Genesis 16:1-16 “Sarai & Hagar: When Culture & Faith Clash”

Posted on December 6, 2009. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Redeemer Church Sunday School- Genesis Class

Genesis 16:1-16 “Sarai & Hagar: When Culture & Faith Clash”

Sunday, 12-06-2009

Bryan E. Walker

Read Genesis 16:1-16

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children  by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.  5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant 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!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the Lord said to her,

“Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael, 
because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”

13 So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,”  for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.”  14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi;  it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.


Introduction:  What happens when our faith clashes with our culture? Have you ever grown impatient with the Lord, and perhaps even a little desperate for an answer or a solution to whatever problem you had been facing? Have you ever gotten so frustrated that you found a solution that, while maybe not God’s best, was at least legal and perfectly acceptable in our culture? Is there ever a conflict between what is godly, biblical or spiritual with what is legal, moral and approved by the culture in which you live? In today’s episode from the life of Abraham, we will find him one year after the dramatic covenant in ch. 15 where his faith was said to have been credited as righteousness by God, and we find Abram and Sarai experience a failure of faith; a temptation to do things man’s way instead of waiting for God to do things his way; a reliance on the flesh instead of trusting in God’s promises. The main idea from the text this morning is that we can be tempted to do things our way, our culture’s way, instead of clinging to the promises of God in faith, and when we do things our way instead of God’s way, we bring trouble on ourselves.  

  1. I.                   Literary Analysis of Genesis 16
    1. A.      Outline and Structure
      1. 1.      Vs1 Introduction
      2. 2.      Sarai’s Scheme
      3. a.      vs.2a Sarai’s offer  A
      4. b.      vs. 2b Abram’s response  B
      5. c.       vs. 3-4 Sarai’s action and Hagar’s response C
      6. d.      vs. 5 Sarai’s complaint  A1
      7. e.      vs. 6a Abram’s response  B1
      8. f.        vs. 6b,c Sarai’s action and Hagar’s response  C1
        1. 3.      The Angel of the LORD’s Plan
        2. a.      vs. 7  The Angel finds Hagar at the well  A
        3. b.      vs. 8a The Angel speaks and Hagar responds B
        4. c.       vs. 9 The Angel speaks to Hagar  C
        5. d.      vs. 10 The Angel speaks to Hagar again C1
        6. e.      vs. 11-13 The Angel speaks and Hagar responds  B1
        7. f.        vs. 14 The name of the well  A1
          1. 4.      vs. 15 Hagar bears Abram a son, Ishmael.
          2. 5.      vs.16 Conclusion

(Wenham, WBC vol. 2, pp.3-4)

  1. B.      Features and Themes
    1. 1.      Bookends- The chapter starts off with “Now Sarai…had borne him no children” and ends with, “And Hagar bore Abram a son…” But the bigger story conflict is resolved in 21:2 “And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son…”
    2. 2.      The action moves from Abram’s camp in the first part of the story, to the wilderness, then back to Abram’s camp.
    3. 3.      Notice “the angel of the LORD” mentioned three times.
    4. 4.      Notice the three names given 16:11, “Ishmael-God hears”; 13, “the God who sees”; 14, “Beer-lahai-roi, or Well of the living one who sees me”.
    5. 5.      The theme of childlessness– 11:30; 15:2; 16:1; 25:21 Rebekah; 30:1 Rachel.
    6. 6.      The theme of family conflict– 13:7-8; 16:4-5; 21:8ff; 25:22 Esau and Jacob in the womb; 27:41Esau and Jacob; 31:1-2 Jacob and Laban; 37:18 Joseph and his brothers.
    7. 7.      Abram’s trials– Abram’s faith is challenged by breaking the ties of nature by leaving his father’s house and country; his faith is tried by his childlessness and age; his faith is tried by the forces of nature with the famine in the promised land; his faith is tried by the fear of man; his faith is tried by wealth and his nephew; his faith is tried by combat; his faith is tried by the King of Sodom’s offer; and now he is tried by his own wife and a temptation to do God’s work man’s way. (Pink pp.173-174).
    8. 8.      With ch.16 comes a change of theme from The Land of Promise to The Child of Promise.


