Abraham’s Story Ends

Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Southern View
Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Abraham and Sarah are buried. Photo by Utilisateur:Djampa – User:Djampa – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7964820

It was very important that Isaac have a wife. That has been done. The next episode is written like an archive record according to my NRSV Study Bible (Genesis 25:1-18). This is an example of how the Bible was not written simply by divine dictation. The authors had written and oral sources they used and maybe edited as well. The archive gives Abraham’s marriage to Keturah, their descendants, his death and burial, and the descendants of Ishmael.

Another Wife, Whose Name Was Keturah

Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah.

(Gen 25:1-2 NRS)

Another wife, and he had six children with her. I assume this was after Sarah’s death, and after Isaac married Rebekah (Genesis 24:66-67). This would make him over one hundred forty years old. It took one hundred years for him to have one child with Sarah. Now he has six with his new wife in just a few years, relatively.

Not sure why he felt the need for it. He was too weak to travel in the previous chapter, but then he’s healthy enough to marry again and start bearing children to another woman? Again, the details of Abraham’s story are not always consistent. But if we allow that he had another revival of health, like the one that produced Isaac, what will become of these children?

Jokshan was the father of Sheba and Dedan. The sons of Dedan were Asshurim, Letushim, and Leummim. The sons of Midian were Ephah, Epher, Hanoch, Abida, and Eldaah. All these were the children of Keturah.

(Gen 25:3-4 NRS)

The sons of Midian are the most significant of this group. Moses’s father-in-law, Jethro, was a Midianite. Despite that, they often tried to thwart the Israelites during their wandering in the Wilderness (Num 22:4; cf. Jdg 6:1).

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. But to the sons of his concubines Abraham gave gifts, while he was still living, and he sent them away from his son Isaac, eastward to the east country.

(Gen 25:5-6 NRS)

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. We saw how stingy Sarah was about giving anything to Hagar and Ishmael, even food and water, when she sent them away. Abraham gave nothing to his other sons as far as inheritance. But he gave them gifts while he was still living. I think, without Sarah to oppose him, he was probably more generous with these gifts than he was with Hagar and Ishmael. But Sarah’s word, “The son(s) of the slave woman will not inherit with my son,” prevailed (21:10).

The sons of his concubines; why does it give the plural, concubines? Hagar was called both Abraham’s wife and his concubine. The same is happening with Keturah. Maybe that means both Hagar and Keturah. Did he give any gifts to Ishmael after Sarah died? As a writer, I would like to play with that possibility and imagine Ishmael’s reaction when he receives the gifts.

An Old Man Full of Years

This is the length of Abraham’s life, one hundred seventy-five years. Abraham breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people.

(Gen 25:7-8 NRS)

One hundred seventy-five years was believed to be an above average, but still normal, life span in the age of the patriarchs.

Abraham breathed his last …. There are a number of English expressions that come from the Bible (see v. 17; 49:33). I think this might be one of them.

…and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years. This is the fulfillment of the promise God made him in the covenant. “As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age” (Gen 15:15 NRS).

…and was gathered to his people, a biblical euphemism for death and burial. Cf. Gen 25:17; 35:29; 49:29, 33.

Isaac and Ishmael Buried Him

His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with his wife Sarah. 

(Gen 25:9-10 NRS)

Despite his troubled history with his father, Ishmael was there to bury him with Isaac. In the cave of Machpelah…the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. See 23:16-18. He was buried there with his wife Sarah.

tomb of Abraham, northwestern view
Tomb of Abraham, photo by By A ntv – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12042233

There is a lot left out, particularly any tension between Isaac and Ishmael. Compare that with all the detail of how Abraham bought this cave as a family burial plot, or how Abraham’s servant vowed (TMI there), went to Haran, and brought back a wife for Isaac. Those conversations are recorded in detail. There is literally nothing of the conversation between these two half-brothers. The archivists who recorded this were not concerned with that. They were only concerned with the facts: How old Abraham was when he died, where he was buried, and who was there.

After the death of Abraham God blessed his son Isaac. And Isaac settled at Beer-lahai-roi.

(Gen 25:11 NRS)

Beer-lahai-roi, the place where the angel of the LORD saved Hagar when she was still pregnant with Ishmael (16:10-14), is where Isaac settled. Did Ishmael see this as one more thing his half-brother took from him?

The Twelve Princes of Ishmael

These are the descendants of Ishmael, Abraham’s son, whom Hagar the Egyptian, Sarah’s slave-girl, bore to Abraham.

These are the names of the sons of Ishmael, named in the order of their birth: Nebaioth, the firstborn of Ishmael; and Kedar, Adbeel, Mibsam, Mishma, Dumah, Massa, Hadad, Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah. These are the sons of Ishmael and these are their names, by their villages and by their encampments, twelve princes according to their tribes.

(Gen 25:12-16 NRS)

This is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

(Gen 17:20 NRS)

… and Hagar:

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

(Gen 16:10 NRS)

Ishmael had twelve sons, who became twelve princes according to their tribes, like Jacob later. The descendants of Ishmael are called Ishmaelites and Hagrites (Psa 83:6; 1 Chr 5:19). The names are also recorded in Chronicles, along with each of their descendants (1 Chr 1:29-43).

The Handmaid and Her Son

Depending on the situation, Hagar is referred to as Abraham’s wife, concubine, or Sarah’s slave girl. It reminds me of how Offred was treated by the Waterfords in The Handmaid’s Tale. Fred sometimes wanted a relationship with Offred and at times engaged in activities outside the bounds of her role as a “concubine,” almost like he wanted her to be a second wife. Serena treated her at best like a concubine and at worst like a slave girl. The impression I get from the texts regarding Hagar is pretty much the same in her relations with Abraham and Sarah.

The Ishmaelites were known as nomads, but they also had villages and encampments, like the Dothraki in Game of Thrones. {Yeah, I’m a nerd. You got a problem with that?}

From Havilah to Shur

(This is the length of the life of Ishmael, one hundred thirty-seven years; he breathed his last and died, and was gathered to his people.)

They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; he settled down alongside of all his people.

(Gen 25:17-18 NRS)

Ishmael’s death is recorded in archival fashion similar to Abraham’s (cf. vv. 7-8). They settled from Havilah to Shur. Just prior to King David, this territory was settled by the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7).

The land of Havilah has several possible locations, as this map indicates.

Map of ancient tribes includes various Havilah locations
Havilah shown in modern Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia.

Here, it appears to be the territory in present day Saudi Arabia and Yemen. It is mentioned as part of the Garden of Eden, where the river Pishon once flowed (Gen 2:11). A ancient source called Pseudo-Philo said this land exported jewels to the Amorites, who used them in making their idols.

Shur means “wall.” The location is given as opposite Egypt.

Map, likely location of Shur
They settled from Havilah to Shur, which is opposite Egypt in the direction of Assyria; (Gen 25:18 NRS)

In the direction of Assyria would indicate the northeastern border of Egypt, as Easton’s Bible Dictionary (1893) says.

