So, before we get into it, let’s read Gen 16:1-5
- 16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.” Abram agreed to what Sarai said. 3 So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. 4 He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
What in the world is this story about!? We have a slave…who is offered by her slave owner Sarai to her husband Abram and they have a son, Ishmael, and it’s in our Bibles!? What? Why do we have this text, what are we supposed to do with it, and what does it all mean?
There are lots of people throughout scripture that come and go. Names are given for historical reasons, names are given for backstory, and names are given to many that will crop up later on as well (we definitely have the names of Hagar and her son Ishmael coming and going) – but are these characters introduced simply for that reason – or is there more to the story?
First off, what happens here is that Abram and Sarai were given a grace-filled promise by God that they, in their old age, would have a child. And so they waited. They trusted God, but they could only trust God for so long before they decided to do things on their own. So Sarai offers up her slave, Hagar, to Abram to sleep with and hopefully conceive a child. For you and I – this doesn’t make sense – but it doesn’t make sense because we’re in a different time, different culture, and different space. It was a legal custom back in the day for a barren woman to offer up her maid (slave) to her husband and if a child was conceived that child would be considered the wife’s. So here, Sarai was hoping that Hagar would conceive and that that child would then become hers. So for you and I…completely weird! But for them – just a normal day (well, outside of God appearing, promising you a child, and then stating that your offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:2-6).
But once more – we ask what is going on and why does this matter?
First off – this is a story of faith, a story about a promise, and also a story about impatience. Abram didn’t know God (he was a Chaldean) and yet God came to him and Abram believed and his faith was counted as righteous. And in that interaction God gave him a promise, a covenant, and God fulfilled that promise…but this is also a story of impatience as Sarai felt she couldn’t keep waiting – so she took matters into her own hands (or Abram’s – and it’s something Paul speaks of in the book of Galatians). And what happens 14 years after Ishmael? God fulfills his promise and Sarai gets pregnant and delivers Isaac. So we have two sons, conceived in two different ways: one by the flesh and one by the promise and grace of God.
But what about this last part with Sarai? It was her suggestion to begin with – so why is she blaming Abram for any animosity or despising that is going on? Well, in short…people are broken and apparently still blame others when things don’t go the way they want. Maybe it’s an American thing or maybe it’s a global human issue, but when things don’t work the way we want, in the time we want, in the space we want it – then we are unhappy and we DO something about it. So whether it’s fulfilling a promise of God IN MY TIME AND WHEN I WANT IT or blaming others when MY PLANS don’t work the way I WANT THEM – we fall and point fingers. I appreciate how one author writes, “The flesh loves to help God, but true faith is shown in patience. We cannot mix faith and flesh, law and grace, promise and self-effort.”
One thing, hopefully I’ve done or am trying to do, is that even in these “random textual confusion meanderings” is that we cannot just focus on a single text, scratch our heads, and then leave it as it is. It’s great to wrestle and wonder but we must pull in to the text and see it, know it, and understand it, but then pull out slowly of the text and see what else is going on in the bigger picture.
So first…the Book of Genesis is a history of God’s people but even more so it’s about God’s stepping into history to cut a covenant, a promise, with them. It’s God interacting and walking with them as they learn how to walk with him. So it’s a holy God, walking with an unholy people, who even though they believe in him and worship him…still have a lot of troubles living into that relationship. And what does God do? He remains faithful. So while Sarah and Abram did NOT…God did. It’s a story we see repeated time and time and time again. It’s a story we see played out throughout scripture. It’s a story that propels us through the OT and the prophets all the way into the New Testament with Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, who comes to restore that broken un-faithful relationship with God the Father. So while the story may come oddly at us, while the story has some good understandings for us, the story really is a mirror for you and I and all those times our patience, or lack thereof, has gotten the better of us. God has promised his children that he will never forsake nor abandon them (Hebrews 13:5) and we know this – and yet how often do we fall victim to taking things into our own measures or feeling that God has left us?
We’ve been promised the New Heaven and New Earth, that Christ would come again and usher in Eden once more…and that there is nothing we can do to remove his “sonship” upon us (Galatians 4:1-7). It’s a promise of life-eternal that we know is good and true because the One who made it holds to his promise.
 Wiersbe, Warren W. Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the Old Testament. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993. Print.