Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 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. 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. 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.5 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!” 6 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.
Abram believes God that he will have a son of is own. What happens next? Abram is talked into the notion that Abram’s son will not be via his wife Sarai.
What is the context here?
Abram left Haran when he was 75 years old. Ten long years later, including a trip to Egypt to escape famine, and a war against four powerful kings to recover his nephew Lot, Abram still does not have his promised son. He believes his son is coming (Gen. 15:6.) However, the promise does not overtly state that the son will be with his wife Sarai. Since Sarai is the one who requests that Abram take her servant as another wife, Abram gives himself permission to try to procreate with someone else. The efforts… succeed. However, there are unforeseen consequences – namely that Hagar the servant, now wife, looks with contempt on Sarai.
From David Guzik’s Commentary:
a. She had an Egyptian maidservant: Hagar was almost certainly part of what Abram received during his time in Egypt (Genesis 12:16).
b. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her: Sarai encouraged Abram to take part in what was essentially a surrogate mother arrangement in that day. According to custom, the child would be considered to be the child of Abram and Sarai, not Abram and Hagar.
c. And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai: Sarai did something that goes against the nature of wives – to give another woman to her husband. She probably did this because she knew the promise of God (that Abram would be the father of many nations), yet she thought she was the problem with God’s promise being fulfilled. So in an effort to help God fulfill His own promise she allowed her husband make the servant girl pregnant.
i. Ginzberg quotes a Jewish tradition saying that before they came to live in the Promised Land, Abram and Sarai regarded their childlessness as punishment for not living in the land. But now they were in the land for ten years, and they still had no children. Sarai probably felt it was time to do something. Perhaps she though along the lines of old (unbiblical) proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.”
ii. Even though this early form of surrogate motherhood was common and accepted in that day, it doesn’t mean it was right. God was clearly not leading Abram and Sarai.
The Pulpit Commentary provides a note which paints Sarai’s proposal in a favorable light (at least insofar as intentions are concerned.)
And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the Lord hath restrained us from bearing. Literally, hath shut me up (i.e. my womb, Genesis 20:18; συνέκλεισέ με, LXX.) from bearing. Her advancing age was rendering this every day more and more apparent. I pray thee go in unto my maid (cf. Genesis 30:3, Genesis 30:9). It is so far satisfactory that the proposal to make a secondary wife of Hagar did not originate with Abram; though, as Sarai’s guilt in making it cannot altogether. be excused, so neither can Abram be entirely freed from fault in yielding to her solicitations. It may be that I may obtain children by her. Literally, be built up by her;from banah, to build, whence ben, a son (Deuteronomy 25:9; Ruth 4:11). Calvin notes that Sarai’s desire of offspring was not prompted by natural impulse, but by the zeal of faith which made her wish to secure the promised benediction. As yet it had not been clearly intimated that Sarai was to be the mother of Abram’s child; and hence her recourse to what was a prevalent practice of the times, while unjustifiable in itself, was a signal proof of her humility, of her devotion to her husband, and perhaps also of her faith in God. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. “The faith of both was defective; not indeed with regard to the substance of the premise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded” (Calvin).
- Sarai’s proposal was prompted by the zeal of faith
- Sarai’s proposal was born from a place of humility and devotion to her husband
Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in intention vs. action. In hindsight, we can see that the obvious thing the two should have done is take their question regarding the mother of Abram’s child, to God. They made a well-intentioned decision without doing that and it brought about unintended consequences.
Guzik provides a note about the practice of using a servant as a surrogate mother:
i. We understand this from the similar occassion of using a servant as a surrogate mother in the case of Rachel’s giving of Bilhah to Jacob when Rachel was barren. In that context, Genesis 30:3 reads: So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.”
ii. The phrase “bear a child on my knees” refers to the ancient practice of surrogate-adoption. Some believe that the phrase refers only to a symbolic placement of the child on the knees of one who adopts it. Others believe that it refers to the surrogate sitting on the lap of the adoptive mother during both insemination and birth. For example, referring to Genesis 30:3 the Twentieth Century Bible Commentary says: “These words are probably intended literally, and not merely as figurative adoption.”
iii. We should not regard the idea that Hagar was inseminated and gave birth “on the knees” of Sarai as a certainty – we don’t know enough about the ancient practice, and even if it were an ancient custom it doesn’t mean that it was followed in every case. But it certainly is a reasonable possibility.