Shur is “a part, probably, of the Arabian desert, on the north-eastern border of Egypt, giving its name to a wilderness extending from Egypt toward Philistia (Gen. 16:7; 20:1; 25:18; Ex. 15:22). The name was probably given to it from the wall which the Egyptians built to defend their frontier on the north-east from the desert tribes. This wall or line of fortifications extended from Pelusium to Heliopolis.”

-cited in Shur, Wikipedia

He Settled Down Opposite All His People

The Egyptians are his people, because his mother was Egyptian. The land of Shur borders Egypt to the northwest. Isaac and his descendants are his people, because they have the same father. The land of Havilah borders the Negeb desert, where Isaac settled. Is this location information only?

There is another possible definition of this sentence. It could read “He fell down in opposition to all his people,” according to my NRSV Study Bible note. This is reflected in some translations.

“He settled in defiance of all his relatives” (Gen 25:18 NAS).

“And they lived in hostility toward all the tribes related to them” (Gen 25:18 NIV).

Alongside of, or against His People?

Like the word “opposite” in English, the Hebrew phrase `al-penei can be benign, “alongside,” or “facing towards.” In that sense, it would only mean they share a border, like Georgia is opposite Alabama and South Carolina. Or it can carry the more malevolent sense of being “in opposition to” or “at odds with.” It is used twice in this verse, where the Ishmaelites settled “opposite” Egypt and “all his people.” Did they simply live alongside Egypt and Isaac (later part of Israel)? Or is this referring to the hostile relations they had at times with both Egypt and Israel?

My conclusion is this verse means the Ishmaelites shared a border with Egypt and Isaac’s land, which would later become part of the nation of Israel (See Translation Notes). However, there are other texts that indicate hostile relations between the Ishmaelites and their neighbors. Even the name Shur (meaning “wall”) refers to a border wall Egypt built for protection against raids from its neighbors, who could be the Ishmaelites, or alternatively, the Hyksos or the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:7). Kedar and Nebaioth (two tribes of Ishmael) sometimes were hostile to the nation of Israel (Isa 21:16-17; 60:7; Jer 49:28; cf. Gen 28:9; 36:3).

So perhaps the double meaning of `al-penei is intentional. During times in their history when relations were friendly or at least neutral, it would mean “alongside of.” During times when relations were antagonistic, it would mean “in hostility.”

The End

Abraham’s saga began with a genealogy (Gen 11:10-32) and now ends with a genealogy (25:12-18). “The emphasis here is on the secondary lines of Abraham’s—those displaced by Isaac” (HC Study Bible, 25:1-18 note). We have his children by Keturah and the descendants of Ishmael. This completes the character study of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Lot and his daughters, based on the Biblical material. There are other sources we could consult about them: Rabbinic commentaries, the Koran, archeology, and Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET). But the Biblical material has given us quite a bit. There are others I’m not naming, like Isaac and Rebekah, because their stories have not finished.

For Writers: Choosing a POV Character

If I were to make a work of fiction based on these stories, I would look for a Point of View (POV) character. Abraham would be difficult. Even though he’s the main character, and he was there for all of it (except his death and burial), it’s a bit daunting to try to get inside the head of someone who plays such a big role in the Bible. Sarah would be difficult for the same reason, and because after going through this story in detail, I have less sympathy for her overall. Notice, I didn’t say no sympathy. I said less sympathy. I would want to portray them both honestly, flaws and all, not excusing their bad behavior at times, but trying to make the reader sympathize with them in spite of that.

Most of my favorite biblical or historical fiction is not from the POV of one of the big names but rather from someone close to them. Eliezer of Damascus would be a good candidate in that vein. Or one of the unnamed slaves of Abraham or Sarah. Or one of the co-religionists, who followed Abraham and Sarah from Haran because they worshiped the same god. If I chose Hagar or Ishmael, I would have to make the story about them, with Abraham and Sarah as secondary characters, who could recede into the background after they were sent away. I would have a hard time making Hagar the POV character. She is much more fascinating than I realized. But I feel Margaret Atwood has already done a great job capturing all the complexities of her character in June/Offred. {Disclaimer: Atwood never claimed June was based on Hagar, but I say the similarities are undeniable.}


Who would you choose as a POV character? Would you choose more than one (that will make it more difficult to publish today, just so you know)? Personally, I know I couldn’t do Abraham’s whole story from Ishmael’s point of view (He was only with his father for about seventeen years). But he would make a great POV character at least for the time he was with Abraham and Sarah.

“Props” for Ishmael

I think Ishmael would make a fascinating character, because I haven’t seen a serious in-depth story done of him as biblical fiction, and because he is the unwanted stepchild in this story. A troubled childhood has so much potential for character development. It could not have been easy growing up knowing he was his father’s plan B. Plan C, actually, because before he was born, Abraham had made his servant, Eliezer of Damascus, his heir in lieu of a son of his own issue (Gen 15:2). As his stepmother, Sarah probably loved him until Isaac was born. What happens to Plan C when Plan A suddenly becomes reality? If he picked on Isaac a little, it was probably the frustration of losing Abraham and Sarah to their natural son.

Then he learned at an early age that masters have absolute power over their slaves when Sarah insisted casting them out into the Wilderness, along with his mother, and Abraham obeyed. He learned then he was going to have to be tough to survive in this world. There were only two people he could count on, his natural mother and himself. And one other, El-roi, “the God Who Sees.” And so he spent about seventy years of his living “alongside” his father and half-brother. And after all that, he showed up for his father’s funeral.

That rough childhood prepared him for life in the wilderness (Gen 21:20). All that happened to him, fair or not, made him into the man he became: a wild ass of a man, strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions. Those details alone are enough to create a fascinating character.

Conclusion

I will save any further conclusions for the next post. I thought I already knew these characters, but they have all surprised me again and again on this extended in-depth character study. I hope you got something out of it as well.  

Translation Notes

I include these notes for people who (like me) love dissecting the original languages. If that’s not your bag, I put the pertinent information in subheadings and bold text.

They Settled from Havilah to Shur

וַיִּשְׁכְּנ֙וּ מֵֽחֲוִילָ֜ה עַד־שׁ֗וּר (Gen 25:18 WTT)—vayyishkenu mechavilah `ad-shur.

They settled from Havilah to Shur.

Hol8596  שָׁכַן (shakan) Settle or dwell. {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine plural}

It looks like there is a puncta extraordinaria over “Shur.” In some cases, this can indicate a significant difference, as you saw if you read my post on Lot’s Daughters. However, none of the commentaries pointed it out here, so it’s probably not important. My guess is it only calls for a defective spelling (without the vav).

Opposite Egypt

עַל־פְּנֵ֣י מִצְרַ֔יִם (Gen 25:18 WTT)– `al-penei mitzrayim.

Opposite Egypt, or alongside Egypt.

