Reading Hagar: Genesis 16
Three philosophical themes
Verse 7 marks the very first appearance of an angel (by that name) in Genesis (there are, of course, the cherubim of the Garden story). Why would an angel show up for the first time here, of all places? And why is it that the first angel comes specifically to Hagar? How does this play into the theme of mediation that has been a question in the last two chapters (14-15)? Is it significant that Hagar considers the angel to be the Lord Himself (see verse 13)? The angel comes specifically to perform a rather common function in the scriptures, that is to announce the birth of a promised child; why does an angel perform that task? Does this bear on Joseph Smith’s reading of Hebrews 11-12, where he sees angelic visitation to be a function of the fathers turning to their sons and the sons to their fathers in the work of the covenant?
In verse 10, the already repeated promise of innumerable children is given to Ishmael, but the promise is given without the metaphorical elaborations that have appeared in chapters 13 and 15 when the promises were given to Abram. What is to be made of this non-metaphorical promise, especially since the promise is just as disruptive, so to speak, as the metaphorical promises given to Abram? If the promise goes on to use metaphor about Ishmael specifically (“a wild ass of a man”) but not about the promised multitudes of children, what can be read into that? Why is the non-metaphorical promise put in the mouth of the angel?
The chapter is punctuated by references to seeing and hearing (hearing: verses 2, 11, 15—“Ishmael” means “God hears”; seeing: verses 2, 4, 5, 13—“El-roi” means “I saw God”). How do these two themes interplay? How does seeing differ from hearing here? How does the theme of seeing play into the earlier hints of idolatry on Abram’s part? Is it significant that only Hagar is reported in the chapter as seeing? What is the significance in verse 2 of Sarai’s assuming that Abraham has seen something? How is this theme of seeing connected with the introduction of the angelic? How does hearing differ from seeing here? Is it significant that Abram is the only one reported to have “hearkened” besides the Lord Himself in this chapter? Why doesn’t the author ever use the verb to describe Hagar’s relation with the angel? Why is the Lord described as hearing but not seeing? What is the significance of seeing and hearing both being wrapped up in the names given in the chapter? Is one justified to read the body into the theme of seeing, and the “spirit” into the theme of hearing? Is there a connection between the fact that the angel is only described as seen (not heard) and the fact that the angel gives the non-metaphorical promise (metaphor can only be spoken, not shown)?
Allusions, anticipations,… types?
There are some curious parallels between this story and the Eden narrative. “And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai” (verse 2); “And unto Adam he said, Because thou hast hearkened unto the voice of thy wife, and has eaten of the tree…” (Gen 3:17). “And Sarai Abram’s wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (verse 3); “she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat” (Gen 3:6). Curiously, in the Sarai/Hagar narrative, this is followed by a sort of opening of the eyes: “and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes” (verse 4; compare NRSV: “and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress”). More curiously still, this echo of the “Fall” story in Gen 16 traces the development from Sarai’s inability to have children (like Eve’s inability, according to one reading—not my reading, I should probably add—of 2 Nephi 2:23) to her ability to do so (albeit through a surrogate).
More obvious, perhaps, are the anticipations in the Gen 16 narrative of the Exodus story, though things are essentially backwards. The Egyptian is the slave, and Sarai “dealt hardly” (the same Hebrew word that will appear in Exod 1:11) with her. The Egyptian, instead of the Hebrew, flees into the wilderness, apparently on the way to Egypt. If all of this constitutes a sort of reversed anticipation of the Exodus to come, it is fascinating how the story wraps up: Hagar is commanded to return to her mistress. In short, the reversal is reversed in the end, and by the Lord Himself. I’m not sure what is to be made of this reversed reversal.
Finally, the scene at the well seems to be typical. Perhaps the scene that most comes to mind is John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well with Jesus. In both the present text and John 4, the Lord engages the outcast kin. In the end, I’m not sure what can be taken from the tie between these two texts, but the connection is intriguing to me.
Two other books of scripture deal with this chapter in interesting ways that probably deserve mention, at least because they draw from the present text some aspects of the story that might otherwise be ignored. The first is Galatians 4:21-31, Paul’s allegorical reading of Hagar and Sarah. Verse 23: “But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.” The distinction Paul draws is tied, of course, to the great gulf between “salvation by works” and “salvation by grace.” This suggests to me that what is at work in Gen 16 is a sort of “fulfillment of the promise by works.” In Gen 16, it is not quite clear whether this sort of an approach is condoned or condemned: on the one hand, the promise of countless seed is confirmed on Ishmael (verse 10); on the other hand, as the NRSV translates it, “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” (verses 11-12). My own predilection is to condemn this attempt at fulfilling the commandment one’s own way, this “fulfillment by works” business (to condemn it, perhaps, as totalitarian).
But the other intertext suggests otherwise, a text I approach only with fear and trembling, a text that for Joseph Smith himself might have been the very gift of death: D&C 132. Verse 34 there: “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises.” Two points to raise. First, what are we to make of this reading? It is quite different, ultimately, from the most obvious reading of Gen 16. Is there some way to reconcile the two texts? Would that even be desirable? Second, did Joseph read his own experiences with Emma into this story (Emma giving certain women to Joseph as wives, and then rejecting them and demanding Joseph break off those marriages)? If so, then verses 64-65 are important as well: if “a wife… receive not this law… she then becomes the transgressor; and he [the husband] is exempt from the law of Sarah, who administered unto Abraham according to the law when I commanded Abraham to take Hagar to wife.” I’m not personally quite sure what to make of these verses, but it seems quite clear that “a uniquely Latter-day Saint” reading of Abraham has to engage them. Perhaps all of this raises at least this major question: Why was Abraham so central to Joseph’s temple/marriage revelations in Nauvoo?
Setting these two intertexts side by side, it certainly appears that there are two very different ways to read this story: it might be read on the one hand as pointing to the wrong of an attempt to fulfill the promise (to be saved?) by works, or it might be read on the other hand as an example of Abraham’s strict obedience to the word (command) of grace.
An afterthought for fun
Any thoughts on how the master-slave dialectic might be read into Hagar’s work of mothering a child for Sarai?