Within this video, I explore how the story of Hagar in Genesis 16 is an anticipation of bondage in Egypt and a repetition of the Fall.
For more on Exodus themes, see my book Echoes of Exodus.
Welcome back. Today we are looking at Genesis 16, the story of Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. This story is the sixth in the series that I am doing on the history of Abraham’s family, which will take us through to the end of the book of Genesis. Genesis 16 is a very difficult and challenging passage in many ways. It is a story that is unsettling, in the way that Hagar is treated, in the actions of Abram and Sarai, and it is going to take us a while to get into the depths of this passage: there are a lot of things going on here.
First thing to notice is that Hagar is introduced as an Egyptian maidservant. Now, we have already had an Egyptian experience in the story of Abram. If we go back to chapter 12, we read of Abram’s time in Egypt, when he flees from the famine in the land, and Sarai is taken into the house of Pharaoh. During that period, Pharaoh treats Abram very well for the sake of Sarai. It says,
He treated Abram well for her sake. He had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female servants, female donkeys, and camels. But the Lord plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai, Abram’s wife.—Genesis 12:16-17
So, we have already had an Egyptian experience. Now we have another. Presumably, one of the maidservants that was received during that period in Egypt is one of the main players within this particular chapter—Hagar. Hagar’s nationality is significant, where she comes from. First of all, it is an after-effect of this particular time in Egypt and the damage that that caused. That particular period was a very bad one, in many respects. It led to Sarai being taken and almost—were it not for God’s intervention—lost to Pharaoh’s harem, with Abram perhaps even being killed. But God intervened with plagues. Sarai was released. And now, we have something of an after-effect of that; this Egyptian maidservant that was taken into Abram’s house is now someone who is going to bring added complexity to the story of Abram and Sarai, someone who is going to bring another rift, another problem across their path.
This story is also something that takes place against the background of the previous account that we just studied. What do we notice about that previous account? I did not comment upon it at the time, but if you were paying attention, you should have noticed. I have already mentioned in passing some of the details, but let us consider what happens. In that story, we have animals brought together, and then those animals are placed before Abram, and then Abram is placed into a deep sleep. And then he has this vision as part of that deep sleep. And then, in the very next scene we hear, “Now, Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.”
What do you notice there? Well, it is a pattern that we should be familiar with. There is a pattern that might remind us of the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God brings animals to Adam. Adam names the animals, and then he is placed into a deep sleep, and the woman is taken from his side and brought to him. Now, this word for ‘deep sleep’ is a rare one. We do not find it elsewhere in Genesis, outside of Genesis 2. This is a significant event that should remind us of what happened back there. And the question is, who is the woman is being brought to Abram? Is it Sarai, his wife, or is it Hagar, the maidservant?
If you look more closely, you will notice a number of further things. The words within the account echo the account of the Fall.
So Sarai said to Abram, “See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her [literally, be built up from her].” And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to the husband Abram to be his wife…—Genesis 16:2-3a
What is happening there? This is a familiar story. First of all, the woman is brought to the man. Is it Sarai or is it Hagar? This question is at the back of the text. Sarai brings Hagar to Abram. It is a forbidden fruit story. Abram listens to the voice of Sarai, his wife. This is exactly what we hear in the story of Genesis 3. And the way it is described—“Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar, and gave her to her husband Abram”—the taking, and the giving, and the heeding the voice of the wife in this situation: it is the forbidden fruit story all over again! It is a familiar story, and we should have our minds ringing this alarm bell. We have heard this story before. Warning sign! Warning sign! Warning sign! Something is wrong. We have already seen an event where the man is placed into a deep sleep. There are animals. There are all these other things that remind us of Genesis 2, and now we have the woman being deceived and the woman taking and giving to her husband of the forbidden fruit. There is something going wrong, and the alarm bells should be ringing.
Biblical stories often expose the truth that they have at their heart through these sorts of parallels. It is as you know the text more widely that you will listen to a story like this and you will hear those alarm bells ringing. You know this story! You have heard this before! Something is going wrong. Something has gone awry. It should have gone so very differently. But what we are seeing is the Fall story play out again: the woman takes, and she gives to her husband, and her husband heeds her voice. And what happens next? Eyes are opened.
So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived [received the fruit?], her mistress became despised in her eyes. Then Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.”—Genesis 16:4-5
So, Hagar’s eyes are opened. What does this mean? It is interesting. If you look at the text more carefully, it says that Sarai ‘gave Hagar to be his wife.’ Now, I am not sure that that was Sarai’s intention. She very much wanted to maintain the relationship of mistress/maidservant within this relationship with Hagar. She hoped that she would be built up through Hagar. She is not expecting that Hagar will be an equal wife alongside her. She wants to be ‘built up’ through Hagar.