`al-penei, lit. “against the face of.” Halladay’s lexicon says,

15. in the face of, in the sight of, before 2S 1518; in front of 1K 63; opposite to Gn 2319; against = to the disadvantage of Dt 2116.

(pg 294)

BDB says,

(d) of localities, in front of, mostly (but not always: v. GFM:Ju., p. 351) = east of, 1 K 6:3 the porch in front of, etc., v:3, 7:6, 8:8, 2 Ch 3:17, Ez 42:8; Gn 16:12 על־פני כל־אחיו ישׁכן (cf. 25:18 b), perh. (Di al.) with collateral idea of defiance;

The “collateral idea of defiance” is most significant. He could have been both alongside of his people and in defiance of them.

In the Direction of Assyria

בֹּאֲכָ֖ה אַשּׁ֑וּרָה (Gen 25:18 WTT)—bo’achah ’ashshurah.

Hol838  אַשּׁוּר  (‘ashur) a proper noun referring either to the city of Asshur or (most likely in this case) the territory of Assyria; “directional heh” at the end makes it “to Asshur” or “to Assyria.”

In the direction of Assyria, lit. “as you go to Assyria” (or “to Asshur”).

Hol975  בּוא (bo’) Go in, come, or arrive. {verb qal infinitive construct; suffix 2nd person masculine singular}  

BDB says,

e. † in phr. עַד־בּוֹאֲךָ עַזָּה Ju 6:4 cf. 11:33, 1 S 17:52, 2 S 5:25, 1 K 18:46 (עַד־בֹּאֲכָה) until thou comest to = as far as; so also בּוֹאֲךָ (בֹּאֲכָה) alone, = as far as, or in the direction of, Gn 10:19, 10:19, 10:30, 13:10, 25:18, 1 S 27:8 (all sq. ךָה loc.) 1 S 15:7; so לְבאֹ חֲמָת Nu 13:21, 34:8, Ez 48:1, cf. Ez 47:15 (in a different connexion לָבוֹא אפרתה Gn 35:16, 48:7);

He Settled Down alongside of All His People

עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־אֶחָ֖יו נָפָֽל׃ (Gen 25:18 WTT)—`al-penei kal-echav naphal.

…he settled down alongside of all his people.  (Gen 25:18 NRS)

`al-penei, see above.

kal-’echav, lit. “all his kindred.”

The wording is almost the same as 16:12, the only difference being the verb is shakan “to settle” rather than naphal “to fall.” There, the footnote reads:

The same phrase is used of the lands of Ishmael’s descendants in 25:18. It can be translated “in opposition to” (Deut 21:16; Job 1:11; 6:28; 21:31), but here more likely means that Ishmael’s settlement was near but not in the promised land.

-YouVersion, NABRE Gen 16:12 note

He “Fell” or He “Settled”?

Naphal, lit. “he fell (down or upon),” can carry the meaning of death (1 Sam 31:8; Deut 21:1; Jdg 3:25). In fact, it was translated that way in the King James Version, … he died in the presence of all his brethren. (Gen 25:18 KJV). John Calvin commented that was how most translations read it in his time.

The Geneva Study Bible reads that way, but adds the note, “He means that his lot fell to dwell alongside his brothers as the angel promised [Gen 16:12].” They stress he died there because it was his home.

The NRSV is consistent with most modern translations, where the verb is understood to mean “he settled (down),” or perhaps “he fell upon,” as in “he raided” or “he plundered,” rather than “he died.” Though it is a consensus, it appears to be a recent development.

Halladay’s lexicon says naphal can mean “fall,” in both literal and metaphorical senses. This can include “fall upon,” as in “make a raid” or “attack” (Jos 11:7; Job 1:15).

Hol5626  נָפַל  (naphal) “abs. make a raid Jb 115; … settle opposite Gn 2518.”

However, with `al-penei, it means “settle opposite.” BDB also believes naphal here means “settle Gn 25:18 (J).”

So while naphal can in certain contexts mean “raid” or “die,” these two Hebrew lexicons believe it carries the benign sense of settling in a place opposite all his people.

This could also apply to Genesis 16:12, which is perhaps best translated, … alongside all his kindred shall he encamp (Gen 16:12 NAB), rather than … and he shall live at odds with all his kin. (Gen 16:12 NRS). See https://www.bible.com/bible/463/GEN.16.nabre, note on v. 12.

References

Genesis, the Land of Havilah, and its Gold.” (A paper prepared for Christian businessman Graham Daniels, retrieved from Genesis Science Research).

Joshua J. Mark. “Hyksos.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. February 15, 2017.

Topical Bible: Havilah.” Biblehub.com

Topical Bible: Shur.” Biblehub.com

Verse by Verse Commentary: Genesis 25:18.” Studylight.org.

Where is the Land of Havilah in the Bible Located?” Answers.com.

Who Were the Amalekites?” Got Questions.

Wikipedia

Havilah

Shur

Ishmael, a Different Destiny

About last week’s post, it occurs to me you might have been confused. I talked about Lot’s daughters and how their actions were complete folly. Then I told you about Genesis Rabbah, a Rabbinic commentary which suggests:

  • Lot may have been fooled the first time his daughters got him drunk, but not the second.
  • Lot’s daughters somehow knew they were part of the bloodline of the Messiah.
  • Lot deliberately isolated his daughters, so he would be their only option for continuing the bloodline.

That is a much different impression you get from reading the English translation. There, it looks like the daughters got him so drunk he did not know what happened, and that they foolishly believed they and their father were the last people on earth. But the Rabbis who put together the Genesis Rabbah saw things in the Hebrew text I would never have seen.

  1. They conclude Lot was not as drunk as we thought because there is a dot over the last word in the verse. According to the Rabbis, the dot over the last word changes the meaning of the end of Genesis 19:33 from “[he did not know when she lay down] or when she arose,” to “[he did not know when she lay down], but he knew when she arose.” That changes Lot from clueless to complicit. (See Translation Notes).
  2. They conclude the daughters knew they were part of the bloodline because the elder said to the younger, “so that we may preserve offspring through our father” (Gen 19:32 NRS), not “so that we may keep a child alive from our father.” They say this means their concern was not just to have a child but to “preserve offspring,” i.e., the bloodline of the Messiah.
  3. The Rabbis point to this verse, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire” (Pro 18:1 ESV). Lot isolated himself with his daughters. They conclude Lot had it in mind to have children through his daughters when he took them to live in a cave in the hills.

The Rabbis make Lot look a lot worse, and his daughters look a lot better, than any English version of this passage. This is maybe the greatest example of “lost in translation” I have ever seen. I’m not sure I agree with all the Rabbis’ conclusions. But considering they had a lot more experience than I do in reading the Hebrew texts of the Bible, they know the editorial marks I don’t, and they know subtleties and nuances in the text I don’t, I can’t dismiss any of it.

