Chapter 16 establishes some more questionable moral precedents: Abram doesn’t have an heir yet, for which he blames Sarai, so she gifts her handmaiden Hagar to Abram as a new-and-improved fertile wife. She doesn’t chalk up her infertility to randomness, she blames it on God, who “hath restrained [her] from bearing.” The Bible doesn’t distance itself from this attribution of blame, so it raises some questions. Also, it shows that Abram may not believe the promise he got from God in the last chapter, since he’s taking matters into his own hands.
Abram, ever the gentleman, defers to his wife, briefly suspending his patriarchal inclinations for the good of the clan, and starts plowing his wife’s slave. She gets knocked up, and despite the fact that the goal was to make an heir for Abram, Sarai gets extremely resentful. She complains to Abram and Abram tells Sarai to go ahead and punish Hagar, do whatever you want to her, so Sarai abuses her so badly she runs away. In other words, he abandons Sarai again, in a way, and then abandons Hagar to Sarai’s wrath.
A messenger of God finds Hagar in the wilderness and tells her to go back and “humble herself under [Sarai’s] hands.” She gets prostituted to her master’s husband, then savaged by her jealous master, then God’s messenger tells her to quit being such a pussy and to go back and take your beating. He tries to bribe her back with God’s favorite unfulfillable promise of innumerable offspring. This blessing has a pretty shitty caveat just like God’s covenant with Abram of 400 years of strife for his offspring. God’s messenger tells Hagar that her son Ishmael will be a “wild-ass” who will fight everyone and be fought by everyone, and will be hated by all his brothers. It’s becoming clear to me that you do not want to be on the receiving end of God’s blessings.
Ishmael is born when Abram is 86 years old, and that’s where the chapter leaves it. All told, it’s another very unflattering picture of the early Biblical cast of characters. They are cruel, vindictive, selfish, greedy, and callous to other humans’ suffering. God is basically nonexistent, except for facilitating abuse by proxy through a “messenger” whoever or whatever the fuck that is, and making horrible qualified promises about tortured offspring.
* Note on New Format:
Instead of posting a Chapter and making a separate posting for the commentary, I’m going to start posting them together, to make it easier to read them in parallel.
1 And Sarai, Abram’s wife, hath not borne to him, and she hath an handmaid, an Egyptian, and her name [is] Hagar;
2 and Sarai saith unto Abram, `Lo, I pray thee, Jehovah hath restrained me from bearing, go in, I pray thee, unto my handmaid; perhaps I am built up from her;’ and Abram hearkeneth to the voice of Sarai.
3And Sarai, Abram’s wife, taketh Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, at the end of the tenth year of Abram’s dwelling in the land of Canaan, and giveth her to Abram her husband, to him for a wife,
4and he goeth in unto Hagar, and she conceiveth, and she seeth that she hath conceived, and her mistress is lightly esteemed in her eyes.
5 And Sarai saith unto Abram, `My violence [is] for thee; I — I have given mine handmaid into thy bosom, and she seeth that she hath conceived, and I am lightly esteemed in her eyes; Jehovah doth judge between me and thee.’
6 And Abram saith unto Sarai, `Lo, thine handmaid [is] in thine hand, do to her that which is good in thine eyes;’ and Sarai afflicted her, and she fleeth from her presence.
7 And a messenger of Jehovah findeth her by the fountain of water in the wilderness, by the fountain in the way [to] Shur,
8 and he saith, `Hagar, Sarai’s handmaid, whence hast thou come, and whither dost thou go?’ and she saith, `From the presence of Sarai, my mistress, I am fleeing.’
9 And the messenger of Jehovah saith to her, `Turn back unto thy mistress, and humble thyself under her hands;’
10 and the messenger of Jehovah saith to her, `Multiplying I multiply thy seed, and it is not numbered from multitude;’
11 and the messenger of Jehovah saith to her, `Behold thou [art] conceiving, and bearing a son, and hast called his name Ishmael, for Jehovah hath hearkened unto thine affliction;
12 and he is a wild-ass man, his hand against every one, and every one’s hand against him — and before the face of all his brethren he dwelleth.’
13 And she calleth the name of Jehovah who is speaking unto her, `Thou [art], O God, my beholder;’ for she said, `Even here have I looked behind my beholder?’
14 therefore hath one called the well, `The well of the Living One, my beholder;’ lo, between Kadesh and Bered.
15 And Hagar beareth to Abram a son; and Abram calleth the name of his son, whom Hagar hath borne, Ishmael;
16 and Abram [is] a son of eighty and six years in Hagar’s bearing Ishmael to Abram.