GENESIS - CHAPTER 16
A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough
Copyright 2000 James Melough
16:1. “Now Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children, and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.”
From Ga 4:22-31 we learn that these two women represent principles: Sarai, grace; and Hagar, law. Abram, representative of the principle of faith, joined to Sarai, symbolizes the believer, for a believer is one in whom faith and grace are joined together. The statement therefore that “Sarai Abram’s wife bare him no children” is the symbolic announcement of a condition that mars many a Christian life: there is no spiritual fruit.
In declaring that she had “an handmaid ... whose name was Hagar,” God is telling us that the law, which Hagar represents, must always be the handmaid of grace. The law is the servant that leads the sinner to Christ to receive, as a free gift bestowed by grace, the salvation that could never be obtained by law-keeping. Believers are assured, “Ye are not under the law, but under grace” (Ro 6:14). This, however, is not license to live lawlessly. Concerning the law, it is written, “the law is holy ... and just and good” (Ro 7:12), and it is only as our conduct reflects that holiness that we fulfill the divine command, “Be ye holy in all manner of conversation (living)” (1 Pe 1:15). Love must govern our living, “for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law.... Love is the fulfilling of the law” (Ro 13:8-10). The obedience that fulfills the law, in conduct governed by love for God and man, is rendered, however, not to get life, but because the believer already has life. The obedience, yielded out of love for God, and expressed in love for man, fulfills the law, Ga 5:14. The obedient life is the fullest expression of gratitude to God. As Hagar was the servant of Sarai, so must law be the servant of grace. The law will always be the expression of God’s standard of holiness, measuring the conduct of saint and sinner alike, showing the sinner his need of a Savior; and the saint, the truth that no man except Christ could ever meet that perfect standard.
Abram and Sarai’s attempt to produce fruit (the promised seed) through Hagar, is the OT demonstration of the mistake made by the many believers who attempt to produce Christlike righteousness by a cold legalistic adherence to a moral code. This was the mistake of the Pharisees; and the Lord warned the disciples, “Except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:20). Love alone must be the motive for every thought, word or deed. Paul emphasizes this in 1 Co 13:1-3, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not love, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not love, it profiteth me nothing.” It is to be noted, however, that love is not to be confused with sentimentality, which is not love, but emotion divorced from intelligence. Too often sentimentality accepts what love must refuse and rebuke.
It is to be noted that Hagar was “an Egyptian,” but Egypt represents the world of business and pleasure living in independence of God; and as the country of her origin, it reminds us that attempted law-keeping is the world’s only way of righteousness. It knows nothing of being made righteousness through faith in Christ, and apart from effort on man’s part.
In the meaning of her name, ensnaring: the sojourner, we learn another lesson: the attempt to be made righteous through law-keeping may seem to be the right way during our brief sojourn here on earth, but when that sojourn is ended, law-keeping will be found to have been simply Satan’s way of ensnaring multitudes on the road to eternal ruin.
16:2. “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 unto the voice of Sarai.”
In declaring that the Lord had restrained here from bearing, Sarai spoke truth; but since a literal barren state in His earthly people represents spiritual barrenness among believers today, we should inquire the reason, for barrenness is not God’s will. There are at least two reasons, and they are related to each other. First, God’s time had not yet come; and second, Abram and Sarai had not yet learned to trust God completely. This very expedient to which they resorted advertised that they still retained a measure of confidence in their own natural ability to accomplish God’s purposes. This combination of impatience and self-reliance is always productive of evil, not good.
The comments of C.H. MacIntosh in his Notes on the Book of Genesis are worth repeating. He says:
”These words bespeak the usual impatience of unbelief.... Abram should have ... waited patiently on the Lord.... the poor heart naturally prefers anything to the attitude of waiting. It will turn to any expedient ... rather than keep that posture. It is one thing to believe a promise ... quite another to wait quietly for the accomplishment thereof.... Abram exhibits faith in chapter 15, and yet fails in patience in chapter 16. Hence the force and beauty of the apostle’s words in Heb 6, ‘followers of them who through faith and patience inherit the promises.’ God makes a promise; faith believes it; hope anticipates it; patience waits quietly for it.”
“...nature really had failed her (Sarai). But then it was nature in one shape, and therefore she wished to try nature in another. She had not learned to look away from nature in every shape.... nature in Hagar was no better than nature in Sarai.... Hagar was not God’s instrument for the accomplishment of His promise to Abram.”
