Study Guide

Book of Genesis Chapter 16

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Chapter 16

Wanted: New-born Baby

  • Here God is, promising Abram a huge family over and over again (13:16; 15:5), but his wife Sarai has not yet born a child. That is simply a big fat contradiction.
  • Sarai takes matters into her own hands and offers her slave girl to Abram. They'll produce an heir this way.
  • This is essentially old fashioned surrogacy. Such arrangements are well-attested in other ancient Mesopotamian legal texts, too. No big deal.
  • Sarah's servant Hagar becomes pregnant. Now Hagar is no longer a slave, but a wife. And she's the wife with the baby. So Hagar is feeling pretty good about herself, and she "looked with contempt upon" Sarai (16:4 NRSV).
  • Sarai feels slighted and blames Abram for the whole situation. Abram's response? He passes the buck back to Sarai. She can do whatever she wants with Hagar. 
  • Sarai mistreats Hagar, reminding her who's boss, so Hagar runs away to escape the miserable situation.
  • The deity's emissary finds her by a spring of water in Shur headed south, probably back to Egypt, her home country (see 16:3).
  • The messenger addresses her as Hagar, and then reminds her of her proper place when he calls her the "slave-girl of Sarai" (16:8 NRSV). He wants to know where she's come from and where she's going.
  • She responds that she's trying to escape her "mistress" Sarai. Hagar doesn't deny she's a slave.
  • The deity's envoy commands her to return and "submit" to Sarai. The messenger's no advocate on behalf of abused women here—hard to swallow in modern times, that's for sure.
  • But the envoy does lift her prospects somewhat when he promises that she'll spawn numerous offspring, beyond counting. Kind of like the promise God made to Abram in 13:16 and 15:5, right?
  • The messenger continues that she'll have a son, whom she's supposed to name Ishmael, "for the Lord has given heed" to Hagar's suffering. The Hebrew for "give heed" (sham'a) sounds like Ishmael.
  • He sure will be one "wild ass of a man" (16:12 NRSV). That's really what it says, no joke.
  • Hagar gives a new name to the deity: "El-roi," which she explains with the question, "Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?" (16:13 NRSV). 
  • And that's why the well where this occurred is called—get ready for a mouthful—Beer-lahai-roi. Try saying that five times fast.

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