All of that is to say if it was confusing how I started out as if I was going to conclude one thing about Lot and his daughters and then went in an entirely different direction, sorry. I wish I could promise that will be the last time I do that, but…anyway, on to the next lesson.

God Brings Laughter for Sarah

When Abraham and Sarah thought their chance at having a son had passed, Sarah told him to go in to her maid, Hagar. Legally, she could claim the son of her handmaid as her own. Ishmael was going to be Abraham and Sarah’s heir. But then, against all odds, Sarah had her own son at ninety-one. She and Abraham named him Isaac. One can only imagine the joy they felt when this dream they had given up on actually came true.

Now Sarah said, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.” And she said, “Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.”

(Gen 21:6-7 NRS)

A joyous moment for Abraham and Sarah. Isaac, whose name means “he laughs,” was the heir God had promised them finally manifest (18:13-15). But what did it mean for Hagar and Ishmael?

How Dare He Play with My Son!

The child grew, and was weaned; and Abraham made a great feast on the day that Isaac was weaned. But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac. So she said to Abraham, “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.”

The matter was very distressing to Abraham on account of his son.

(Gen 21:8-11 NRS)

The ceremony for a child being weaned was a big deal back then, maybe comparable to a bar mitzvah today.

But Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian … playing with her son Isaac. Why would playing with her son make Sarah go to such an extreme as cast out this slave woman with her son? The Hebrew verb tsachaq comes from the same root as “laughter” or “to laugh.” The same root is used for Isaac’s name, meaning “He laughs.” In the form used here, it can mean “playing,” like children often play and have fun together. Or it could mean “laughing at, making fun of, making sport of, or mocking,” as the Philistines did to Samson.

And when their hearts were merry, they said, “Call Samson, and let him entertain us.”

(Jdg 16:25 NRS)

Let him entertain us is the key phrase here. They had already robbed Samson of his strength and blinded him. Now, they wanted to take advantage of his vulnerability and “make sport of him.” In context, that looks like the most likely way to interpret playing with her son Isaac. Have you ever seen a Jewish mother’s wrath when someone messes with her child? You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that.

But in this case, Ishmael is her son too. Or is he? Now that Sarah has a son that came from her own issue, Ishmael is the son of this slave woman. It sounds like Ishmael sensed Sarah never truly accepted him as her son. And between him and Isaac, Isaac has more claim to her, even though legally Sarah is his mother. Maybe he took out his frustration on Isaac and gave Sarah the excuse she wanted to break with him and Hagar, in order to protect Isaac’s inheritance.

The Matter Was Very Distressing to Abraham

But Abraham still thought of Ishmael as his son. He did not want to cast them out. Sarah, though, once she makes up her mind, will not budge. Being a prophet, Abraham would seek a word from God.

But God said to Abraham, “Do not be distressed because of the boy and because of your slave woman; whatever Sarah says to you, do as she tells you, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be named for you. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring.”

(Gen 21:12-13 NRS)

So God tells him to do whatever Sarah says to you. I don’t think that made him feel any better about it, but when your wife and God are both telling you the same thing, you’d better do what they say. I’m just saying.

God promises to make a nation of him also. God will always watch over him because he is your offspring. This moment was foreshadowed when God said to Abraham,

“As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year.”

(Gen 17:20-21 NRS)

The Child of the Promise

Abraham has to let Ishmael go, but God will not abandon him. God promises again to make Ishmael a nation. But Isaac was the child of the promise. He was the one God would establish God’s covenant with. He was the one Abraham’s offspring would be named for. And as we know today, he was the one through whom the Messiah would come into the world. God had a plan and a destiny for Ishmael too, but it was apart from Abraham and Sarah. And God had also hinted to Hagar the same thing.

“He (Isaac) shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

(Gen 16:12 NRS)

He shall live at odds with all his kin. He was at odds with his half-brother, Isaac, and that put him at odds with Sarah. Their tent was no longer big enough for everyone.

So Abraham rose early in the morning, and took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the child, and sent her away. And she departed, and wandered about in the wilderness of Beer-sheba.

(Gen 21:14)

Beer-Sheba is in the northern part of the Negev Desert. The town is named for a well Abraham is said to have dug (Gen 21:25) and was the southern border of the land Israel occupied when Joshua led them in. It has a wadi that runs nearby in winter but is dry in the summer. Given Hagar’s difficulty finding water, I’m guessing this is the summer.

Bread and a skin of water? That’s all? He sends them into a desert with only a skin of water and bread. Sounds like the exact opposite of the generous hospitality he showed the angels. How much you want to bet that was Sarah? The son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.

Sarah’s Bad Side

She has shown in the past when you get her angry, she has no pity whatsoever (Gen 16:5-6). “So they don’t have enough food and water to survive a trek through the desert? How is that my problem? I told you the son of the slave would not inherit anything from us.”

When the water in the skin was gone, she cast the child under one of the bushes. Then she went and sat down opposite him a good way off, about the distance of a bowshot; for she said, “Do not let me look on the death of the child.”

And as she sat opposite him, she lifted up her voice and wept.

(Gen 21:15-16 NRS)

If they had died, I’d say the blood would have been mainly on Sarah’s hands. As for Abraham, God told him to do whatever Sarah told him in this matter. I still think he could have pushed for at least two or three water skins, or at least go where they could sell Hagar and Ishmael to someone who wouldn’t cast her out into the wilderness. But then when Abraham died, Ishmael might have come back to claim part of his inheritance. Sarah was having none of that.

“God Hears”

But God had promised Ishmael would not only survive but become a great nation with twelve princes. He cannot die here.

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.”

(Gen 21:17-18 NRS)

And God heard the voice of the boy. This plays off the meaning of Ishmael’s name (“God hears”). We were told what Hagar said, but not what Ishmael said. Still, God heard his voice. Did he say anything, or did he just cry out because he was suffering and afraid? But God speaks to Hagar and promises again to make a great nation of him.

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink.

(Gen 21:19 NRS)

Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. The well was there, but she didn’t see it. There is a powerful metaphor there. She cried out to God in her distress, and salvation was right there all along. But she couldn’t see it until God opened her eyes.

God Was With the Boy

God was with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt.

(Gen 21:20-21 NRS)

God was with the boy. God kept all God’s promises concerning Ishmael, even though he was not the one God chose to continue Abraham’s line and Abraham’s covenant. Being Abraham’s child was enough to secure a blessing from God.

He lived in the wilderness, and became an expert with the bow. See 16:12.

His mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt. Hagar was Egyptian, so that was a natural choice.

…and he grew up. Wait a minute! He grew up? I thought he was already grown!

Hmm. Something amiss here.

How Old Was Ishmael When This Happened?

According to the story so far, Abraham had Ishmael when he was eighty-six and Isaac when he was a hundred. So Ishmael was fourteen years old when Isaac was born. This happened when Isaac was weaned, which would make him about two or three. That would make Ishmael sixteen or seventeen when it says he and his mother were cast out. That makes no sense in this story. Did you notice these details?