  1. II.                Theological Analysis of Genesis 16:1-6
    1. A.      Verse 1 Introduction-
      1. 1.      “Abram’s wife-a female Egyptian servant…Hagar.” The contrast of the two women’s positions is stated and the power structure that goes with it. Sarai is The Wife while Hagar is but a foreign servant girl. There is a larger contrast between this verse and 12:1ff where the call was to go to the Land God would show him…but the land was experiencing “fruitlessness” due to a famine. Now, after the explicit promise in ch. 15 that Abram would have a son from his own loins, he is faced once again with fruitlessness, this time in his wife, Sarai. There is yet another, larger contrast inherent in the story as the Egyptian birth of Hagar is stressed, appearing twice, in vs. 1 and 3. This points forward to the conflict between Israel and Egypt in Moses’ day.
      2. 2.      Sarai had likely been told of the visions that Abram had recently experienced, but grew tired of waiting. She is motivated to act by her barrenness and the promise of God to her husband. Her advancing age is a factor now as well, since she is not only past the age of childbearing, but may well die before seeing the child raised.
      3. 3.      The word for servant is sipha and is not referring to a common slave but rather the personal maidservant of the Mistress Sarai. The couple likely received Hagar as a gift from Pharaoh during their stay in Egypt, which journey was not of faith.
    2. B.      Verse 2a Sarai’s offer
      1. 1.      Sarai basically blames God “the LORD has prevented me from bearing children…” Moses uses the same word, asar that he uses in 20:18 where the Lord closes the wombs of Abimelech’s household.
      2. 2.      How normal is it to blame God! When bad things happen, or a bad situation develops that is not our fault, we have a tendency to blame God. Even if it is our fault, we still blame God. There could be an element of self reproach in Sarai’s statement since childlessness was often considered to be a punishment from God. How should we respond? Acknowledging God’s Providence, but also his wisdom and love and seeking his grace to be patient and persevere.
      3. 3.      Go in to my servant… Sarai does not even refer to her by name. This is not unusual in Moses’ writing. Back in 1:16 he does not name the Sun and Moon, he calls them the greater and lesser lights. In 14:21 “the king of Sodom” is mentioned and in 15:4 the Lord says, “This man shall not be your heir.” This is a deliberate slighting technique.
      4. 4.      It was a custom in the ancient Near East for a childless Mistress to give her maidservant to her husband for the purpose of obtaining a child. The husband could actually marry another woman, even divorce his barren wife. Taking a servant girl like this was not considered adultery and the Scriptures are vague in some ways about polygamy.
      5. 5.      it may be I shall obtain children by her- this begins with an emphatic hope and then she uses an architectural term, banah, to build, “it Must be that I will build my family through her”.
    3. C.      Verse 2b  Abram’s response
      1. 1.      “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai” This points us right back to Gen. 3:17 where God said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…”  The word used for “listened” can be translated “obey” and is only used here and in Gen.3:17. Calvin writes, (p.426) “Truly the faith of Abram wavers, when he deviates from the word of God, and suffers himself to be borne away by the persuasion of his wife, to seek a remedy which was divinely prohibited….”
      2. 2.      Application- Now guys, put yourself in Abram’s sandals for a minute, what kind of a temptation is this? This is your wife offering you a 20-25 yr old, maybe even a 16-20 yr old. In our way of thinking, that is pretty disgusting for a guy who is about 85 yrs old to be with a young woman like that. It creeps me out. (It really creeps out the young ladies I’m sure!) By the way, this sort of thing still goes on in muslim culture. Young teenage girls are given as wives to older men, maybe not 85 yr old men, but guys in their 40s and 50s for sure; I have read some of the stories in my research into islam. But I really don’t think Abram was all that reluctant here. This is a powerful temptation of the flesh. And it was all legal and socially acceptable and came prior to the giving of the law and is sort of half way permitted by the Lord. And I don’t want to overemphasize the lust that might have been involved because the text just doesn’t bring that out. The goal here was offspring. Calvin writes, (p.426) “…when we see Abram, who, through so many years, had bravely contended like an invincible combatant, and had surmounted so many obstacles, now yielding, in a single moment, to temptation; who among us will not fear for himself in similar danger? Therefore, although we may have stood long and firmly in the faith, we must daily pray, that God would not lead us into temptation…. Hagar is improperly called a wife; because she was brought into another person’s bed, against the law of God. Wherefore, let us know that this connection was so far illicit, as to be something between fornication and marriage.”
      3. 3.      Application- Notice that this is different from the fall of Lot in ch.19. Abram recovers, lives long and experiences growth in faith and in the blessings of God. The chapter right after this one describes the sealing of the covenant and Sarai is explicitly brought into the covenant promise of a son. Nonetheless, we are reminded that in the Christian life, even as older men, temptations abound and we may fall into sin at 85 yrs. In the church I pastored there were two sinful situations of immorality involving 1) a woman in her 70’s and 2) a man in his 80’s!
    4. D.      Verses 3-4 Sarai’s Action and Hagar’s Response
      1. 1.      after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan- the ten years may indicate that to some degree the Promise of Land is being fulfilled, but it also indicates that Sarai’s patience is wearing out. She is getting old.
      2. 2.      wife…took…and gave…to…her husband- Mathews writes (p.185), “That Sarai ‘took’ (laqah) her and ‘gave’ (natan) Hagar ‘to her husband’ (v.3) portrays the matriarch as another Eve (3:6). Wenham writes (p.7-8), “Note the identical sequence of key nouns and verbs in 3:6: ‘The woman [wife]…took…gave it to her husband.’ But Berg points out, it is not merely the terminology that is close here but also the actions involved. ‘The actors correspond: in Gen.16:3 the woman takes the initiative as she does in 3:6b. The recipient of the gift is in both texts the man, in Gen 16:3 the husband, in Gen 3:6b the man for whom the woman was created as partner. In both stories the man reacts appropriately to the woman’s action. In 3:6b he eats the proffered fruit: in 16:4a he goes in to the offered Hagar. The means (of sin), the fruit/Hagar, is accepted by the man. The sequence of events is similar in both cases: the woman takes something and gives it to her husband, who accepts it. This leads to the conclusion. By employing quite similar formulations and an identical sequence of events in Gen 3:6b and 16:3-4a, the author makes it clear that for him both narratives describe comparable events, that they are both accounts of a fall.’” Just as Sarai was ‘taken’ by Pharaoh, now Hagar is taken by Sarai and given to Abram. Hagar is but a slave and has no choice in the matter.
      3. 3.      Sarai’s proposal was a ‘normal’ human response to her problem that did not require faith. Sarai took the initiative without any seeking of the Lord similar to when Abram led them into Egypt, from whence Hagar came.
      4. 4.      and she conceived- it would appear that Sarai’s plan worked! Some commentators say that Abram only slept with Hagar once. I tend to think that is an overly optimistic picture of the situation.
      5. 5.      she looked with contempt on her Mistress- Calvin, (p.427), “Meanwhile, in Hagar, an instance of ingratitude is set before us; because she, having been treated with singular kindness and honour, begins to hold her mistress in contempt.”  One can imagine the pregnant Hagar with morning sickness, ordering her former mistress around.
    5. E.       Verse 5 Sarai’s Complaint

