Genesis – Chapter 16

16:1  In Abraham’s cry (15:2) ‘What can you give me seeing that I am childless?’ , we see how deeply Abraham felt his childlessness.  Abraham’s desire for children transcended that of the common childless person.  His mission was to bring God’s teaching to man for all time.  How could he do this if he had no heir?  Sarai’s hurt, too, ran deep.  Her role as Abraham’s true partner in every phase of their life’s mission is stressed by the verse’s emphasis on her as Abram’s wife.  But, as the verse implies, though she was his wife she had not yet carried out the highest obligation of her mission – she had borne him no children (Hirsch).

Hagar was a daughter of Pharaoh.  When he saw the miracles that were wrought on behalf of Sarah (when she was in Egypt with Abraham; 12:17), he gave Hagar to Sarah, saying ‘Better that she be a servant in their house, than a lady in mine’ (Midrash; Rashi).

Malbim continues that it was God’s plan that Ishmael must be born before Isaac and that he be born to Hagar rather than to Sarai.  Like silver from which all impurities are removed before it is put to its ultimate use, all but the holiest, most spiritual forces had to be removed from Abraham before he could beget Isaac.  So Sarai was restrained from conceiving with Abraham until he had reached a state of complete spirituality.  Therefore, Abraham married the Egyptian Hagar.  Into Ishmael went any spiritual impurities that were in Abraham’s makeup.  Thus purified, and at an advanced age when earthly lust was gone and birth could be only a heavenly gift, Abraham and Sarah produced Isaac.

16:2  Sarah realized from Whom her misfortune derived (Midrash).  And she also realized that it was from her – and not from Abraham – that a child had been withhold for she was obviously aware of the promises of descendants that had been given her husband and was apprehensive that she was the obstacle to their fulfillment (Abarbanel).

She said to Abraham: ‘Although He promised you offspring, He did not say it would issue from me. (Sforno)

King Solomon declared (Proverbs 30;21): ‘For three things the earth shudders, there are four it cannot tolerate: a slave who has become a king; a fool when he is filled with food; an unloved woman when she gets a husband; and a handmaid that is heir to her mistress.’  And yet, here the mistress gives her domain to her handmaid!  This emphasizes the righteousness of Sarah who did not consider her own feelings at all but acted solely for the sake of Heaven (Midrash HaGadol).

A childless person is considered as dead and demolished.  As dead, for Rachel said to Jacob (30:1): ‘Give me children, or else I am dead.’  As though demolished, for Sarah said, ‘perhaps I will be built up through her’, and one builds up only that which is already demolished. (Midrash; Rashi)

Sarah poured forth her soul in devising this desperate plan by which she would give her maidservant to her husband in marriage.  She had hope the God, Whose compassion is on all His handiwork, would give compassion for her, and give her a son of her own.  Similarly, He would later be merciful to Leah as it is written (29:31) ‘And when Hashem saw that Leah was hated, He opened her womb’.

And Abraham heeded the voice of Sarai.”  – The Torah does not simply say ‘and he did so.’  Rather it emphasizes that despite his own deep longing for children, Abraham acted only with Sarah’s permission.  Even now his intention was not that he be ‘built up’ from Hagar, or that his offspring be from her.  He acted only to carry out Sarah’s wishes that she be built up through Hagar, that she find satisfaction in her handmaid’s children, or that she should merit her own children because of her unselfish act as explained above. (Ramban)

16:3  ‘Sarai ..took Hagar..’  – According to Ramban, ‘took’ here implies that Abraham did not rush into the matter but waited until Sarai herself took Hagar and brought her to him.

16:4  “..her mistress was lowered..”  – Hagar acted contemptuously toward Sarah, who is clearly still defined as her mistress, because now it became obvious that it was Sarah and not Abraham who was barren.  Now that Abraham’s seed for posterity was through her, she felt that her status was no longer subservient to Sarah. (Radak)  She would also boast that all the promises made to Abraham would be realized only through her and her child, for it was only with her that Abraham would ever have children. (Midrash HaGodol)

16:5  Sarah could no longer contain herself in the face of Hagar’s haughtiness, but she reasoned to herself: ‘Shall I lower myself to this woman’s level and argue with her?  No.. I will argue the matter with her master!’ (Midrash)

Sarah said: I hold you responsible for my hurt, because when you prayed for a child and said (15:2) ‘What can You give me seeing that I go childless?’  and ‘You have not given me any offspring’ (15:3), you prayed only for yourself; therefore God gives a child to you, but not to me.  Had you prayed for both of us, then I too, would have been ‘remembered’ by God and the child being born to you would have been mine – not that of this ungrateful maidservant. 

Why indeed did Abraham not pray for Sarah?  According to Yevamos 64a, Abraham and Sarah were both infertile.  Abraham, however, considered it improper to pray for a double miracle.  He was confident that if he prayed for himself, God would respond by helping them both.  For this reason he was reluctant to take Hagar as a wife, agreeing to do so only upon the insistence of Sarah.  He feared that Sarah might not be remembered with him if he had another mate.

