I have to issue a correction to last week’s sermon. Because in last week’s sermon, I mentioned in passing that Genesis 16 was a PG-13 rated story. But in talking with someone from the church this week, who shall remain unnamed, we decided this story is really an R-rated story! But I’ll do my best to keep it PG or better.
We could split the passage almost right down the middle, in two halves almost, because there’s two movements in the chapter revolving around the use of the word “listens.”
1. Abram listens to Sarai (v. 1-6)
2. Yahweh listens to Hagar (v. 7-16)
1. Abram listens to Sarai (v. 1-6)
The initial tension of this story shows up in the first sentence of verse 1: “Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children.” And the tension builds because Sarai interprets (whether rightly or wrongly) that God is behind her barrenness, at the beginning of verse 2: “You see that Yahweh has prevented me from bearing children.”
In Sarai’s culture, childlessness was a big deal. An effect of the Fall, a result of that Genesis 3 mistake, was that in biblical times women were valued by society mainly by how many children they brought into the world.
And it also seems like Abram’s doubts about God’s promises are contagious: Sarai starts looking at the obvious obstacles to God’s promises coming true.
With the societal stigma that came with being barren, and God’s unfulfilled promise looming over the couple, Sarai suggests a solution. We find Sarai’s solution in the middle of verse 2: “Go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”
Now, we can scoff at Sarai’s suggestion (That’s not how “obtaining children” works!) or clutch our pearls (How on earth could Sarai suggest that?!). But Sarai’s solution here—it wasn’t that unusual for the world that Abram and Sarai inhabited. In fact, some marriage certificates from around this time stipulated that if a woman would not give birth to children for her husband, the husband had the right to take a second wife to “make it happen.”
And the layers go deep in this situation, but it’s all about power. I wish I had time to go back and unpack Genesis 3:16 again this morning, because that line about the power struggle between Adam and Eve (“your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you”), is the backdrop for what is happening in this triangle between Abram, Sarai, and Hagar. Genesis 3:16 is the first time that a human relationship was characterized by hierarchy, by “rule” instead of by mutuality. And that fallen dynamic between Adam and Eve plays out between Abram and Sarai and Hagar too.
It’s all about power. Look again at who Sarai puts forward as Abram’s second wife. Sarai suggests that Abram take her Egyptian slave, Hagar.
Back in Genesis 12b, Abram and Sarai had gone down to Egypt in the middle of a famine, and remember how Abram drives a hard bargain with Pharoah, and ends up richer than before? This is the summary of that situation in Genesis 12:16: “And for [Sarai’s] sake, [Pharoah] dealt well with Abram; and [Abram acquired] sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male and female slaves, female donkeys, and camels.” That word for “female slaves” back in Genesis 12:16 is the same word to describe Hagar here in Genesis 16:1. Pharaoh probably gave Hagar to Sarai back during that time when Abram and Sarai were in Egypt.
Now, while the slavery in Abram’s day looked different than the American Civil War era, race-based chattel slavery that we probably think of when we hear the word “slavery,” the common tragedy between the two practices was that one group of human beings treating other human beings as property.
So the first shocking layer to Sarai’s solution is the polygamy/patriarchy layer. But there’s another shocking layer: that of slavery. Both polygamy and slavery have to do with power—and the way that humans use and abuse power in a Genesis 3 world.
As bystanders, reading this story thousands of years later, we know Sarai’s solution won’t work! We know it won’t turn out well. We can see these layers compounding Fallen power struggles. We see the implication of what Sarai suggests: Abram would relate both to Sarai and Hagar as a husband, but Hagar would relate to Sarai as a slave! How on earth would this end well?
And yet, what happens? The last line of verse 2: “Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.” The plan is put into motion. You want to grab Abram by the shoulders and shake him awake, but he goes along with Sarai’s suggestion.
If Sarai was making a power grab here, the plan is coming together initially in verse 4, right? Hagar gets pregnant. Great! That’s what Sarai wanted. But the plan backfires when Hagar starts viewing Sarai with contempt. If the plan was for Sarai to scale the social ladder a few rungs, it doesn’t quite work if your slave, of all people, doesn’t respect you anymore.
