In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
The passage today begins with an already established fact:
1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.
This may not seem particularly interesting, though it’s sad, but it reminds us of the promise that God has made to Abram (and by extension, Sarai) that he would be the father of many nations. One of the first things we learned about Abram and Sarai (way back in chapter 11) was that Sarai was barren, unable to have children.
To add a little bit of context to this situation, let’s make note of a few things we know about Abram and Sarai based on our story so far:
According to Genesis 12:4, know that Abram was 75 years old when God originally spoke to him. We also know, based on Geesis 17:17 that Sarai is ten years younger than Abram. I point this out because it was common practice for men to marry someone much younger than themselves. This wasn’t the case here: we learn that Sarai was 10 years younger than Abram. Therefore, Sarai was 65 when Abram received the initial call from God; she was 76 at the time of our story today.
In short, it’s been ten years since God initially called Abram, and Sarai is already, at that point, passed the age of child-bearing.
A second item of note is that, culturally speaking, Sarai giving her maidservant Hagar to Abram to bear children, and Abram accepting this may not have seemed like an unreasonable thing in their eyes. Without getting into the details, other ANE texts attest to the practice of having children via a servant where the wife is barren. According to Victor Hamilton:
“Other ancient texts have provided parallels to what the modern reader of Scripture might consider blatant immorality:
“The first three of these texts date to the 2nd millennium b.c., and the last from the 1st millennium b.c. All four demonstrate a marriage practice spread over two millennia in which an infertile wife procures a surrogate wife, a maidservant.”
Hamilton (continued from above) says that Sarai may have actually seen this as obligatory, as part the responsibility of the wife is to provide [especially male] progeny for the continuation of the line.
Now this is in no way to suggest that God would have seen this as a morally acceptable or even a morally neutral act. The Biblical understanding of marriage makes it clear that this is not what God would have wanted. The point is simply that Abram and Sarai, especially as they sit prior to the giving of the Mosaic Law, would possibly have seen this as a culturally acceptable and appropriate action.
So the sin, although it is clearly a sinful act, doesn’t seem to be the point of the story.
Firstly, though the overall story indicates that this was clearly an unfaithful action, Abram and Sarai receive no words of or indication of condemnation or judgment in this story. In the very next narrative of the story (granted, chronologically, it takes place over 10 years later), Abram receives the covenant of circumcision.
The blessing of Hagar and the line of Ishmael may suggest that she, at least, is not morally culpable, even though in our terms she participated in adultery. At the very least, though she is directed to go back to a difficult circumstance, the words Hagar receives from God (through the angel) are words of blessing.
7 The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.
9 Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
Notice the similarity to the covenant made with Abram – “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”
But we also know from the angel’s encounter with Hagar that, despite everybody’s best intentions, Ishmael is not the child of the covenant that God had promised. We know this because of the further words spoken to Hagar:
11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:
“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael, g
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
So, let’s recap what’s going on: Abram receives a call from God telling him that God would make him into a great nation. Abram receives a further word that his descendants would outnumber the stars in the sky. However, Abram and Sarai are already old – past the age of childbearing.
It’s been ten years since he started on this journey led by God and he hasn’t seen anything that looks like the promise is being fulfilled. Sarai is likely also extremely frustrated. No doubt Abram has explained his visions to her. When she first heard, she must have thought, “What are you talking about? How am I going to have children now?” So, she makes what seems like a reasonable suggestion. They decide, following a well-known custom of the day, to use Hagar to further Abram’s line. But what we discover is that the plans of human beings are not the plans of God.
And this is what I would like us to learn from this story. Because Abram (and Sarai’s) thought process is not unique. We have all been in that place where we think it’s our responsibility to make God’s plans come to fruition.
So What Now…?
As we’ve been going through the story of Abram, I hope that you’ve been catching at least one of the points we’re trying to grasp. Abram is not a particularly good person (using human judgment). We see him make silly, immoral decisions, even in the light of God’s revelation. But what we see is a growth in faith. But it’s a growth in faith, not as a result of his becoming a better person – he doesn’t become more skilled in faith activities, he doesn’t get better at religion. He grows in faith because what he sees is that, in spite of himself, God is always faithful. Ultimately, the story of Abram, and indeed the story of the bible, is the story of God. It’s the story of God’s faithfulness. It’s the story of God’s steadfastness and His desire to redeem the world. It’s not the story of how we do it.
But we do this all the time. We believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And we believe that no one comes to the Father except through him. We believe that if we believe in our hearts and confess with our mouths that Jesus Christ is Lord, we will be saved. We believe that God so loved the world that He gave his only Son that whoever believes in Him will have eternal life.
But we really think we need to help God along.
Mostly, we think we need to help God along by being good. By doing the good things and avoiding the bad things. We think that if we do enough good things, and the good things outweigh or outnumber the bad things, then God will know that we deserve to be saved. We keep score on behalf of God (both for ourselves and others) because He’s far too busy to do all that math.
Sometimes we can’t see and we don’t understand what God is doing. We don’t understand how God is going to fulfill the promises that He’s made. We can’t see how God is going to do the things, in us and in the world, that He says He’s going to do. And so we get anxious, we get impatient, and we try to “help” God along. But maybe it’s because we’re still in the middle of the story. In Christ, the end is determined, make no mistake. But we’re still living it. God is still working in us and in this world. And it is indeed God who is working. So let’s let Him work. Listen, watch, pay attention. Seek Him and seek those opportunities to respond and participate in what He is doing. But let Him work. And we will see the promises of God.