God’s Promise to Hagar: Clearing up a misunderstanding

In Genesis 16:11-12 God promises Hagar that she will have a son. God goes on to say that this son will be a “wild donkey of a man.” This metaphor is a bit jolting. Who would want to be told that their son is to be a “wild donkey of a man?”  Yet, Hagar interpreted this promise in a positive way. So, what did she hear that we don’t? It appears that something very important is getting lost in translation.

Let’s back up to the beginning of the chapter. In Genesis 16 we run up against a problem. God had promised Abram that he would have a son. However, God in his promises did not specify that this son would be born by Sarai. Now this has been assumed because Sarai is his wife. And this problem confronts us in verse 1: “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.”

Is this the reason why Sarai suggested Abram go into her servant, Hagar, and have a son through her?

To Abram’s credit, he appeared content to wait till God fulfilled his promise; but, here in chapter 16:1 Sarai doesn’t appear as content. After waiting ten years in Canaan, she takes the initiative. In Near Eastern practice at that time, if Hagar had a baby, the baby would count as Sarai’s child. Since Sarai’s suggestion seemed entirely logical, Abram consented.

Hagar soon conceives. Hagar is a slave. As a slave she has not status in the community. However, getting pregnant showed that Sarai’s not having children was not Abram’s fault. So, it appears that Hagar tries to improve her status in the community by looking with contempt on her mistress (16:4b).

This conflict that developed between Sarai and Hagar was and is very typical of polygamous households. By drawing our attention to this conflict, the biblical text is indirectly teaching us that polygamy is wrong.

In verse 6 we see that Sarai responded to this contempt by dealing harshly with Hagar. Due to this, Hagar fled. After fleeing the angel of the Lord finds her by a spring, a spring on the way to Shur. The road through Shur was the road to Egypt. So, Hagar was on her way home, on her way to freedom!

How Hagar knows that this angel of the LORD is God we are not told. From the way this story ends, Hagar knows that this is God talking to her.

God knows that Hagar is a slave. He knows how slavery dehumanizes the person, and he knows how slavery has dehumanized Hagar. Nonetheless, God tells Hagar to return to Sarai. But this is not all God does. He promises her a multitude of descendants. It appears that God is coming alongside Hagar to console, comfort and encourage her. This comfort and encouragement is to help her return and submit to Sarai.

So, what does God promise Hagar in order to encourage and comfort her?

We read his promise in verses 11-12. The ESV translates the Hebrew like this:

Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the Lord has listened to your affliction.
He will be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone,
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against his kinsmen.

Verse 11 shows that the Lord cares for Hagar. He has heard her affliction- he has seen how she suffered at Sarai’s hands. So, he promises that this baby will be a son. Having sons was important in that day. There was no social security to fall back on when one was old, so one had to rely upon their sons to care for them.

Then God makes a promise that appear so incongruous in English. He says that her son will be a wild donkey of a man. Let’s stop for a second. If you were pregnant, and you were just told you were to have a boy, and that he would be a wild donkey of a man, would you be happy about that? No. But Hagar is and she happily returns to Abram and Sarai. So, what did we lose in the translation?

Well, the phrase “wild donkey of a man” is a metaphor. In American English the literal translation distorts the metaphor and produces a very negative image: being wildly, uncontrollably stubborn. The rest of the translation seems to follow suit and aligns with this way of thinking. However, the metaphor was meant to be positive. Remember- God cares for Hagar. He has seen her affliction. He saw how being a slave was so dehumanizing. He also saw how Hagar had suffered at Sarai’s mistreatment. So, He promises something very special to her- something that would counter her slavery.

Wild donkeys in Hagar’s ancient world were free. They also looked more like a horse than our typical image of a donkey (see Wenham 1994, Genesis 16-50, 10-11). So, to relate this better in our world, the image that God was really trying to convey was more like the image of wild mustangs running free in the old West. He was not conveying the image that we typically draw from this metaphor: a braying, stubborn, wild, ugly donkey. God was promising Hagar that her son would never be a slave. He would be free, like the beautiful wild donkeys that roamed the desert in her world.

God was promising that he would bless Ishmael and his descendants and they would become nomadic and free. The final couplet fills in this imagery of being nomadic. The Hebrew word for over against in the couplet, “He shall dwell over against his kinsmen,” likely means “independent of” or “apart from” his kinsmen. This word probably wasn’t meant to convey a negative image, though this is what it does in English. The center couplet of the poem does carry a bit of a negative connotation, though it likely was intended to reinforce the notion of the freedom and independence of Ishmael and his descendants. They would remain independent of the peoples around them who would like to subjugate them.

This promise to Hagar was meant to be one of hope, a message of liberation and freedom for her son and his descendants. And this is how Hagar understood it because Hagar responded in hope and went back to Sarah. Unfortunately, the positive dimension of this promise is often missed in English due to the literal translation of the metaphor and our lack of historical context. Therefore, we tend to see a promise that is really depressing. Some people unintentionally draw from this misinterpretation of these verses and view all Arabs in a negative light.

As the angel disappears, Hagar realizes to whom she has been talking and therefore names the Lord, “El-Roi,” which means: “God who sees me.”  Hagar had personally interacted with Abram’s God. This God had sought her out and had cared for her. The name she gave the well commemorates her encounter with God, highlighting His love and concern. Beer-lahay-roi means Well of the Living One who sees/cares for me.

In His interaction with Hagar, God clearly showed Hagar that he cared for her. Though she was a slave, she could be assured that her son and his many descendants would never be. With this promise she was greatly encouraged; and she returned as a slave to Abram and Sarai.