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Now Read: Genesis 16
Things were going so well.
Things had gotten off to a rocky start between God and Abram. In chapter 12 Abram made some very poor decisions. No sooner had God promised to make Abram the father of a great nation when Abram failed to trust in God, abandoned the land that God had taken him to, and prostituted his own wife to the Pharaoh of Egypt. But in Chapters 13 through 15 it seemed like Abram had really turned things around. Abram had started trusting in God. He relied on God to stand up against the might of 4 kingdoms so that he could rescue his nephew. He was blessed by Mechizedek, priest of “God Most High.” God reaffirmed His promise of a son, and to make him the father of descendants as numerous as the stars, and God even gave Abram the assurance that he asked for with a solemn ceremony. It seemed that the man who “believed in the Lord” (15:6) was here to stay, and the man who lacked faith and trust was gone forever.
Things were going so well for Abram.
But then he got impatient. Or more accurately I suppose I should say his wife, Sarai got impatient. Some time had passed since God had given Abram assurance of His promise for a son, and it is emphasized now that “Sarai, Abram’s wife has [still] borne him no children,” (16:1) and Sarai was done waiting. “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go into my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.” (16:2)
It’s not every day that you find a wife who not only accepts her husband sleeping with another woman, but actively encourages it. It is easy to look at this through 21st century eyes and wonder how Sarai could suggest such a thing. But it must be remembered that in the world she lived in a woman (or a wife) had one primary job to do: to provide heirs for her husband. It was her responsibility to bear children. The fact that she had not done so yet meant that she was failing in this primary task. Over the last several chapters it has been emphasized that Sarai was barren. SHE was barren. There has never been even the slightest suggestion that perhaps Abram is the one incapable of fathering children. It is always Sarai who it the barren one, an indication of the cultural expectation that it is the woman’s responsibility to conceive and bear the children.
So it makes sense to think that Sarai was feeling the pressure (perhaps even self-imposed) to provide Abram with his heir. And she feels that if she provides her maid as a “surrogate” (to put it nicely) then perhaps she could still feel as if she has satisfied her responsibility to provide Abram his heir.
Now, all of that puts Sarai’s suggestion into the right cultural context, but it doesn’t absolve her of what she is about to do. She is about to do something that is objectively terrible, and we are not to think for one moment that she is being a saint about any of this. Sure she feels pressure to give Abram a child, but that doesn’t excuse her actions.
First of all, she blames God for her barrenness, “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children,” she says to Abram. She tries to rationalize what she is about to suggest by implicating that God has done this to her, and failed to keep His promise to them. So she suggests they take things into their own hands, by having her husband sleep with her Egyptian maid, Hagar.
This is where our fearless hero of the story, Abram, who now “believes in the Lord” would refuse, right? This is where he would remind his wife, “I saw the very presence of the Lord in the form of a flame passing through an aisle of sacrificed animals flesh in solemn ceremony to solidify his covenant with me. We must be patient and wait for the Lord to fulfill his promise.” That is what Abram of God Most High (14:19) would say to such an absurd suggestion, right?
Wrong. “And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai.” (16:2)
And just like that all the progress that Abram has made, gets tossed out the window. We are suddenly reminded that while Abram has moments of profound faith, he is still, and continues to be throughout his life, a deeply flawed man.
So Abram gives in to his wife’s suggestion, and sleeps with her maid, and the maid conceives a child.
This is where Sarai, a woman who is desperate to fulfill her wifely responsibility, would breathe a sigh of relief, right? As painful as it was, she has succeeded (sort of) in “providing” her husband with his heir. She should now be happy, and be grateful to her maid for providing her body as a vessel to give her husband the child she felt responsible to provide, right?
Wrong. “When she saw that she had conceived, her mistress [Sarai] was despised in her [Hagar’s] sight” (16:4) Hagar apparently did not feel too kindly about being used as a human IVF petri-dish. Shockingly, Hagar was not particularly thrilled about being forced into sleeping with her master, and bearing his child. Apparently Hagar was less than excited about being forced to carry the child that Sarai was not patient enough to wait to carry herself. And much to Sarai’s surprise, Hagar looks upon Sarai with disgust. And rather than being understanding, Sarai turns herself into the victim, “May the wrong done me be upon you [Abram]. I gave my maid into your arms, but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me.” (16:5)
This is where Abram would see the error of their ways, right? This is where he would realize that they have done a terrible thing, abandoned their trust in God, and violated their servant girl in the most horrible way. This is where Abram would fall on his face, beg and beg God for forgiveness. This is where Abram would remind Sarai that it was HER idea for Hagar to do this, and that she should show Hagar some grace, and perhaps even beg for forgiveness herself, right?
Wrong. “But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Behold, your maid is in your power do to her what is good in your sight.’” (16:6). Sarai then proceeds to, “treat her harshly” (16:6). So harshly in fact that Hagar (who, let’s not forget is pregnant) feels her only course of action is to run away into the wilderness. I would venture that “treated her harshly” doesn’t just mean, “said nasty things to her.” If Hagar was willing to risk her life, and the life of her unborn child, by running out into the wilderness (where they would likely die) it’s probably because she felt her life was already in danger where she was.
So to summarize, this is what has just gone down:
SARAI: It’s God’s fault I haven’t gotten pregnant. Sleep with my maid, she’ll give you a child.
