Post Series on Genesis 16:1-16:
- The Fall of Abram and Sarai (Genesis 16:1-3)
- The Wilderness Wanderings of Hagar (Genesis 16:4-7)
- The Egyptian Woman at the Well (Genesis 16:7-16)
Sin begets sin. Through a sinful union, Hagar begets a son to Abram, and with Ishmael, that sinful union brought three millennia of consequences:
4And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5And 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!” 6But 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.
7The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. (Genesis 16:4-7)
Sarai’s plan worked. Abram did beget a son through Hagar, just as Sarai had planned. But the consequences were terrible. Hagar’s pregnancy had changed the environment in Abram’s household, so that the maidservant began to look upon her mistress with contempt.
Hagar’s contempt added insult to Sarai’s injury of infertility. In deeper emotional distress than she could have imagined, she raged to Abram, blaming him for accomplishing the very thing that she had suggested to him. Abram, for his part, abdicated any kind of spiritual leadership in his home by listening to Sarai’s plan, and he does no better here. Instead, he simply turns one of his wives over to the jealousy of the other wife, washing his hands of the matter.
So, not surprisingly, Hagar fled from her mistress Sarai toward Egypt, her home. (Hagar, we are reminded in v. 1, is an Egyptian maidservant.) She ends up at a spring (or, a well) of water in the wilderness, stuck between the Promised Land and Egypt.
Wilderness Wanderings of Hagar
Iain Duguid helpfully reminds us that Hagar’s flight to Egypt was not without precedent:
Hagar ran away and headed for her original home in Egypt. She ended up in the wilderness of Shur, on Egypt’s north-eastern frontier. This apparently insignificant geographical note draws our attention to a continual undercurrent in the story of Abram: the conflict between the attractions of Egypt and the apparent barrenness of the Promised Land. This theme first appeared early in Abram’s story. He no sooner entered Canaan than he found the land unable to support him: “Now there was a famine in the land” (Gen. 12:10). The solution that occurred to Abram was straightforward: there is food in Egypt, so why not go down there for a while? Egypt appeared fruitful; the Promised Land was barren.
Similarly, in Genesis 13:10, the land chosen by Lot is described as being “well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt.” This area, at least on the fringes of the Promised Land, if not outside it, was, like Egypt, more attractive than the real thing.
And now we meet Hagar, whose Egyptian origins are emphasized in the story (16:1, 3). Not surprisingly, she was fruitful, while Sarai was barren. And when living with Abram’s family became intolerable, Hagar headed for Egypt.
In each of these instances, however, choosing the fertility of Egypt over faithfulness to the promise led to disastrous consequences. Abram’s journey down to Egypt nearly resulted in the loss of Sarai. Lot’s choice of fertile land like Egypt nearly ended in his destruction, first when the kings of the East came calling (Gen. 14), and later when God’s judgment fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19). Hagar’s son, Ishmael, was not just a continual problem for Abraham and Sarah; his descendents would also be a perpetual thorn in Israel’s flesh. Hagar herself, in attempting to run away to Egypt, found herself not in a land flowing with milk and honey, but on her own out in the wilderness. The Egyptian option, while initially attractive, always led to disaster in the long run.
Then, Duguid goes on to tie this story in with the original audience of the book of Genesis. Moses, he reminds us, wrote Genesis in the middle of his own wilderness wanderings after having led the people of Israel out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. Throughout, the people of Israel frequently complained and lamented, longing to go back to the Egypt that had enslaved them:
To understand the significance of Egypt in Genesis, we need to remember that the book was written at the time of the Exodus, for people who were tempted to return to Egypt. In the wilderness, they quickly tired of manna and wanted to return to the more varied diet of Egypt (Num. 11:5, 18, 20). When the spies returned from their exploration of the Promised Land with a discouraging report, the people’s first response was, “Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (Num. 14:3). When there was no water to drink, they said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place?” (Num. 20:5). To them, the prosperity of Egypt must have been a constant magnet as they faced the difficulties of taking possession of the Land of Promise. But Genesis warned them that to return would be disastrous.
(Living in the Gap, 69-70)
Hagar fled to Egypt to escape her problems, but over and over again, God demonstrates that the wealth, prosperity, and fruitfulness of Egypt are an illusion. God had promised to bless Abram, and Abram alone. Only through Abram would anyone find blessing; however, in God’s abundantly generous grace, God promised to bless all the families of the earth through Abram.
So, despite the famine of Canaan, despite the barrenness of Sarai, and despite Hagar’s mistreatment, God’s promises were wrapped up in Abram and in the Promised Land. Hagar’s wilderness wanderings did not bring her closer to safety, but farther away from it.
Sin had begotten sin. Hagar is the least culpable for Sarai’s and Abram’s fall in Genesis 16, although she had sinned by looking with contempt on Sarai and by attempting to leave Abram to go to Egypt. As a perfect picture of her spiritual condition, she winds up in the wilderness.
And it is there, at rock bottom, in the middle of the wilderness, that God himself comes to visit her, calling her to return to Abram so that she might be blessed through him.