               1.   Sarai said…may the wrong done to me be on you!- In Gen. 3 it was the man blaming God and the woman, in 16 it is Sarai blaming God in vs.2 and now her husband in vs.5 even though it was her plan that has backfired. Is it possible that as Moses spoke this to his people that there might have been a few chuckles from the men, some winks and nudges going on in the crowd, “Imagine that, the woman blaming the man!” The word for “wrong” is a very strong word elsewhere translated as “violence” in 6:11, 13 and 49:5. Sarai is over reacting here! Jealousy is a strong motivator.

  1. F.       Verse 6a Abram’s Response-
    1. 1.      Abram’s response is passive, he doesn’t really seem to want to get in between the two fussing women. But it seems to me that Abram has this passive streak at times, like in Egypt and then again later in Abimelech’s court. He doesn’t take charge here, he basically tells Sarai, “Do whatever you want with Hagar, but treat her for the good.” This is a woman he has been sleeping with and is now carrying his child, his long expected child. And he treats her this way? His answer does re-assert Sarai’s claim to be the chief wife.
    2. G.      Verse 6b,c Sarai’s Action and Hagar’s Response 
      1. 1.      Then Sarai dealt harshly with her- Sarai humiliated her, Moses uses the same word as in Exodus 15:13 to describe how Egypt treated Israel. Again, the conflict between the two women prefigures the conflict between Egypt and Israel.
      2. 2.      And she fled from her- Hagar’s rebellious attitude and Sarai’s harsh treatment led to her fleeing.


  1. III.             Application
    1. A.      Patiently Waiting on the Lord
      1. 1.      When we are called  to follow Jesus, that may mean tolerating a burdensome, even a grievous situation for a long time. Some things will not get fixed in this life and we must wait for heaven or the coming of the Lord.


  1. B.      Our Ways Are Not God’s Ways
    1. 1.      A lot of times we want to move faster than God, take short cuts that look OK, but simply are not God’s best for us. We rely on our own wisdom and we fall short. We must diligently seek the Word to discern what is best. Waiting is often the best.


  1. C.      When God’s Ways and the Culture Conflict

               1.   Just because our culture says it is legal, moral and ethical does not make it so.

  1. D.      Pride
    1. 1.      Pride proved harmful to both Hagar and Sarai


  1. E.       Passive Husbands
    1. 1.      Abram has a failure to lead here and he all too easily jumped into sin with Hagar.



Walton, John H. and Matthews, Victor H. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Genesis-Deuteronomy. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill. 1997 (pp.42-43).

Francisco, Clyde T. Broadman Bible Commentary, vol.1, Rev. “Genesis”. Broadman Press: Nashville, TN. 1973 (pp.166-169).

Boice, James Montgomery. Genesis: An Expositional Commentary, volume 2. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1985 (pp.122-127).

Wenham, Gordon. Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 2 Genesis 16-50. Word Books: Dallas, 1994 (pp.1-13).

Pink, Arthur W. Gleanings in Genesis. Moody: Chicago 1922 (pp.173-180).

Ross, Allen P. Creation & Blessing: A Guide to the Study and Exposition of Genesis. Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 1996 (pp.315-325).

Waltke, Bruce K. Genesis: A Commentary. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2001 (pp. 247-257).

Mathews, Kenneth A. New American Commentary Series, vol. 1B, Genesis 11:27-50:26. Broadman&Holman: Nashville, TN 2005 (pp.178-192).

Currid, John D. An EP Commentary, Genesis volume 1 Genesis 1:1-25:18. Evangelical Press: Darlington, England 2003 (pp.300-309).


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[…] Genesis 16:1-16 “Sarai & Hagar: When Culture & Faith Clash …15 that Abram would have a son from his own loins, … for a guy who is about 85 yrs old to be with a young woman like that. … By the way, this sort of thing still goes on in muslim culture. … One can imagine the pregnant Hagar with morning sickness, ordering her former mistress around. … […]

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