We’ve already seen that God has made some big promises to Abram in the last few chapters of Genesis. For instance, God promised Abram that He would make him into a “great nation” in Genesis chapter twelve (Genesis 12:2). Then Genesis chapter fifteen tells us how God spoke to Abram and promised to give him a son of his own to be his heir (Genesis 15:4). Now that we’ve reached Genesis chapter sixteen, about ten years have gone by since the events of the last chapter. Abram is now about 86 years old and he is still waiting for God to come through on these promises.
Abram will soon be faced with a choice that many God-honoring people often face today as they wait for God to fulfill His promises in their own lives. That choice is this: “Should I keep waiting and do nothing, or should I do something to help fulfill God’s promises? Should I move forward and act on something that seems right or should I just continue to wait?”
Let’s see what Abram decides to do…
“Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said” (Genesis 16:1-2).
It seems that Abram’s wife Sarai has finally reached the end of her patience in waiting for God to come through on His promise to provide Abram with a son of his own. So here’s the solution that she comes up with: “If you go and sleep with my maidservant, I might be able to build a family through her since God has not allowed me to have any children.”
Now this may seem very difficult to believe- how in the world could Abram’s wife actually ask him to go and have sex with the maid? Well, this certainly sounds very inappropriate until we take a moment to look at the cultural background of the world that Sarai and Abram lived in.
You see, the inability to have children was seen as a complete social disgrace in those days. In the culture of that time, a woman’s sense of self-worth was often linked with the number of children she had. The more children that a woman conceived, the more respect she gained among other people. It was a great shame for a woman to be childless in that culture and a husband could actually divorce his wife if their relationship didn’t produce any children.
“…(Sarai) had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said” (Genesis 16:2).
So Sarai’s solution was to have Hagar serve as what we might call a “surrogate mother.” According to the custom of that time, any children born to Hagar under this arrangement would legally be recognized as Sarai’s children. This would allow Sarai to raise a family of her own and avoid the social disgrace that came with not having any children.
Now this passage specifically tells us that Sarai’s maid Hagar was originally from Egypt- but how did Sarai end up with an Egyptian maid to begin with? Well, if you think back to the events that occurred in Genesis chapter 12, you may remember that Abram and Sarai made a little side trip to Egypt because of a severe famine during that time (Genesis 12:10). That was the trip that got Abram into trouble when he asked Sarai to tell everyone that she was his sister instead of his wife so no one would try to kill him to get her.
If you remember this story, then you know that Sarai was taken off to join Pharaoh’s harem, but we’re told that, “…the LORD inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household because of Abram’s wife. So Pharaoh summoned Abram. ‘What have you done to me?’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you tell me she was your wife? Why did you say, ‘She is my sister,’ so that I took her to be my wife? Now then, here is your wife. Take her and go!'” (Genesis 12:17-19). So Abram took off with all his stuff, but it appears that he also left with at least one additional passenger- an Egyptian maid named Hagar.
Now this is where the details of this story start to become very important. Remember that God had earlier told Abram that, “…a son coming from your own body will be your heir'” (Genesis 15:4b). So it’s clear that God intended to fulfill His promise to Abram by giving him a son of his own. But while God told Abram that he would be the father of this promised son, the child’s mother is never actually identified. This meant that if Abram had a son with Hagar, it would technically qualify as a fulfillment of God’s promise, at least as far as Abram and Sarai were concerned.
“…(Sarai) said to Abram, ‘The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said” (Genesis 16:2).
There was one big problem with this arrangement. You see, there is no record that Sarai ever asked God for His direction regarding this idea. In fact, it doesn’t seem as if Sarai gave any real consideration to God in this matter at all.
It appears that Sarai’s only motivation was to try and build a family by using Hagar as a surrogate mother. In other words, Sarai saw an opportunity to get something that she really wanted and engineered a way to achieve it without any help, direction, or input from God.
Now what Sarai did was perfectly acceptable in that culture, but just because something is OK to other people doesn’t always mean that it’s the right thing to do. Making decisions like this without any direction from God is a bad idea, and bad decisions usually lead to bad consequences.
