Alfred Place Baptist Church

Abram and Sarai's Unbelief

Genesis 16:1-16 “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; so she said to Abram, ‘The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.’ Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian maidservant Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, ‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.’ ‘Your servant is in your hands,’ Abram said. ‘Do with her whatever you think best.’ Then Sarai ill-treated Hagar; so she fled from her. The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, ‘Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?’ ‘I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,’ she answered. Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ The angel added, ‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.’ The angel of the LORD also said to her: ‘You are now with child and you will have a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery. 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 towards all his brothers.’ She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’ That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.”

 

The Lord God had just met with Abram in a powerful way, speaking to him and promising him that, “a son coming from your own body will be your heir” (Gen. 15:4). Then God added to the promise a sign; he took him outside and gestured at the myriad stars in the heavens and told Abram that his descendants would be as countless as those stars. But God had not finished assuring his servant; he added a powerful sign of his covenant to those words of promise. God told Abram to do the following, to sacrifice some animals and lay out their carcasses in two lines. Then God himself in the form of a brightly shining torch and a movable furnace passed up and down between the rows of carcasses, saying in effect, “May this rending asunder happen to me if I fail to keep the promises I’ve made to you. May I be destroyed like these beasts.” We Christians know that God was speaking ultimately about Golgotha where our Saviour, the Rock of Ages, was cleft for us. To what humiliation has God stooped to save all his people from their sin.

 

You would imagine that if you’d heard the voice of God, and seen a sign from God . . . if you’d been to Calvary and seen Jesus die that you’d never sin again, certainly that you’d never doubt God’s promises, that you’d live every day trusting and obeying God. Yet, for all the drama and assurance of a glorious future that God gave to Abram soon we read – in this next chapter – the record of another fall of Abram and his wife. Of course, at the end of chapter 15 Abram still is childless and homeless, and every time he and Sarai turned in for bed as night fell they were another day older and the crib was still empty. So don’t think that divine voices and signs and covenants would infallibly keep you in the disappointments of life. They failed to keep Abram, the father of all who believe.

 

  1. GOD’S WAY WAS REJECTED BY ABRAM AND SARAI.

 

Sarai and Abram had had no children. Now the writer of Genesis knew that the infertility problem here was Sarai’s not Abram’s. We know that in many cases the reason that no child can be conceived is that the man is infertile, but Abram did not have that problem, rather, “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children” (v.1). She was his wife, and it was naturally and morally through his wife that a son would coming from Abraham’s own body and would become his heir. It wouldn’t be through a one night stand with a stranger. It would be through his wife that the son was going to be born, but Sarai was barren and now she was passed the age of bearing children. The years were going by. Maybe they had been married between forty and fifty years. They were conditioned to thinking that as it had always been so it was going to be. They thought that they weren’t destined to have a child themselves, though God had said unmistakably that a son would come from Abram’s own body. So the delay in the appearing of the child, and in the answer to their prayers, was a burden that hung heavily upon them, and that all the promises and experiences of God didn’t seem to matter.

 

Then there was always the presence around the home of Sarai’s servant Hagar. She was Sarai’s personal attendant, probably a gift from Abram. She was from Egypt where Abram had spent an unhappy unbelieving month. They had been sent out of Egypt by Pharaoh with many gifts – flocks, herds and servants, and presumably young Hagar had been one of those. In Egypt Abram had almost lost his wife and the Seed she would give birth to, and now again, through this Egyptian servant girl, the promise of the Seed is again being threatened, because what Sarai does is this, she offers young Hagar to Abram for him to impregnate her. This is what she says; “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her” (v.2). It was absolutely true that the Lord was keeping her from having children. Moses doesn’t add a parenthesis and say that she was mistaken, that there was actually a medical condition prohibiting her conceiving. No. You go to the First Cause always. The Lord gives children. Your children are God’s gift to you. That is the horror of child abuse and infanticide. The life of a child that God has given you is terminated. So God had kept Sarai from having a child. He was saying to Abram and Sarai, “Not yet.” The problem confronting Abram and Sarai was not that fact. The problem arises when God’s sovereignty conflicts with our plans and longings. Let this couple accept the sovereign right of God to say, “No children.” Let every couple entering marriage acknowledge that. Let this patriarchal couple trust God’s promise that they would have a child. They believed it, but they didn’t trust the promise enough to allow God to bring about its fulfillment at his time. Sarai thought like this; “Since God isn’t doing anything about our lack of children it looks as if we have to do something.” They decided they had waited on the Lord long enough. If this son were going to be born then God would need a helping hand from Sarai and Abram.