And that language—of being ‘built up’—that is significant language. It is language that we find for the formation is Eve. Eve is ‘built’ out of the side of the man; it is a building up. And Sarai wants to be built up through Hagar. Hagar is given to her husband, and then there Sarai has a sense of “This is not what I wanted! It has all gone wrong!” There is a sense of nakedness, that the eyes of Hagar have been opened. She looks differently at her mistress, no longer as her mistress. Now Hagar might be thinking to herself, “I am not going to be under my mistress’s thumb! I am equal to my mistress, and I have a child as well! I am a wife. I am not just a maidservant; I am a wife of Abram.” And the text would seem to back that up—there is a validation of Hagar’s new status, that she is not just a maidservant. Now she is the wife of Abram.
Perceiving that shift is quite critical for understanding what is happening here. There is a forbidden fruit story, and then there is the wife’s recognition that this was not what she intended. She feels deceived. She does not know that this was what was going to happen, and, yet, it has happened this way, and eyes are opened. And as the eyes are opened, she feels naked. She feels judged. She feels that she no longer has the same place she once did. Now this child is going to be raised by this independent woman who was once her maidservant. And Hagar is going to stand independently of her, raise that child, and she is going to be a rival to her. That is a very different sort of situation from what she first intended.
Sarai declares, “The Lord judge between you and me.” There is a movement, now, into the judgment scene. And Abram gives Hagar over into the hands of Sarai, and essentially says, “You do to your maid what is pleasing in your sight.” Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, and Hagar fled from her presence.
Now, what do we notice here? First of all, look throughout this passage. There is a constant play upon the theme of sight and seeing. This is something that we see within the story of Genesis 3—seeing that the fruit is good, eyes being opened, and seeing that they are naked, and then hiding from sight. We see a number of these themes reappear here. There is the seeing of the maidservant. There are the eyes of Hagar being opened and her mistress being despised in her eyes. And then, as it were, Sarai’s eyes being opened to the situation, that she is despised in Hagar’s eyes; and then Hagar being handed over to Sarai to do what is pleasing in her eyes. Then Hagar flees from the sight of her mistress.
The angel finds her by a spring (or literally, an ‘eye’ of water) in the wilderness—by the eye on the way to Shur.
And He 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.”—Genesis 16:8
There we see more sight themes coming to the surface. What happened after the Fall? They hid from God’s presence. And there was a judgment that occurred at that point: God came and said, “Where are you?” to Adam. Adam was hiding because he was naked. “Who told you that you were naked?”
Here we have a similar thing. Hagar flees from the presence of her mistress, and as she flees, the Angel of the Lord comes, and the angel of the Lord asks essentially the same question as God asked to Adam: “Where are you and why are you here? From where are you going? Why have you hidden? Why have you fled?” And then the Angel of the Lord instructs her to return to her mistress and submit herself under her hand. This is a similar account to what we see in the judgment upon the woman in the end of the story of the Fall. There the woman is told that her desire will be for her husband and her husband will rule over her. There is this breaking down of that reciprocity in that relationship. It will become fraught and it will become one of subjugation, rather than a healthy one. Here Hagar is told to return to an oppressive relationship with her mistress. This is not what we might expect.
Another thing to notice about the theme of sight is that that is interrupted. We have this theme of sight and eyes being opened, the eye of the spring, God coming and seeing, and all these sorts of things, but it is interrupted by God hearing—“the Lord has heard your affliction.” And that is surprising; we would expect “the Lord has seen your affliction.” But here it is ‘heard.’ Hearing interrupts the seeing.
Returning to the mistress is, again, associated with these greater themes of the judgment upon Eve, but here with a redemptive tone. She is told to return to her mistress and she is told, “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly so that they shall not be counted for multitude.” And in Genesis 3, “I will multiply your conceptions.” There is a sense of the pain of conception in that context, but also the numbers of children to be borne, perhaps, as well, is included there. Here we have the same notes being struck, but there is a different tone that comes. There is a returning to the mistress. There is a dysfunctional relationship, but she is told to be faithful in that. And then, God will multiply, but that multiplication will not be a negative one.
And there are a series of statements of the angel of the Lord here. It says, “So the Angel of the Lord said… Then the Angel of the Lord said… And the Angel of the Lord said” in verses 9, 10, and 11. These are successive speeches. The question we might ask is, is this just one speech that is just constantly interrupted by this formula, or is there a sense in which Hagar is answering each statement with silence—that there are a succession of inducements, as it were, to return?
“Return to your mistress and submit yourself under her hands.”
Response: “I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude.”
“Behold, you are with child, and you shall a bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael [‘God hears’], because the Lord has heard your affliction. He shall be a wild man; his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him. And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”—Genesis 16:11-12
And here, we see that this is the point at which she then responds. The suggestion that there are two responses of silence is something I got from Rabbi David Fohrman, which I found a very helpful insight into how we should possibly read this. It is not something I put too much weight on, but it an interesting possible reading.