[Some Time Later]
SARAI: The maid hates me now!
ABRAM: Not my problem, you figure it out.
[Some Time Later]
SARAI: So I beat my maid into submission, and now she’s run away.
ABRAM: [cricket’s chirping]
At this point, we must surely see God step in, and lay down some harsh words on Abram and Sarai. This is where God would come down, fire and brimstone and all, and bring His almighty judgement upon them for the terrible wrongs they have committed against God, and against Hagar. This is where God would strike fear in their hearts to the point they would tear their clothes, cover themselves in sack-cloth and ashes, and beg for forgiveness.
God does step in, but not in the way we might have expected. At this point in the story, the focus turns away from Abram and Sarai, and shifts to Hagar.
Hagar has fled from the oppression of her cruel mistress, and is now wandering out in the wilderness. Scared. Tired. Alone. Probably just waiting for the elements to kill her and her unborn child. It is the end for her.
And here is where God steps in, not in fiery judgement against Abram or Sarai, but with love and compassion towards Hagar. God’s angel appears to Hagar, “Where have you come from and where are you going?” (16:8) Hagar, isn’t really going anywhere, she is merely running away, so she only answers the first question, “I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai” (16:8) To which the angel replies, “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority.” (16:9)
This might seem as if the angel (representing God) is condoning Abram and Sarai’s behavior, and is simply sending Hagar back into the “lion’s den”. It might seem as if the angel is telling Hagar that it is “her place” to be used and abused by her masters.
I don’t believe that is the case. God cares about Hagar, and He knows that she is no condition to be out in the wilderness on her own. As horribly as Abram and Sarai have treated her, and as unpleasant as it might be, it is in her own best interest to go back to her mistress. Her only alternative is to die alone in the wilderness clutching on to her unborn child in her belly.
But the angel did not send Hagar back to Sarai with nothing. The angel (speaking for God) gave Hagar a promise, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be too many to count.” (16:10) God assures Hagar that she will not be killed by Sarai’s harsh treatment, but that He will protect her and her child, and will multiply her descendants. The promise if awfully reminiscent of the promises God has made to Abram. God promised Abram to make his descendants “as numerous as the stars” (ie. too many to count). Abram failed to trust that God would make good on that promise and took matters into his own hands, and Hagar has suffered for it, so God has chosen to bless Hagar by giving her the promise originally given to Abram.
The angel continued, “Behold, you are with child, and you will bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has given heed to your affliction.” (16:4). And here we see the heart of the message that we should take away from this story.
It is important to note that the story shifted away from Abram and Sarai, and turns its focus to Hagar. We are not shown what (if anything) God did or said to Abram or Sarai for the evil they committed against Hagar. Presumably God did address their actions. Presumably He did call them to account for what they had done to Hagar. Presumably He did call them out for their lack of faith and trust in Him. Presumably He did call them to repentance. But we don’t know for sure. Instead, the narrative turns away from them, and focuses instead on how God chose to reach down and care for Hagar and “give heed to her affliction.”
Essentially what God is saying is, “Don’t worry about how I punish the wicked, instead focus on how I love the afflicted.”
We don’t need to worry ourselves with how God deals with the wicked. We spend so much of our time and energy getting angry at the evil in the world. We see someone committing some evil, and we devote so much of our energy in anger and rage at that person, and scream for justice upon them. It’s fine to want justice, but God is telling us it is more important to care for the victims, than to punish the perpetrators. Most of us (save for judges on the bench) are not in a position to truly enact justice anyway, and all our anger and rage is needlessly wasting our breath and energy. That’s energy that could do more good picking up and caring for the afflicted.
Our focus should be on reaching out to those in need. Our attention should be drawn to the downtrodden and the afflicted. Our thoughts should be directed toward those desperate for love and care.
I’m not saying that what Abram and Sarai did should be ignored or condoned. I’m sure God called them to account for their actions, either in this life or the next. But He felt it more important to show us what he did with Hagar instead. He felt it more important for us to see how he “gave heed to her affliction” rather than how he punished them for afflicting her.
God obviously has a lot riding on Abram. God has chosen Abram to be the father of the nation of people through which He would bring His Son to save all of mankind from sin. That’s kind of big deal. That doesn’t mean that everything that Abram does is right or good, and it doesn’t mean that God approves or condones everything that Abram does. Abram’s character, for good or ill, is shown in all of its ugly detail for us to see. But God obviously puts a lot of attention and focus on Abram, because he is a rather important man. Genesis is primarily the story of big men who played epic pivotal roles in the history of God’s relationship with mankind. Men like Adam, Noah, Abram, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
But in this instance God’s focus turns away from Abram, and falls on a servant girl, used and abused by her masters, lost and alone in the wilderness, and He reaches down to show her that He cares about her. God cares about Hagar. God cares about everyone, from the most powerful kings, to lowliest servant. We are all His children, and He loves us all, equally, and unconditionally.
So, when God tells us, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40) let us not forget that God showed us first how much he cares for the lowliest among us by reaching out to Hagar in her hour of need.
Let us stop focusing on the Abram’s and Sarai’s of the world, and instead reach out to the Hagar’s. Let us reach out to the “least of these” and “give heed to their affliction” and be the angel that God sends to show them His love.
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