Genesis 16

Table of Contents

Opening thoughts

  • Abraham has several decision points in this chapter. As we work through, ask yourself what would you have done if you were Abraham and why?

  • Also, while an in-depth study of the various issues Paul addresses in Galatians is beyond our scope, Paul will use Hagar versus Sarah and Ishmael vs Isaac as typological models. The greater our understanding of Genesis chapters 16-21, the better we will be able to follow Paul’s rather complex arguments.


Schlaegel, author of the Satellite Bible Atlas writes, “Despite the promises made in chapter 15, in chapter 16, we see what can happen when we get impatient with God.  Abram went into Hagar and she became pregnant.  This lead to strife between Sarai and Hagar and Hagar decides to flee.  God tells her that Ishmael will be blessed (though he will be a “wild ass of a man”) and she should return.  We aren’t told exactly where this happens but it is along the “Way of Shur””12

Genesis 16:1-2

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.

  • A maidservant was a legal extension of her owner, so legally and technically, the result of the procedure Sarai suggested would have counted as Sarai’s offspring.

  • In Sarai’s defense, she probably felt like the one who was responsible for the unfulfilled promise and she was well past child-bearing age.

    • Going in to someone who is not your wife sounds odd to us but Sarai’s logic is no different than adoption, where two surrogate parents were involved with the conception or artificial insemination where one surrogate parent is involved.

    • It was a way to build a family with natural methods fail.

    • However, Sarai showed a lack of faith – it is God’s prerogative to open closed wombs.

  • Although this method was a reasonable option in that day, In Abrahams’s case it is different because he was given a specific promise by God.

    • Like many poor choices, this one “seemed like a good idea at the time.”

    • Whose voice SHOULD Abraham have been listening to?

    • Whenever we doubt God and act in the flesh, we “sire an Ishmael.” How many of us have a lot of little Ishmaels running around?

    • This was a socially acceptable arrangement in the Ancient world, but I’m reminded of the phrase, “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

    • More specifically, God calls us to a higher standard than the society around us.

  • This is the 5th major test, according to Maimonides, a traditional Jewish commentator.

    • Specifically, the test was the long wait for the birth of a promised son, not being presented with Hagar (but we can see how impatience results in more tests, and often more opportunities to fail those tests).

    • “I want a child, and now look. My wife gives me option B.”

    • After doing really well in chapters 13-15, Abraham blows it on multiple levels here.

    • We wish we could have a solid trend of growth, like a chart that consistently goes “up and to the right,”

      • Our lives resemble a stock chart more than a trend line.

      • Up and down; a good quarter, followed by a not-so-good quarter, and so forth.

  • I can’t help seeing some parallels between Sarai and Eve

    • The text doesn’t say that Satan prompted Sarai, but it is safe to say the decision was not from God, and at least in an indirect sense, her decision was from the enemy.

    • God spoke through Adam and Abraham.

    • Satan spoke through Eve and Sarai (if only indirectly)

    • Adam listened to Eve, when He knew what God has said about the Tree.

    • Abraham listened to Sarai when he knew what God had said about offspring

  • In the last two chapters, the Divine Narrator wants us to know the geographic origin of the two servants.

    • It seems that wherever Abraham goes, he accumulates more people.

    • In Haran, it was Lot; in Damascus, it was Eliezer; and in Egypt, it was Hagar.

    • He wasn’t supposed to be in Haran

      • He was told to leave his father’s country and his family and head to a place God showed him.

      • Lot was a repeated source of grief for Abram.

    • He was in Damascus because he was doing a righteous deed.

      • He was Lot’s kinsman redeemer and went after a lost sheep just like our Kinsman Redeemer pursued us.

      • Eliezer of Damascus was a source of blessing for Abraham, which we will see in Genesis 24.

    • He was not supposed to be in Egypt.

      • God showed him Canaan, not Egypt; going to Egypt demonstrated a lack of faith in God’s promises.

      • He accumulated Hagar, who will be a source of grief.

      • Hagar’s offspring and Sarah’s offspring have been clashing ever since.

Walking in His Dust #1

  • Talmidim demonstrate patience and self-control

  • Gal 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.

  • In other words, when God has given us a promise, we wait on Him

  • Goals and aspirations are great things if they are consistent with God’s purposes for our lives.

