Great Moments in Bible History
A Shocking Suggestion
It seemed like a good idea at the time. How many times have we said that? It looked good on paper. What could go wrong? The only problem is that we failed to consider whether God wanted us to do it.
Abraham and Sarah had been in Canaan for ten years as we begin our story. Abraham was 85 years old and Sarah was 75. Sarah has never had a child and it has become obvious that she wasn’t able to. So she came up with a “great idea” to solve her problem. “Behold now,” she said to her husband, “the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.” (Genesis 16:2) She was correct about that. God has control of everything. Jesus said that not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from God (Matthew 10:29). Of course, this does not mean that God was angry with Sarah or was punishing her by preventing her from having children. God knows what is best and does what is best, even though we often do not know why He is doing the things He does in our lives.
Sarah continued, “Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” To us that is a very shocking suggestion, but it was commonly practiced in their society. Men might have multiple wives. If one wife was unable to bear children, she could have her husband marry her servant (a household slave) and the child of that union would count as hers (even though the servant would actually raise the child). Although society behaved that way, it was not God’s idea. God did not invent polygamy. The first polygamist mentioned in the Bible was a descendant of Cain named Lamech and he clearly did not care about God.
God had promised Abraham a son, but up until this point He had not told him how that was going to happen. It might be reasonable to assume that God would give him the son through his wife, but Sarah obviously does not think that is going to happen. You could argue (and perhaps she did) that this idea would actually help God out. God planned for Abraham to have a son and this would accomplish that plan. People think like that when their faith in God’s power is weak.
Abraham agreed to his wife’s plan. She took her servant Hagar and gave her to Abraham as his wife. He went in to Hagar and she became pregnant. Then the trouble started.
“And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress.” That was not the result Sarah had expected. She complained to her husband, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” (Genesis 16:5) She blamed Abraham for the troubles caused by her own idea! Isn’t that just like us today? We hate to accept the fact that our troubles are our own fault.
Sarah’s goal had been to get a child. That certainly seemed like a good thing—especially since God had already promised Abraham a child. But she and Abraham went about it without faith in God. It was all based on their own cleverness. In the end Sarah wished it had never happened.
Abraham had not shown great leadership when his wife suggested the idea in the beginning, and he does not show much leadership after she complained about the results. “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Sarah then dealt harshly with Hagar and Hagar ran away.
So Sarah’s idea ended up making things worse. First her servant despises her because she is unable to have a child. Now her servant has run away. Abraham may have fathered a child, but the child is going to grow up fatherless. What a mess! Without God that would have been the end of the story. In the next article, though, we will see that God used His power to prevent the damage that Sarah’s lack of faith would otherwise have caused.
A God of Seeing
Hagar was an Egyptian slave who belonged to Sarah. She is a minor character in Abraham’s story. She is pregnant by Abraham, but her child will not be an ancestor of the Christ. So it comes as a surprise when we find God dealing with her directly.
After Hagar ran away from Sarah, the story continues, “The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness.” (Genesis 16:7) This is the first mention of angels in the Bible. The angel asks her, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai,” Hagar replies. Then the angel tells her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” That cannot have been what Hagar wanted to hear! She was an escaped slave. The last thing she wanted to do was go back and accept the mistreatment her owner was giving her.
We don’t have slavery in this country today, but there are plenty of people in bad situations—marriages, jobs, even churches that are not behaving right. Walking out of those bad situations is not only accepted today, it is encouraged. “You don’t have to put up with that.” “Dump that bum.” “Quit your job and find one where you will be appreciated.” “You don’t have to keep worshipping with those hypocrites.” We find it strange that the angel did not agree. But, in fact, the entire Bible disagrees with our attitude about being able to do whatever we want, whenever we want.
Although the angel rejected Hagar’s solution to her problem (running away from it), there was a solution—trusting in God. The angel continued with an encouraging word, “Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction.” (The name Ishmael means “God hears.”) So when God told Hagar to go back into her bad situation, God knew what she was going through. That must have been very encouraging to Hagar, because God obviously cared about her and would take care of her. “So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.’” (Genesis 16:13)
God’s ability to see and know us is truly amazing when we think about it. It certainly amazed David. He wrote Psalm 139 all about God’s knowledge of him. “Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.” (Psalm 139:4) God actually knows what we are going to say before we say it! “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” (verse 6) Not only did God know everything about David, but He knows the thoughts of every single person on earth today.
Many people today would prefer that God not see them, but Hagar appreciated the fact that He did see her. How different would our lives be if we truly believed that God is a God of seeing who looks after us?
Hagar obeyed the angel and went back home. When her child was born, he was named Ishmael, just like God had commanded.
‘Why Can’t I Understand It?’
Have You Read It?
If a survey were conducted on the question, “Do you think it is possible for you to understand the Bible?” I have no doubt that a majority would answer, “No.” Some would explain, “If people who are much smarter than I cannot agree on what the Bible says, then how can I hope to understand it?” Others might even say, “I don’t believe God intended for us to understand it.”
Yet if those same people were asked the follow-up question, “How much of the Bible have you actually read?” they would answer, “Not very much,” or, “Oh, just a chapter here and there.” How incredible! Would we treat any other book in such a way? Would we take a novel like Gone with the Wind , read a chapter out of the middle, a page at the beginning and the last couple of pages and then announce, “This book is impossible to understand”?
This paper is being published to encourage more people to read their Bible (as well as to obey, of course). If you have been reading this paper from the beginning, you have read about the stories from the first 16 chapters of Genesis. Why not try reading those same chapters from the Bible? You might be surprised at how much of the Bible you can now understand as you read it for yourself.