GENESIS 16:1-16


Genesis 15 leaves off with a number of promises given by God to Abram.  They are wide ranging and sealed with a dramatic covenant ceremony in which animal sacrifices are set forth and the presence of the Lord moves between the carcasses of the animals to bind Himself to his oath. Abram is given the assurance from heaven that:


           God will protect him from Chedorlaomer and the king of Sodom.

           God will make him rich.

           God will multiply his descendants greatly.

           God will give him the land of Canaan.


Abram believed these promises and rested upon them.  As the weeks went by, he waited for God’s promises to be answered.  The weeks turned into months and the months turned to years and still Abram waited.  It is at this point that he is presented with a plan to help bring about the promised son.


Genesis 15

Genesis 16

Begins with God coming to Abram with a message.

Begins with Sarai coming to Abram with advice.

Abram believed the Lord.

Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

God gave to Abram promises of protection, of a seed, and of the possession of the land.

Sarai gave to Abram her handmaiden Hagar to fulfill the promise of the seed.

God spoke to Abram and gave him instruction and promises.

God spoke to Hagar and gave her instructions and promises.

Abram is promised a son who will be his heir.

Hagar is promised a son who will be a wild man.


While Genesis 15 is a chapter of Abram’s belief and victory, chapter 16 will be a chapter suggesting unbelief and failure.  The failure will involve both a lack of faith on the part of Abram as well as a lack of leadership within his own family.


This tells me something about the characters of the Bible.  They are not stained glass saints.  They are real people with real failings and real struggles. Abram was not chosen by God because he was so strong and faithful; he was chosen by God as a gift of grace in spite of the fact that he was undeserving.  The grace of God in using Abram means that God can use you and He can use me.


This chapter is centrally located in the Abraham narrative.  It serves as something of a pivotal point for the entire story of Abraham.


Promises given

  • Abram called to leave his family
  • Promise of Seed (12:1-3)



Travels in the land

  • Abram journeys (12:4-9)
  • Sojourn in Egypt, “She is my sister” (12.10-20)



Lot and Abram

  • Lot and Abram negotiate over land (13).
  • Abram rescues Lot and people of Sodom (14)



God’s covenant ceremony with Abram and promise of the Land (15)



Hagar and Ishmael (16)


God’s covenant naming of Abraham and promise of Seed (17)



Lot and Abraham

  • Abraham negotiates with God over Lot and Sodom (18).
  • Angels rescue Lot as Sodom is destroyed (19)



Travels in the land

  • Abraham journeys southward (20:1)
  • Sojourn in Gerar, “She is my sister” (20.1-18)


Promises fulfilled

  • Isaac born; Hagar and Ishmael sent out from covenant family (21)
  • Abraham's Test: Blessing of Seed (22:1-19)



The chapter will be seen in two parts and two encounters.  The first is an encounter between Hagar and Sarai, the second will be an encounter between Hagar and God.








Hagar Encounters Sarai

Hagar Encounters God

Sarai’s Plan

Domestic Strife

Abram’s Solution

Hagar’s flight

God’s Instructions to Hagar

God’s Promises to Hagar


Up to this point, the story line of Genesis has been largely masculine in focus.  Only at the temptation in the Garden of Eden have we been treated to the perspective of a woman.  That changes in this chapter.  The perspective shifts from Abram to her wife, Sarai, and to her handmaiden, Hagar.  When Abram is mentioned at all in this chapter, it is in a relatively minor role.





            1 Now Sarai, Abram's wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar. 2 So Sarai said to Abram, "Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 And after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Abram's wife Sarai took Hagar the Egyptian, her maid, and gave her to her husband Abram as his wife. (Genesis 16:1-3).


This chapter begins with a problem.  It is the ongoing problem that underlies everything in the Abram narrative up to this point.  It was first introduced at the end of Genesis 11 when we were first told of Abram and his wife.  The wives of Abram and Nahor were named and then we were immediately told:  And Sarai was barren; she had no child (Genesis 11:30).


Just in case we had forgotten this was the case, it is repeated here at the beginning of this chapter.  Ten more years have passed and Sarai still has not borne children to Abram.  It is at this point that she comes up with a plan to provide a son.  She in barren, but there are local customs that will allow her to provide a son through her Egyptian handmaiden.


1.         Hagar the Egyptian:   She had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar (16:1).


The handmaiden chosen for this duty is named Hagar.  We are told that she was an Egyptian.  It may be that she was acquired by Abram when he traveled to Egypt in Genesis 12:10.  Abram had gone down to Egypt and now he has a little bit of Egypt living in his household.


Why is this detail mentioned in the text of Genesis?  It is mentioned because the Israelites for whom this book is written have recently come out of Egypt.  It is mentioned to remind them how past associations can lead to continuing problems.


