What does Genesis chapter 16 mean?Genesis 16 continues to follow the life of one of Israel's greatest patriarchs: Abram, who will soon be renamed Abraham. To this point, Abram and his wife Sarai are still childless, despite Abram being well over seventy-five years old (Genesis 12:4). In fact, at this point in the narrative, Abram is pushing ninety (Genesis 16:16)! In the prior chapter, Abram has voiced his concerns to God about the situation, and God has responded with a dramatic demonstration of His intentions.
For all these many years, Abram has resisted following the normal practices of his day. Abram and Sarai were wealthy. They had many servants. Abram could have taken many wives. He chose, instead, to wait for God to fulfill the promise of children through his barren wife Sarai. Until now. With Abram in his mid-80s, Sarai has apparently become tired of waiting. In her eyes, it is time to go to plan B: giving her Egyptian servant girl Hagar to Abram, in order to finally obtain a child. Apparently, if a wife was unable to bear children, it was considered appropriate for her to give a servant to her husband, as another wife, with the understanding that any children born to that servant would rightfully become the child of the original wife. In a disappointing moment of faithlessness, Abram agrees, and Hagar quickly becomes pregnant.
Then the plan unravels. Hagar, elevated from slave to wife and now birth mother, begins to treat her mistress Sarai with contempt. Perhaps Hagar wondered what she and Abram need Sarai for. Perhaps she resented the idea that her child would belong to Sarai. In any case, the dynamic changes. Sarai's feelings about her plan change, as well. She makes it clear to Abram that she holds him responsible for this conflict! And, she demands that he make clear that Sarai remains in authority over Hagar. Again, Abram agrees. With that approval, Sarai deals harshly with Hagar, so harshly that Hagar runs off into the wilderness alone, maybe fearful for her life.
God, however, will not allow Hagar and her child to be discarded so easily. The angel of the Lord, perhaps Yahweh Himself, finds Hagar resting at a spring along a road leading back to her homeland of Egypt. He gives to Hagar a command and a promise.
First, the angel of the Lord tells Hagar to return and submit to Sarai. Then He reveals that she will bear a son, Ishmael, and that his offspring will become so numerous as to be uncountable. However, he will be a "wild donkey" of a man and his life—and the lives of his descendants—will be marked by conflict with everyone. In spite of this mixed news, Hagar is astonished and grateful that God has heard her. The name of her son, Ishmael, means "God hears." She names the Lord who heard her cry and came to her the "God of seeing" and names the well Beer-lahai-roi, "well of the living One who sees."
Hagar returns to Abram and Sarai, and Ishmael is born. While God has given a guarantee of blessing to Hagar and Ishamel, this boy is not the child of the promise. This was not how God planned to accomplish His will, and the son born from Abram's second wife is not the fulfillment of the Lord's vows to Abram. Another 13 years will pass before God will fully reveal His plan to Abram, giving he and Sarai their long-awaited son.