He…took bread and a skin of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, along with the childshe cast the child under one of the bushes.

(Gen 21:14-15 NRS)

The Hebrew word for “child” here is yeled, which can mean “child, offspring, son, youth, or little child.” Since Abraham put him on Hagar’s shoulders and she cast him under a bush, it seems like it should be translated “little child” in this case. But at sixteen or seventeen, he would not have been a little child. He would have been considered already an adult in that society. Could Ishmael have been a midget?

Mickey Abbott from Seinfeld tells George, "It's Little People. You got that? Little People!

Sorry. Could it be Ishmael was a little person? And by the way, what happened to him being “a wild ass of a man”—strong, fiercely independent, and able to survive harsh conditions? He should have been the one finding the well for his mother. Except he wasn’t a man yet. After Hagar gave him water, it says,

and he grew up;

(Gen 21:20 NRS)

So he was a normal size child, and I think it’s safe to assume he grew up to be a normal size adult—after this incident. He was a little child, small enough for Abraham to place him on Hagar’s shoulders, small enough for her to carry on her shoulders, and small enough for her to cast him under a bush. Sixteen or seventeen years old is out of the question. He was more like three or four, possibly five. It looks like we have another doublet.

Another Doublet?

One example of a doublet I’ve already shown is the “wife-sister” episodes (Gen 12:10-20; 20:1-18). This happens when the same story is passed down orally in different locations over several generations. It will essentially be the same story but with some variations in the details. This is the second story of Hagar leaving Abraham and Sarah. In both stories, Sarah drives Hagar to leave, and when it looks like she will die, an angel appears and rescues her at a well. The angel also makes promises from God concerning Ishmael.

It looks like the story of Abraham originally had Ishmael just a year or two older than Isaac. That changed when this author spread out the birth of Ishmael and the birth of Isaac timewise, making Ishmael’s age a serious logistical problem for this episode. Why did the author place it here? Because, despite those problems, this is where it makes the most sense to the story as a whole. The tension between Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael came to a head after Sarah had a son of her own.

Why didn’t the author clean up those details that don’t fit Ishmael for the whole story? My best guess is he did not want to change this tradition, because it was sacred. So he placed it where it had the best dramatic effect. And that applies not only to this episode but to all cases where we find these logistical difficulties. He had more than one version of most if not all these stories about Abraham, and he wanted to put them together into one narrative without changing the traditions he received. The result, anytime you do that, is you will have some inconsistencies in the details.

What Does It Mean?

Ishmael is supposedly sixteen or seventeen when this episode takes place, but the episode itself is told as if Ishmael is at least three years old but no more than five, maybe six. I’ve explained why I think this is the case. But this is an example of why we can’t just say, “Believe the Bible, everything literally, word for word.” Sometimes, the literal word contradicts itself. Which are we to believe literally, that Ishmael was a little child of three to six years old, or that he was a young man of sixteen to eighteen? I’ve shown you they are both in the Bible. I can’t believe both, so which one do you say I have to believe?

In cases like this, I take my sister’s approach and go deeper. What did the story mean to the original audience? Why did the author write it this way? If it really happened, which version is more likely? What if it didn’t really happen? Yes, I do consider that possibility, especially when the details of the story don’t make sense. But whether it happened or not, the fact is this is how the story was passed down to us. Why is it here? What are we supposed to learn from the story itself?

Why is it here? It is an origin story for nations Israel encounters who claim Ishmael as their ancestor (Gen 25:12-18). What are we supposed to learn from it? I see the lesson in what God says to Abraham and Hagar.

Whenever God appears in the Abraham saga, it is for three reasons: to make promises, to keep promises, and to maintain the bloodline of Abraham or the Messiah. We see all of these playing out in this story. God said Ishmael’s destiny would take him away from Abraham and Sarah, and this is the fulfillment. God told Abraham and Hagar Ishmael would become a great nation, and we see the fulfillment here as well. And even though Ishmael is not part of the Messiah’s bloodline, God pronounces blessings over him because he is Abraham’s offspring. So the lesson here, as I said about the wife-sister episodes, is God keeps God’s promises, even if, as in this case, it is to someone who would often be hostile to Israel over the years.

An Allegory

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul uses this story as an allegory (4:21-31). He tells the Galatian Christians through faith in Christ, they became Abraham’s offspring, children of the promise, like Isaac. But when they submitted to the circumcision party, they left the life of the spirit for the life of the flesh, i.e., righteousness by works of the Law. They became children of the slave, like Ishmael. The point he is making is,

So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.

(Gal 4:31 NRS)

That is why as Gentile Christians, they do not have to become Jewish in order to follow Christ.

What if this story never really happened? Does that negate Paul’s lesson? Absolutely not. (Or in Greek, me ginoito). Because the story itself, as Paul uses it, is an illustration of a spiritual truth, which is why he called it an allegory.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God–not the result of works, so that no one may boast.

(Eph 2:8-9 NRS)

That is true whether the illustration “really happened” or not.

Translation Notes

Playing with her son Isaac. Gk Vg: Heb lacks with her son Isaac, so it was probably understood given Sarah’s reaction.

מְצַחֵֽק (Gen 21:9 WTT; mitsacheq) verb piel participle masculine singular absolute, from tsachaq:

8119  צָחַק [8120] (Hebrew) (Strong 6711) 2. sport, play Gn 21:9 (E) Ex 32:6 (J); make sport for Ju 16:25  (BDB, 850).

(1905f) מִשְׂחָק (mischaq) object of derision (Hab 1:10)….Sarah insists that Ishmael be driven away because he was “mocking” Isaac al ( Gen 21:9). The RSV innoccuously renders this participle “playing.” Yet in the light of Gal 4:29, on Ishmael’s persecuting Isaac, KJV, ASV, NASB, NIV prefer mocking. Observe that the Hiphil of sahaq (2Chr 30:10) describes the mockery by Israelites of the Northern Kingdom at Hezekiah’s invitation to share in the Passover at Jerusalem. (TWOT)


Yeled = “the child” (Gen 21:14, 15)

Hol3340  יֶלֶד

יֶלֶד: יָֽלֶד; pl. יְלָדִים, cs. יַלְדֵי (4 ×) & יִלְדֵי (Is 574), sf. יְלָדָיו, יַלְדֵיהֶם: — 1. boy, male child: a) Gn 423; b) pl. boys, children Gn 3026; = fetus (in a miscarriage) Ex 2122; (pg 135)


Na`ar = “the boy.” (Gen 21:20)

Hol5604  נַעַר (ca. 230 ×): נָֽעַר, sf. נַעֲרוֹ, נַעַרְךָ; pl. נְעָרִים, cs. נַעֲרֵי, sf. נַעֲרֵיהֶם: marriageable male while still single: — 1. boy, youth Gn 194; — 2. young man, pl. young people Gn 1424; 400 °îš-na±ar 1S 3017; — 3. boy, (man-)servant: of Abraham Gn 223, weapon-bearer 1S 141; pl. Jb 115; can write Ju 814; military, i.e. personal retinue 1S 213•5; (Strong)


Gadal = “he grew up”

וַיִּגְדָּ֑ל (Gen 21:20 WTT; vayyigdal) {verb qal waw consec imperfect 3rd person masculine singular}

Hol1442  גָּדַל (gadal)

1. grow up, become great Gn 218•20; wayy¢lek…h¹lôk w®g¹dôl 2S 510 « h¹lak 4, cf. g¹d¢l; — 2. be great 2S 726, of God 2S 722; — 3. become wealthy Gn 2435; — 4. become important Gn 4140; g¹dôl b®±ênê is valuable for 1S 2624.

