Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hagar and Ishmael (Genesis 16)

Genesis 16 is a very interesting chapter of the Bible.  I like that it goes into some detail about the life of Hagar and Ishmael.  In God's sight, these are real people, not just incidental characters in the story of His people Israel.  Hagar was Sarai's Egyptian maidservant, likely acquired during the time when Abram and Sarai had gone down to Egypt to escape the famine.  (Genesis 12:10-16)

Sarai, Abram's wife, had not been able to have any children (Genesis:16:1).  After ten years of waiting, she suggested to Abram that he sleep with her servant.  That may sound rather odd to us, but in the culture of the time, it was an acceptable way to ensure that an heir was produced.  The NIV Study Bible indicates that this custom is found in Old Assyrian marriage contracts, the Code of Hammurapi and the Nuzi tablets.  However, it was not exactly a step of faith by Abram and Sarai.  They were impatient about God's timing, and, it seems, tried to make things happen by their own hands.  As is usually the case, the rest of the story makes it quite clear that this was not the way that God wanted them to proceed.

Abram agrees to Sarai's plan and receives Hagar from Sarai's hand.  He sleeps with her and she conceives.  Now the trouble begins, for, when Hagar saw that she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.  We are not told exactly what transpired between the two women -- was it harsh words, or merely a smug look or two which conveyed this disrespect?  At any rate, Sarai is not happy, and begins to blame Abram for the situation:  "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering.  I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me.  May the Lord judge between you and me."  (Genesis 16:5 NIV)  This is pretty ironic, considering that it had been all her own idea!

Abram refuses to get between the two women, which is probably wise!  However, I can't help but be disappointed at his lack of leadership as he merely leaves it up to Sarai to settle things with her servant.  I suppose that anything Abram might have said to the women would only have inflamed the situation.  Also, Sarai and Hagar would eventually have to settle things between themselves anyway.  So perhaps Abram's course of action was indeed the best thing to do.

  Sarai mistreats Hagar, who flees from her and runs out into the desert.  Near a spring that is beside the road to Shur, the angel of the Lord finds Hagar. (Shur is east of Lower Egypt, so Hagar is probably contemplating a trip back to Egypt.)  The angel of the Lord asked Hagar where she was going.  " 'I'm running away from my mistress Sarai,' she answered." (Genesis 16:8)  The angel of the Lord told her, "...'Go back to your mistress and submit to her.'  The angel added, 'I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.' " (Genesis 16:9)

Who is this one who is called "the angel of the Lord"?  'Angel' means 'messenger', so some people believe that this is just an angel who is tasked with the job of urging Hagar to return to her mistress.  However, this angel had given his message in the first person (" I will so increase your descendants..").  The angel of the Lord continues:  "You are now with child and you will have a son.  You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.  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." (Genesis 16:11-12)

What is Hagar's reaction to this message?  "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." (Genesis 16:13)  Three times in this verse it seems to indicate that the angel is no ordinary messenger:

1)Hagar gave a name to "the Lord who spoke to her", indicating that she was speaking to the Lord Himself.

2)Hagar calls Him "the God who sees me". She wouldn't call an angel 'God'. Also,

3)"I have now seen the One who sees me."  Again it sounds like Hagar is speaking of a deity.  She is amazed that she can have this contact with God and still live.  In fact, the Genesis 16 account goes on to say:  "That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered." (Genesis 16:14)  Beer Lahai Roi can mean "well of the Living One who sees me".  Another equally acceptable translation is "well of the one who sees me and who lives".  Either way, it is clear that Hagar has had a surprisingly close encounter with the God who she now recognizes as being real and, to her amazement, quite involved in her life.  Her grateful surprise is one of the best parts of this chapter.  A mere maidservant, unused to being recognized or consulted about her own desires and needs, finds that God is nearby and knows everything about her past, present and future.

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

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