Sarai and Ishmael: Was He a Mistake?
Was the birth of Ishmael the result of Sarah’s sin? Here are a few thoughts by Jeff Elkins:
AN OLD UNDERSTANDING OF GENESIS 16
As a Southern Baptist kid who attended a mostly white church in the Bible belt, when I read Genesis 16, I was certain of a few things:
1. Abraham (still called Abram in this chapter) was the hero of the story.
2. Hagar was a mistake.
3. In Genesis 16, God paused the story of Abram to justify a war we were fighting in the Middle East.
Based on the Bible studies I attended then, my reading of the story went something like this:
God had promised Abram that he would be the father of many nations, but Sarai (Abram’s wife whose name will later be changed to Sarah) was baren.
Now, Sarai felt really bad about this because she is holding up God’s promise, so one day, she went to her patient and faithful husband and said, “I’ve got an idea. What if you have a baby with my maid, Hagar the Egyptian? She can be my surrogate. So when she has the baby, according to the laws of our day, it will be my baby and the promise can be fulfilled through it. What do you think?”
Abram, being a faithful and righteous husband, was like, “I don’t want to do that, but to honor your sacrifice, I will.”
So Sarai explained the deal to Hagar and Hagar agreed. But then, after the baby was born, Hagar went back on the deal. She became angry and started walking around like she was Abram wife. She was ordering everyone around and, even worse, making fun of Sarai for being barren.
In order to save the family from this horrible maid, Sarai told Abram that he needed to send her back to her family, so Abram did. But instead of going home, Hagar went out into the desert to pout. Not wanting Abram’s son to come to any harm, God intervened and saved Hagar from herself. God told Hagar to go back home to Abram and Sarai where she would be loved and safe.
But before she went, God predicted the future. This prediction wasn’t really for Hagar, it was actually for me. As a faithful member of a church in the U.S. in the 1990s, God was explaining why my country was at war with people in the Middle East. After God tells Hagar to name her son Ishmael, he says:
He will be a wild donkey of a man,
His hand will be against everyone,
And everyone’s hand will be against him;
And he will live in hostility toward all his brothers. (Genesis 16:12 NASB)
I remember a Sunday school teacher explaining that Ishmael was the father of Islam and that this description of Ishmael was actually God predicting that Christians would always fight with Muslims. That was why we were at war, and why there were terrorists, and why we should keep away from Muslims whenever possible because the Bible said they are trouble.
The moral of the tale was that even though Abram made a mistake by trusting Hagar, but God knew it would happen and in some mysterious way even planned it because He plans everything; therefore, I should trust God and know that everything that happens is a part of His plan and happens for a reason. Mostly, I was supposed to take comfort in the fact that I was in the right.
A DIFFERENT READING OF GENESIS 16
Now as an adult, I mourn this reading of Genesis 16. I understand it to be a tragic work of self-justification and I would like to offer a different perspective on Hagar, Ishmael, and God in Genesis 16.
Think of the story of Hagar as a play. There are two acts. In both acts, there are two characters on stage.
ACT ONE: ABRAM AND SARAI TALK
First, we see Abram and Sarai on the stage. The narrator kicks things off by reminding us that Sarai has not borne Abram any children and by informing us that Sarai has a female slave named Hagar. (Genesis 16:1)
Sarai speaks first, explaining to Abram that God has stopped her from having children, so Abram should have sex with her slave, and Sarai will have children through the slave.
Genesis 16:2 tells us that “Abram listens to Sarai.” Then Abram sleeps with Hagar and Hagar conceives.
Animosity forms between the two women and in verse 5, Sarai speaks again. She says to Abram, “ You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
Abram replies, “Your slave is in your hands. Do with her whatever you think is best.”
So Sarai treats her slave “harshly” and Hagar runs away.
FOUR THINGS TO NOTICE ABOUT ACT ONE
There are four things we need to notice in the first act of Genesis 16.
Notice how Abram and Sarai choose to deal with their problem.
Sarai cannot have children, but God has promised that Abram would be the father of many nations. Instead of asking God for help, or at the minimum an explanation, Abram and Sarai decide to take matters into their own hands and solve the problem themselves.
While I’m not championing inaction, I am arguing that the first lesson from this story is that when we cut God out of the conversation we make poor decisions.
Notice who speaks.
Abram has a voice. He speaks. He makes choices.
Sarai has a voice. She speaks. She makes choices.
But Hagar is silent, and the only choice she makes is to run away.
And God is silent. Silent and unconsulted.
When we find ourselves in a position of power, and we need to immediately stop what we are doing and give those without power a voice.
How different would this story have been if Abram and Sarai had given Hagar a voice instead of treating her like an object? I believe that most injustice in the world would end if those of us with a voice would simply pause and seek to understand the perspective of those who have no voice.
Notice Sarai. She is afraid and she allows her fear to drive her choices.
She is afraid she won’t become pregnant. She is afraid of the other woman who is younger and has conceived. She is afraid of being cast aside. She is afraid that she was the problem all along.