2.         Sarai’s Desire for a Child:  So Sarai said to Abram, "Now behold, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her." (16:2).


Notice the phrasing employed by Sarai:  "The LORD has prevented me from bearing children.”  Is she blaming the Lord or is she merely recognizing God’s evident sovereignty in the matter of her ability to bear children?

Sarai makes no mention of the promises of God.  She may not have been sure that those promises had any application to her.  God had promised that Abram would have offspring, but no mention had been made that this promised offspring would come through Sarai.


We are not told what was Sarai’s motivation in this offer.  She makes no mention of the promise of God, though it is entirely possible that she is acting according to the customs and legal codes of her day to bring about that promised offspring.  On the other hand, it is equally possible that she merely wished to give to Abram that for which the both of them had longed.


3.         Sarai’s Precedent.

Gilimninu has been given to Shennima as wife.  If Gilimninu bears children, Shennima shall not take another wife, But if Gilimninu does not bear, she shall take a slave-girl from the Lullu-region as wife for Shennima.  As for the concubine’s offspring, Gilimninu shall not send them away. —A Personal Archive from the Nuzi Tablets.


From the Nuzi tablets, we know that Sarai’s proposal was considered to be both legally and socially acceptable.  It was to the ancient world what fertility drugs and invetro fertilization are to the modern world.  In the event a woman could not bear children, she had the option of giving to her husband a servant who would become a secondary wife to him.


Abram’s response to Sarai’s suggestion is one of acquiescence.  That he agrees to her plan does not necessarily denote a lack of leadership on his part.  He may also have considered this to be the means by which God was going to give to him a child.





            4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight. 5 And Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms; but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the LORD judge between you and me." (Genesis 16:4-5).


Hagar becomes pregnant with child from Abram and it is not long before Hagar begins to look down on Sarai, her former mistress.  The situation recalls the words of the Proverbs:


21 Under three things the earth quakes,

And under four, it cannot bear up:

22 Under a slave when he becomes king,

And a fool when he is satisfied with food,

23 Under an unloved woman when she gets a husband,

And a maidservant when she supplants her mistress. (Proverbs 30:21-23).


The slight against Sarai was not imagined, for the text tells us that her mistress was despised in her sight.  Sarai caught the vibes very quickly.  I have learned that when one woman wants another woman to know what she is thinking, she does not have to say a word.  Sarai got the message in short order.  Sarai goes to her husband with the problem and dumps it in his lap.  She calls for the Lord as a witness and a judge between them.





            But Abram said to Sarai, "Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight." So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence. (Genesis 16:6).


Abram’s solution looks harsh to our western sensitivities, but in reality, he handles the situation in what was considered to be a fair and appropriate manner.  Sarai was his chief wife by reason of her original marital status and this gave her authority in the family.


On the other hand, Sarai’s harsh treatment of Hagar is more reminiscent of the Pharaoh’s harsh treatment of the Israelites when they were in bondage in Egypt.  Just as Israel longed for deliverance from her cruel taskmasters, so Hagar longed for such deliverance and engaged in her own private “Exodus Event” as she fled out into the wilderness.


The irony of this similarity to the Exodus of the Israelites would not have been lost to the original readers of this text.  They would have found themselves identifying, not with Sarai, but with Hagar.  This is especially seen when we read of the route taken by Hagar.





            7 Now the angel of the LORD 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 maid, where have you come from and where are you going?" And she said, "I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai." 9 Then the angel of the LORD said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority." (Genesis 16:7-9).


When we next see Hagar, she is in the wilderness by the spring on the way to Shur.  This would have been a familiar place to the Israelites for whom Moses wrote the book of Genesis, for Shur was the first place to which they came after their crossing of the Red Sea.  They came out of Egypt and entered the Wilderness of Shur (Exodus 15:22) and now we read of Hagar leaving the presence of Sarai and going on the way to Shur.


She is met by the angel of the Lord.  This is the first time in the Bible we have seen this designation.  It is the first use of the Hebrew malach — angel, though such a designation would not have been unfamiliar to the Israelites.  This is a messenger from Yahweh.  Waltke points out that “in the ancient Near East the royal messenger was treated as a surrogate of the king” (2001:253-4).  By the same token, the angel of the Lord is treated as though he is God Himself.


The angel come to her and questions her:  "Hagar, Sarai's maid, where have you come from and where are you going?"  The fact that he knows her name and her designation indicates that he also knows the answer to the question he has asked.  It is a rhetorical question.  It is not asked for the angel’s benefit, but for the benefit of Hagar.  She is instructed to look at her actions and her plans and to see the foolishness of what she is doing.


