Abram and his family for millennia to come! The two women who are prominent in the chapter have a profound typical meaning, as the apostle Paul explains in Galatians 4. This chapter pictures what happens when a believer, who is justified by faith (ch.15), takes up with the law (ch.16). The result is sorrow and hardship.
Hagar Used as a Surrogate Mother (16:1-6)
1 And Sarai Abram’s wife did not bear him children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant; and her name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, Behold now, Jehovah has shut me up, that I do not bear. Go in, I pray thee, to my maidservant: it may be that I shall be built up by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. 3 And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar, the Egyptian, her maidservant, at the end of ten years that Abram had dwelt in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram, as his wife. vv.1-3 Sarai’s Plan. Sarai, knowing that Abram’s heir would come from his own body (ch.15), concluded that the difficulty was with her own body. She concluded that Jehovah had closed her womb, which was a correct assessment. “At the end of ten years”, she could wait no longer. Abram and Sarai’s desire for a child was good and right. When we pass through a trial with the Lord, it tends to sift our motives, causing us to pass judgement on self-will, without destroying our heart. God’s purpose in trial is not to quench natural affections, but to break our self-will. Rather than wait patiently in faith, Sarai contrived a path forward around the issue of the barren womb, which she knew was from the Lord! This was not an act of faith.2 It was an attempt to bring about the promise through human means. Paul calls it an action “according to flesh” (Gal. 4:22). Notice that “she had an Egyptian maidservant”, who was likely obtained when Abram was in Egypt. There is a tremendous irony here in that Abram slighted his marriage when he denied that Sarai was his wife in Egypt, and now Sarai slights her marriage in giving her Egyptian maid to Abram “as his wife”! Her intention was to use Hagar as a surrogate mother; “it may be that I shall be built up by her”. In the end, Sarai gained nothing but grief for her and her family. Think of the uncomfortable and unhealthy family dynamics that would result from this! Sarai seems to take the lead in this, but “Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai”. There was no praying about it, and no word from the Lord.
Hagar, an Egyptian. As a broad principle, I think the fact that Hagar was from Egypt is a type of how this world is quick to supply the believer’s need in a time when faith is being tested. We saw it first in ch.12, when it was a physical trial of famine. The temptation was to go to Egypt for sustenance. Now in ch.16 it is an emotional trial. The temptation is to turn to “the elements of the world” (Gal. 4:3), or fleshly religion, pictured by Hagar the Egyptian. We have this in the twofold use of the word “temptation” in James 1. First is the temptation from God, which is a trial of our faith. But then there is the temptation from our own flesh. Often the flesh tends to rise up in a time when God is testing our faith. The world offers a “solution” to whatever problem we may be faced with. How devastating for those who accept the outstretched hand of the world!
Hagar, a Type of the Law. In Galatians 4:21-31 Paul explains that the history of Abram, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac are an allegory. He applies these characters and events to the mixture of law and grace that was going on in Galatia. He says “which things have an allegorical sense; for these are two covenants: one from mount Sinai, gendering to bondage, which is Hagar. For Hagar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which is now, for she is in bondage with her children”. The bondwoman (Hagar) pictures the law, which was a covenant given from mount Sinai. What does the law do? It “genders to”, or leads people into, bondage. That is all the law will ever do, when presented as the means for justification, or as the Christian’s rule of life. Paul remarks that Sinai is in Arabia (probably the Sinai Peninsula), which is actually the place Hagar went with Ishmael in the end of Gen. 16. Just as Abram and Sarai used Hagar to try to fulfill the promise through their own energy, so Israel tried to gain the promises on the ground of the law (Exodus 19). In Galatians, Paul shows that just as Hagar and Ishmael had to be cast out (Gen. 21). so it was impossible to mix law and grace. But this is important for another reason. It was when Sarai decided to take matters into her own hand that she turned to Hagar. Likewise, it is the tendency of the flesh to turn to the law, because the law gives something for man to do.