In regard to God’s instruments, Mr. MacIntosh has given some wise advice:
“It is not that we should despise God’s instrumentality.... to do so would be recklessness and not faith. Faith values the instrument, not because of itself, but because of Him Who uses it. Unbelief looks only at the instrument.... there is a vast difference between God’s using the creature to minister to me, and my using it to shut Him out. The difference is not sufficiently attended to. God used the ravens to minister to Elijah, but Elijah did not use them to exclude God. If the heart be really trusting in God, it will not trouble itself about His means.”
In regard to Sarai’s giving Hagar to be Abram’s wife, this was a common Babylonian custom, and the children born of such a marriage were considered to be the children of the mistress. Worldly expedient, however, never serves God’s purposes. Inasmuch as Babylon represents false religion, the warning here is against attempting to accomplish God’s purposes by use of methods employed by the world’s religious systems.
As in chapter 15, the giving of the land to Abram’s seed was to be deferred for four hundred years, because the iniquity of the Amorites was not yet full, so here the giving of the promised seed must be deferred until Abram and Sarai had learned that all must be of God, and the flesh was to have no part in it. The lesson must be learned that God is the God of resurrection Who fulfills all His promises in resurrection. The seed would be given only when Abram’s body, as well as Sarai’s, was “as good as dead” (Heb 11:12). All must be of God, the God of resurrection, Who brings life out of death.
They, however, are not alone in their failure to wait God’s time. Haven’t we many times, impatient of waiting, unbelieving of His ability, resorted to human expedient? And must we not confess that every such effort has been attended by the same unhappy results as those that followed Sarai’s scheme?
In Hagar’s being an Egyptian, and the marriage custom’s being Babylonian, we may have perhaps a picture of the world (which Egypt and Babylon represent) combining to lead the believer away from complete trust in God. We would do well to take to heart the warning God gives us in the record of the evil results that came from one act, not of direct independence, but rather of lack of faith to trust Him fully. It brought discord into Abram’s home; it brought him heartbreak when eventually he had to send Hagar and Ishmael away; and it produced a people who are the bitter foes of Abram’s descendants to this day. Who can begin to imagine the far-reaching or long-lasting results that may follow one faithless act!
With her eyes off God, Sarai’s horizon was limited. Forgetting that He Who promised was He Who is omnipotent, she was reduced to thinking that He was limited to a fertile woman as the only means of fulfilling His promise. The one Who had promised was the same One Who had made the universe out of nothing. What anxious care we would save ourselves if we remembered this, and simply waited for Him to act in His Own good and perfect time.
”And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.” He who had heard from the mouth of God such great and gracious promises, now obeys the voice of a mere mortal as to how those promises were to be fulfilled. Can this be the man who in chapter 15 had asked, “Whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?” and who, in response to that question, had been granted the experience recorded in verses 9-21 of that same chapter? Yes, it is the same man, but with his eyes off God. As always in such a condition, the power of God is lost sight of behind the seemingly insurmountable difficulties. Man with his eye off God becomes so blind as to think that what seems impossible to God is possible to man. Man, looking at self instead of at God is capable of unbelievable folly. Abram listened to Sarai and received unwise counsel, when he should have listened to God Who would have given counsel that would have kept him from folly and its attendant sorrow. These things have been recorded that we might not repeat his folly.
(A word regarding the godly wives of Scripture seems needful here. As already noted, they represent the expression of the believer’s new spiritual life, but not that life itself, and this is important, for it explains the flaws recorded of most of them. The new life itself is perfect: the expression of it all too often very imperfect).
16:3. “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.”
Ten is the number of divine government, and ten years under that government should have taught Abram the folly of acting without God’s command, but his failure simply demonstrates what another has very aptly stated, “The best of men are at best only men.”
It is significant that Hagar’s nationality is mentioned twice: she was an Egyptian, and Egypt represents the world of business and pleasure living in independence of God, just as Babylon represents the world of religion living in the same independence. The expedient of which Hagar was an essential part, was conceived by earthly wisdom, of which it is written, “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, devilish” (Jas 3:15). The world’s wisdom has no part in spiritual matters.
16:4. “And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.”
This is the symbolic presentation of a common evil. To employ the things of the world - its wisdom or its methods - to accomplish spiritual objectives is a great mistake, producing evil of farther extent and longer duration than anyone can imagine. The strife between Arab and Jew that continues to this day, is the direct result of this ill-conceived plan to produce the promised son through Hagar rather than Sarai.