The Original Handmaid’s Tale, Part 2: God Hears Hagar

Moira in handmaid's uniform, let them think they control you
Samira Wiley plays Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu

Part one of this character study showed how Sarai and Hagar mirror Serena and June in The Handmaid’s Tale. That post ended with Hagar running away from Sarai. Problem was she was running through a desert. Out there in the middle of nowhere, she finds a spring of water. I’m guessing not a moment too soon. And then she receives an unusual visitor.

The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.

(Gen 16:7 NRS)

Who is the angel of the LORD? It appears a few times in the Bible. Sometimes when God wanted to appear to someone, the angel of the LORD showed up there instead. This Angel seems to be a divine figure who can stand in for God when God’s personal appearance would be impractical. Some Christian commentators believe it was a pre-Incarnate manifestation of Christ.

In the ancient world, people believed no mortal human could look on God’s face and live (v. 13; cf. Exo 33:20). It wouldn’t do if God wanted to give a message to someone, and they died the moment God appeared to them, would it? It seems, though, the Angel could speak to people face to face safely (cf. Gen 32:30; Jud 13:22). Are these direct encounters with God or with the angel of the LORD? Hard to know just from the text. But the Angel speaks to Hagar.

And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?”

She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”

The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.”

(Gen 16:8-9)

I know what you’re thinking. This is not God endorsing slavery or Sarai’s harsh treatment. You’ll see that when we talk about the story in its context. Keep reading.

The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.”

And the angel of the LORD said to her, “Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

(16:10-12)

What are you thinking now? Gee, thanks God (for nothing). Again, context makes all the difference. There’s a reason God says this. Keep reading.

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”

(16:13)

This goes back to what I said about the angel of the LORD earlier. She is surprised (shocked, probably) that she saw God and was still alive. She believes it was God, but we are told it was the angel of the LORD. Which was it? In scenes like this, the text is usually ambiguous about it, like when Jacob wrestled the Angel. Or was it God (Gen 32:30)?

{***SPOILER ALERT***}

Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones tells his girlfriend to close her eyes and not look? While they kept their eyes closed, everyone else melted in the LORD’s presence like statues at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. How did he know anyone who looked at God would die? My favorite line in the movie: “Didn’t you boys go to Sunday School?” {End Spoiler}

Indiana Jones and his girlfriend don't look
No matter what happens, don’t look!

Finally, we should notice that she gives God a name. I can’t think of anyone else in the Bible who both saw God and gave God a name. Jacob asked for God’s name, but the Angel would not give it to him (Gen 32:29). God’s name to the Jews was (and still is) too holy to speak, so this is remarkable. NRSV notes say El-roi means “God of seeing” or “God who sees.” Some translations say “the God who sees me” (see Translation Notes below, if you’re into dissecting Hebrew and Greek).

For Hagar, her reason for the name is that she “has seen God and remained alive.” That stresses her seeing God, so by that reckoning, we might translate it “the God who appeared to me.” In context, either meaning would fit. God has both “seen her” and “appeared to her,” and she lives. This is a God who subverts common expectations.

I like “God who sees (me),” because it pairs well with her son’s name, “God hears.” Putting seeing and hearing together also echoes what God said to Moses when God sent him to deliver the people of Israel:

Then the LORD said, “I have observed (or seen) the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”

(Exo 3:7-8a NRS)

God saw Hagar and heard her. God knew her sufferings and gave an answer to her cry.

Then the author tells us the name of the well where she saw God still bears the name of this encounter.

Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

(Gen 16:14 NRS)

NRSV study notes say Beer-lahai-roi means “the well of the Living One who sees me.” Beer is not beer like we think of. It is the Hebrew word for well (sorry). The Living One was sometimes used to refer to God. In an earlier post, I discussed the promise that Abraham and Sarah would have their own son and name him Isaac. A little side note here: After Abraham dies, Isaac lives in Beer-lahai-roi for a time (Gen 25:11). Did he know the history it represented for Hagar and Ishmael?


There are still probably two big questions on your mind right now.

  1. Why did God tell Hagar, Return to your mistress and submit to her?
  2. Was verse 12 a blessing or a curse? This story is a perfect illustration of why it is so important to read the Bible in its original context.

Why Did God Tell Hagar to Return to Her Mistress and Submit to Her?

Think about Hagar’s situation here. When the Angel asks her, Where are you coming from and where are you going, she has an answer for the first question (I am running away from my mistress) but not the second. This was obviously an impulsive decision. She had no plan for how to escape beyond running away. What are her options?

  • A. Try to survive alone in the wilderness while pregnant. And when the baby comes, give birth with no one to help her. Then try to figure a way to provide the needs of her and her baby out in a hot dry place with no food and no shelter, and predatory animals who would love to make a meal of them, if she has survived that long.
  • B. Return to her mistress and submit to her.

This was not a blanket approval of slavery. All the Angel is telling her is B is preferable to A. There, the basic needs for her and her baby—food, clothing, shelter, water, and safety from wild animals—will be met. If she is submissive toward Sarai, she will most likely be less harsh with her. This is a survival strategy, one which slaves throughout history adopted. But God/the Angel gives her a reason to survive. God has a destiny and a promise for the son she is carrying.

I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude. The same promise God gave to Abram’s seed, which he is, a son of Abram’s own issue. God gives him a name, and I talked in an earlier post about the significance of God naming someone.

You shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction. Ishmael in Hebrew comes from shema`, meaning “hear,” and ‘El, meaning “God.” So the name means, “God hears.” If she ever needs to be reminded that God hears her in her affliction, it’s right there in her son’s name.

Now we come to verse 12 and the second question from above.

Was Verse 12 a Blessing or a Curse?

To review, verse 12 says, “He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

Ladies, how would you feel if God appeared to you while you were pregnant to tell you this? Would you wonder why God was punishing you? Before you judge, remember Hagar’s circumstances were very different from yours. How would she have heard this?

He shall be a wild ass of a man. He will be strong, independent, and able to survive in harsh conditions.

…with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him. He will bow down to no master. He will enjoy the freedom and autonomy she longs for.

