There are several unique features in this story which help confirm it as a center. This is the first time God reveals himself to a woman, an Egyptian servant. This is the first time that God announces in advance the birth and the name of a child to be blessed. This is the first time when someone is granted the privilege of giving a name to God. This is the first time that the Angel of the Lord appears to a human being.
Perhaps the most important point to strengthen the centrality of Genesis 16 within the narrative is that this story portrays who God is in unique ways. God is Savior and Redeemer. He is merciful and compassionate. He seeks and finds the lost. This chapter also seems to set the pattern of how God consistently acts toward his people thoughout Israel’s history, in spite of Israel’s waywardness and deviation from following God’s instructions: God seeks and finds because of who He is; He sees and hears; He knows the situation of his people; He rescues them and educates them for mission. The God who sought and found and rescued Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the one who found and rescued Hagar, Sarah’s Egyptian servant, and her son Ishmael. Mother and son, then, seem to become types that point to Israel’s experience and history, slavery, and redemption.
Although Sarah, Abraham, and Hagar are far from flawless, God is able to transform the whole situation and even make this story a “preview” of what will eventually take place in the story of Abraham’s descendants.
The story seems also to communicate a warning: even people called by God can deviate from his plan and choose to act independently, treating other human beings with harshness.
The story of Genesis 16 captures in unique ways how unpredictable God is in his loyal and faithful love ( hesed) . It sets the tone for the story of redemption in Exodus. The God who saved Hagar and her son is the LORD who seeks, finds, and hears Hagar’s afflictions. He is “the living One who sees me” (Gen 16:7, 11, 14). “Ishmael” (God still hears) became a perpetual sign of God’s mercy (White 1890:146).
I suggest that the meaning to the name Ishmael carries much weight as it becomes a paradigm of how God will disclose himself to his people and humanity both in Scripture and through history. For God is the one who hears and sees, seeks and finds, the One compassionate and merciful God. This sign of God’s mercy would continue on through the rest of Scripture.
It could have been the end of Hagar and Ishmael’s story, but “the Angel of the Lord found her” (Gen 16:7). This finding is intentional and is initiated by God himself, signifying “divine intervention for a redemptive and elective purpose” (Culver 2001:53).
The God Who Hears
Three times in Genesis the name of Ishmael becomes a personal sign of God’s intervention and response to prayer (Gen 16 to Hagar; Gen 17 to Abraham; Gen 21 to Ishmael himself).
Exodus seems to hint to the fact that “Ishmael” is a sign of God’s mercy that would not be forgotten: “Now it happened in the process of time that the king of Egypt died. Then the children of Israel groaned because of the bondage, and they cried out; and their cry came up to God because of the bondage. So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, withIsaac, and with Jacob. And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them” (Exod 2:23-25, emphasis mine).
Although Ishmael is not mentioned by name in the verses above, the memory of his name would certainly be clear as the Hebrews read the expression “God hears” in this text. Neither is Ishmael mentioned by name in Genesis 21:8-21, but he is referred to in four different ways: “son of Hagar,” “son of the bondwoman,” “the boy,” and “the lad.” The absence of Ishmael’s name in Genesis 21 and Exodus 2 could point to the relevance of the name’s meaning in conveying who God is and how he acts.
Indeed Ishmael’s name is not mentioned in the whole of Exodus or in Genesis 21:8- 21 but the remembrance of his name seems to be implied by the similarity in language. “I have surely seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters, for I know their sorrows” (Exod 3:7, NKJV, emphasis mine).
“So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exod 4:31, NKJV, emphasis mine)
And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel whom the Egyptians keep in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Therefore say to the children of Israel: ‘I am the Lord; I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. 7 I will take you as My people, and I will be your God. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians” (Exod 6:5-7, emphasis mine).
As Ishmael became a sign of God’s responsiveness in time of need for Hagar (Gen 16), Abraham (Gen 17), and Ishmael himself (Gen 21), now “Ishmael” becomes a sign of God’s mercy, compassion, and redemption to the people of Israel.
With this as a background of the story, Genesis 16 can be considered a climax of the Abraham narrative in the chiastic structure because it pointedly portrays who God is, how he consistently acts in mercy and compassion, and how the name of Ishmael depicts these realities.