The seeming success of such worldly expedient dazzles only the unspiritual and the untaught. The spiritual man sees it for what it is: that which causes grace to be despised and man exalted. It gives man all the credit for seeming accomplishment, and robs God of glory.
The promised blessing was to be through the seed who would spring from the union of Abram and Sarai (faith and grace), and it is the same in the spiritual realm. It is the union of faith and grace that first brings the seed (Christ) into the sinner’s life; and it is the same union that produces Christ in the life of the saint.
The counterpart of Abram’s attempt to produce the promised seed through Hagar is the believer’s attempt to produce Christ in his life by adherence to a moral code, but without genuine love for God. This was the mistake of the Galatians to whom Paul wrote, “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you” (Ga 4:19). God wants to see Christ being produced in us, but that is accomplished only when love for Him impels our obedience. Legalistic obedience, without love, produces, not Christ, but an Ishmael or a Pharisee. The “seed” must come through Sarai (grace), not through Hagar (the law). Hagar must remain handmaid to Sarai, not wife to Abram, for the law cannot give life. It can bring the sinner to Christ, but it cannot put Christ in the sinner, nor can it reproduce Christ in the believer.
16:5. “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.”
This verse has been taken, wrongly, to imply that Sarai was attempting to blame Abram for her wrong suggestion, but careful reading reveals that this is not the case. “My wrong” has no reference to her suggestion, but rather to the wrong which she was then enduring at the hand of Hagar. She was being treated now as only the equal, if not even the inferior, of the former maid; and it was against this wrong that she appealed to Abram. As noted already, her being relegated to an inferior place is the symbolic annunciation of what happens when the believer allows law-keeping to take the place of grace. Since Abram represents both the principle of faith, and also the believer, it is he who must put matters right. The spiritual lesson isn’t difficult to read. It is the responsibility of the believer to maintain the dignity of grace by ensuring that law-keeping is not permitted to usurp the place in his life that belongs exclusively to grace.
16:6. “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.”
Abram’s leaving Hagar in Sarai’s hand is the symbolic disclosure of the truth that faith must place law-keeping in subjection to grace if there is to be peace in the believer’s life.
”... dealt hardly with her,” is literally, “afflicted her.” God’s command to Hagar in verse nine, “Return to thy mistress, and submit....” would seem to indicate that Sarai’s hard treatment was the result of Hagar’s refusal to submit to being again a handmaid. Nothing but trouble results from refusal to take the place assigned by God. “... she (Hagar) fled from her (Sarai’s) face,” but it was only to face death in the wilderness. Law has no place except as the servant of grace.
16:7. “And the angel of the Lord found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.”
It is clear from this verse that in Sarai and Hagar we have more than the representation of the principles of grace and law respectively. They are representative also of the nation of Israel: Sarai portraying the godly remnant wedded to faith; and Hagar, the rest of the nation living in bondage to law.
Hagar, then, fled from Sarai, is a picture of Israel today fled from grace. The fountain of water is a type of the Word, as the wilderness is of the world. This is where Israel is today. They cling to the letter of the Word, though away from grace, their darkened minds unable to understand it; and they are in the wilderness of the world, fugitives from the household of faith, stubbornly refusing to submit to grace.
But the fountain was, “in the way to Shur.” Shur means beheld: rampart (as a point of observation). Stubborn rebel though she is, Israel is still the object of God’s care. His eye never ceases to behold her. Like the father of the prodigal, He watches from the rampart of heaven, waiting only for that repentant cry that will make her again the recipient of His blessing.
Israel, however, is God’s mirror to man. In her present condition we see portrayed the condition of every unbeliever. He too is a rebel, wandering in the wilderness of the world, refusing to submit to grace, but nonetheless the object of God’s love and care.
As in the other OT references to “the angel of the Lord,” commentators are generally agreed that this angel is the Lord Jesus Christ, His presence in the wilderness, ministering to Hagar’s need, being but the adumbration of His ministry to men today.
16:8. “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.”
This verse is a beautiful symbolic miniature of the Gospel. It begins with God’s declaration of Hagar’s identity and state. God knew her, as He knows every man. He knew also her state, as He does that of every man. She may have tried to take the place of Abram’s wife, but she was only Sarai’s maid. Her attempt to assume the place of the wife of Abram (faith) is a picture of the man who attempts to be saved through law-keeping. Everything may have seemed to validate her claim, but one essential was lacking: the life within her was that of Ishmael, not Isaac. The child she would bear was not the promised seed. Unless the life within the professing convert is the life of Christ, that man will never enter heaven.