In her fear, Sarai blames others. She blames God, and she blames Abram, and she blames herself, and she pushes everyone away.
This is something I do too. I think we all do, but it is an inclination we must suppress because making decisions out of fear leads to blaming others and isolating ourselves.
Finally, notice that Abram and Sarai are not the heroes of this story.
Yes, the story of Genesis is following Abram’s struggle to understand what it means to live in a relationship with a loving God.
Yes, Sarai has been a character in the narrative since chapter 11.
And yes, God has promised Abram that his children will someday be as numerous as the stars.
But trying to live under God’s promises doesn’t make you right.
ACT TWO: HAGAR AND GOD TALK
Act two starts in verse 7. Hagar is sitting by a spring in the wilderness. She is alone and vulnerable in a dangerous world. Her family is in Egpyt, an impossible distance away. She has nothing and no one.
God finds her by the spring and asks, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
Hagar replies, “I’m running away from my mistress Sarai.”
Then God tells her to go back to your mistress and submit to her, but he promises her that he will, “increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
Then God tells her:
You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael (God Hears) for the Lord has heard of your misery. He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.
Hagar responds by declaring, “You are the God who sees me. I have now seen the One who sees me.”
THREE THINGS TO NOTICE ABOUT ACT TWO
There are three things we need to notice in the second act of Genesis 16.
Notice who speaks.
God has a voice. He speaks. But unlike Abram and Sarai, when God speaks, he asks Hagar a question. The first thing he does is give the powerless slave a voice.
He is the Ismael, the God who hears.
He is the El Roi, the “God who sees me.”
If we want to be like God, we must also be in the business of giving broken people voices. We must let the powerless know that they are seen and heard.
Notice that when God solves problems, he doesn’t hold back or protect himself out of fear.
At this point in the narrative, God’s plan is totally wrapped up in Abram’s success. Abram is the only horse God has bet on. So it would make sense for God to tell Hagar, “I’m going to make sure you and your boy get as far away from Abram and Sarai and my future people as possible.” That’s clearly what Abram and Sarai wanted.
But that is not what God does. Instead, he gives Hagar everything.
He provides for her immediate needs by telling her to go back home, and he gives her a future by telling her the same thing he told Abram, that her children too would be numerous.
Abram is not special because he was some amazing leader or wise and righteous father. Chapters 12–15 have been filled with more failures of Abram than successes. What makes Abram special is that God has made him promises and that God is with him.
Thus, at this moment by the spring, God elevates Hagar. She is no longer an object to be acted on. She is now also a promise bearer, carrying with her the same thing that Abram knows has made him special.
And God’s promises don’t stop there. God says Ishmael will be “a wild donkey of a man.” When I put myself in Hagar’s shoes, I understand why this is such an amazing promise.
Donkeys were service animals. Their job was to work for their masters.
But Ishmael will not be harnessed.
Ishmael will not be tamed.
Ishmael will be wild.
Is there any greater promise God can make to a woman trapped in slavery? God tells Hagar, “Your child will be wild and free.”
And not just wild and free. God tells Hagar, “And that family that drug you away from your home to a strange land and has forced you to serve them, that family that has overlooked your personhood and treated you like a position, you son will fight them. He will fight them at every turn. He will never surrender.”
God doesn’t just take care of Hagar’s immediate needs, he gives her a future and promises that her children will be free.
God doesn’t cast blame or isolate himself. He doesn’t seek to protect what he has. He doesn’t hold back. God is in the business of freeing slaves, and if we want to call ourselves his children, we should be too.
Finally, notice how Hagar responds to God.
Hagar gives God a name. She says, “You are El Roi. The God who sees me.”
Giving God a nickname implies intimacy. It means that something special has happened between the person and God and that the person is forever changed by the encounter. It is a sign of belonging and acceptance. All the big names in the Bible do this. Moses does it in Exodus. Gideon does it in the book of Judges. King David does it a lot in the Psalms. Abram will do it in chapter 22 of Genesis.
But the first person in the scripture to have the honor of this level of intimacy and understand with God is an African slave woman.
If you believe the Bible is authoritative, then this should communicate something to you. The more I read the Bible the more I realize it is far more progressive than we are comfortable with it being.
If you want to find God, go find the powerless outcast and sit down next to them, because according to the Bible, that is where God is going to be.
A NEW UNDERSTANDING OF GENESIS 16
I used to think that Abram was the hero of this story. Now I see that the only hero in the story is God.
I used to think of Hagar as a mistake. Now I see that she is the first person in the Bible to see God for who He is, the one who sees and hears those who are lost and suffering.
I used to think this passage justified my position of privilege in the world by predicting a worldview that made sense of the world in a way that protected me. Now I understand that Genesis 16 is intended to challenge me because it reveals God to be the one who finds the lost and helpless woman under the tree, embraces her, and gives her a future.
My new reading of Genesis 16 teaches me that I should stop making decisions out of fear that blame others, protect my position, and maintain my power. Instead, if I want to be like God, I should be in the business of empowering the powerless.