He instructs her to return and to place herself back under the authority of Sarai.  This will be an act of faith and of submission to authority.  Such a concept is difficult for us to comprehend in today’s western culture where we tend ti idealize the ideas of rebellion and freedom.  Christianity is a religion of submission.  It took the apostle Paul many long years of imprisonment to learn this same lesson.  It was in one of his Prison Epistles that he was able to write these words:


...I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am (Philippians 4:11b).


We need to learn the same lesson.  When we do, we will be able to trust in the Lord, even when we find ourselves under the authority of a harsh master or mistress.


Hagar is told to return and to place herself under the authority of Sarai.  A person operating under a naturalistic viewpoint would disagree with this command.  The reason we struggle with this is because our tendency is to leave God out of the picture.


The Lord tells us to be submissive to those in authority and that He will take care of the rest.  This is vividly illustrated in Romans 13:1 which tells us to be submissive to the higher powers.  The highest power in the land at that time was the Roman Emperor Nero.  This man was to become an enemy of Christianity as he greatly persecuted the church.  Yet Paul told believers to obey him.  This can only be done when you are resting in the promises of God.


Hagar is given such a promise to sustain her.  She is to go back and to place herself again under the authority of Sarai, not because slavery is a good thing and not because Sarai will have a change of heart, but because God is bigger than all of that and He is in control.





            10 Moreover, the angel of the LORD said to her, "I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they shall be too many to count." 11 The angel of the LORD said to her further,

"Behold, you are with child,

And you shall bear a son;

And you shall call his name Ishmael,

Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction.

12 "And he will be a wild donkey of a man,

His hand will be against everyone,

And everyone's hand will be against him;

And he will live to the east of all his brothers." (Genesis 16:10-12).


The promise given to Hagar is a mixed bag.  It contains both that which would sustain and encourage her and it also contains that which might be considered distressing.


1.         The Promise of a Multitude:  "I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they shall be too many to count." (16:10).


This is virtually the same promise that had been given to Abram concerning his own descendants.  He had been told that his descendants would be like the stars — impossible to count.  Now Hagar is told that her own descendants will also be too many to count.


2.         The Name of her Son.


And you shall bear a son;

And you shall call his name Ishmael,

Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction


This is a play on words.  Hagar’s son is to be named Ishmael because she has been heard (shama) by God in the midst of her affliction.  His name will be a reminder that Yahweh is the God who hears our troubles.


3.         The Character of his Future.


"And he will be a wild donkey of a man,

His hand will be against everyone,

And everyone's hand will be against him;

And he will live to the east of all his brothers." (Genesis 16:12).


The son of Hagar is characterized as a donkey of a man.  But the picture is not of the domesticated donkey to which we are accustomed.  This term describes the wild donkey that roamed the wilderness of that area.  The image is of a man who is unruly and unkempt, wild and untamed.





            13 Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "Thou art a God who sees"; for she said, "Have I even remained alive here after seeing Him?" 14 Therefore the well was called Beer‑lahai‑roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered. (Genesis 16:13-14).


Hagar names the well at that place Beer‑lahai‑roi, “the well of seeing.”  The seeing had been twofold.  God had seen her and had heard her cry and she had also seen the angel of the Lord and lived to tell about it.


Notice the title that is given here for God.  He is called El Ra’iy, “the God who sees.”  It is a reminder that God sees us in the midst of our afflictions and in the midst of our wilderness.





            15 So 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 him. (Genesis 16:15-16).


Hagar believed the promises of God.  The name she gives to Him is a recognition of His omnipresence and His omniscience.  He sees all things and He knows all things.  Hagar’s faith was put into action as she returned to Sarai and Abram where she gave birth to her son.


This chapter ends as it started—with a contrast.  Both Hagar and Abram were given the promise of a seed from whom would come a great multitude.  Both Abram and Hagar were told to reside in the land of Canaan.


Hagar’s son would be at enmity with the world.  Every man’s hand would be against him and he would be against every man.  By contrast, the promise given to Abram was that he and his seed would be a blessing to the world.


Hagar’s Son

Abram’s Heir

His descendants would be innumerable.

His descendants will be innumerable.

He will be at enmity with the world.

He will be a blessing to the world.

Every man’s hand will be against him.

Whoever blesses him will be blessed and whoever curses him will be cursed.


At this point in the story, it might have looked to Abram that there was a contradiction in these prophecies.  This is because it had not yet been revealed that Abram would have another son who would be the promised heir.  That will not be clarified until Genesis 17.  In the interim, Abram had to trust the Lord without knowing all the facts.


That is often true for us, too.  We have promises from God and it is not always clear how they shall be fulfilled.  It is not important for us to know all of the details; it is only important that we trust Him to oversee them.


About the Author

Return to Stevenson Bible Study Page

Return to Genesis Page