Whether it be the recovery of a backslidden saint, the salvation of a sinner, or the recovery and conversion of Israel, the steps are the same: we must be brought to an end of ourselves, and made to hear God’s voice addressing us personally. (In regard to the future conversion of Israel, just as it was the privation of the wilderness that brought Hagar to repentant submission, so will it be the Tribulation judgments that will bring Israel to similar repentance). As Hagar heard God declare her state, so must every sinner bow to the divine indictment, “All have sinned.... there is none righteous.”
And an answer must be given to His question, “Whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go?” Those who, as backslidden saints, would be restored to a proper relationship with God; or, as sinners, would be brought into that relationship for the first time, must confess, “I am a fugitive from grace.”
And the question, “Whither wilt thou go?” must also be answered: the backslidden saint confessing that continued departure from grace must bring him into the place of chastisement and eternal loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ; the sinner confessing that his continued rebellion will bring him at last into the eternal torment of the lake of fire.
16:9. “And the angel of the Lord said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.”
God’s way is always the same. He who would be blessed must abandon the impossible task of trying to keep the law. Only submission to grace secures blessing. Hagar’s only rightful place in Abram’s household was as handmaid to Sarai (grace); and even then, only until the coming of the promised seed, Isaac, type of Christ, (see Ge 21).
16:10. “And the angel of the Lord said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.”
The promised multiplication of her posterity points figuratively to the extension of her own life, for children are the perpetuation of the life of the parent. It must be recognized, however, that while primarily she represents the principle of law, here in the present context of her being saved from death at the well, and her being sent back to Abram’s household, she is a type of the sinner being saved through the obedience of faith. The extension of her life, implied in the promised uncountable progeny, is the symbolic announcement of the fact that the believer, whom, in the present context she represents, possesses everlasting life.
This spiritual application, however, doesn’t alter the fact that the promise has also had a literal fulfilent, for Ishmael became the father of the Arabs; and none but God can number the multitude of them who have walked the earth from that day to the present, and who will yet walk the earth until human history closes.
16:11. “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.”
While certainly we may, by application, view Hagar as a type of the individual sinner, it must be remembered that primarily she represents the principle of law, just as Sarai represents primarily the principle of grace (Ga 4:22-27). She is therefore, a type of the nation of Israel attempting to be justified by law-keeping, while Sarai represents the godly remnant within the professing, but faithless nation. Ishmael, then, with all the multiplied progeny to come through him, represents not only those who constitute that unbelieving part of the nation of Israel, but unbelieving man in general. Isaac, on the other hand, represents not only the individual believers who constitute the remnant within the apostate nation, but also the individual believers of this present age of grace.
The name, Ishmael, meaning God will hear, conveys the implied assurance that God will hear the cry of any individual in the apostate nation who, in the midst of affliction, will turn to Him. Israel, however, consisting of the apostate mass as well as the godly remnant, is God’s mirror to humanity. His gracious response to the cry of the repentant Jew is the same as to the cry of the repentant Gentile, “Whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Ac 2:21).
16:12. “And he will be a wild man; and 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.”
The first clause is literally, “He will be as a wild ass among men,” confirmation that he represents the unbeliever, for several Scriptures assure us that the ass is a type of the natural man, e.g., “For vain (hollow, empty) man would be wise, though man be born like a wild ass’s colt” (Job 11:12); “And every firstling of an ass thou shalt redeem with a lamb; and if thou wilt not redeem it, then thou shalt break his neck: and all the firstborn of man among thy children shalt thou redeem” (Ex 13:13).
We should note also that it is the firstborn of ass and man that is to be redeemed, for, as noted in earlier studies, the firstborn is also a type of the natural man, of the flesh in opposition to the Spirit. And as noted also in earlier studies, the wild ass represents the natural man indulging the lusts of the flesh without restraint, while the ass bridled portrays the natural man with the lusts of the flesh under some measure of moral restraint. The one, however, is as much in need of a new birth as is the other. Wild or domesticated, an ass is still an ass. Moral or dissolute, every man without Christ is a sinner, not a saint.
The foretold enmity between Ishmael and other men simply declares the character of the natural man, for Paul writes concerning the believer’s former state, “We ourselves also were... foolish ... living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another” (Tit 3:3).