Although Abraham had a son with Hagar, that child was not the true response to his prayer: first, because only Isaac was to be considered his ‘son’ (21:12); and second, because he considered Hagar no more than a concubine and the property of Sarah (16:6), and as such her son would not be regarded as an heir.

Let Hashem judge between me and between you’  – The Talmud notes that he who invokes heavenly judgment, in a case where justice could be obtained in an earthly court of Law – against his fellow, is himself punished first … For, as the Talmud continues, Sarah invoked heavenly judgment upon Abraham and as a result she predeceased him (see 23:2) .. For, it was taught: punishment is meted out first to the one who cries, and is more severe than for the one against whom justice is invoked. (Bava Kamma 93a)

Midrash concludes that whoever plunges eagerly into litigation will not escape from it unscathed.  Sarah should have reached Abraham’s years, but because she invoked God’s judgment, her life was reduced by forth-eight years.

Although Sarah’s attitude was ultimately vindicated by God when He told Abraham (21:12) ‘all that Sarah says to you, hearken to her voice,” which the sages interpret to mean that God agreed with Sarah’s attitude in our incident also, nevertheless since she invoked Heavenly Justice, she was punished.

16:6  The Midrash explains that Abraham was frustrated and ambivalent.  On the one hand, Sarah was suffering insult from her maidservant; on the other hand, this maidservant was now his wife, carrying his child.  “Having made her a wife shall we reduce her to a handmaid?  I can therefore do her neither good nor evil.’

Sarah, righteous though she was, could not bear the insolence of her maidservant and responded harshly for the Midrash comments: She bade her carry her water buckets and bath towels to the baths – which was servant’s work.  Thus, Sarah’s harshness consisted mainly of making her do work unsuited to her wifely status.

Ramban comments that Sarah sinned in afflicting her, and so did Abraham for allowing it.  God therefore heard Hagar’s cry (verse 11), and gave her a son who would be a wild man, whose descendants persecute and afflict the seed of Abraham and Sarah.

Most commentators disagree with Ramban and maintain that Sarah’s intent was not malicious.  Her intention was only to force Hagar to recognize her subordinate position and cease her insulting demeanor.  Instead of accepting Sarah’s admonition gracefully and constructively, Hagar fled.

How could kind, benevolent Sarah stoop to petty retaliation because her servant grew arrogant?  And if the situation at home was indeed so intolerable, why did the angel tell her to go back to her suffering? 

The Midrash explains that the saintly Sarah never changed her behavior at all – it was Hagar who changed her attitude.  It is similar to a rabbi whose disciples render him personal service.  Whatever he may ask of them is not difficult or degrading to them for they feel privileged that they can serve him.  Let an ordinary person request the same service of them, however, and they would be outraged.

So it was with Hagar.  She had always regarded Sarah as an exalted person.  Indeed, she had given up her father’s palace in Egypt to become a servant in the home of Abraham and Sarah.  But when she married Abraham and conceived, she grew arrogant and considered herself to be an equal of, if not greater than, Sarah.  Then, Sarah’s every routine request became an intolerable burden and Hagar fled the ‘persecution’.  The angel’s advice to her was once more to accept Sarah as her mistress, her superior in spiritual qualities.  Then the servitude would no longer be burdensome.

16:7  “An angel of Hashem found her..’  – According to most Sages, angels, when executing their duties, do assume various tangible forms, and may actually communicate with man.  We should not be led to think that Hagar merely imagined these things.  In a state inferior to prophesy, Hagar actually perceived an angel in the form of a human being, and therefore did not become afraid.  She did not experience this by virtue of her own merit, but by the merit of Abraham, so that she could return home and bear his child.  (Abarbanel)

That angel found Hagar cannot be understood in the literal sense as if divine emissary had to search for her.  Obviously, the Torah, which speaks in human terms, informs us that God waited for the frightened, fleeing Hagar to rest at a spring before He communicated with her.  When God considered the moment favorable, the angel found in the sense of revealed himself to her at that moment, and not sooner.

“..on the road to Shur.”  – The verse further identifies the spring of water as being specifically the spring on the road to Shur, to indicate that she was about to return to her birthplace Egypt, for Shur is near Egypt.

16:8  “..Hagar, maidservant of Sarai,..”  – By addressing her as maidservant, he reminded her of her subservience to her mistress, and she acknowledged this subservience when, in her reply (next verse) she refers to Sarah as ‘my mistress’.

It is possible that by so addressing her he was intimating that only by virtue of the fact that she was the maidservant of Sarai did she merit this divine revelation.  He also meant to ratify her subordination to Sarah as being in accordance with the Divine Plan.

