Genesis 16
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

It is in chapter 16 that we first meet with this term, and as in several places there is an apparent identification of Jehovah’s messenger with Jehovah Himself, and even with Elohim, it becomes necessary to say a few words upon the much debated question, whether it was a created angel that was the means of communication between Jehovah and His ancient people; or whether it was an anticipation of the Incarnation of Christ, and even a manifestation in human form of the Second Person of the Divine Trinity.

God in His absolute and perfect nature is, as we are clearly taught, beyond the reach of human sense, and even of human reason. “No man hath seen God” John 1:18; John 6:46), “for He is the King invisible, Who dwells in the unapproachable light” (1Timothy 1:17; 1Timothy 6:16); but we are taught with equal clearness that it was the office of Christ to reveal Him to us (John 12:45; John 14:9); and that Christ is not merely “the effulgence of His glory, but the very image and impress of His substance” (Hebrews 1:3). In his own nature, then, incomprehensible and exalted far above the reach of our mental powers, God is nevertheless made intelligible to man, and brought near to our hearts and minds in Christ, so that we can conceive of Him as a Person, and as such love and worship Him. Yet was this Incarnation of God the Son the most sublime and awful mystery ever displayed upon earth; and to suppose that it was a mystery often repeated, so far from being a help to our faith, would be the reverse. We may well believe that God prepared men’s minds for so Divine a fact as “the emptying Himself of His glory, that He might be made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7); but that He became Man except at Bethlehem should have for its proof nothing less than the express warrant of Holy Writ.

In three cases there is an apparent identification of the angel with God. Thus of Hagar it is said, “She called the name of Jehovah that speaketh to her El Roï” (a God of seeing); and as a reason for the name she adds, “Do not I see after my seeing?” (Genesis 16:13). Similarly, after Jacob had wrestled with ”a man” until the breaking of the day, he “called the name of the place Peni-el (the face of God): for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:30). Finally, after “the angel of Jehovah” had gone up in the flame from off the altar, Manoah said, “We shall surely die, because we have seen Elohim (Judges 13:22).

In these and any similar cases the utmost that we can venture to affirm is that they had seen God representatively by the angel; by whom also “Jehovah spake to Hagar.” Upon this latter point there is a valuable note of Bar-I Hebrseus in his Scholia on Acts 7:30, “He that was visible was an angel: He that spake was God.” Nor is there any difficulty in the fact that in Genesis 16:10 the angel says to Hagar, “I will multiply thy seed.” For it is the rule in Holy Scripture to ascribe to the agent the deeds which he executes by God’s commission. Thus Ezekiel speaks of himself destroying Jerusalem (Ezekiel 43:3), the sense being that rightly put in our margin—that “he prophesied that the city should be destroyed.” Sent by Jehovah to execute His will, angel and prophet alike are described as themselves the doers of the task assigned to them. This rule should be remembered in the exposition of Genesis 19, where the two angels speak of themselves as destroying Sodom.

In the case, however, of the “three men who stood by” Abraham at Mamre, there is a very close identification of one of the angels with Jehovah. In the first verse we read that “Jehovah appeared unto Abraham.” This might well be by the mission of the angels, but after a sudden change to the singular number in Genesis 16:10, the speaker is both henceforward called Jehovah, and speaks as not only himself tho doer and judge, but as if it rested with him to save or destroy at his own will. There is also a marked distinction between him and the two angels who visit Lot, and who describe themselves as sent by Jehovah (Genesis 19:13), though even here, in Genesis 19:17-22, there is an approximation to a higher personification. In the case of the angel who visits Gideon there is again an apparent identification between him and Jehovah (Judges 6:14; Judges 6:16-23); nevertheless, Gideon still calls him an angel of Jehovah in Genesis 19:22, and he is called an angel of Elohim in Genesis 19:20.

In this case, and in that of the angel who appeared to Manoah, they refuse to partake of food, whereas the three angels who appeared to Abraham at Mamre ate of the food prepared for them. They are also called men, and behave in a very human manner, whereas the angels who appeared to Gideon and Manoah both display supernatural powers, and “do wondrously.” Nevertheless, nowhere else is there so close an identifi-cation between the angel and Jehovah as in this appearance at Mamre, and in the history of the intercession for Sodom both the angel and Abraham speak as if Jehovah was there present in person.

In the case of the revelation to Abraham after the sacrifice of Isaac, the “angel of Jehovah” calls to him from heaven, and we have no account of any appearance in human form.

If, however, we turn to other passages of Holy Scripture the explanation seems plain. In the passage of God’s ancient people through the wilderness, an angel was especially entrusted with their guidance and protection. He is called “the angel of Èlohim,” and his symbol was the pillar of fire and of the cloud (Exodus 14:19). Once, however, he appears in human form to Joshua, and claims the office of captain of Jehovah’s host (Joshua 5:13-15). In the full description of him in Exodus 23:20-25, we read in Exodus 23:21 “my Name is in him.” Now this angel is called in Isaiah 63:9 “the angel of God’s presence,” literally, of His Face; and in this there is an evident allusion to Exodus 33:14-15, where Moses says, “If Thy Face go not, carry us not up hence;” and Jehovah says, “My Face shall go, that I may give thee rest.”