That bolded note, above… 😲
It seems that throughout the Bible, polygamy brings about strife. We see that here, too. From Ellicott:
(4) Her mistress was despised.—Hagar, we are told in Genesis 16:3, was to be, not Abram’s concubine, but his wife. She was to be Sarai’s representative, and though now she would hold the highest place in the household next to Sarai, because of this relation to Abram, yet she would continue to be Sarai’s maid. But no sooner had she conceived, than, proud of her superiority over her mistress, she wished to overthrow this arrangement, and, at all events, acted as if she was Abram’s wife absolutely, and thrust Sarai aside.
Another note on this from Guzik that I found particularly interesting and insightful:
c. And she conceived: Then the worst thing from Sarai’s perspective happened – Abram succeeded in inseminating Hagar. This proved beyond all doubt the problem was in Sarai, not in Abram, and it also could cause others to think Hagar was more of a woman and more blessed than Sarai.
We often study this story of Abram and Sarai with our minds focused on Abram’s great faith. However, we should not lose sight of the faith-trail that Sarai is enduring in this text. She is told her husband will be a father of innumerable descendants. She is not told specifically (yet) that she will be a mother. She now blames herself for the whole situation. I suspect also she is likely angry with God over all of this. We see the bitterness toward God manifest with the story of her laughing, in later verses. Here, though, her anger is directed at Hagar and Abram.
From Ellicott re: verse 5:
(5) My wrong be upon thee.—That is, May the wrong done to me be avenged upon thee. Sarai’s act had been one of self-denial for Abram’s sake, and now that it has led to her being treated insolently she makes Abram answerable for it.
I can just imagine telling his wife that this whole thing was her idea and I can imagine how well that went over with her after he did so. We are not told that Abram actually made that argument… but I can imagine it. What we are told that Abram did is to turn Hagar over to his angry first wife.
He surrenders the care of Hagar – who is his wife, and whatever obligations he might have to her as a husband, to his first wife.
From Guzik’s notes:
3. (Gen 16:5-6a) Sarai’s anger towards Hagar.
Then Sarai said to Abram, “My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.” So Abram said to Sarai, “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.”
a. I became despised in her eyes: Hagar’s contempt for Sarai started the problem. She couldn’t resist displaying an inappropriate haughtiness, thinking her pregnancy somehow showed her to be better than Sarai.
b. My wrong be upon you! Sarai blamed the whole situation on Abram, and for good cause. He should have acted as the spiritual leader and told his wife God was able to perform what He promised, and they didn’t need to try to perform God’s promise in man’s strength and wisdom.
c. Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please: Abram seemed to make a bad situation worse by turning the situation over to Sarai and not taking care of the child he is father to. Yet, in this, he also put his relationship with Sarai first, and that was good.
i. These terribly complicated and difficult situations often arise out of our sin. All in all, it is much easier to live life trusting in and obedient unto the Lord. God wants to spare us from these difficulties.
We see from Ellicott’s Commentary that Sarai did not treat Hagar or her son well.
(6) Sarai dealt hardly with her.—The verb is translated afflicted in Exodus 1:11 and Isaiah 60:14; its more exact meaning is, Sarai humbled her, that is, reduced her to her original condition. It was quite right that as Hagar had abused her elevation, Abram should make her yield to Sarai all due respect and submission; but in making her resume her old position as a slave, Sarai was possibly dealing unkindly with her (but see on Genesis 16:9). In running away Hagar not only showed the untamable love of freedom which Ishmael inherited from her, but apparently was repeating the act from which she had her name.
The section of verses ends with Hagar fleeing. Hagar (possibly) translates as “flight.” If that translation is accurate, then the name probably came about due to the way she arrived in Abram and Sarai’s service. It also applies to her actions here.
Hagar has a prominent place in world history. From Wiki:
Hagar (Hebrew: הָגָר, Hāḡār, of uncertain origin; Arabic: هَاجَر Hājar; Greek: Ἁγάρ, Hagár; Latin: Agar) is a biblical person in the Book of Genesis. She was an Ancient Egyptian servant of Sarah, who gave her to Abraham to bear a child. The product of the union was Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, the progenitor of the Ishmaelites, generally taken to be the Arabians. Various commentators have connected her to the Hagrites (sons of Agar), perhaps claiming her as their eponymous ancestor.
The name of the Egyptian servant Hagar is documented in the Book of Genesis; she is acknowledged in all Abrahamic religions. Hagar is alluded to in the Quran, and Islam acknowledges her as Abraham’s second wife. According to Islamic tradition, Hagar the Egyptian is named as the “Grand Mother of Arabians” and her husband Abraham the Mesopotamian as the “Grand Father of Arabians”.
This possibly humbling and well-intentioned decision, by Sarai, and Abram’s decision to go along with the decision, had consequences beyond imagining. We will look at hat more closely in the next section.