Genesis 16

There is a bit of tragicomedy at the opening of this chapter, playing upon well-known sitcom-esque (and fairly sexist by today’s standards) tropes of the wife who changes her mind and the bumbling husband who becomes exasperated. As God’s/“God’s” great promise of children had yet to materialize, Abram’s wife Sarai (also soon to be re-named Sarah in 17.15) decides to follow what was in her time and place the standard operating procedure of making a female servant sexually available to her husband in order to bear a child in her stead, to which Abram consents (verse two; social structures of power being what they were the servant – Hagar, an Egyptian – had no say in the matter). A child is conceived, the servant begins to look down on her mistress as a result, and Sarai blames Abram for this outcome. Abram – we can picture him throwing his hands up in the air – tells her to do whatever she wants. Very sadly Sarai takes this as license for severity (verse 6b: “Then Sarai treated her [Hagar] harshly”) and Hagar runs away as a result.

It might be noticed how here we have a kind of Exodus-in-reverse, another editorial looping that seems reasonable to think a consequence of the many hands at work on these stories over a number of centuries, and we might also remember reading Chapter 12 with its miniature Exodus narrative of Abram and Sarai going down to Egypt in a time of famine and then leaving there with great wealth (12.10-20). In this instance however the terrible master is the Israelite, the Egyptian is the slave, and – perhaps shockingly – the escapee is sent back. This last point concerns the theophany story which piques my interest, and particularly so because of a subtle blurring of numinous identities therein. Let us look more closely at the text:

16.9: “And the angel of the LORD said to her [Hagar], ‘Go back to your mistress, and submit to her harsh treatment.’” (This is the un-liberation, the backwards Exodus with its role reversal between the Egyptian figure and the Israelite one.)
16.13: “And she [Hagar] called the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You Are El-roi,’ [a footnote explains: Apparently “God of Seeing.”] by which she meant, ‘Have I not gone on seeing after He saw me!’ [another footnote: Meaning of Heb. uncertain.]”

Two thoughts immediately come to mind here: The first is that Hagar (or rather, and to remind ourselves that none of this is actual history as we know such today, the “Hagar character”) may simply have mistaken the angel of this encounter for being God/“God” itself, and thus her exclamation of surprise at still being alive despite having had the tête-à-tête which just occurred. (I.e. no one could meet the divine and expect to survive, which naturally raises a host of problems with God/“God” being repeatedly presented in this and other biblical texts as suddenly appearing to people: Did God/“God” not realize such would mean certain death for the mortals affected (“weak God/‘God’” theology again)? Was the necessity of dying a groundless rumor, a widespread mistake amongst ancient Southwest Asian peoples (after all, the Greek myths do not have this detail)? Was the idea of certain demise circulated (with or without divine guidance) in order to facilitate a greater gratitude for it not coming about afterwards? Were any of the editors and redactors paying attention to these contradictions? Or was the device simply too good a narrative tool to be dropped? And etc., etc.) The other thought, however, is far more intriguing.

The reader will recall that when we notice “LORD” given in all upper case letters it is a signal to us that the Hebrew term being translated is the Tetragrammaton, the most holy name afforded by tradition and considered properly ineffable (and even a few of its circumlocutions are thought ineffable in some circles). This is the very specific rendering of Israel’s deity, the God/“God” of all the monotheistic faiths, but of course here long before either of the two major (and other minor) inheritor traditions came along; it is not the generic term El we remarked on last week. Look again at this pair of verses: “And the angel of the LORD said to her” (16.9); “And she called the LORD who spoke to her” (16.13). There is no other personage brought into the ensuing verses (e.g. ten through twelve), but rather in them we find an announcement by the angel regarding Hagar’s forthcoming son. No one else but the angel could possibly be “the X who spoke to her”, and yet the text does not use “Lord” or even something like “master”, both of which we might expect in this context. It does not, noticeably, use the word for angel either (mal’akh), nor the generally numinous-designating el. Instead it employs this highly charged and overwhelming nomenclature; if this was an erroneous assignation by the Hagar character then why on earth repeat that unless it were a part of her direct speech (and thus demonstrative of her state of mind, e.g. in the pronoun capitalization of 13b) rather than as preceding her utterance – as it does here – and thus reflecting the voice of the “omniscient narrator” conducting the telling? Did the final editors (probably the Priestly layer; fifth to fourth century BCE) fail to note this, or did they leave it in on purpose? Was the original theophany event God/“God” meeting Hagar and then later “an angel” was inserted (a change to verse nine), or was the Tetragrammaton the term that was later put in (a change to verse thirteen)? Perhaps most provocatively of all: What does it mean for our theological understanding (and the phenomenological tracing of one’s internal reactions) to think that an angel might “be” God/“God”, as clearly seems implied? That is a thought to dwell on!

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