When I was in my early 20s the incident with Sarai and Abram regarding Hagar and Ishmael in Genesis 16 was taught as a disaster. Sarai and Abram sinned by his going into Hagar. That this was a low point in their faith surfaces subtly in the first section of Genesis 16. The Hebrew verbs took and gave in 16:3 are reminiscent of the same two verbs used in Genesis 3:6.
Genesis 16:3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.
Genesis 3:6 She took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband.
This action by Sarai reflected a low point in her faith. And Abram does not seek God’s direction before responding. So, the parallelism in wording between Genesis 3:6 and Genesis 16:2 was likely intentional. The author’s point is clear. But my pastor and others didn’t stop there. They taught that bringing Ishmael into life was viewed as a serious error. One of the proofs given to support their view was Israel’s current problems in the Middle East with the Arab world. Thus, the Ishmaelites were seen as having historically caused Israel no end of problems.
Well, that view of Ishmael’s birth being wrong and causing Israel no end of problems is not in the biblical text – not in Genesis or in the Pentateuch. In fact, my pastor and all the others I listened to in those years ignored important biblical data in Genesis about Hagar and Ishmael. Yes, Sarai’s and Abram’s actions were wrong. But, that is where the line appears to be drawn in the text. The data suggest another conclusion about what God was doing: He was redeeming that mistake. After all, God reveals himself throughout Scripture as the Creator-Redeemer.
What are the data? Well, Hagar is given an unusually high status in the text, which is remarkable for a slave woman and who is ethnically not Hebrew); and she is unique in biblical history. Just look at these positives in her life story in Genesis:
- God twice intervenes in her distress to deliver her (16:7-12; 21:15-19).
- She is the first woman in Scripture to whom a divine messenger (“the Angel”) is sent (16:7).
- She is the first (and apart from Sarai, the only) woman to receive a divine promise of descendants (16: 10).
- She is the first woman recorded to receive an annunciation of a birth (16:7-12).
- She is the only woman recorded in Scripture to give a name to God: “You are the God who sees me” (16:13).
Hmmm, something to consider…