  • We have to be content to wait for Him to bring those purposes to fruition.

  • If there is something God has placed on our heart, getting out in front of Him will only mess it up.

  • In one sense, it’s natural to ask, “is there something I’m missing? Something I’m not doing that I should be doing?”

  • If God opens a door, then I’ll go through; but I’m learning to be content.

  • The problem is there may be open doors that God hasn’t opened – that was Abraham’s test.

  • We must make sure we’re only moving out when He says “move out.”

Genesis 16:3

So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram, her husband, as a wife.

  • Hagar, now a concubine, was not a full-status wife, so in the ancient world, this would not be viewed as polygamy.3

  • Ten years had passed since Abraham first heard from God.

    • You and I get impatient when we don’t hear from God right away.

    • It is difficult to wait on God, but can be disastrous when we don’t.

    • From this comes an ancient tradition that after a woman has gone childless for 10 years, her husband is obligated to marry another.

Genesis 16:4

And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.

  • Nowadays, we have a negative connotation of “mistress,” so this phrasing is easy to misinterpret.

    • It’s NOT that Sarah looking with contempt on Hagar.

    • It’s the other way around; Hagar’s mistress, i.e. superior, is Sarah

  • We might say Hagar was taking a victory lap.

  • In a cultural context, she may have equated herself as a wife of equal standing with Sarai, when she wasn’t.

    • She was in a lower social order.

    • Maybe this is the first recorded love triangle.

    • Perhaps this included a threat that Hagar was not going to give her son to Sarai as per the arrangement.

  • Jewish tradition tells us what Hagar said: She said, “This Sarai… her conduct in secret is not like her conduct in public. She shows herself as if she is a righteous woman, but she is not a righteous woman, for she did not merit to conceive all these years, whereas I have conceived from the first union.”4 (Genesis Rabbah 45:3)

    • By the way, with seemingly fanciful interpretations like these, our western mind wants to ask, “is this really true?”

    • Probably not, but that’s not the point. Pastors use illustrations in sermons today; I’m sure every one is not 100% historically accurate.

    • We fill in gaps with educated guesses and speculations; Jewish commentary practices allow for a lot more creativitiy than our seminaries do.

Genesis 16:5-6

And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

  • We want to say, “this was YOUR idea, Sarai!”

  • I can see two sides to Abram’s response

    • 1. He failed to lead

      • The Bible paints a picture at the very beginning of the book that the husband/father is supposed to be the “CEO” of the family organization.

        • Adam and Eve – Adam let his wife make a bad decision without consulting him. Did they not foster mutual accountability in Eden?

        • Noah led his family on to the ark, but he didn’t lead once they were off the ark.

      • In the same way, Abraham deferred to Sarai’s judgment twice (verse 2 and here at verse 6).

      • Abraham is the one who had the discussion with God, not Sarah. He needed to be more of a leader.

    • 2. If Hagar was acting like she was a full status wife, Abram affirming that Hagar is still Sarai’s subordinate. So potentially, in deferring to Sarai he didn’t make a mistake.

    • Perhaps both are true. A good Berean attempts to see more than one side.

  • There is also a theme that will repeat in literature of the lower-status person having more than the upper-class person.

    • The whole drama of the Count of Monte Cristo is based on this theme (and also a love triangle).

    • Lowly Hagar had more than wealthy Sarah.

    • Of course, in God’s economy, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

  • The Bible says, this time, Hagar left and not that she was cast out.

Walking in His Dust #2

  • We must speak out in defense of someone who is being mistreated

  • The Jewish medieval sage Rashi accuses Abram of stealing from Sarai here.

  • How? After he heard Hagar disgrace Sarah, he was silent.

  • When you prayed to God, “What will You give me, since I am going childless?” you prayed only for yourself, whereas you should have prayed for both of us, and I would have been remembered with you. Moreover, you are stealing from me your [protective] words, for you hear my degradation, and you remain silent (i.e., you are depriving me of the words you should have spoken to Hagar to reprimand her on my behalf)5.

  • Pliskin says, “if failure to defend another person’s honor is stealing, then we are obligated to speak up when we see someone being disgraced. Word of defense are due to a person being disgraced, and it is consideres stealing to withhold them.”6

  • Philippians 2:3-4 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. [4] Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Genesis 16:7-8

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.”

