SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS)-Week 10 Genesis 16

Welcome to the SDMB weekly Bible Study (SDMBWBS). This week we will be discussing Genesis 16. Since the discussion can turn into a very broad and hijackable thread, we would like the following rules to be adhered to:

  1. These SDMBWBS threads are to deal with the books and stories in the Bible as literature. What I’m hoping to achieve is an understanding of the stories, the time in which they were written, context, and possibly its cultural relevance.

  2. While it is up to the individual to choose to believe or disbelieve any portion, that is not to be the discussion of the thread. If you must, please choose to witness/anti-witness in Great Debates.

  3. The intention is to go through the Bible from front to back in order. While different books are needed to be referred to in order to understand context, please try and keep the focus on the thread’s selected chapter(s)/verse(s).

  4. Since different religions have chosen which books to include or omit, the threads will use the Catholic version of 46 Old Testament Books and 27 New Testament Books. It’s encouraged to discuss why a book was included/omitted during the applicable threads only. BibleHub, as far as I know, is a good resource that compiles many different versions of the verses into one page.(Also the SDMB Staff Reports on Who Wrote the Bible). Please feel free to use whatever source you want, including-and even more helpfully-the original language.

  5. Hopefully we can get through these threads with little to no moderation. A gentle reminder that if a poster comes in and ignores these rules, please use the “report post” function instead of responding.

Links to previous threads:
Genesis 1:1 to 2:25
Genesis 3
Genesis 4
Genesis 5-6
Genesis 7-9:17
Genesis 9:18-10:32
Genesis 11
Genesis 12-13
Genesis 14-15

Genesis 16
New International Version (NIV)
Translation from THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Hagar and Ishmael

16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

6 “Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.


For a book that deals so much on the meaning of the character’s names, it is odd that Hagar’s cannot be identified with any certainty. Some scholars have seen a connection between it and an Egyptian word for concubine, but it’s a minority view at best. Some Rabbinic commentaries indicate she was the Pharaoh’s daughter. She is described as a sip-ha meaning maidservant, attendant to the mistress of the house; in chapter 21 she is identified as ama, a slave woman, indicating her station has worsened. The term used when Sarai gave her to Abram to use as a wife is isha, meaning either wife or concubine; the usual word for concubine, pilegesh, is never used of Hagar. A few commentators identify Hagar with Keturah, the woman Abraham marries after the death of Sarah.

In Catholicism, Saint Augustine referred to Hagar as symbolizing an “earthly city”, or sinful condition of humanity: “In the earthly city (symbolised by Hagar) … we find two things, its own obvious presence and the symbolic presence of the heavenly city. New citizens are begotten to the earthly city by nature vitiated by sin but to the heavenly city by grace freeing nature from sin.” (City of God 15:2) This view was expounded on by medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and John Wycliffe. The latter compared the children of Sarah to the redeemed, and those of Hagar to the unredeemed, who are “carnal by nature and mere exiles”.

Since the 1970s, the custom has arisen in Israel of giving the name “Hagar” to newborn female babies. The giving of this name is often taken as a controversial political act, marking the parents as being left-leaning and supporters of reconciliation with the Palestinians and Arab World, and is frowned upon by many, including nationalists and the religious. The connotations of the name were represented by the founding of the Israeli journal Hagar: Studies in Culture, Polity and Identities in 2000.

**The Angel of the LORD. **

The “angel of YHWH” appears 58 times in the OT, and the “angel of God” appears 11 times. Sometimes the term designates a messenger from God, and sometimes the divine presence itself. Some Johannine Christian scholars over the ages have considered it to be the pre-incarnate Christ. The angel appears to Hagar by the spring on the way to Shur, probably on the southern border of Canaan, on the road to Kadesh-barnea, near the border to Egypt; in other words, no small distance. He tells her “I will greatly multiply your descendants [seed] so that they will be too many to count.” Hagar is the only woman to receive such a prophecy. All other times it’s a man: Abraham, Isaac or Jacob.

**Ishmael **

Ishmael means “God hears”. Even though Hagar is told to name him this, he’s actually named by Abram. He is called “a wild donkey of a man” or “a wild ass (onager) of the steppes”. He will “live to the east of his brothers” or possibly “live in defiance of all his brothers”.

Maidservants and slaves used as wives:

cf. Hammurapi’s Code #146: “When a free man married a priestess and she gave the female slave to her husband and she has then borne children, if later that female slave has claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, her mistress may not sell her; she may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among the slaves.” (2nd Millenium BCE)

An old Assyrian marriage contract (2nd millennium, BCE) states: “Laqipum took in marriage Hatala, the daughter of Enishru. In the country Laqipum shall not taken in marriage another woman, but in the city of Ashshur he may take in marriage a priestess. If within two years she has not procured offspring for him, only she may buy a maid-servant, and even later on, after she procures somehow an infant for him, she may sell her whenever she pleases.”