And it kicks back to Abram in verse 5—again, full of irony! Sarai puts the blame for the situation squarely on Abram—as if Sarai didn’t have any part in it! Sarai bookends her recap of the events with these two lines: “May the wrong done to me be on you! May Yahweh judge between you and me!”
Sarai finds herself on the low end of the power dynamic here. If she thought having a child would move her up the ladder and give her more honor, then the absolute opposite has happened so far. So she turns on Abram, basically calling down judgment from God because of how things have turned out.
Abram responds by restoring the original power dynamic in verse 6a. Abram essentially ignores the fact that Hagar was now his wife and carrying his child, and he tells Sarai she can do whatever she wants with her slave-girl: “Your slave-girl is in your [hand]; do to her as [seems good to you].”
So verse 6b says Sarai mistreated Hagar, enough so that Hagar runs away. We don’t have any concrete details in this text about what that word “dealt harshly” looked like. The range of meaning for that word is really broad. We just don’t know about the details. But it’s bad enough that Hagar bolts.
When Abram listens to Sarai, their solution just causes more problems! And this leads us to the second movement of this passage. We’ve seen how 1. Abram listens to Sarai. Now let’s see how
2. Yahweh listens to Hagar (v. 7-16).
If the first half of this story is shocking—and in many ways it is—then the second half is probably equally shocking.
And the first part of the shock verse 7 introduces a character to the Bible that needs no introduction: “the angel of the LORD [Yahweh].” To help see the scope of this, we have not encountered this kind of character yet in the Bible. And yet after this chapter, the angel of Yahweh will show up in all kinds of places in Genesis and throughout the whole OT.
- And whenever the angel of Yahweh shows up, there’s a legitimate question of “who is this character?” And the best answer to that question is probably “it’s complicated.” It’s complicated first of all because the Hebrew word behind “angel,” here, could also be translated as “messenger.” Some passages may lean toward one translation and some passages toward another.
- It’s also complicated because the messenger/angel looks just like a person. There’s no indication that the angel/messenger shows up and has eagle-like wings and white robes and blonde hair. In fact, the next time the angels/messengers show up in Genesis, in chapters 18-19, there’s more than one of them, and they just look like men—like people (Gen 18:2, 16, 22; 19:15-16).
- And the other complicating factor is that the line between the messengers of Yahweh, and Yahweh himself, gets very blurry at points when these messengers show up. In our chapter this morning, for example, several times we read that “the angel of the LORD” spoke to Hagar (v. 7-8, 9, 10, 11). And yet Hagar interprets the whole event as her “seeing Yahweh” in verse 13, and the beginning of verse 13 confirms that it was “[Yahweh] who spoke to her[.]” The line between Yahweh and the messengers of Yahweh gets blurry at points.
And that’s why some Bible scholars have believed that when the angel/messenger of Yahweh shows up in the OT, often that messenger is a preincarnate appearance of God the Son—in other words, before God the Son shows up as a human named Jesus the Messiah, God the Son shows up on earth as God’s messenger who looks like a man.
But regardless, with all the questions and complexity, God chases Hagar down—possibly God the Son chases Hagar down and finds her, according to verse 7. She’s in the desert, on the road that leads back to Egypt.
And don’t you love the first words out of the messenger’s mouth? First of all, he calls Hagar’s name and her relation to Sarai. Yahweh knows Hagar’s name! And then these questions in verse 8b are rich with irony again: “where have you come from and where are you going?”
Do you think God knows the answer to this question?! But he asks this question, not for his own benefit, so that he would gain information that he didn’t have before, no, he asks this question to help Hagar see herself and her situation more accurately. ( I frequently need God to ask me these types of questions—the ones that stop me in my tracks and ask me to evaluate my plans.) It’s a rich question, and Hagar’s answer is telling: she doesn’t really answer it, does she? If the question is a two-part question about Hagar’s origin and her destination, then Hagar’s answer is basically, “Away!” Anywhere to get away from Sarai, her mistress.
This is a telling answer because it shows that Hagar doesn’t really have a plan. She doesn’t really have a destination! She’s from Egypt, yes, but it’s the land where she was a slave. She might not have any familial ties back there. AND she’s pregnant as she makes this journey.
