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The Birth of Ishmael


Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, 2and Sarai said to Abram, “You see that the L ord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. 4He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the L ord judge between you and me!” 6But Abram said to Sarai, “Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.

7 The angel of the L ord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8And he said, “Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” 9The angel of the L ord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and submit to her.” 10The angel of the L ord also said to her, “I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.” 11And the angel of the L ord said to her,

“Now you have conceived and shall bear a son;

you shall call him Ishmael,

for the L ord has given heed to your affliction.


He shall be a wild ass of a man,

with his hand against everyone,

and everyone’s hand against him;

and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”

13 So she named the L ord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”; for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?” 14Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.

15 Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

7. And the angel of the Lord found her. We are here taught with what clemency the Lord acts towards his own people, although they have deserved severe punishment. As he had previously mitigated the punishment of Abram and Sarai, so now he casts a paternal look upon Hagar, so that his favor is extended to the whole family. He does not indeed altogether spare them, lest he should cherish their vices; but he corrects them with gentle remedies. It is indeed probable, that Hagar, in going to the desert of Sur, meditated a return to her own country. Yet mention seems to be made of the desert and the wilderness, to show that she, being miserably afflicted, wandered from the presence of men, till the angel met her. Although Moses does not describe the form of the vision, yet I do not doubt, that it was clothed in a human body; in which, nevertheless, manifest tokens of celestial glory were conspicuous.

8. And he said , Hagar , Sarai’s maid. By the use of this epithet, the angel declares, that she still remained a servant, though she had escaped the hands of her mistress; because liberty is not to be obtained by stealth, nor by flight, but by manumission. Moreover, by this expression, God shows that he approves of civil government, and that the violation of it is inexcusable. The condition of servitude was then hard; and thanks are to be given to the Lord, that this barbarity has been abolished; yet God has declared from heaven his pleasure, that servants should bear the yoke; as also by the mouth of Paul, he does not give servants their freedom, nor deprive their masters of their use; but only commands them to be kindly and liberally treated. (Ephesians 6:5.) It is to be inferred also, from the circumstance of the time, not only that civil government is to be maintained, as matter of necessity, but that lawful authorities are to be obeyed, for conscience’ sake. For although the fugitive Hagar could no longer be compelled to obedience by force, yet her condition was not changed in the sight of God. By the same argument it is proved, that if masters at any time deal too hardly with their servants, or if rulers treat their subjects with unjust asperity, their rigour is still to be endured, nor is there just cause for shaking off the yoke, although they may exercise their power too imperiously. In short, whenever it comes into our mind to defraud any one of his right, or to seek exemption from our proper calling, let the voice of the angel sound in our ears, as if God would draw us back, by putting his own hand upon us. They who have proudly and tyrannically governed shall one day render their account to God; meanwhile, their asperity is to be borne by their subjects, till God, whose prerogative it is to raise the abject and to relieve the oppressed, shall give them succor. If a comparison be made, the power of magistrates is far more tolerable, than that ancient dominion was.389389     For this ancient dominion implied slavery. The French translation has it, “Le droit des magistrats est bien plus tolerable, que n’a point este ceste ancienne domination sur les serfs.” — Ed. The paternal authority is in its very nature amiable, and worthy of regard. If the flight of Hagar was prohibited by the command of God, much less will he bear with the licentiousness of a people, who rebel against their prince; or with the contumacy of children, who withdraw themselves from obedience to their parents.