16:9-11  These verses address three separate speeches: verse 9: the condition; verse 10: the promise; and verse 11: the task and its result.  (Hirsch)

16:9   “ angel of Hashem said..”  – ‘Angel’ is repeated in reference to each statement (verses 7, 9, 10, and 11) because for each statement a different angel was sent to her.  This is in line with the dictum that an angel does not carry out two separate functions simultaneously. (Rashi, Meilah 17b)

“..return to your mistress.”  – He thereby hinted that she will always be subservient to Sarah, as Sarah’s descendants will always dominate hers. (Ramban)

16:10  Apparently, Hagar made no move to return, so the angel pressed further.  Hagar did return after which the following promise was addressed to her – ‘I will greatly increase your offspring’.  It was certainly not in the angel’s province to increase her seed; he was merely using the first person, speaking in God’s Name as His emissary.

16:11  Ishmael – God told her what the future will bing: a son would be born to her whose name would be Ismael. 

“Behold you will conceive..”  – This phrase is not interpreted in the present tense: ‘Behold, you are pregnant,’ for obviously Hagar was aware of her state so it plainly says in verse 4.  Rashi, however, states regarding verse 5 that Sarah did address Hagar and cast an ‘evil eye’ upon the unborn child causing Hagar to miscarry.  Accordingly, the angel now tells her that when she returns home, she will conceive again and bear a son.  This expression occurs also in the promise to Manoah’s wife (Judges 13:5, 7) where it also definitely refers to the future – ‘when you return home you will conceive.’ (Rashi)

16:12  “..wild-ass of a man”  – untamable – an image of unrestricted freedom among men: he would not submit to the rule of strangers, and would take what he wished by brutal force. (Ibn Ezra)  Loving the wilderness and hunting wild animals, as is written of him (21:20): “And de dwelt in the wilderness and became an accomplished archer”.  (Rashi)

The comparison of the Ishmaelites to wild-asses reflects their lives as ‘free sons of the desert’ who were wandering merchants.  They are thus referred to as wild-asses, as it is written in Jeremiah 2:24: ‘a wild-ass used to the wilderness’ and Job 24:5: ‘like wild-asses in the desert they go forth to their work’. (B’chor Shor)

Note: The Midrash takes the name to connote savage.  It means that while other people are bred in civilized surroundings, he would be reared in the wilderness.  Resh Lakish said: It means a savage among men in its literal sense, for whereas all other plunder wealth, he plunders lives.  The Zohar (Yisro 86a) remarks that Ishmael was a wild-ass, but he was only partly man.  He possessed the beginnings of ‘manhood’ because he was circumcised, but the ‘manhood’ did not come to fruition in him because he rejected the Torah.

The phrase his hand against everyone indicates that at first his seed will be victorious against all people, but ultimately everyone’s hand – they will conquer him. (Ibn Ezra)

The verse may be seen as a prophesy that has come to complete fulfillment in recent times.  The Ismaelites (the Arab states) are dependent upon other nations for technology, but other nations are dependent upon the Ishmaelites for their vast oil wealth.  And as result of their wealth, they have acquired vast holdings throughout the world.

16:13  Calling the name of Hashem signifies prayer in which she praised God Who spoke to her by exclaiming: ‘You are the God Who sees everywhere, not only in the house of Abraham.  (Sforno)

An exclamation of surprise: ‘Could I ever have expected to see God’s emissaries even here in the desert after seeing them in Abraham’s house, where I saw many angels?’  That Hagar was accustomed to seeing angels in Abraham’s house may be deduced from the fact that Manoah (Samson’s father) saw an angel only once and exclaimed (Judges 13:22): ‘We shall surely die!” while Hagar saw four angels, one after the other, and she showed no fear. (Rashi)

Although the angel appeared to her in human form, Hagar realized that he was an angel because he became invisible as soon as he had completed giving his message to her.  Thus” ‘Did I see him even here after having just seen him?’  (Radak)

16:14  ‘..Be’er Lachai Ro’i..’  Literally translated ‘the well of the Living One Who sees me.’

..between Kadesh and Bered.’  This site is further identified so that if a passerby should see it, he should offer praise to the Almighty for having chosen the righteous.  For it was out of His great love for Abraham that He sent His angel to Hagar though she was not acting as his emissary.  Bered is identical with Shur mentioned in verse 7.

16:15  Bolstered by the promise that her son would become the ancestor of a great people, Hagar returned to her mistress and after a short while, as the angel had foretold …. ‘Hagar bore Abraham a son’.  Abram was not present when the angel charged Hagar to name her child Ishmael )verse 11), nevertheless the (Prophetic) Holy Spirit rested upon him and he gave the child this name.  (Rashi)

Had Abraham heard from Hagar of the angel’s command, he should have allowed her to name the child.  Therefore Rashi explains that Abraham was prompted by the prophetic spirit and it therefore was as if he were the commanded one.

16:16  The year was 2034 from Creation.  Abraham age is recorded to give credit to Ishmael, for it is from here that we know that Ishmael was thirteen years old when Abraham circumcised him, yet he raised no objection.  (Rashi) 

This chronological detail also serves to let us know that all the events in this chapter occurred within one year.  For in verse 3 we are told that Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham ten years after Abraham lived in Canaan.  Since Abraham was seventy-five when he left Charan (12:4), he was eighty-five when he married Hagar, and Ismael was born that following year.

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