Genesis 16
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 16. The Birth of Ishmael

The narrative in this chapter contains Israelite traditions respecting the birth, name, and dwelling-place of Ishmael.

(a)  It explains how the Israelites acknowledged the Ishmaelites to be an older branch of their own stock, dwelling on their southern borders.

(b)  It illustrates how they regarded them as inferior in dignity of descent, and as degraded by an Egyptian connexion.

Genesis 16:1 a, 3, 15, 16 are from P, while Genesis 16:9-11 have been attributed to an editorial insertion. The remainder is from J.

Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.
1–6. Hagar and her Flight into the Desert. (J, P.)

1. handmaid] or “maidservant,” as in Genesis 12:16. The wife generally had a female slave, who was her own property, and not under the husband’s control: see Genesis 29:24; Genesis 29:29; Genesis 30:3-7; Genesis 30:9; Genesis 30:12.

an Egyptian] It is natural to connect Hagar’s Egyptian origin with the sojourn in Egypt mentioned in chap. 12, or with the journeys in the Negeb (Genesis 12:9, Genesis 13:1).

The theory that the “Egypt” (Miṣraim) of which Hagar was a native was the land of a N. Arabian tribe (Muṣri) has been suggested by Winckler on account of the mention of Muṣri in N. Arabia in the cuneiform inscriptions. His theory supposes that the Muṣri of N. Arabia was at an early time confounded by the Israelites with the more famous, but similarly sounding, Miṣri, “an inhabitant of Egypt.” But, in view of the continual intercourse between Palestine and Egypt, as shewn by the Tel-el-Amarna tablets, the theory is improbable, and uncalled for. Egypt, at an early period, embraced the Sinaitic peninsula.

Hagar] The name “Hagar” is associated with that of wandering Arab tribes, called the Hagrites, 1 Chronicles 5:10; 1 Chronicles 5:19-20; 1 Chronicles 27:31, with which should be compared the Hagarenes of Psalm 83:6, “the tents of Edom, and the Ishmaelites; Moab, and the Hagarenes.”

Whether the story of Hagar, in this chapter, in any way bears upon the meaning of her name, is more than we can say for certain. But, in Arabic, hagara = “to flee,” and the well-known word hegira, the epoch of Mohammed, is his “flight” from Mecca.

And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
2. it may be that I shall obtain children by her] Heb. lit. be builded by her; the same expression occurs in Genesis 30:3; the idea is that of the building up of a house (cf. Ruth 4:11, Deuteronomy 25:9). The suggestion which Sarai here makes, may be illustrated from Genesis 30:3-4; Genesis 30:9. Childlessness was, and still is, in the East, a great reproach (cf. 1 Samuel 1:2-20). It was the custom also in Babylonia, as is shewn by the Code of Hammurabi, that “if a man’s wife was childless, he was allowed to take a concubine and bring her into his house, but he was not to place her upon an equal footing with the wife. Or, the wife might give her husband a maidservant (amtu), and, if she brought up children, he was forbidden to take in addition a concubine” (S. A. Cook, The Laws of Moses and the Code of Hammurabi, p. iii).

by her] By the adoption of Hagar’s children as her own.

And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
3. And Sarai Abram’s wife] This verse is P’s duplicate version of Genesis 16:1-2, adding the number of years that Abram had dwelt in Canaan.

And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.
4. was despised in her eyes] Compare the story in 1 Samuel 1, where the two wives are both “free,” and one is childless. Here the “free” wife, the mistress (gebéreth), gives her own maidservant (âmâh) to her husband; and is then jealous for her own dignity.

And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.
5. My wrong] i.e. may the wrong done to me be visited on thee! Sarai’s passionate and unjust complaint is the utterance of jealousy. Abram is not to blame for the step which she herself had recommended in accordance with the custom of the age. The possibility, that in these cases the position of the mistress might be compromised by the insolence of the handmaid, formed the subject of special provision in the Code of Hammurabi. “Branding was the punishment inflicted upon the owner’s handmaid who arrogantly set herself on an equality with her mistress” (§ 146: see S. A. Cook, p. 160).

LXX ἀδικοῦμαι ἐκ σοῦ, Lat. inique agis contra me.

judge between me and thee] Cf. Genesis 31:53; 1 Samuel 24:12. The latter passage adds “and the Lord avenge me of thee.” The “judgement” of the Lord may be the source of punishment: see note on Genesis 15:14.

But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.
6. in thy hand] Abram replies, with forbearance, that Hagar is under Sarai’s authority. Whether this is a formal transference of Hagar back into the power of Sarai, after she had become, as a concubine, the property of Abram, is not explained.

dealt hardly] The same word as that rendered “afflict” (Genesis 15:13). Here it evidently means “persecute,” “ill-treat.”

fled] The character of Hagar is depicted as high-spirited and courageous, as well as independent. There is no evidence that her conduct was insolent.

And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.
7–14. Hagar and the Angel at the Well

7. the angel of the Lord] The Angel, i.e. messenger, of Jehovah is the personification of Jehovah. Observe that in Genesis 16:10 He identifies Himself with Jehovah, expressing in the first person sing. what He will do (cf. Genesis 21:18, Genesis 22:15-18).

