Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Genesis 16

Genesis 16: Hagar and Ishmael

Synopsis

This is a soap opera-ish kind of chapter. In the last chapter, we’d mentioned that Abram didn’t have any children, and he and his wife Sarai were old enough that having children was pretty unlikely. So, Sarai comes up with a plan: she’ll give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram, so that he can have a child through her. Back in the day, there were various rules that people could have children through their servants, and the children would be counted as part of their family—I don’t know how it all works. But it sounds like any child of Hagar’s would be counted as a child of Sarai’s, even though she didn’t physically bear the child.

Abram agrees, sleeps with Hagar, and she conceives. Unfortunately, as soon as she does, she begins to despise Sarai. “Ha Ha I can have babies and you can’t” kind of thing. So, of course, Sarai blames Abram:

Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.” (verse 5)

Unfortunately, Abram simply distances himself from the situation, and tells Sarai to do whatever she wants with Hagar. In verse 6 he says “Your servant is in your hands…. Do with her whatever you think best.” So Sarai mistreats Hagar, until Hagar flees.

At this point, the LORD steps in—although possibly not in the way Hagar would have preferred. The angel of the LORD finds her in the desert, and tells her to go back to Sarai, and submit to her. He also gives her good news and bad news.

The good news: her descendants will be too numerous to count. Not only that, but the LORD has heard her misery:

The angel of the LORD also said to her:
“You are now with child
and you will have a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the LORD has heard of your misery.”
(verse 11)

(“Ishmael” means “God hears”.)

The bad news, though, is that even after Ishmael is born, it’s not going to be a rosy life:

“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.”
(verse 12)

So Hagar has the boy, and Abram names him Ishmael. Verse 16 says that Abram was 86 when Hagar had the child.

Thoughts

When I was in high school we read The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence, in which there is a character named Hagar Shipley. In school, they made a huge deal about Hagar Shipley’s life paralleling the story of Hagar in the Bible. At the time, I didn’t really care—I preferred to simply read the story as-is, without reading too much into the allegory—and I still don’t really care.

But you can see why Hagar’s life would inspire stories; she’s given to Abram to bear a son, which won’t be counted as hers; when she does, she gets a bit full of herself, and as a result is chased out of the household—pregnant—and ends up wandering the desert; the angel of the LORD sends her back, to endure whatever she has to endure, and she bears the son.

And, after all this, Ishmael still isn’t the son that God will give to Abram, who will be the father of the Jewish nation. Abram and Sarai go to all of this trouble, when they could have just been patient and waited on the LORD for the promised son.

Not that I’m blaming them, per se. It’s easy to read the story, and think to yourself “why didn’t they just wait?”, but it only takes a few minutes to read the story, whereas it took them years to live it.
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