Whence camest thou ? He does not inquire, as concerning a doubtful matter, but knowing that no place for subterfuge is left to Hagar, he peremptorily reproves her for her flight; as if he had said, ‘Having deserted thy station, thou shalt profit nothing by thy wandering, since thou canst not escape the hand of God, which had placed thee there.’ It might also be, that he censured her departure from that house, which was then the earthly sanctuary of God. For she was not ignorant that God was there worshipped in a peculiar manner. And although she indirectly charges her mistress with cruelty, by saying that she had fled from her presence; still the angel, to cut off all subterfuges, commands her to return and to humble herself. By which words he first intimates, that the bond of subjection is not dissolved either by the too austere, or by the impotent dominion of rulers; he then retorts the blame of the evil upon Hagar herself, because she had obstinately placed herself in opposition to her mistress, and, forgetful of her own condition, had exalted herself more insolently and boldly than became a handmaid. In short, as she is justly punished for her faults, he commands her to seek a remedy by correcting them. And truly, since nothing is better than, by obedience and patience, to appease the severity of those who are in authority over us; we must more especially labor to bend them to mildness by our humiliation, when we have offended them by our pride.

10. I will multiply thy seed exceedingly For the purpose of mitigating the offense, and of alleviating what was severe in the precept, by some consolation, he promises a blessing in the child which she should bear. God might indeed, by his own authority, have strictly enjoined what was right; but in order that Hagar might the more cheerfully do what she knew to be her duty, he allures her, as by blandishments, to obedience. And to this point those promises tend, by which he invites us to voluntary submission. For he would not draw us by servile methods, so that we should obey his commands by constraint; and therefore he mingles mild and paternal invitations with his commands, dealing with us liberally, as with sons. That the angel here promises to do what is peculiar to God alone, involves no absurdity, for it is sufficiently usual with God to invest his ministers whom he sends with his own character, that the authority of their word may appear the greater. I do not, however, disapprove the opinion of most of the ancients; that Christ the Mediator was always present in all the oracles, and that this is the cause why the majesty of God is ascribed to angels.390390     See on this subject, Smith’s Scripture Testimony to the Messiah, Book 2 Chap. 4 Sect. 33. — Ed. On which subject I have already touched and shall have occasion to say more elsewhere.

11. And shalt bear a son. The angel explains what he had briefly said respecting her seed; namely, that it should not be capable of being numbered on account of its multitude; and he commences with Ishmael, who was to be its head and origin. Although we shall afterwards see that he was a reprobate, yet an honorable name is granted to him, to mark the temporal benefit of which Ishmael became a partakers as being a son of Abram. For I thus explain the passage, God intended that a monument of the paternal kindness, with which he embraced the whole house of Abram, should endure to posterity. For although the covenant of eternal life did not belong to Ishmael; yet, that he might not be entirely without favor, God constituted him the father of a great and famous people. And thus we see that, with respect to this present life, the goodness of God extended itself to the seed of Abram according to the flesh. But if God intended the name of Ishmael (which signifies God will hear) to be a perpetual memorial of his temporal benefits; he will by no means bear with our ingratitude, if we do not celebrate his celestial and everlasting mercies, even unto death.

The Lord has heard thy affliction. We do not read that Hagar, in her difficulties, had recourse to prayer; and we are rather left to conjecture, from the words of Moses, that when she was stupefied by her sufferings, the angel came of his own accord. It is therefore to be observed, that there are two ways in which God looks down upon men, for the purpose of helping them; either when they, as suppliants, implore his aid; or when he, even unasked, succours them in their afflictions. He is indeed especially said to hearken to them who, by prayers, invoke him as their Deliverer. Yet, sometimes, when men lie mute, and because of their stupor, do not direct their wishes to him, he is said to listen to their miseries. That this latter mode of hearing was fulfilled towards Hagar, is probable, because God freely met her wandering through the desert. Moreover, because God frequently deprives unbelievers of his help, until they are worn away with slow disease, or else suffers them to be suddenly destroyed; let none of us give indulgence to our own sloth; but being admonished by the sense of our evils, let us seek him without delay. In the meantime, however, it is of no small avail to the confirmation of our faith, that our prayers will never be despised by the Lord, seeing that he anticipates even the slothful and the stupid, with his help; and if he is present to those who seek him not, much more will he be propitious to the pious desires of his own people.