…and he shall live at odds with all his kin. She might not like the idea of him being at odds with her, but who else are his kin? Abram. Sarai by law, though not by blood. Anyone related to Abram. She knows they will not fully accept him, so why shouldn’t his hand be against them?

Legally, he will belong to Sarai. But Hagar will always be his mother by blood. He will feel that tension along with her, and it will come back on Abram and Sarai’s heads. He will not be a compliant child like a “good slave” should. She will be there to teach him the destiny God has for him, and that destiny is freedom from anyone who would make him a slave. What better justice could she ask for?

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundum

I can picture the scene. Ishmael is a toddler. Hagar is playing Pattycake—or whatever games they played with little children back then. Sarai comes in and says, “I’ll take him now.” Ishmael lifts up his arms, and she picks him up. Abram tousles his hair affectionately. Sarai carries him out, saying, “What a sweet boy.”

And all the while, Hagar is thinking, “So, my master and mistress, you think he is the answer to your prayers. No, he is the answer to my prayers. You think he is sweet now? Just wait until he grows up,” and she laughs. “Just you wait.”


Do you see now what a difference reading in context makes? To our modern ears, the Angel’s words sound like a curse. But for a slave-girl like Hagar, in the land of Canaan somewhere around 2000 BC, these words were life.

The Angel gave her a strategy for survival—submit to her mistress. That would not be easy for her, but it would ensure both her survival and her son’s. And the Angel gave a promise worth living for—her son would be a free man. For the sake of that promise, she accepted slavery for herself.

Abraham was commended in Hebrews 11 “because he considered him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11 NRS). So did Hagar, which again tells me she should have been included in the “heroes of the faith” in Hebrews 11.

Translation Notes (for Bible Geeks Like Me)

So she named the LORD who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” (Gen 16:13 NRS)

The translation of El-roi is uncertain in the Hebrew. WTM (The standard Hebrew text) includes a note that says ro’i is a noun (Masculine Singular Absolute) and can mean “appearance” or “appearing.” This might give the translation, “God who appears to me.” When Hagar comments she saw God and lived, that would point to God appearing to her rather than seeing her.

BDB (the standard Hebrew lexicon) says it generally means “looking, seeing, or sight.” It translates the name as “God who sees,” which would be appropriate, because God sees Hagar’s affliction.

However, KJV, NAS, and NIV translate it as “the God who sees me.” The entry for Job 7:8, same word and form, says it is a Verb, Qal Participle (Masculine Singular Construct), with a 1st person suffix, which would affirm that translation. It is also how the LXX (Septuagint) translates it.

 ὁ θεὸς ὁ ἐπιδών με  (Gen 16:13 BGT); ho theos ho epidon me.

ἐπιδών verb (participle aorist active nominative masculine singular) from ἐφοράω fix one’s glance upon, look at, concern oneself (with) Lk 1:25; Ac 4:29.* [pg 71]

The Septuagint adds the personal pronoun me, which shows they understood El-roi to mean “the God who looks at me,” or “the God who sees me.” We see another example in Job 7:8.

The eye of him who sees me will behold me no more; while your eyes are on me, I shall be gone.

(Job 7:8 ESV).

Ro’i is translated him who sees me. So it appears we have either “God who appears to me,” or “God who sees me.” The verb could also be Past tense rather than present, so it could also mean “God who appeared to me,” or “God who saw me.”

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Sarai and Hagar: The Original Handmaid’s Tale (Genesis Chapter 16)

In last week’s post, I talked about how God changed Abram’s name to Abraham and Sarai’s name to Sarah. The difference between Abram and Abraham is subtle but meaningful. However, I commented that the difference between Sarai and Sarah was not readily apparent. Both mean “princess” or “queen.” One possible explanation comes from Dr. Eli Lizorkin-Eyzenberg, a professor of the Hebrew Bible, who says “It is likely that Sarai is simply the possessive form of Sarah (i.e. “My Sarah”). Sarah, therefore, signifies that her strength does not belong exclusively to her immediate family, but to the future nation of Israel and even the world-at-large.” If he is correct, Sarai would mean “my princess,” or perhaps “my queen.” Sarah would mean simply “princess” or “queen.” Like the change from Abram to Abraham, a subtle but significant difference, one that marked a change in the trajectory of both their lives.

When I’m analyzing characters or stories, I don’t necessarily go in chronological order. Last week we were in chapter 17 of Genesis. This week we will look at chapter 16. With the TV version of Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale in its third season on Hulu, I thought this would be an interesting scene for many people.

Genesis Chapter 16

Now, we are going back to a time when they were still called Abram and Sarai. In chapter 15, God promised to give Abram a son “of his own issue,” and to give all the land of Canaan to his descendants. Chapter 16 picks up about ten years later. Abram and Sarai have been trying to have a child, and they are no spring chickens. Abram was 75 and Sarai was 66 when God first made that promise. Sarai never had a child of her own, even when she was young. Now they are 85 and 76, respectively. Sarai is afraid if Abram is limited to her, he will never have a son of his own issue, no matter what God said. To borrow a phrase from Atwood, no matter how many times she said, “Blessed be the fruit,” the LORD was not opening. So she approached her husband.

Handmaid's Tale, Offred and Offglen shopping in the Loaves and Fishes grocery store.
A scene from the Loaves and Fishes grocery store

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the LORD has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.”

(Gen 16:1- 2 NRS)

Hagar is Sarai’s slave-girl, also called a handmaid. In Abram and Sarai’s culture, this seems to have been an accepted practice. If a man’s wife was unable to conceive, the man could obtain children through his wife’s slave (presumably, if the wife permitted it). But as we already know, Abram did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body or the barrenness of Sarai’s womb. So he told Sarai, “Just calm down now. God promised us a child, and God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises. We don’t need a plan B.” You know I’m kidding, right?

And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 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.

(Gen 16:3 NRS)

…and [Sarai] gave her to her husband Abram as a wife? I doubt that “wife” is a good translation here, because clearly in the rest of the story, Sarai was Abram’s one and only wife. She would not have let Hagar forget that. Perhaps “concubine” is more accurate.

Here is the mistake God made when God spoke to Abram in chapter 15. God told Abram he would have a son “of his own issue,” but God did not specify it would be through Sarai (15:4).

What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!”

(16:4-5)

Okay, if I’m Abram, at this point, my first thought is, “Oh, it’s all my fault? And whose idea was this in the first place?” And how she describes the wrong done to me, when you look at it in the Hebrew, reveals a lot about her.

The Hebrew word for “wrong” here is chamas. It is occasionally translated “wrong” in a general sense. But more often, it means specifically “violence.” For example, Jeremiah says this to Babylon after they conquered Jerusalem: “’May the violence done to me and to my flesh be upon Babylon,’ The inhabitant of Zion will say” (Jer 51:35 NAS).

One of the authors of the Psalms says this, “Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends” (Psa 7:16 NRS).