It’s hard to comprehend, but I think the messenger/angel here is gently pointing out to Hagar that as bad as the situation is with Sarai and Abram (and it’s bad!!!), the situation she would be in down in Egypt again, would be worse. Somehow, despite everything going on with Abram and Sarai, the blessings that would come to Hagar through Abram would be worth staying for.
So the angel tells her in verse 9, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” I have to think that Hagar’s not sold on this course of action, and that’s why the angel expands on the instructions in verse 10: “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” If this sounds like deju vu, that’s because it is! This is an echo of the promise that God made to Abram in the previous chapter when he took him outside and showed him the promise. God is including Hagar in the blessings that he promised to Abram.
But how could Hagar be sure of all of this? What was the sign that Yahweh’s promises would come true for her? We find that in the next verses, starting with what the angel says in verse 11: the angel/messenger knows that Hagar is pregnant. But the angel goes a step further and predicts that a) Hagar’s child will be a son, and b) he will be named “Ishmael” –which is this awesome name meaning “God hears.” Ishmael would be a walking, talking, sign that Yahweh has witnessed Hagar’s suffering and will bring her out of that suffering and into Abram’s blessings.
Verse 12 gives a flavor of what Ishmael’s life would be like—I do wonder if there’s that same negative connotation with the word “ass” in Hebrew as there is in English. Is the messenger of Yahweh swearing here? Not sure!
We can definitely emphasize that “wild” aspect of that title. Whenever that word for “donkey,” or “ass” comes up, it indicates the sheer wildness—and even the freedom of whatever is being called a donkey. If Hagar spends her life stuck in this power struggle that she seems to have no control over, and if she’s getting pushed lower and lower on the societal ladder, then Ishmael’s existence will reverse much of that. The idea you get, especially from the last line of the prophecy in verse 12, is that the people around him will not want him around, and try to do the same thing as they do to Hagar—push him out!
But just as Hagar will return to live with Abram and Sarai, and that itself is an act of dignity and resistance against sinful power structures, so Ishmael, in spite of everything, will fight for and find a place to live in the presence of those who would rather get rid of him.
This was all quite a lot for Hagar, I’m sure. But we can tell that by the end of verse 12, Hagar feels seen. We can tell this because that’s exactly what she says in verse 14: she names God—the first time anyone in Scripture has presumed to name God—and her name for God is “El-Roi,” which means, “God who sees.”
She is awestruck that she has seen God, and not only that she survived seeing him, but that he is looking after her.
And in verse 15, we find God’s promises to Hagar coming true. Remember the sign for Hagar that God would multiply her children (and include her in Abram’s blessing)? That she would have a son and that his name would be “Ishmael.” What does Abram name Hagar’s child? (And it’s significant that Abram’s naming him rather than Sarai, because in similar cases, the first wife would name the slave-wife’s children, as part of that exercise of power over the slave wife.) “Ishmael.”
So if in the first half of the story, if we’re surprised by how Abram listens to Sarai, then in the second half of the story today, we’re equally surprised by how Yahweh listens to Hagar. We’ve seen the two halves of this chapter.
So what’s the point of this shocking, R-rated story? Let’s try to capture it this morning. Here it is:
God sees and hears the people whom we often treat as invisible.
If you’re coming in this morning like Abram or Sarai, if we’re the ones with the resources and we’re higher on the social ladder in our community, the question we should be asking of ourselves and God is, who are the people that are invisible to us? How have we cooperated with evil power dynamics? We ask these questions because we know when Jesus returns to make all things new, all the Genesis-3 type power dynamics will be undone.
If you’re coming in this morning like Hagar: stuck in an awful, even horrific, situation not of your own choosing, let me just encourage you that God sees and hears you even when no one else does. He sees and hears you, and we want to see and hear you, too. We pray and believe that in time, God will bring clarity to your situation. He will set you free. And we want to help. We have faith in this because we have faith that Jesus came from heaven to identify with our suffering and sin, and rescue us from it all.
God sees and hears the people whom we often treat as invisible.
 But it was Phyllis!
 John H. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC Series. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001) 446.