And sure enough, it wasn’t long before trouble started showing up…
“So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress” (Genesis 16:3-4).
So Hagar began to feel differently about Sarai once her pregnancy began. Hagar wasn’t just another employee any longer like she once was before- now she had something that Sarai really, really wanted. This led her to begin to look upon Sarai with an attitude of contempt and disrespect- and that eventually led to a big confrontation…
“Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘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).
Now Abram is stuck in the middle of this big fight. Another version of this verse says…
“So Sarai complained to Abram, ‘I’m being treated unfairly! And it’s your fault! I know that I gave my slave to you, but now that she’s pregnant, she’s being disrespectful to me. May the LORD decide who is right- you or me'” (Genesis 16:5 GW).
Even though Abram did exactly what Sarai asked him to do, Sarai still wanted to blame him for Hagar’s new attitude of disrespect. Abram might have avoided this situation if he had simply asked God for help before making the decision to marry Hagar and have a child with her. But this is what can happen when you decide to follow someone else’s advice without asking God for help- if bad things start happening as a result, you may end up being the one who takes the blame for someone else’s bad idea.
So Abram found himself in the middle of a big family feud because he decided to do something that Sarai wanted without taking the time to check in with God. Sarai found herself in a bad situation because she was motivated by an opportunity to get something that she really wanted by using a compromise solution that didn’t include any help, direction, or input from God.The issue for Sarai was the fact that she didn’t have any children, and this placed her under a lot of social pressure in those days. You see, Sarai was different from the other people of her group because her inability to have children made her something of a social misfit.
Her solution was to try and force her way out of this situation by asking her husband to have a child with another woman that she could then adopt as her own. But instead of solving her problem, Sarai’s solution actually made things worse. Unfortunately, people today can also be hurt in a similar manner by trying to force an opportunity that God is not leading them to pursue or by attempting to pry open a door that God hasn’t opened for them.
For instance, let’s take Sarai’s example and apply it to a person who is looking to begin a dating relationship with someone else. Sometimes it’s possible for someone to want to be in a dating relationship with another person so badly that he or she ignores the warning signs that clearly say that God is closing off the door to that relationship. In that situation, any attempt to open a relationship door that God is closing can only lead to pain and trouble.
While it can be difficult to be patient and wait for God to fulfill His promises in our lives, the alternative is to follow Sarai’s example and try and “make things happen” on our own- and that choice often serves to make the situation even worse.
“‘Your servant is in your hands,’ Abram said. ‘Do with her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” (Genesis 16:6).
So Abram responded to Sarai’s complaint by basically saying, “Whatever- do what you want with her.” Sarai then began to abuse Hagar so badly that Hagar finally decided that she had no other option but to run away. In her mind, Hagar apparently felt that the only solution was to bail out on this bad situation.
But God had other plans in mind…
The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,’ she answered” Genesis 16:7-8).
Sarai and Hagar’s relationship had gotten so bad that Hagar finally decided that the only solution was to get away from the whole situation. So Hagar left Sarai and Abram behind and started off into the desert on the road to a new life. While Hagar had many directions to choose from, we can get an idea of why she chose this one particular route by doing a little detective work on verse seven.
You see, this verse plots Hagar’s general position and identifies it for us as “…the spring on the way to Shur” (GW). This provides us with some information about the direction of Hagar’s travel and gives us a hint about her intended destination as well. If we look at Hagar’s starting point and compare it to her location in Genesis 16:7, we can say that her journey would eventually take her into the nation of Egypt if she continued to travel in the same direction. (1) This tells us that Hagar had probably decided to head back home to the place where she had originally come from (Genesis 16:1).
Shur was located about 50 miles (80 km) away from where Hagar started her journey and depending on the exact location of this spring, it would normally take about two or three days for Hagar to travel that distance on foot. So after a few days of hot, dusty travel, we’re told that she “…stopped to rest at a spring in the desert on the road to Shur. While she was there, the angel of the LORD came to her” (Genesis 16:7 CEV).