  • This is the first mention of “The angel of the LORD.”

    • In Hebrew, the word for a supernatural angel is the same for a natural human messenger, but we can safely assume the Messenger of the Lord is definitely supernatural.

    • Some speculate that the angel of the LORD is pre-incarnate Jesus. There are places where this could be the case, but others where it doesn’t seem to fit.

    • As the messenger is an authorized representative of the LORD, he can use the first person “I.”

      • The messenger is at the same time distinct and not distinct from the LORD.

      • Like a government ambassador representing his king, or a corporal reading a message from a general, the messenger’s words carry the same weight as if they came from the LORD Himself.

      • In some cases, the lines become so blurry that it would appear that God Himself and not His angel is speaking. We’ll see this in Chapter 18.

  • The Angel reinforces Hagar’s subordinate position with respect to Sarai.

  • Hagar answers the first question but cannot answer the second. She’s headed back to Egypt (the way to Shur tells us this), but spiritually she doesn’t know where she’s going.

    • Her chances of making it alone and pregnant (i.e. she would be viewed as a woman with suspect morals) probably weren’t good.

    • It’s curious that God intervenes to prevent her from leaving the promised land, yet He did not do that – but could have – when Abram went to Egypt. This is God’s sovereign choice.

Genesis 16:9-11

The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.”

And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the LORD has listened to your affliction.

  • Yishma = he will hear, or he hears + El = God hears.

    • Anyone who has read Moby Dick will recall the iconic opening line “Call me Ishmael,” suggesting the narrator’s wild wandering and affliction.
  • Ishmael is indeed a great multitude today; he is the Arabic people, many of whom were the first gentile believers in Jesus.

    • Arabic Christians in the middle east are among the most persecuted today.

    • Jews don’t like them because they’re Arabs, and Muslims don’t like them because they’re Christians.

  • “Return and submit” is a tough assignment, given what Hagar has just experienced.

Genesis 16:12

He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

  • Unfortunately, a very dark prophecy for the Ishmaelites.

  • In Arabic (which became Islamic) tradition, Ishmael is regarded as the forefather of the Arab people and the rightful heir of Abraham.

    • Ishmael founded the holy city of Mecca.

    • Abraham nearly offered Ishmael, not Isaac.

    • The lines of Ishmael and Isaac’s son Esau become comingled.

  • As he consolidated power, Muhammed is said to have eliminated many of his kinsman and today, Muhammed’s historical legacy is that the Suni’s hand is against the Shi’ia and vice versa. The main disagreement is over which group is the purer followers of Muhammed.

  • What is interesting is prior to the 20th century, Jews and Muslims relations were not all that bad.

    • Jews existed relatively comfortably in Islamic countries, including in the Ottoman empire. Egypt and Iran traditionally had thriving Jewish populations.

    • In Israel/Palestine, Muslims generally venerated and protected Jewish holy sites such as tombs of the prophets and patriarchs.

    • It was the Christian nations who were traditionally awful to the Jews with the inquisition, the pogroms, and of course the Holocaust.

    • After WWI, Britain and France began to muck around and redraw maps, and Jews began moving back into the Holy Land; that’s when Arab-Israeli conflicts began in earnest.

  • Now, we need to be careful - this verse has been used to disparage all Arabs and Muslims. That’s called racism.

    • In our sin nature, ALL of our hands are against each other. We are only changed by the gift of a changed heart that comes through faith in Messiah

    • Jer 17:9 “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?

    • Gen 6:5 Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of mankind was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.

    • We have disagreements with Islam, sure. Islam has many disagreements with Christianity (outside of the Dome of the Rock). Muslims, however are made in God’s image.

Genesis 16:13-14

So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

  • Hagar is likely stunned that she would merit such supernatural favor.

  • El Roi (“row-ee” not “roy”) is God who Sees

  • The narrator uses God’s Covenant Name, but Hagar does not. Neither she nor the Ishmaelites are a party to God’s covenant.

  • This area is in the Negev in the wilderness. Moses and the Israelites likely passed the area on the way to Kadesh Barnea.

Genesis 16:15-16

15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.


Galatians connection:

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. Galatians 4:22-31

  • 2 Peter 3:15-16 And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.