12. And he will be a wild man. The angel declares what kind of person Ishmael will be. The simple meaning is, (in my judgment,) that he will be a warlike man, and so formidable to his enemies, that none shall injure him with impunity. Some expound the word פרא (pereh) to mean a forester, and one addicted to the hunting of wild beasts. But the explanation must not, it seems, be sought elsewhere than in the context; for it follows immediately after, ‘His hand shall be against all men, and the hand of all men against him.’ It is however asked, whether this ought to be reckoned among benefits conferred by God, that he is to preserve his rank in life by force of arms; seeing that nothing is, in itself, more desirable than peace. The difficulty may be thus solved; that Ishmael, although all his neighbors should make war upon him, and should, on every side, conspire to destroy him; shall yet though alone, be endued with sufficient power to repel all their attacks. I think, however, that the angel, by no means, promises Ishmael complete favor, but only that which is limited. Among our chief blessings, we must desire to have peace with all men. Now, since this is denied to Ishmael, that blessing which is next in order is granted to him; namely, that he shall not be overcome by his enemies; but shall be brave and powerful to resist their force. He does not, however, speak of Ishmael’s person, but of his whole progeny; for what follows is not strictly suitable to one man. Should this exposition be approved, no simple or unmixed blessing is here promised; but only a tolerable or moderate condition; so that Ishmael and his posterity might perceive that something was divinely granted to them, for the sake of their father Abram. Therefore, it is, by no means, to be reckoned among the benefits given by God, that he shall have all around him as enemies, and shall resist them all by violence: but this is added as a remedy and an alleviation of the evil; that he, who would have many enemies, should be equal to bear up against them.

And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. As this is properly applicable only to a nation, we hence the more easily perceive, that they are deceived who restrict the passage to the person of Ishmael. Again, others understand, that the posterity of Ishmael was to have a fixed habitation in the presence of their brethren, who would be unwilling to allow it; as if it were said, that they should forcibly occupy the land they inhabit, although their brethren might attempt to resist them. Others adduce a contrary opinion; namely, that the Ishmaelites, though living among a great number of enemies, should yet not be destitute of friends and brethren. I approve, however, of neither opinion: for the angel rather intimates, that this people should be separate from others; as if he would say, ‘They shall not form a part or member of any one nation; but shall be a complete body, having a distinct and special name.’

13. And she called the name of the Lord. Moses, I have no doubt, implies that Hagar, after she was admonished by the angel, changed her mind: and being thus subdued, retook herself to prayer; unless, perhaps, here the confession of the tongue, rather than change of mind, is denoted. I rather incline, however, to the opinion, that Hagar, who had before been of a wild and intractable temper, begins now at length to acknowledge the providence of God. Moreover, as to that which some suppose; namely, that God is called ‘the God of vision,391391     Deum visionis.” Though Calvin regards this interpretation as forced, it must not be denied that it has the sanction of the highest literary authorities. Le Clerc, Peter Martyr, Rosenmuller, Dathe, Gesenius, Lee, Professor Bush, and many others, all regard the word ראי, (roi,) as a substantive, not as a participle, — and consequently God is here spoken of as the God who reveals himself, not as the God who sees. — Ed because he appears and manifests himself to men, it is a forced interpretation. Rather let us understand that Hagar, who before had appeared to herself to be carried away by chance, through the desert; now perceives and acknowledges that human affairs are under divine government. And whoever is persuaded that he is looked upon by God, must of necessity walk as in his sight.