One of Gideon’s sons killed all seventy of his siblings, with the help of the men of Shechem, to make himself his father’s heir. But later, the men of Shechem “dealt treacherously with Abimelech…so that the violence done to the sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon) might be avenged” (Jud 9:23-24).

The word for “violence” in all these passages is chamas. Sarai equated the wrong Hagar was doing to her with mass murder.

May the LORD judge between you and me.

People only used this expression when they were 100% sure that the wrong, or the violence, done to them had no cause or justification. The responsibility of the other party was so obvious, they knew God was on their side (cf. 1 Sa 24:12, 15; Exo 5:21; Jud 11:27).

If you invoke God to judge between you and another, you’d better be right, because God will judge justly and with no partiality. I don’t buy for one second that Sarai did nothing to provoke Hagar in this. And Abram bears some responsibility, but certainly not all of it, as she claims. Hagar may have done wrong to her, but Sarai is blowing it way out of proportion, just like many wealthy and privileged women do. And she is not even considering the wrong she did to Hagar.

Abram gives her the same advice a wealthy slaveowner would give.

But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

(Gen 16:6)

“Sarai, dear, did you forget who is the master and who is the slave? You don’t have to take it from her if you don’t want to.”

And Sarai is like, “Oh yeah. Time to remind her who the queen of this household really is.” She strikes back at Hagar, and Hagar runs away.

What Are We To Think of Hagar?

When [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress? Because she’s just a “B-word, rhymes with witch”? That is a question you really have to think about if you intend to turn this episode into a fictionalized account, especially if you want it to be as good as Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. You would have to consider her situation and how that would affect her attitude. You would have to flesh out just how she showed contempt for her mistress in what she said and did. And then you would have to flesh out what Sarai did when she dealt harshly with her. Whatever it was, it would have to be bad enough to make her run away, while pregnant, with nothing but desert around her.

Let’s start with that question, “Why is she looking with contempt on her mistress?” You could go with the B-word explanation, but that would ignore critical details about Hagar’s situation. She is a slave. She has already experienced the dehumanization of being sold or given to Abram and Sarai like a piece of chattel and taken from her home in Egypt (Gen 12:16-13:2). Then she is told her master will come in and lie with her, because her mistress decided that for her. Did they ask her if she would help with their fertility problems? She might have been willing if they had asked, and she saw how desperate they were to have a child.

Today, some women are willing to be surrogates for infertile couples. They negotiate the terms of conception (usually in-vitro, but that was not an option then) and what kind of care or compensation they receive. Hagar never had that chance. You didn’t negotiate with your slaves. You ordered them. “My husband needs to have a son. The LORD has withheld me from having children, so you’re going to do it in my place.” That was the negotiation.

Abram and Sarai saw nothing wrong with this. Your slave-girl is in your power. You can do with her as you please (Gen 16:6). They expected Hagar to accept this, because that was the way it was in their world. Many other slaves had to do the same, and they accepted it. It probably never even occurred to them she might have feelings about this. The most intimate decisions regarding her own body were taken from her, and something in her knew it was wrong. She would not accept the status of being property and not human. Like most slaves, she obeyed out of self-preservation.

The Handmaid's Tale, Madeline Brewer's character Janine, caption reads: Your body is no longer your own.

But when she conceived, that gave her a leg up on Sarai. She finally had a chance to let out the resentment she had kept inside, because, Don’t upset her. You don’t want to hurt the baby she’s carrying. Her resentment was not just at Sarai and Abram. It was at the whole system that did not recognize her rights as a woman or as a human being. Let’s not sugarcoat it. What was done to her was legitimized rape. Should we be surprised she showed contempt for her mistress?

And yes, it was no different for her than for countless other slaves. You could legally do anything to your slave you wished. They did not recognize at that time that slaves were human, made in the image of God, and as such had certain inalienable rights. Hagar was one of those independent souls who, over time, forced us to come to terms with an entire institution whose purpose was to dehumanize others. If you ask me, she should have been on that list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11.

Serena and June Anyone?

If you’re familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably think this saga between Sarai and Hagar sounds like the relationship between Serena and June. June went along with the system in Gilead she was forced into, but she resented it. She resented the system that took away her husband, took her daughter away, made her the handmaid of Serena and Fred Waterford, and in every way possible told her that her only value was her ability to receive Mr. Waterford’s seed, get pregnant, and bear a child for Mrs. Waterford. The child she was forced to conceive would not even be hers. It belonged to Fred and Serena. It was primarily for Serena’s benefit, because she could not have children of her own. June’s family, career, autonomy, and even her name were taken from her, so a wealthy, powerful, childless family could use her womb, and she had no say in it.

There are a few moments of connection between her and Serena, but Serena is mostly harsh with her. She’s a little jealous that June can give her husband something she can’t and takes that frustration out on her. June engages in little acts of defiance, quietly, and mostly behind their backs, but gradually she becomes bolder with it, especially after she conceives. She milks the concern for the baby for all its worth. And she aims some insults right at Serena’s greatest insecurities.

In her introduction to the novel, Atwood does not name this particular scene but rather the episode where Rachel gives her handmaid Bilhah to her husband Jacob, so she can have children (Genesis 30:1-8). But as I described the characters of Serena and June, don’t they sound just like Sarai and Hagar? I’m not knocking Atwood for lifting these characters from the pages of the Bible. On the contrary, I think what she did is a fantastic example of the potential of Biblical Fiction for creating compelling drama.

Biblical Fiction Vs. Christian Fiction

The Handmaid’s Tale is not Christian Fiction, in case you were wondering. There’s too much sex, cursing, and graphic violence for it to be Christian Fiction. Biblical Fiction, you have to understand, is not the same as Christian Fiction. Christian Fiction has strict rules about what kind of worldview and morality your characters can present and endorse. Characters can be morally ambiguous at first, but in Christian Fiction, they usually convert to a Christian worldview and morality by the end. But hopefully, you see in this Biblical text all of the characters are morally ambiguous, and there is no “conversion” for any of them. Therefore, I say Biblical Fiction does not have to follow the same rules as Christian Fiction, because the Bible doesn’t.

Atwood lifted these characters from the Bible and placed them in a modern dystopian setting with new names. She did not take the Christian approach of turning Abraham and Sarah into heroes and Hagar into a villain. She kept all of their moral ambiguities intact. That is why Atwood’s story works so well. Her approach not only makes the characters more believable and human. It is a more faithful rendering of the Biblical text than the rules of Christian Fiction would allow. It highlights how unjust and dehumanizing the society of Gilead is. June acts like a fiercely independent handmaid would in a society like Gilead, and so does Hagar. The Waterfords act like members of a privileged class who want a child would act, and so do Abram and Sarai.

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Remember Hagar ran away to escape Sarai’s harsh treatment? What happened to her? The saga continues in the next part of this character study. If you are interested in buying a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, you can follow my affiliate link here. My “Recommended” page has links to this and other excellent examples of Biblical Fiction.