It seems, therefore, that under the Old Covenant, while generally it was created angels who were the medium of communication between God and man, yet that there was one kind of manifestation of Deity so high as that God’s Name was in him, and God’s Face shown by him. As all revelation was by God the Son (John 1:18) we may fearlessly connect this angel with our blessed Lord, called “the angel of the covenant” in Malachi 3:1; but it would be rash and presumptuous to attempt to define the exact nature of these appearances. The union of matter and spirit in any way is beyond our powers of understanding; how much more when that Spirit is God! But this we may reverently say, that these personal manifestations were an anticipation in the Old Testament of that which is the cardinal doctrine in the New—that God has taken upon Him human nature, and appeared in fashion as a man. The saints of old knew of their Redeemer at first only as “the woman’s seed:” they learned next to unite the thought of Him with the name Jehovah; and, finally, they knew that Jehovah was also God. So was the broad foundation laid for the prophetic teaching that He was Emmanuel, in one person God and Man; and for the feeling so necessary for all true personal piety that God vouchsafes His presence on earth. He who now walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks (Revelation 1:13) from ¡time to time manifested His Face visibly to the saints of the Church of old. And not only was the father of the faithful thus visited, but even a runaway handmaid was neither disregarded, nor deemed unworthy of heavenly care. We might lose ourselves in profitless speculations as to the manner of events so mysterious, but the practical lesson is plain, that though “the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain God, yet He deigns to dwell upon earth” (1Kings 8:27), and that His presence now vouchsafed by the spiritual indwelling of the Holy Ghost, is as efficacious for guidance, help, and comfort as were these visible manifestations in early times, when there was not as yet that full knowledge of God and of His ways, which has been given us in His Holy Word.

Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.


(1) Now Sarai.—The history of Abram is given in a succession of brief narratives, written possibly by the patriarch himself; and though papyrus was known at Ur (Trans. Soc. Bibl. Arch., i. 343, ii. 430), yet the absence of any convenient writing material for ordinary use would oblige men in those ancient days to content themselves with short inscriptions, like those tablets of clay brought from Ur, many of which now in the British. Museum are said to be considerably older than the time of Abram. The narrator would naturally make but few alterations in such precious-documents, and hence a certain amount of recapitulation, like that which we find in the Books of Samuel, where again we have not a narrative from one pen, but the arrangement of materials already ancient. As, however, the Divine object was the revealing to mankind of the way by which God would raise up man from the fall, the narrator would be guided by inspiration in his choice of materials, and in the omission of such things as did not fall in with this purpose; and the evident reverence with which he deals with these records is a warrant to us of their genuineness. Such additions as the remark that the “Valley of Shaveh” was many centuries later called “the King’s Dale” (Genesis 14:17; 2Samuel 18:18) are generally acknowledged to have been the work of Ezra and the men of the Great Synagogue, after the return from the exile.

Hagar.—As this word apparently comes from the Arabic verb to flee, it cannot have been her original name, unless we suppose that she really was an Arab fugitive who had taken refuge in Egypt. More probably she was an Egyptian woman who had escaped to Abram when he was in the Negeb, and had then received this appellation, which virtually means run-away.

And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.
(2) That I may obtain children by her.—Heb., that I may be builded by her. The words, ben=a son, bath (originally banth)=a daughter, baith (banith) =a house, and bânâh=to build, all belong to the same root in Hebrew, the idea being that the children build the house, and give a man the pledge of continuance. Until late times the tent was the habitation, while the house was the family (Genesis 7:1). Thus the phrase “to build a man a sure house” meant, to give him lasting prosperity (1Samuel 2:35). Hence, too, the close connection between building and the bestowal of children in Psalms 127. As then the children of a woman bestowed by her mistress upon the husband were regarded as belonging to the wife (Genesis 30:3), Sarah, despairing of bearing a son herself, as she was now seventy-five, and had been ten years in Canaan, concluded that her heir was to be born of a substitute.

As regards the morality of the act, we find that marriage with one wife was the original law (Genesis 2:24), and that when polygamy was introduced it was coupled by the inspired narrator with violence and licence (Genesis 4:19). Monogamy was the rule, as we see in the households of Noah, Terah, Isaac, and others; but many, like Esau and Jacob, allowed themselves a greater latitude. In so doing, their conduct falls below the level of Christian morality, but everyone’s actions are strongly influenced by the general views of the people among whom he lives; and in Abram’s case it must be said in his defence that, with so much depending on his having offspring, he took no steps to obtain another wife, but remained content with the barren Sarai. When he did take Hagar it was at his wife’s request, and for a reason which seemed to them adequate, and even religious. Rachel subsequently did the same for a much lower motive. The consent of the wife was in such cases all-important; and so in India, in ancient times, it was necessary to make a second marriage valid (see Wilson’s Hindu Theatre, i. 179).

And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.
(3) Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan.—He was now, therefore, eighty-five years of age (see Genesis 16:16 and Genesis 12:4), and this long delay had not only tried his faith, but brought him and Sarai to the conclusion that the promised seed was to be obtained by other means.

