Genesis 16 – Ishmael’s Introduction

Genesis 16 Bible with Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint

Today’s ChocolateEndangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint

Today’s PassageGenesis 16

So, God has explicitly promised Abraham an heir who is his son by birth. But Sarah has been unable to conceive and is well past child-bearing age. Where is this heir going to come from? Sarah has an idea: God said the heir would come from Abraham, but he didn’t say it had to come from Sarah. Thus, she’ll give her maid Hagar to Abraham, and Hagar and Abraham will have the child. Problem solved, right? No. There are complications.

Because Hagar is the one who conceived the son, she starts looking down on Sarah. Sarah complains to Abraham, Abraham basically tells her, “She’s your servant, do what you’ve got to do” (6, Contemporary Jackson Ferrell Version), and Sarah gets so harsh with her that Hagar runs away into the wilderness. And there she meets the angel of the Lord.

And the angel of the Lord has a promise for her. “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count” (16:10), he declares. Interestingly, he says that he, the angel, will multiply her descendants. Moreover, the text apparently indicates that God himself spoke to her: “Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees’” (16:13). Is this a theophany–an appearance of God himself? My answer is a boring, waffling: “Possibly.” Given the ancient Semitic view of messengers as direct representatives of their masters, functionally standing in for the ones whose messages they delivered, I don’t think we can say for sure. God has a message for Hagar, and he delivers it through this being, and maybe he is the being.

But the message is similar to the ones that he had for Abraham. He doesn’t illustrate it with object lessons or poetic similes as he did in comparing Abraham’s descendants to the stars (15:5) or “the dust of the earth” (13:16) in number, but it’s in the same ballpark of “too many to count” (16:10). To ensure that your family line will live on for generations is just about the biggest blessing that a person of the ancient Near East could receive, and Hagar is receiving it. Her child may not be the child through which God will fulfill his covenant with Abraham, but 1) the narrative hasn’t revealed that yet, stop getting ahead of yourself, and 2) she and the child are still special to God.

And the names in the passage reflect that truth. She gives God the name El Roi, “the God who sees me” (16:13). Ishmael’s name, similarly, means “God hears.” It’s from the same root as the name of his ancestor Shem, Noah’s son, whose name means “name.” But Ishmael’s name adds El for “God” to the root, turning it into a reminder of the time God saw Hagar running away in the wilderness, heard her trouble, and sent her back on her way with a promise.

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