A later (1st millennium BCE) Assyrian text: “If Subetu does not conceive, does not give birth, she may take a maidservant as a substitute and in her position she may place her. Subetu will thereby bring sons into being and the sons will be Subetu’s sons. If she loves the maidservant, she may keep her. If she hates her she may sell her.”


The tribe of the Ishmaelites lived on the Arabian desert, SE of Canaan. Ishmael and Hagar being taken to Mecca by Abraham in Islamic texts is an important part in the story of Ishmael, as it brings the focus to Mecca and is the beginning of Mecca’s sanctification as a holy area. Islamic tradition says Abraham was ordered by God to take Hagar and Ishmael to Mecca, and later Abraham returned to Mecca to build the Kaaba.

In many of these accounts, the angel Gabriel (Jibral) guides them to the location of the Kaaba, at which point Abraham builds it and afterwards, leaves the other two there (other versions discussed below say the construction of the Kaaba occurred later and that Ishmael took part in it). Generally, it is said that Hagar asks Abraham who he is entrusting herself and Ishmael to as he leaves them. He answers that he is entrusting them to God, to which Hagar then makes a reply that shows her faith, stating that she believes God will guide them. Hagar and Ishmael then run out of water and Ishmael becomes extremely thirsty. Hagar is distressed and searches for water, running back and forth seven times between the hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah. Hagar is later remembered by Muslims for this act during the Hajj, or pilgrimage, in which Muslims run between these same hills as part of the Sa’yee. When she returns to Ishmael, she finds either him or an angel scratching the ground with their heel or finger, whereupon water begins flowing and Hagar collects some or dams it up. This spring or well is known as Zamzam. At some point, a passing tribe known as the Jurhum sees birds circling the water and investigates. They ask Hagar if they can settle there, which she allows, and many versions say as Ishmael grew up he learned various things from the tribe. There are numerous versions of this story, each differing in various ways. According to Islamic tradition, both Hagar and Ishmael are buried in Mecca.

Great stuff, Prof. Thank you.

I’m confused about the story maybe…? Let me try to explain how I’m reading it:

Abram and Sarai are married. Sarai cannot conceive so she offers up her slave, Hagar, to Abram so that they can have (biological) kids. Abram marries Hagar(1) and gets Hagar pregnant. Abram then gets Sarai pregnant. Sarai, being the first wife, gets jealous of Hagar and begins to mistreat her. Hagar says “screw this” and runs away and God/Angel stops her. God/Angel says “go back to Sarai and endure the abuse for in the end, it’ll be worth it as your family tree is gonna get huge.”(2) Then God/Angel goes further to say “You’re gonna have a son and because you had a hard life, everyone will hate him.” (3)

  1. I’m assuming that slaves had no choice in marriage and their status didn’t change as a slave. The polygamous marriage was more for the sake of reproduction?

  2. A lot of descendents was a good thing in this world view I’m assuming?

  3. This is the part I’m really confused on. It seems like a horrible punishment. What am I missing here?

Pretty close to what I read, except for the part about “because you had a hard life”. It is a prophecy, sort of - “everyone is going to be against your son and he will not be part of the Abrahamic descendancy, but will found another dynasty”.

Yes, the slave had little or no choice (except to run away). Sarai giving her handmaid to Abram was because up to that point, Sarai couldn’t get pregnant, which was a Very Big Deal and the key to position and prestige in the family. Being the mother of the heir apparent was like being the Queen Mother. For Sarai’s handmaid to mother the heir, and for Sarai to adopt him, was the next best thing that Sarai could come up with to maintain her position in the family as Queen Mother. Then Sarai got pregnant herself, and her son would automatically take precedence in the succession over the son of a concubine. So then she didn’t need Hagar anymore, and mistreated her so as to drive her into running away, thus eliminating a rival.

Yes, absolutely. A very Darwinian attitude, since there was little or no thought of an afterlife, so children were the best you could to for your name to survive.

I don’t think Hagar was being punished - just warned that her son would have a hard life apart from his family, but would not die off without founding a different dynasty.


There are two similar stories, this one and the (later) story in Chapter 21 (when Hagar’s son Ishmael is old enough to be “playing.” Those who believe in multiple authors attribute this on to J and Chapter 21 to E. The plots are similar: Sarai (Sarah) wants to casts out Hagar, Abram (Abaham) doesn’t like it but doesn’t intervene; Hagar wanders in the wilderness, finds an oasis, an angel/God intervenes to save her and promises her son will found a nation.