  • Paul has a lot to say about being under the law in Galatians.

  • Peter writes that people twist Paul “to their own destruction.”

    • I believe this includes some commentators today who say Paul came to replace Judaism.

    • Paul himself identified as a Torah-observant Jew AFTER his Damascus Road experience.

      • In Acts 21, people report that Paul is teaching others to forsake the law of Moses – these are FALSE accusations of Paul’s accusers.

      • Acts 21:39 and 22:3, “I AM a Jew (not “was”). 23:6: “I AM a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees” (not “was”)

      • Acts 23:9 – Pharisees pronounce Paul innocent – would they have done this if Paul had renounced Judaism?

    • So, if teachers today teach that Paul forsook the Torah and renounced Judaism, is that teaching true or false?

    • The issue Paul is addressing in Galatians is the same issue many Christians struggle with: the grace of God seems too good to be true, so we feel we must somehow bring something to the table to justify ourselves. We call this “works-righteousness.”

    • Remember the Israelites were freed from slavery and THEN they were given the Torah. We come to Jesus first, and then our lives, including our behavior and obedience, are transformed.

    • Works-righteousness was and is a perversion of God’s gift.

    • Instead of waiting for God’s promises Paul argues that typologically Abraham and Hagar represent works-righteousness, i.e. slavery.

Missler’s conclusion:

  • God’s servants are to trust His Word and to wait for its fulfillment, enduring patiently till the end.

  • It becomes increasingly clear in Genesis that any person or any nation that owes its existence to divine election should live by faith.

  • Human efforts will not help.

  • But the good news for God’s people is that the living God sees and hears.

Don’t sire any Ishmaels

  • There was one time about 25 years ago when email was still relatively new. While discussing something else, I happened to vent to my boss about someone in another department. I could have been less direct.

  • Of course, the email chain got forwarded up to my Senior VP, who forwarded it to his Senior VP counterpart in the other department, and it got back to the person I said the not-nice things about. Of course I had no idea this had happened until…

  • Weeks later, that person showed up in my office one day – mind you we didn’t work in the same building. He sought me out.

  • That was definitely a “wanna get away moment.” I did the whole “that’s not who I am or who I want to be” apology.

  • I was telling my then-pastor about it; he smiled he said, “Yep. When you typed the email, you sired an Ishmael.” At first, I said, “that’s not funny.” And then I said, “That’s a great phrase.”

  • Whenever we act in the flesh instead of the Spirit we sire an Ishmael, a wild ass that is virtually uncontrollable.

  • Our greatest risk is our tongues – it’s why the Bible spends so much time trying to warn us about it.

  • Jewish thought hits the topic hard – they call it “lashon hara” – the evil tongue and they associate biblical leprosy with Lashon hara.


“Bereshit - Genesis - Chapter 16 (Parshah Lech Lecha).” Accessed December 14, 2022.

Pliskin, Zelig. Love Your Neighbor: Brooklyn, New York: Bnay Yakov Publications, 2004.

Schlegel, William. “Satellite Bible Atlas: Historical Geography of the Bible.” Israel: SkyLand Publishing, 2016.

———. “The Land and the Bible: A Historical Geographical Companion to the Satellite Bible Atlas,” September 2013.

Walton, John H., Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. (E-Sword). Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2000.

  1. William Schlegel, Satellite Bible Atlas: Historical Geography of the Bible (Israel: SkyLand Publishing, 2016). Map 2-2 The Patriarchs: Abraham and Isaac. ↩︎

  2. William Schlegel, “The Land and the Bible: A Historical Geographical Companion to the Satellite Bible Atlas,” September 2013, loc. Map 2-2,↩︎

  3. John H. Walton, Victor H. Matthews, and Mark W. Chavalas, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament, (E-Sword) (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2000), loc. Gen 16:2. ↩︎

  4. “Bereshit - Genesis - Chapter 16 (Parshah Lech Lecha),” accessed December 14, 2022,↩︎

  5. “Bereshit - Genesis - Chapter 16 (Parshah Lech Lecha)” (Rashi quoting Genesis Rabbah 45:5). ↩︎

  6. Zelig Pliskin, Love Your Neighbor: (Brooklyn, New York: Bnay Yakov Publications, 2004), 51. ↩︎