In all probability, in the development of religious thought, the Angel of Jehovah marks an intermediate stage between the simple anthropomorphisms of Genesis 3, 11, 18, and the later, more spiritual and abstract, conception of the Divine Being.

a fountain of water] i.e. a spring of water, which in the desert would mean an oasis towards which tracks would converge. See Genesis 24:13.

in the way to Shur] Probably, on the main trade route leading to her own country of Egypt. “Shur,” mentioned also in Genesis 20:1 and Genesis 25:18, has not been identified. It seems to mean “a wall”; and very probably was the name given to some spot on the line of the Egyptian frontier fortifications on the north-east, not far from the present Suez Canal. Possibly=the modern Tell abû-Sêpheh, 20 miles S. of Port Said.

And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.
And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.
9. And the angel of the Lord said] Notice the triple repetition of these sayings of the Angel in Genesis 16:9-11, containing in Genesis 16:9 the injunction to return and submit, in Genesis 16:10 the promise of a multitude of descendants, and in Genesis 16:11-12 the name and character of her future son. Genesis 16:9-10 both begin with the same words as Genesis 16:11, and probably are editorial additions from different versions of the story.

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.
10. I will greatly multiply] The Angel of Jehovah expresses in the 1st person the promise of that which Jehovah will perform; as in Genesis 21:18, Genesis 22:15-18, Genesis 31:13.

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.
11. thou shalt call his name Ishmael] That is, God heareth. The name is to be given by the mother. Cf. note on Genesis 4:1; Genesis 4:25. The name “Ishmael” may mean either “God hears,” or “may God hear.” See also Genesis 21:17. The reason for the name is explained by the words, “because the Lord hath heard (shâma‘) thy affliction.”

heard thy affliction] See note on Genesis 16:6. The expression means that Jehovah has either heard of the persecution Hagar has received, or, more probably, has heard the prayer uttered by her in her affliction (Genesis 16:6). Cf. Exodus 2:24; Exodus 4:31.

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.
12. as a wild-ass among men] Lit. “a wild-ass of a man.” This description of Ishmael vividly portrays the characteristics of his descendants. The wild ass, for which see Job 39:5-8, Hosea 8:9, is the typically untameable, strong, free, roaming, suspicious, and untrustworthy animal, living wild in the desert, far from the haunts of men.

in the presence of all his brethren] R.V. marg. over against. Cf. Genesis 25:18. “Brethren”: see notes on Genesis 13:8, Genesis 14:14. While “in the presence,” or “in the face of” all his brethren, might legitimately be rendered “to the east of” the Israelites, the east was scarcely the quarter in which the Ishmaelites were chiefly found. A better explanation gives to the words the meaning of a foe, dwelling close at hand and “over against” his brethren, ever ready to attack and raid their territory.

And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?
13. the Lord that spake unto her] These words definitely identify the Angel with a manifestation of the Almighty; see Genesis 16:7.

Thou art a God that seeth] LXX Σὺ ὁ Θεὸς ὁ ἐφιδών με, Lat. Tu Deus qui vidisti me. Hagar designates the Divine Person who had spoken to her, by the name Êl, with the epithet, or attribute, of “Vision”: see note on Genesis 14:18. She says, “Thou art Êl roi,” i.e. “a God of Seeing,” or “of Vision.” The familiar rendering, “Thou God seest me,” is, with our present text, incorrect.

Have I even here looked after him that seeth me] According to this rendering, the emphasis is on the words “even here.” The meaning is, “have I, even here, in the wilderness, met God? and, though I knew Him not, yet, after He had gone, I perceived that it was He.” The awkwardness of the phrase, “after him,” is obvious. The difficulty of the passage was realized at a very early time: LXX καὶ γὰρ ἐνώπιον εἶδον ὀφθέντα μοι, Lat. profecto hic vidi posteriora videntis me (explaining the clause from Exodus 33:23).

On the assumption that the text is corrupt, Wellhausen conjectures “have I seen [God, and remained alive] after [my] vision,” reading Elohim for halôm, and inserting va-eḥi. This gives a good sense; but is rendered doubtful by the alteration of the unusual word halôm (= “even hither”).

Similarly, Ball conjectures “Have I even seen God, and survived?” (S.B.O.T.) It may be assumed that Hagar’s utterance denoted joy and thankfulness for having seen Jehovah, and for having lived afterwards. Cf. Genesis 32:30; Exodus 3:6; Exodus 19:21; Jdg 13:22; 1 Samuel 6:19.

Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.
14. Beer-lahai-roi] The R.V. marg. the well of the living one who seeth me is an impossible translation of the text. Another rendering is, “Well of the Seeing alive,” i.e. “Where one sees God and remains alive.” The popular belief was, that he who saw God would die. See previous note.

Probably the name Beer-lahai-roi was explained by a popular etymology which connected its pronunciation with the sound of the Hebrew words ḥai = “living” and roi = “vision.” A well, or spring, in a desert was generally deemed by the early nomad peoples to be frequented by a Divine presence.

between Kadesh and Bered] For Kadesh, see note on Genesis 14:7. Bered has not been identified. Hagar’s well is commonly supposed to be the same as Ain Muweileh, a spot where there are springs, S. of Beersheba, and on the caravan road to Egypt.

And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son's name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.
15. Abram called … Ishmael] See note on Genesis 16:11. The father here gives the name as usually in P: see notes on Genesis 4:1; Genesis 4:17; Genesis 4:25, Genesis 5:3.

15, 16. The Birth of Ishmael. (P.)

These verses are from P, and are inserted in place of J’s account of the birth of Ishmael.

And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.
16. fourscore and six years old] An instance of P’s careful computation of chronology. Compare the statements in Genesis 16:3 and Genesis 12:4 with the years given here.

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