Thus, Prof P’s comment that in Ch 16, Hagar is a “maid-servant” and in Ch 21 she is a “slave” may simply be different authors.

The multiple authors theory is (basically) that these stories have very ancient oral traditions, changed slightly (perhaps by the northern and southern tribes after the split of the Kingdom following Solomon, roughly 950 BCE). The Redactor (final editor) sometimes intermeshed the different stories, and sometimes kept both, in creating a final version (after the destruction of the northern kingdom, and trying to assimilate the refugees) that everyone could accept.

Those who believe there is only one Author, of course, have different explanations (such as Hagar was lowered in status, as Prof P comments.)

The Hebrew name Hagar has no direct meaning that we know. In contrast, most names in Genesis – for that matter, in the Hebrew bible – have meanings and literary significance. Sarai, for instance, means “princess.” Hagar does suggest a word-play on the Hebrew “Gar” meaning “stranger.” Further, the term used for “harsh treatment” in verses 6, 9, and 11 is the same word as used in Gen 15:13, the prophecy at the end of the covenant of Pieces, to describe how Abram’s descendents will be “strangers” and “mistreated/enslaved.” So there may be some literary foreshadowing here.

ASIDE: In the NIV translation used by stpauler above, verse 6 uses “mistreated”, verse 9 uses “submit to her” but the literal text is “submit to her harsh treatment”, and verse 11 uses “misery.” The root in Hebrew is the same, however, for all three.

The name Ishmael means “God hears,” he is named here in 16:11 and the name is fulfilled in 21:17.

BROAD LITERARY PLOT/COMMENTSt: Abram’s faith at this point is sadly lacking: he was told by God that he would have [legitimate] children, but he doesn’t trust that promise. He needs to learn (1) that monotheism and family are intimately related, that the transmission of the concept of God requires a father AND a mother to raise the child; and (2) that the mother is the spiritual partner, not just the biological partner.

Major theme of Genesis (and later books): Do not mistreat the stranger. Hagar (an Egyptian, and “stranger”) is mistreated and that was a bad error of judgement on Abram and Sarai’s part. The Israelites will be mistreated in Egypt as strangers, and must learn from this not to mistreat others.

ASIDE: On the question of “punishment,” we’ll need to discuss further when we get to the second story in Chapter 21, where Hagar and Ishmael are sent away. Rabbinic commentators are unhappy with the notion of Sarah mistreating Hagar so badly (sending her to expected death in the desert), and argue that Ishmael “playing” implies that he was doing highly immoral things.

You guys are getting the timeline a little mixed up. Sarai doesn’t get pregnant until 14 years after Ishmael is born, give or take a few months — chapter 16 says Abram was 86, while he’s 100 in chapter 21, when Isaac is born.

Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar in chapter 16 was solely due to her resentment of Hagar’s pride in being fertile; it had nothing to do with a dispute about the birthright. On the contrary, the whole point of giving Hagar to Abram was to get him an heir.

As CDH points out, there are so many parallels between ch. 16 and ch. 21 that it’s likely they are two versions of the same story, the main difference being Hagar runs away in ch 16, and is explicitly cast out in ch. 21. Certainly there was no point in the angel telling Hagar to return to Abram in ch. 16, because when she is banished in ch. 21 (this time it WAS because of the birthright), Abraham gives her nothing but bread and a bottle of water before kicking her out to fend for herself and her son in the wilderness. Abraham allegedly loves Ishmael, and is one of the wealthiest men in the region, but Hagar probably was better provisioned the first time, by just grabbing some leftovers from lunch.

It’s interesting that all three of the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not give their oldest sons the inheritance. Abraham’s firstborn Ishmael is cast out; Isaac’s firstborn Esau is swindled out of his birthright and blessing by Jacob; and Jacob decrees that Judah, not his firstborn Reuben, will rule over the other sons.

Since ancient society was founded upon the importance of the first-born son, it’s interesting indeed that most of the biblical stories (not just Genesis) overturn that tradition. Moses is the youngest son. If we get as far as Kings, David is the youngest son. I believe that one of the messages here is that merit and character are more important than simple genealogical inheritance.

Of course, first-born is still recognized as important – remember the last plague upon the Egyptians, among other things. But the message seems to be that OTHER nations view the first-born as important; a moral nation should not.

On the other hand, having a (clever or moral) younger son win out over the older one is, later, a common fairy-tale trope, exactly because the tales were developed in a society where birth order was important. This could be more examples of the same.

Having the first-born inherit is the expected thing; having a younger son inherit makes a better, more memorable story.

Link to new thread Genesis 17