“... he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren,” is literally “he shall live to the east, and on the borders of all his brethren or kinsmen.” Since the east is used consistently in Scripture to indicate sin and distance from God, this is further confirmation that as Ishmael was, so would his literal descendants be. To this day this is the condition of the Arabs. They are estranged from God, and the bitter antagonists of Christianity and of the Jews, occupying a place among the nations which cannot be better described than as being “on the borders.”
The symbolic picture, however, is applicable also to the unbelieving Jew. He too is estranged from God, the bitter foe of Christianity, and his place among the nations is “borderland,” his religion and intense nationalism setting him apart.
And the third typological picture is no less accurate, for the unbeliever, of whom Ishmael is a type, is estranged from God, the foe of faith, his dwelling place being only “on the borders” of the family of faith, for in spite of all his religious forms, he does not belong to the household of faith.
16:13. “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?”
What was true of Hagar is true of all men: nothing is hidden from the eye of God.
The realization that she had been in the presence of the God Who saw and knew all about her, caused her to exclaim, “Have I also here looked after Him that seeth me?” literally, “Have I indeed seen God and yet still live?” Well might she ask the question. How indeed can any man live, since all have sinned against that God, Who is “of purer eyes than to look upon evil” (Hab 1:13)? She lived only because she obeyed His command to return and submit to Sarai. Refusal to return left no alternative but to face death in the Wilderness of Shur. The spiritual lesson is clear: a meeting with God leaves man with only two choices: submit to grace and live, or refuse to submit, and die.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the God Who saw Hagar, and Who sees all men, and Who has full knowledge of their sin that causes them to flee from His grace, looks upon them in pity, desiring only that they should obey Him and live by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior.
16:14. “Wherefore the well was called Beer-la-hai-roi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.”
Beer-la-hai-roi means the well of him that liveth and seeth me. It represents the Word of God, for it is the true “well” of the living God Who sees me as He sees all men. It is at the “well” of the Word that men learn, not only of their hopeless state, but also of God’s love that has provided a remedy through the death and resurrection of His Son.
It’s being between Kadesh and Bered is significant. Kadesh means apartness (set apart for a purpose). Its meaning being closely allied with the meaning of sanctuary (a holy place) or (the dwelling of a god) certainly justifies our regarding it as a type of heaven, the holy place (set apart) where God dwells.
Bered, on the other hand, means hail, and in Scripture hail is almost invariably associated with the outpouring of divine wrath and judgment.
Beer-la-hai-roi’s being between Kadesh and Bered tells us that spiritually the Word is the “well” of the water of life located here in the “wilderness” of the world between “Kadesh” (heaven) and “Bered” (hell). Having met God in the Word, man must obey and live, or disobey and die. There are only two eternal destinations: “Kadesh” (heaven), or “Bered” (hell).
16:15. “And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his son’s name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael.”
This son born to Abram and Hagar is not the promised seed, for faith and law, represented by Abram and Hagar, cannot produce life. Life is represented by Isaac. It comes only from the union of Abram and Sarai, faith and grace. The true seed is to be called Isaac he shall laugh (Ge 17:19); but this child born of the will of the flesh, can only be called Ishmael God will hear. Faith and law can bring forth nothing but the cry of despair, but the moment that cry is uttered God bestows His gift of life through grace, and despair is replaced with laughter. “Ishmael” must give place to “Isaac.”
16:16. “And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.”
This attempt of nature to fulfill God’s word was fourteen years before God’s time, for when Isaac was born Abram was a hundred years old (Ge 21:5). The factors of fourteen are two (number of testimony or witness), and seven (number of perfection). Those fourteen years became the perfect testimony to man’s folly and God’s wisdom.
There is nothing more difficult for the believer than to wait patiently for God’s time, but there is nothing that contributes more to peace and contentment than to obey His command, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
Abram’s age (four score and six years) at the time of Ishmael’s birth, is also instructive. The number is clearly divided into four, twenty, and six. Four is the number of testing; six, of man; and twenty factorizes as 2 x 10, or 4 x 5. Two is the number of witness; ten, of divine government; and five, of responsibility, so that the lesson of his age is that under the testing (four) directed or permitted by divine government (ten), man is responsible (five) to act at the direction of the Holy Spirit, or in the energy of the flesh, his response witnessing (two) to the wisdom of the former, or the folly of the latter. Ishmael was the evidence that man acting in the energy of the flesh can never accomplish the purposes of God.He is a wise man who learns early the perfection of God’s time, and the wisdom of waiting for it.