Have I also here seen after him that seeth me ?392392     Nonne etiam hic vidi post videntem me?” “Have I not also here looked after him who seeth me?” Some translate this, ‘Have I not seen after the vision?’393393     Annon video, (h. e. vivo,) post videntem me, i.e., post visionem divinam, vel post visionem videntis me?” Do I not see, (that is, live,) after him who seeth me? that is, after the divine vision, or after the vision of him that seeth me. — Junius, Piscator, etc., in Poli Syn. Ainsworth gives this version, ‘Have I also here seen after him that seeth me?’ Where stress is laid on the word here, as is done by Calvin, for the purpose of contrasting the desert with Abram’s house. The opinion, also, that the term ‘see’ is equivalent to ‘live,’ is supported by high authority. The meaning of the passage would then be, ‘Do I see, that is, live, after having beheld such a vision?’ — Ed But it really is as I have rendered it. Moreover, the obscurity of the sentence has procured for us various interpretations. Some among the Hebrews say that Hagar was astonished at the sight of the angel; because she thought that God was nowhere seen but in the house of Abram. But this is frigid, and in this way the ambition of the Jews often compels them to trifle; seeing that they apply their whole study to boasting on the glory of their race. Others so understand the passage, ‘Have I seen after my vision?’ that is, so late, that during the vision I was blind?394394     Vatablus in Poli Syn. Perhaps the following paraphrase may bring out the sense of this obscure interpretation. We may suppose Hagar to exclaim: ‘Have I indeed seen at last? yet, not till after the vision itself had passed away; so that when I saw it literally, I was mentally blind, and did not know what I was looking at.’ — Ed. According to these interpreters, the vision of Hagar was twofold: the former erroneous; since she perceived nothing celestial in the angel; but the other true, after she had been affected with a sense of the divine nature of the vision. To some it seems that a negative answer is implied; as if she would say, I did not see him departing; and then from his sudden disappearance, she collects that he must have been an angel of God.

Also, on the second member of the sentence, interpreters disagree. Jerome renders it, ‘the back parts of him that seeth me:’395395     See Vulgate. which many refer to an obscure vision, so that the phrase is deemed metaphorical. For as we do not plainly perceive men from behind; so they are said to see the back parts of God, to whom he does not openly nor clearly manifest himself; and this opinion is commonly received. Others think that Moses used a different figure; for they take the seeing of the back parts of God, for the sense of his anger; just as his face is said to shine upon us, when he shows himself propitious and favorable. Therefore, according to them, the sense is, ‘I thought that I had escaped, so that I should no more be obnoxious to the rod or chastening of God; but here also I perceive that he is angry with me.’ So far I have briefly related the opinion of others.396396     These different interpretations, with others, may be seen in Poole’s Synopsis. — Ed. And although I have no intention to pause for the purpose of refuting each of these expositions; I yet freely declare, that not one of these interpreters has apprehended the meaning of Moses. I willingly accept what some adduce, that Hagar wondered at the goodness of God, by whom she had been regarded even in the desert: but this, though something, is not the whole. In the first place, Hagar chides herself, because, as she had before been too blind, she even now opened her eyes too slowly and indolently to perceive God. For she aggravates the guilt of her torpor by the circumstance both of place and time. She had frequently found, by many proofs, that she was regarded by the Lord; yet becoming blind, she had despised his providence, as if, with closed eyes, she had passed by him when he presented himself before her. She now accuses herself for not having more quickly awoke when the angel appeared. The consideration of place is also of great weight,397397     Loci enim notatio,” is in the French translation rendered, “Le changement du lieu.” The change of place, as if it had been mutatio. — Ed because God, who had always testified that he was present with her in the house of Abram, now pursued her as a fugitive, even into the desert. It implied, indeed, a base ingratitude on her part, to be blind to the presence of God; so that even when she knew he was looking upon her, she did not, in return, raise her eyes to behold him. But it was a still more shameful blindness, that she, being regarded by the Lord, although a wanderer and an exile, paying the just penalty of her perverseness, still would not even acknowledge him as present. We now see the point to which her self-reproach tends; ‘Hitherto I have not sought God, nor had respect to him, except by constraint; whereas, he had before deigned to look down upon me: even now in the desert, where being afflicted with evils, I ought immediately to have roused myself, I have, according to my custom, been stupefied: nor should I ever have raised my eyes towards heaven, unless I had first been looked upon by the Lord.’

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