Genesis 15 opens with a man, Abram, expressing an overwhelming sense of grief, fear, helplessness, and even resentment as he and his wife are unable to bear children. The Lord responds to Abram and makes a covenant with him, promising a home for his descendants who are now non-existent, but will one day be as numerous as the stars in heaven (Genesis 15:5, 17-19).

Genesis 16 opens with a woman, Sarai, expressing similar grief, fear, helplessness, and resentment in response to their barrenness ten years after God’s word of promise to Abram.[1] Both Abram and Sarai place the responsibility on the Lord for “[He has] given [Abram] no offspring” and it is plain to see that “the Lord has prevented [Sarai] from bearing children” (Genesis 15:3; 16:2). Sarai responds to this dissonant reality by coming up with a solution: Sarai can obtain Abram’s children through her Egyptian slave-girl, Hagar (Genesis 16:1-3).

The text is shockingly silent on the moral implications of Sarai’s surrogacy strategy, although God later makes it clear that He will bring His promise to fruition through His independent act (Genesis 17:19). Instead, the narrative turns to Hagar, who upon conceiving, “looked with contempt on her mistress,” although the reason for this contempt is unclear (Genesis 16:4). Sarai responded by dealing harshly with Hagar who ran away from her mistress into the wilderness (Genesis 16:6).

Hagar Names God

In the wilderness, the Lord sends a messenger, to speak His word to her. Through His angel, the Lord names Hagar, declaring that He knows precisely who she is, and yet asks, “Where have you come from and where are you going (Genesis 16:8)?” Hagar responds that she is running from Sarai. The Lord instructs her, through His messenger, to return and submit to Sarai (Genesis 16:9). The messenger, nor the Lord, give further explanation for this instruction, although as modern readers we certainly search for it.

One possible suggestion is that (among other possible concerns) the Lord is concerned for her short-term and long-term well-being, instructing her to forsake the vulnerability of being a pregnant and impoverished woman in the desert for the security of Abram and Sarai’s home. Although speculative, this reading makes sense of the declaration that follows, as the Lord speaks through His envoy words of promise to her to take with her on her journey.[2] Like Abram, Sarai is promised that her offspring will be so great that they will not be able to be counted (Genesis 16:10). The Lord gives her a name for her son meaning “God hears,” assuring her that God “has given heed to [her] affliction” (Genesis 16:11).

Hagar is astounded by this interaction with the angel of the Lord, whom she understands as speaking the very words of God to her (Genesis 16:13). Her astonishment leads her to name the Lord: “You are El-roi,” that is, the God who sees (Genesis 16:13). This makes her the first person in the Bible to name God. This is not to say that God was nameless, but rather was not named by His creatures. For Hagar, it seems, this interaction with the messenger of the Lord made God Himself increasingly personal to her as she was met by God’s merciful word and comforted by His promises to her. Hagar then returned to the house of Abram and Sarai, born her son, and Abram named him Ishmael, according to the instructions given to Hagar (Genesis 16:15-16).

Son of the Promise & the Promising God

When Ishmael is thirteen years old, the Lord appears again to Abram, changes his and Sarai’s names, and promises them a son who will be born of Sarah and named Isaac (Genesis 17). The Lord makes it clear that He will establish His everlasting covenant with Isaac and not Ishmael; however, God promises to bless Hagar’s son with offspring to become a great nation (Genesis 17:20). In response to the Lord’s command, Abraham and Ishmael were circumcised on the same day along with all the males of Abraham’s household (Genesis 16:23-27).

Although Ishmael was not the child born of the promise of God, God remained faithful to him and his mother. Once Isaac was weaned, Sarah grew resentful toward Hagar and Ishmael’s presence within her household. She called on Abraham to “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac” (Genesis 21:10). Sarah’s disregard for the fate of Hagar and Ishmael is contrasted by Abraham’s concern, which is only assuaged by God’s promise to provide them security and a future (Genesis 21:13). As she again finds herself in the wilderness, Hagar despairs at the lack of food and water which can only mean the death of her son. She casts the seventeen-year-old Ishmael under a bush, distances herself from his sure death, and begins to weep. At this very moment, God speaks to her saying He has heard the voice of Ishmael and again ensures His promise to the son of Hagar (Genesis 21:18). Through miraculous intervention, God “opens her eyes” to a well of water from which she and the boy can drink. God remains with Ishmael, even as he lives in the wilderness, and provides a wife from the land of Egypt (Genesis 21:21).

While the narrative of Hagar and Ishmael leaves many questions unanswered, the author seems to emphasize two themes again and again: the promises of God are irrevocable, and God is abundantly merciful in His promise-making. Ishmael is born according to the natural processes of biology and human intervention; he is a child “according to the flesh” (Galatians 4:23). Despite Sarai’s strategizing, Ishmael is not the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram, for even her impatience cannot undo God’s sure word. Sarah herself (many years later) bears the child of promise, Isaac, in her own body, an occurrence made possible only by God’s promise.

God does not disregard the fate of Hagar and her son, as Sarah seems to do, but instead calls her by name (a dignity not given by Abraham or Sarah), and makes His own promise to them. Just as God’s promise to Abraham is sure, so too is God’s promise of offspring and future security to Hagar and Ishmael, for it is not the worthiness of the recipient, but the faithfulness of God that ensures the endurance of His word.

[1] John Goldingay, Genesis, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020), 263.

[2] Goldingay, Genesis, 266-7.