This is our very first introduction to this person who is simply identified as “the angel of the LORD.” This person will go on to appear about a dozen times in the Old Testament and some believe that “the angel of the Lord” (as opposed to “an angel of the Lord”) refers to a “Christophany” or an Old Testament appearance of Jesus Christ prior to His human birth.
So the angel of the LORD met Hagar and asked her a simple question: “Where did you come from and where are you going? To Hagar’s credit, she responded with a truthful answer: “I am running away from Sarai, my master’s wife” (Genesis 16:8 BBE).
But Hagar soon found out that God had other travel arrangements for her…
(1) See also 1 Samuel 27:8 which mentions Shur and says that it is located “…toward the land of Egypt” (NLT).
“Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her'” (Genesis 16:9).
Hagar’s example demonstrates that God doesn’t always allow people to run away from difficult situations in their lives. Sometimes God asks His people to stay in those difficult situations as He works out His plan for their life and the lives of others.
For Hagar, this meant going back to Sarai and treating her more respectfully. But the angel of the LORD also had something else to say as well…
“The angel added, ‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.’ The angel of the LORD also said to her: ‘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 16:10-13).
In fulfillment of God’s promise, Hagar’s son Ishmael would eventually go on to become the ancestor of today’s Arabic peoples. (1) This also means that Abram became the forerunner of two great people groups just as God indicated: the Arab people, who are descended from Abram through Ishmael (whose birth is recorded near the end of Genesis chapter sixteen) and the Jewish people who are descended through Abram’s son Isaac (whom we’ll meet a little later on in Genesis chapter twenty-one).
Remeber that the name Ishmael means, “God hears” and this name provided a steady reminder to Hagar that Abram’s God was the true God, the God who appeared to her and spoke with her. But at the same time, Hagar also received this warning about her unborn son: “This son of yours will be a wild man, as untamed as a wild donkey! He will raise his fist against everyone, and everyone will be against him. Yes, he will live in open hostility against all his relatives” (Genesis 16:12 NLT).
So the Angel of the LORD predicted that Ishmael would eventually go on to become a tough, independent guy; the type of person who was unafraid to get into conflicts or disputes with others, even within his own family. In a way, these predictions anticipate the kind of difficulties that the Jewish and non-Jewish residents of the Middle East experience today. These two great people groups are brothers in the sense that they are descended from the same father (Abram) but they still live in conflict with one another.
(1) Henry M. Morris, The Genesis Record pg. 331
“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.’ That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered” (Genesis 16:13-14).
In the days of the Old Testament, it was not unusual for someone to name a person or a place after a significant event that had occurred. For instance, you might remember that we saw an earlier example of this back in Genesis 10:25 with a man named Peleg. Peleg’s name means “division” or “earthquake” and we’re told that Peleg got that name specifically because “…in his time the earth was divided…” You can find similar examples in Genesis 25:26, Genesis 32:30, and Genesis 35:8 as well.
Genesis 16:14 tells us that the place where the Angel of the LORD spoke to Hagar was given a significant name too. The name that was chosen to commemorate this event was “Beer Lahai Roi” which means, “the well of the Living One who sees me.” This name would help ensure that people passing by that area would always remember the God who saw Hagar’s need and spoke to her.
“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).
So Hagar returned home to have her baby, and it seems that she must have told Abram and Sarai about what happened to her because Abram named the baby Ishmael, just as the angel of the LORD said to do.
While it’s easy to focus on Ishmael’s birth in this passage, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Hagar bravely did what God told her to do, even though it meant going back to a very difficult situation. You see, Hagar knew that she was returning to a situation where she had been mistreated once before. Hagar also knew from her past experience that Abram would be unwilling to step in and protect her if Sarai decided to mistreat her again.
But now things were different. Now Hagar could return to Abram and Sarai with the confidence that she was doing exactly what God wanted her to do. She also had the knowledge that the same God who appeared to her out in the desert could also be with her as she returned to a difficult situation back home.
The lesson from Hagar’s example is that God does not always choose to remove someone from a bad situation- sometimes He chooses instead to encourage that person and help them through it.