And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes.
(4) Her mistress was despised.—Hagar, we are told in Genesis 16:3, was to be, not Abram’s concubine, but his wife. She was to be Sarai’s representative, and though now she would hold the highest place in the household next to Sarai, because of this relation to Abram, yet she would continue to be Sarai’s maid. But no sooner had she conceived, than, proud of her superiority over her mistress, she wished to overthrow this arrangement, and, at all events, acted as if she was Abram’s wife absolutely, and thrust Sarai aside.

And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee.
(5) My wrong be upon thee.—That is, May the wrong done to me be avenged upon thee. Sarai’s act had been one of self-denial for Abram’s sake, and now that it has led to her being treated insolently she makes Abram answerable for it.

But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.
(6) Sarai dealt hardly with her.—The verb is translated afflicted in Exodus 1:11 and Isaiah 60:14; its more exact meaning is, Sarai humbled her, that is, reduced her to her original condition. It was quite right that as Hagar had abused her elevation, Abram should make her yield to Sarai all due respect and submission; but in making her resume her old position as a slave, Sarai was possibly dealing unkindly with her (but see on Genesis 16:9). In running away Hagar not only showed the untamable love of freedom which Ishmael inherited from her, but apparently was repeating the act from which she had her name.

And the angel of the LORD found her by a fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way to Shur.
(7) The angel of the Lord.—Heb., of Jehovah. (See Excursus at end of Book.)

In the way to Shur.—Hagar evidently fled by the usual route leading from Hebron past Beer-sheba to Egypt. The wilderness was that of Paran, in which Kadesh was situated. The fountain by which Hagar was sitting was on the road to Shur, which is a desert on the eastern side of Egypt, forming the boundary of the territory of the Ishmaelites (Genesis 25:18) and of the Amalekites (1Samuel 15:7; 1Samuel 27:8), and reached by the Israelites soon after crossing the Red Sea (Exodus 15:22; Numbers 33:8). It is now called J’afar.

And he said, Hagar, Sarai's maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai.
(8) Whence camest thou?—It is noteworthy that in these Divine communications God’s knowledge of all the circumstances is not presumed, but the person visited is led on to tell them. This adds very much to the freshness and poetry of the narrative. Here, however, in the address, Hagar, Sarai’s maid, the angel, at least, shows that he is aware who she is, and also reminds her of what she had forgotten, that in bestowing her upon Abram Sarai did not cease to be her mistress.

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.
(9) Submit thyself.—Heb., humble thyself. It is the verb translated dealt hardly in Genesis 16:6. The angel therefore commands her to take the position which Sarai was forcing upon her; and by so doing proves to us that there had been no personal maltreatment. Commentators have taken this notion, not from the Hebrew, but from the English Version.

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude.
(10) I will multiply thy seed.—We have here the purpose of the Divine manifestation. Abram’s son must not be mixed up with and lost among the debased population of Egypt, but must be the father of a free people; and Hagar will now submit to her lot as a slave, that she may secure liberty for her offspring.

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction.
(11) Ishmael.—That is, God heareth. Like Samuel, Ishmael received his name from the events of his mother’s life, and not from anything in his own. There was, however, no rule in this matter, and the naming of children in the Book of Genesis is very diversified.

And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every man's hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.
(12) He will be a wild man.—Heb., he will be a wild-ass man. The wild ass of the Arabian deserts is a very noble creature, and is one of the animals selected in the Book of Job as especially exemplifying the greatness of God (Job 39:5-8). Its characteristics are great speed, love of solitude, and an untamable fondness of liberty. It is thus the very type of the Bedaween Arabs, whose delight is to rove at will over the desert, and who despise the ease and luxury of a settled life.

His hand will be against every man . .·.—The Bedaween can be bound by no treaties, submit to no law, and count plunder as legitimate gain. Nevertheless—

He shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.—That is, he shall maintain his independence, and his descendants shall continue to exist as a free race in the presence of the other Abrahamic nations. Many commentators, however, consider that the more exact rendering is, he shall dwell to the east of all his brethren. This is certainly the meaning of the word in Genesis 25:6, but does not suit equally well there in Genesis 25:18.

And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me?
(13) Thou God seest me.—Heb., Thou art El Boi, that is, a God of seeing. Not as Onkelos paraphrases it, “Thou art a God that sees all things,” but “Thou art a God that permits Himself to be seen.” For so Hagar proceeds herself to explain the name, Do not I still see after seeing? With all the love of an Oriental for dark sayings, Hagar plays upon the word “roï,” but her meaning is plain: “Do I not see, and therefore am alive, and not even blinded, nor bereft of sense and reason, though I have seen God.”

Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.
(14) Beer-lahai-roi.—That is, Well of the living-seeing (of God), the well where God has been seen, and the beholder still lives. It became afterwards a favourite dwelling-place of Isaac (Genesis 25:11), and was probably, therefore, surrounded by pastures, but its site has not been identified. For Kadesh see Genesis 14:7. Bered is absolutely unknown.

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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