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Genesis 16: Covenant (Interlude with Hagar)

Posted by Gary Labels: , ,

Sarai takes charge 16:1-6
Now, they’d been living in Canaan for ten years [since chapter 12], and they’d been trying and trying to have a baby. Perhaps, as Hamilton notes, they see this not as “we’re going to have a baby!” but rather as “we have to have a baby!” In any case, Sarai gets impatient and comes up with a way around her infertility. Whereas Abram turned to Egypt when the land was infertile, now Sarai would have them turn to Egypt again to get around her own infertility. Sarai intends to give Hagar, a slave they picked up in Egypt, to Abram to be a surrogate for her.

The central verse here is verse 2. Sarai is the impatient one. She comes up with the plan, and tells Abram what to do. Abram acquiesces to his wife uncritically (Genesis 3, anyone?). So, through Egypt he again finds fertility: Hagar conceives. And once again Egypt becomes hostile: Hagar begins to despise Sarai.

Sarai’s response is to hold Abram responsible for her own idea. “May the Lord judge between me and you” is an expression of very clear hostility. (It’s probably up there with “God d*** you!”) He backs down and lets her do whatever she wants to Hagar. So, Sarai mistreats her servant and drives her out.

Sarai’s behavior here is completely inappropriate. Much like Eve, she has a tendency to usurp power in the relationship, which inevitably leads to bad results. And Abram, like Adam, sure doesn’t seem like much of a man here. Circumcision jokes can’t be used for Abram, because he was lacking in the manhood department before being given circumcision. Sorry – I couldn’t resist.

The Lord appears to Hagar 16:7-15
Apparently Hagar was traveling alone to Shur while pregnant. She stops at a well along the way, and the angel of the Lord appears to her. The angel asks her where she came from, and where she’s going. All she can answer is where she came from – she has nowhere to go. The angel tells her to return and submit to her mistress, yet the Lord will give her a blessing much like that of Abram: descendants beyond number. Her son Ishmael will grow to be great in his own right. Let’s not miss the pun in verse 11: “You will name him ‘God hears,’ for the Lord has heard your misery.” Ishmael is called a “wild donkey of a man,” both referring to his hostility (donkeys are stubborn!) and to his wildness (he was an outdoorsman and archer by trade, living away from civilization).

Let’s talk Hagar for a moment, because she is quite special. She’s the first person that the angel of the Lord ever appeared to. What’s more, she’s the only person to ever give God a new name: the Living One Who Sees Me. This is also the only event in the Bible where an encounter between God and a woman leads to a commemorative place name (“Well of the Living One Who Sees Me”).

Hagar is also special because she, not Sarai, is the prototype for Mary. Mary likewise gets pregnant through no fault of her own, and is greatly shamed by the community and her betrothed. The angel of the Lord appears and saves her from the disgrace. Now, I believe in the virgin birth, but no one would have believed her until the angel appeared. Until that time, she was a confused and shamed girl who had no idea where to go or what to do.

OK. End-of-the-show lesson segment. As I say in my notes over Genesis 3: a man should listen to his wife. It’s important to hear her ideas, and even more important to listen to her feelings. However, uncritically letting her take the lead is simply out of the question. Lesson number two: God cares for everyone, even the people that God’s chosen people despise. Even those caught in unspeakable shame with nowhere else to turn. No matter who you are, no matter where you are, God hears your pain.