In his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul faced the challenge of the judaizers who claimed that obeying the mosaic ordinances and precepts was essential to salvation. He chooses an allegory (4:24) to rebut the judaizers. Paul uses Hagar and Sarah as types (Gal 4:21-31) of respectively two covenants: “Mount Sinai” and “Jerusalem above.” Paul’s reading of Hagar and her son has significantly informed the understanding of Ishmael for many Christians through the centuries. “Paul uses Sarah and Hagar typologically. Paul’s line of reasoning, though, uses a different paradigm in relation to the one used in the Genesis story. ‘However, Hagar and Ishmael certainly have a typological function in the Torah, especially in Genesis 16’” (Römer 2008:10).

It is important to discuss aspects of the typological functions of Ishmael and Hagar in Gen 16, 17, and 21. Both Ishmael and Hagar seem to be types for the people of Israel in their experience of slavery in Egypt as well as their redemption by God.

Janzen, in his commentary on Genesis argues that “the final form of the text is greater than the mere sum of its sources, and that the theological vision which it presents is greater and more profound—more ripe or mature—than can be gained from studies of the historical events and social situations out of which the text arose” (Janzen 1993:1).

I would like to focus this study in a similar way that Jenzen has contemplated Genesis in his commentary. In this line of thought I have chosen to focus mainly on Genesis as well as the first part of Exodus to examine the context of Ishmael’s story in both of these books. In the next section I will consider the literary elements salient to the text.

Hagar in Genesis 16: From Marginal to Central

Genesis 16 takes place in the context of the covenant of God with Abraham (Gen 12, 15, 17) and the fulfillment of God’s promises. God promises to make Abraham a great nation, to bless him, and make his name great (Gen 12:2) in contrast to the people of the Tower of Babel, who were attempting to make a name for themselves (11:4). Furthermore, Abraham would be a bridge to bless or curse people depending on how people would treat him. Abraham would be a blessing and “all families of the earth shall be blessed” (12:3). In Genesis 15, God reaffirms this promise: a son will be given to him. Sarah, however, is only mentioned by name in Genesis 17, when Ishmael is already thirteen years old.

At first sight, the story of Genesis 16 seems to be an interruption to the Abraham narrative (Gen 12-22). It is as if the reader is caught by surprise and at the outset, God does not intervene and allows choices to follow their course. Humanly speaking Gen 16 seems to be a quagmire, as a result of a series of wrong choices by each human character. But by noting the structure of the story and its context in the narrative one can begin to discover aspects that would not be perceivable otherwise. Parallelism, word plays, chiastic structures, and other literary elements can also add meaning to this story.

The pericope begins with Sarah as the one who takes the initiative and acts; it ends with Abraham accepting Hagar’s vision of God and naming his son Ishmael. It seems at first that Sarah will be the central character throughout the story. “Just as Abram gives Sarai to Pharaoh (Gen. 15:8), now Sarai takes Hagar and gives her to Abraham. Abraham the donor becomes the receiver, and Sarai the pawn becomes Sarai the initiator” (Hamilton 1990:446) . The idea to build one’s family through a surrogate wife because of infertility was culturally appropriate.

Sarah easily convinces Abraham to be part of the project, and so she “takes” Hagar (ger: possibly meaning pilgrim or foreigner) her Egyptian servant and “gives” her to Abraham. As soon as Hagar becomes pregnant, Sarah’s plan backfires. Hagar looks down to her mistress (or so it appears in Sarah’s eyes). In Gen 12 Pharaoh gives Sarah back to Abraham; in Gen 16:6 Abraham seems to give Hagar back to Sarah. By now none of the characters—Abraham, Sarah, or Hagar—seems to be blameless. Hagar, however, was the only one who had no choice in accepting the plan. Abraham and Sarah do not call her by name but by her label: the maidservant or simply as “her” (Hamilton 1990:447-8). Ironically, “Hagar, Sarai’s maid” (Gen 16:8) and her son will soon become central to the story.

The way Sarah treated her maidservant seems to point forward to the oppression the people of Israel suffered in Egypt. “So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (Exod 1:11, 12, NIV). “The Lord said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering’” (Exod 3:7, NIV).

“In Gen. 16 the roles of oppressor and oppressed are just the opposite from Exodus. Here it is a matriarch of Israel oppressing an Egyptian” (Hamilton 1990:448). Ironically, Sarah comes to symbolize the Egyptian oppressive power and Hagar, the Egyptian servant, represents the people of Israel, and their pilgrimage to the desert. Sarah “dealt harshly with her” (Gen 16:6, NKJV), “abused her so much” (NAB), “oppressed her” (Darby 1890:15), “afflicted her” (Young 1953:9). This very same word (‘anâ) is also included in God’s prophecy to Abraham concerning his descendants (Gen 15:13) and it is used to describe the Egyptians oppressing and afflicting the people of Israel in bondage (Exod 1:11, 12; 3:7).