Abram’s Body Not Yet Dead. In Genesis 16 we find that there was no problem with Abram’s body; it was Sarai that was barren. The conception of Ishmael was an act of the flesh, as Paul shows in Gal. 4:22. God does not give Abram and Sarai a child until Abram’s body was too old as well. Hebrews 11:12 says “and him as good as dead”. God waits until it was medically impossible for both Sarai and Abram to reproduce. He waits until all human efforts are exhausted. Then God acts in grace to give them a biological son, to fulfill the promise. What lesson can we learn from God’s timing in all this? God will allow man no part in the accomplishment of His promises. It is all grace. So it is in the ways of God; “Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual” (1 Cor. 15:46).
4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was lightly esteemed in her eyes. v.4 The Activity of the Flesh. It appears that Hagar had no difficulty getting pregnant. But soon Sarai’s plan began to backfire. Once Hagar was pregnant, she immediately began to think highly of herself, and to despise her mistress Sarai. She had gone from Sarai’s bondmaid to being on par as Abram’s wife, and then above Sarai in that she could could do what Sarai was unable to do; i.e. produce an heir. Thinking of Hagar as a picture of the law (Gal.4), it is typical that legality causes one, after some perceived success in their own life, to be proud and look down on others. “For three things the earth is disquieted, and for four which it cannot bear: … For an odious woman when she is married; and an handmaid that is heir to her mistress” (Prov. 30:21, 23).
5 And Sarai said to Abram, My wrong be on thee! I have given my maidservant into thy bosom; and now she sees that she has conceived, I am lightly esteemed in her eyes. Jehovah judge between me and thee! v.5 Sarai Blames Abram. In frustration that everything was going wrong, Sarai blames Abram for going along with her plan. She should have taken the blame on herself. However, she was right in one thing, that Abram was the responsible head of the family, and he went along with Sarai’s bad idea. What bothered Sarai most of all was that she felt herself getting pushed to the outside by Hagar. She felt that Abram’s affections were divided; “I have given my maidservant into thy bosom”, the bosom representing the place of affection. By saying “Jehovah judge between me and thee!” Sarai was reminding Abram that she was the true wife, and that his loyalty really belonged to her, not Hagar. “The Lord knows your heart” is essentially what Sarai was saying.
6 And Abram said to Sarai, Behold, thy maidservant is in thy hand: do to her what is good in thine eyes. And Sarai oppressed her; and she fled from her face. v.6 Abram’s Response. In Abram’s response, he reassures Sarai that Hagar was nothing more than her maidservant to him, though the mother of his child. He would not forget what Sarai was to him. But in giving Sarai the license to “do what is good in thine eyes”, he exposed Hagar to retaliation from Sarai. Sarai made life so miserable for Hagar that she eventually ran away. Sarai didn’t exactly expel Hagar from the house, but she knew how to get rid of her. We know from v.4 and ch.21 that Hagar was a difficult person to deal with. Sometimes believers will mistreat someone that bothers them just to be rid of them. How sad that this should take place in the family of faith!
Hagar Corrected and Encouraged by the Angel of the Lord (16:7-14)
7 And the Angel of Jehovah found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, Hagar, Sarai’s maidservant, whence comest thou? and whither art thou going? And she said, I am fleeing from the face of my mistress Sarai. 9 And the Angel of Jehovah said to her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands. vv.7-9 Hagar Corrected by the Angel. When we get the expression “the angel of the Lord” it usually refers to the pre-incarnate appearances of the Son (Exo. 3:2; Num. 22:22; Judges 6:12; 13:3). The Lord finds Hagar in the wilderness on the way to Shur, perhaps a hundred miles south of Hebron (see v.14, Kedesh). The Lord addresses her, not as Abram’s concubine, but as Sarai’s maidservant. The Lord doesn’t nurse the wrong feelings Hagar had after her conception. The Lord asks her several questions: “whence comest thou? and whither art thou going?” The Lord of course knew the answers, but He wanted Hagar to think about what she was doing. Did she even know where she was going? No. She was running away from something. Hagar had no direction. The Lord tells her to “return” and “submit”. The path of blessing is always the path of submission and obedience. This runs totally contrary to the wisdom of this world. The world teaches that oppressive authority justifies rebellion. But the word of the Lord to Hagar was “return” and “submit”.
