Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Genesis 16 - The Birth of Ishmael

This article is part of a series of articles that resulted from my time preaching through the book of Genesis. The commentary on the passage is my own, resulting from hours of research and exegetical study. It is my intent to draw a biblical theology chapter by chapter through the book of Genesis that places the events of the narratives into the broad picture of the entire Bible, demonstrating the progressiveness of theology and the sufficiency of every Word of Scripture. It is my prayer that these articles are helpful to those seeking a better understanding of the book of Genesis and of the Bible as a whole. The sermon series and other resources can be found at www.fbcroxana.com.

Whoever follows the LORD must learn to wait. It has been well said that God’s time is different that ours. It is very much different. Abram and Sarai were learning this lesson in an agonizingly long period of waiting upon the LORD to bring about the promise of a son who would be the heir of the covenant given to Abram by God. In this covenant, God swore to give Abram and his descendants a kingdom, containing land, innumerable descendants, and royalty. Chapter 14 demonstrated that Abram must remain faithful despite dangers threatening to kill him before the promise is fulfilled. Now it becomes evident that Abram and Sarai are fearing their age will hinder the promise. These anxieties led them to stop watching and waiting, and start plotting and scheming instead to bring about the promises according to their own ingenuity and power.

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 will obtain children through her."

After sojourning for ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai came to believe that she would not be the mother of the son of the promise. It is possible that menopause had begun, because she stated that God prevented her from bearing children. Otherwise, this could be understood as God had kept her barren. In Genesis 15, God had specifically told Abram that the heir would be Abram’s physical offspring, but He had not mentioned Sarai as the mother.

Abram certainly detailed to Sarai every part of his encounter with God and the ratification of the promise, and Sarai may have even asked if God had specifically mentioned her as being the mother. Having pondered it in her mind, possibly thinking she had found a loophole, she eventually proposed to give her maid to Abram (a legal practice in those days) in order that she would bear the heir.

How difficult it is to wait and be still! Everyone of us knows what it is to let our trust in God and His promises falter due to the longevity of the wait and our fear of failure. We dwell on the possible scenarios based on our own power instead of waiting for God to work everything out according to His plan and His glory. God had told Abram that “one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir” (Gen 15:3). Had Abram only waited! It would have spared him and his descendants through Sarai much grief.

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 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. 4 He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight.

Notice that there is no dialogue between Abram and Sarai. The text simply says that Abram listened and did what Sarai told him to do. As noted previously, he was also anxious to see the promise fulfilled. So he allowed Sarai to give Hagar to him as a wife. However, throughout the rest of the chapter, Hagar was never identified again as Abram’s wife, but as Sarai’s maid. The text is emphatic that Sarai was the true wife through whom would come the promised son. However, Hagar conceived (seemingly very quickly) and exalted herself above Sarai. She became arrogant, probably rejoicing that she had supplanted her mistress to become the wife of the covenant. This arrogant and self-exalting attitude would be passed on to her son.

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." 6 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.

Sarai was in a vulnerable spot, and was probably frustrated at the circumstances and scared concerning her future. If Abram sided with Hagar on account of the pregnancy, he could put Sarai out. Thus her harsh language toward Abram. Since Hagar was not just her maid, but was also Abram’s wife, Sarai could not dismiss Hagar. She was at the mercy of Abram. But instead of taking control of the situation, Abram, perhaps in a display of solidarity with his first wife, allowed her to treat Hagar as a maid. Sarai drove Hagar out of the household.

With nowhere to turn to, Hagar fled back to Egypt. Before she makes it to Egypt, however, she is approached by a mysterious character who is introduced for the first time in the biblical narrative: 

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 He said, "Hagar, Sarai's maid, where have you come from and where are you going?"

Notice that the angel of the LORD referred to Hagar, not as Abram’s wife, but as Sarai’s maid. Yet how gracious He was to meet this lowly maid and comfort her. Hagar did not lie, but answers the angel of the LORD:

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

Here is our first clue concerning the identity of the angel of the LORD: He commanded Hagar to return and submit herself to Sarai’s authority, and then He spoke for God. But He did not just speak for God, as other angels do. He spoke as God. The first person singular is used (“I will”). And what abundant grace is this, that even though Hagar was not the mother of the promised child, she would bear a child to Abram who would also be bless by God to multiply exceedingly.

11 The angel of the LORD said to her further,
"Behold, you are with child,
And you will bear a son;
And you shall call his name Ishmael,
Because the LORD has given heed to your affliction.

There are many parallels between the announcement of the birth of Ishmael (which means ‘God hears’) and the announcement of the birth of Immanuel, the Messiah (which means ‘God with us’). However, the two are completely dissimilar in their character and destinies:

12 "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."

The angel of the LORD prophesied that Ishmael would be an uncontrollable, contentious, and troubled outcast. Instead of being a blessing to all the world as the Abrahamic covenant guaranteed of Abram’s promised descendants, this son would be trouble to all the world. He would also not live in the Promised Land, but would reside to the east. Ishmael, of course, became the father of the Arabic nations who have given the sons of Israel much grief throughout history.

13 Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, "You are 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.

Hagar expressed astonishment that she had seen God, giving us another clue to the identity of the angel of the LORD. She conferred a name upon God, which is not said of anybody else in the Scriptures. She called Him ‘God who sees,’ and named a well in His honor as ‘the one that lives and sees me.’

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to him.

When Hagar returned to Abram, she must have recounted everything that was told her by the angel of the LORD. Abram believed her, and named the boy Ishmael like Hagar had been commanded.

As for Sarai, she still had another thirteen years of waiting. She was not even halfway through the waiting and watching period. But she would yet grow into a woman of faith. We are never too old to grow in our faith toward God.


This is not the last appearance of the angel of the LORD. He will appear several more times, each time being equated with the LORD in the text. When he appears, he speaks for the LORD as the LORD. The text also interchanges the name of God, the LORD (Yahweh), with the title ‘angel of the LORD.’ So this mysterious character will be fleshed out, so to speak, to be a theophany (appearance of God) that is distinct from the LORD yet the same as the LORD. For this reason, many Bible scholars believe that the angel of the LORD is a pre-incarnate appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In His incarnation, Jesus became a man born from the line of Abraham through Isaac, the promised son (not through Ishmael). He walked the earth in the likeness of sinful flesh, yet He Himself was without sin. He died for the salvation of souls from sin. God did not leave Him in the grave, but raised Him from the dead. Thus those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can be assured that their sins are forgiven and that they will be raised again to eternal life just as Christ was. Believe in Him and know Him as the great Savior.

Read Chapter 15
Read Chapter 17

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