Her response, again, draws upon the theme of sight. “You-Are-the-God-who-Sees”—that is what she calls the name of the Lord—“for she said, ‘Have I also here seen Him who sees me?’” So, this theme of sight is being played out throughout this. There is this theme of sight being repeated, and here we find it being brought to a redemptive resolution—that God has seen the oppression, the mistreatment, the subjugation of this woman, her affliction. And she has not been unnoticed. The earlier statements do not mention that God has heard her affliction. But here we have that, all the eye themes being interrupted by God hearing, and then also the fact that God has recognized, has registered, and has heard her affliction, and is intervening within that situation. And she returns, and she names the well, and then she bears Abram a son. Abram is 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
What we see in this story is that, again, it is a story that is connected with the broader themes of the text, the broader themes of the text that bring us back to the story of the Fall. There is a repetition of the Fall here, and there are two Eve characters. There is Sarai as the Eve character, who takes of the forbidden fruit and gives it to her husband. And then there is a sense of nakedness and shame, and a loss of glory. And then there is also another woman, another Eve character, which is Hagar. Hagar, who is expelled; Hagar, who experiences this divine judgment that occurs. And this divine judgment is a more positive thing: that God has heard her affliction, and God will bless her. But those blessings are spins upon those curses or judgments that we see upon Eve in Genesis 3.
What else is going on here? Here we come back to the key theme, which I introduced at the beginning: that Hagar is associated with Egypt. What do we see taking place here? What we see taking place is a story that reminds us of the Exodus narrative, but all the parts are reversed. There is a servant in the house of Abram and Sarai—the chosen people of God—and they are mistreating this Egyptian maidservant. This Egyptian maidservant is sorely mistreated. As she is sorely mistreated, there is an oppression that is very much instigated by Sarai towards her, and she flees, and God meets her in the wilderness. And God acts in her situation. God has heard her affliction. What does Hagar’s name mean? Hagar’s name might be associated with the name of “the stranger.” What has God just said to Abram?—“your descendants will be strangers in a land not their own, and they will serve them, and they will afflict them four hundred years.”
In the story immediately following, we see the stranger figure—someone who is associated with that word for “the stranger”—Hagar. She is afflicted in the house of Abram. There are all these themes of Exodus, but of Exodus perverted, Exodus twisted. The people being oppressed are the Egyptians, and the people doing the oppression are Israelites. As we read through the story of Genesis, I think one of the things that we are seeing is a gathering of storm clouds. There is something about this event that is twisting and has ramifications for the later destiny of the descendants of Abraham. What they do in relationship to Hagar, whose affliction God has seen—will later on occur to them. There is a poetic justice here: what happens to the Egyptian maidservant, whom God hears, will later happen to the descendants of Abram and Sarai themselves.
And Abram has had an account of all of this beforehand in his vision. He was told that his descendants would be strangers, that they would be afflicted, that they would be servants, that they would be in a situation where they would be afflicted by a nation not their own. And then, what happens? In his own household, the same thing happens in the immediately succeeding story. There is something that has gone rotten here. And calling back to the story of the Fall helps us to see a bit more of what is taking place—the woman and her husband, the judgment that occurs, the expulsion, all these themes, along with the way that they play out in a way that juxtaposes the characters of Hagar and Sarai. There is now a rivalry between the two of them. And that rivalry is one that has later consequences for the people of Israel. It is not something that they can escape. It is something that will have ramifications down the line.
But at this point, what we need to notice is the way that it plays out within this narrative. It is another Fall. There are other judgments that take place here. There are also events that remind us of the previous sojourn in Egypt. She is an Egyptian maidservant. There is a ramification of that particular period of time of Egypt, and there are anticipations of what is going to come in the future—anticipations that have already been given in the previous chapter. Abram should have been warned about this. Now, he awakes from the deep sleep—the vision ends at the end of 15:21—and what happens immediately after that? We read about the woman. We read about Sarai, his wife. Who is the woman that is being brought to him, by whom his descendants will be made great, by whom he will become a mighty nation, the person who will mean that from his own body the seed will be raised?
Sarai is the person that we meet immediately afterwards. She is the woman that is brought to Abram, this new Adam, after he awakens from the deep sleep. But no, what we see is that Sarai believes that she will be built up (the way that Eve was created) though Hagar. And through giving Hagar to her husband, she gives him the forbidden fruit, which ends up with pain for all parties.
But yet, the judgments are tinged with grace, particularly as Hagar is told to return to the house of her mistress; there will be slavery there, but there will also be multiplication—a multiplication that hearkens back to the experience of Eve and the judgment upon Eve, albeit this time a multiplication of a better character. She is told that Ishmael will become a wild man; he will become great. God has heard her affliction. God has recognized what has happened.