10 And the Angel of Jehovah said to her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude. 11 And the Angel of Jehovah said to her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael [‘God will hear’], because Jehovah hath hearkened to thy affliction. 12 And he will be a wild-ass of a man, his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell before the face of all his brethren. vv.10-12 The Promise to Hagar. Although Hagar’s conception was “according to flesh”, the Lord would still watch over her child. The Lord promised to multiply Hagar’s seed tremendously, although it does not say as the dust, sand, or stars. Certainly we know that Hagar’s descendants inhabited Arabia (Gen. 25:12:18), and a large part of the world’s population today is Arabic. He tells Hagar to name her son Ishmael, and predicts the character of the man, and perhaps of his descendants to this day. He would be like a “wild ass”; combining the characteristics of unpredictability and stubbornness. As his mother was an irritation to Sarai, so Ishmael would be to his brethren. It perhaps also includes the predisposition to wander. The Ishmaelites had the wondering character of the wild donkey, which is still seen in the Bedouins of today. The donkey’s tendency to wander is described poetically in Job 39:5-8. His character was rebellious, unsatisfied, warlike, troublesome, and prone to strife. Like his troubled mother, Ishmael would be “in bondage” (Gal. 4); i.e. never free, in contrast to the son of the promise. He would “dwell before the face of all his brethren”. Not a word is said about a relationship with God. As a practical lesson, legality causes us to live our lives “in the presence of our brethren” rather than “in the presence of God”.3 No doubt “all his brethren” refers to Isaac and his descendants, as well as the sons born to Abram and Keturah years later, such as Midian. This could be translated “in the face of all his brethren”, which could indicate that the Ishmaelites would be an aggravation to others.[Kelly, William. Isaac.[/efn_note] When we read these characteristics of Ishmael, we can see many of those same characteristics in the middle-eastern neighbors of Israel today.
13 And she called the name of Jehovah who spoke to her, Thou art the GOD who reveals himself, for she said, Also here have I seen after he has revealed himself. 14 Therefore the well was named Beer-lahai-roi [‘the well of him that liveth and seeth me’]: behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered. vv.13-14 Hagar’s Relationship to God. Though Hagar was a troubled woman, and though she represents the law, yet she had some kind of a relationship with God. She calls Jehovah “the GOD who reveals himself”. She perhaps had other false gods whom she worshipped in Egypt, but this One had revealed Himself to her, and helped her to “see” afterwards. Whether she had genuine faith like Abram, we are not told exactly, but her expressions in vv.13-14 show that she was pointing in that direction. It is beautiful to think of this well as ‘the well of submission’. It is the place where Hagar learned that “As for God, his way is perfect” (Psa. 18:30). Where do we find this well next? We read in Gen. 24:62-63 that “Isaac came from the way of the well Lahairoi; for he dwelt in the south country. And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide: and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, the camels were coming.” Isaac, as a picture of Christ, came from the path of submission; total submission to the will of His Father. After His time on earth, Christ waits – like Isaac in the field – until He meets His bride! Christ is the perfect pattern of submission.
Birth of Ishmael (16:15-16)
15 And Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 And Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram. vv.15-16 The Birth of Ishmael. Sarai’s bad plan, once put into action, could not be reversed. A son was born to Abram, but he was not the son of promise.
- Darby, J.N. Hints on the Book of Genesis.
- However, such a thing was not counter-cultural. The Hammurabi Code (governing Sumer, in 18th century B.C.), includes direct references to surrogate mothers. It was perhaps a practice that was somewhat common in the ancient world.
- Grant, L.M. The Book of Genesis.