 

What Sarai proposed was a perfectly legal transaction in the ancient Near East in such codes as Hammurabi’s and in other social customs of the day. It was not uncommon if a couple were childless for the wife to produce one of her servants as a concubine who would then bear children, and these offspring would be counted as if they were children of his first wife. Everyone around them in the land of Canaan was doing this. Everyone back in Ur and Haran was doing it, and even in much of Africa and in Islamic lands today, it is quite a legal step to take, In fact we don’t know how many people have second and third wives in the United Kingdom though it is illegal. This practice is everywhere in history and also in our world, nevertheless it remains a direct violation of the one flesh principle which God had set down in Genesis chapter two. It might have been right in the eyes of their contemporaries, but it was wrong in the eyes of God.

 

We believe that have much sympathy with women who have unwanted pregnancies, and we have sympathy too with women like Sarai who are unfruitful and now past child-bearing age. Realise that ten years have passed since they left Ur and arrived in Canaan. There’d been a decade of waiting for this tantalizing promise to be realized, and for Sarai to feel guilty, inadequate and frustrated. She in particular felt responsible for the non-arrival of the promised Seed. If only a son were born to Abram then these wonderful divine promises would be activated. So Sarai was convinced of what had to be done and she tells her husband the plan.

 

However, when Paul writes to the Galatians about the two boys eventually sired by Abram he judged that the son produced by union with the bondwoman was born in the ordinary way, that is, according to the flesh, but Abram’s son by the free women was born as the result of a promise (Galatians 4:23). In other words, the free and sinful decision of man produced Ishmael, whereas Isaac was the product of Abram and Sarai’s waiting in trust upon the covenant promises of the Lord. Hagar did give birth to Ishmael, but it was simply an ordinary natural conception – she was a fertile young woman – as was the resultant process of embryonic development and the final birth. There was nothing supernatural in the event at all, and the arrival of baby Ishmael was not auspicious. It was a result of the failure of Abram and Sarai to trust in the Lord. Everyone comes out of this business badly. Let’s look at this:

 

i] Sarai takes the lead in the plot. She had a maid-servant and she said to Abram, “Go and sleep with her.” She didn’t raise it as a question so that they could talk it over and dismiss it. There was no praying; there was no discussion. Shouldn’t they have seen the hazard lights flashing, a woman taking this initiative and compromising another woman, judging things by the flesh, taking forbidden fruit and going to her husband and giving him the fruit? That was exactly what Sarai’s first parents, Adam and Eve, did, and God came to Adam and said to him, “Because you have heeded the voice of your wife . . .” In other words you don’t do everything that your spouse tells you to do. Those counsels may be sinful.

 

ii] Abram was seduced by the proposal, after living purely for 75 years in Ur and Haran, with all the immorality of the moon worshippers around him. He fell into that sin in his 85th year after all his experiences of God! Why didn’t he rebuke Sarai for her unbelief and tenderly preach the same gospel to her that God had preached to him? “Sarai, Sarai! God will provide the Seed. He’s promised he will and
he always keeps his promise. Let’s keep trusting him year after year. I don’t need poor Hagar to get a child. God can raise up children to me even from the stones of the desert!” Abram failed to say that. He fell, doubting the Lord. And just as the woman took the fruit and gave some to her husband so Sarai took her maid-servant and led her to her husband’s bed. Abram agreed that to fulfill the promise of God the power of the flesh was needed. Perhaps having a child by Hagar would force God’s hand, and the Lord would be satisfied and make that child the Promised Seed. Abram forgot what happened the last time he relied on his wits; his strength was turned to weakness. Abram was bought by the diluted watered-down message that God does his part and then we do ours. God might make the promise, but he is helpless to bring the Seed into the world until we act and take the decisive step. But God had given to our father Abram and to ourselves a much grander gospel than that. It is one of pure free and sovereign grace, and how God’s children are conceived is “not by natural descent, nor of human decision nor of a husband’s will, but born of God” (Jn. 1:13).

 

iii] Hagar was changed for the worse by what happened. She suddenly finds herself having to sleep with 85 year old Abram. Aaaah! Soon she discovers that she is pregnant, with the knowledge that this child will one day be considered Sarai’s and Abram’s. Then it gets increasingly complex – like all modern relationships when there are children out of wedlock and divorce and remarriages. New tensions, suspicion and resentment, invariably enter those relationships. Even before the baby is born the now pregnant Hagar feels elevated in that home. She is no longer the foreign slave woman. She has conceived a son by her powerful rich owner, and she starts to behave as though it were her own body that had done this work, not God. It is not long before she is full of gloating, parading her newly shaped form around the place. Was she refusing to lift things and to work at her duties because of being pregnant? Or did she have loud bouts of morning sickness that made Sarai feel sick? Soon she doesn’t hide how she despises her mistress Sarai. We are told that fact plainly in the fourth verse, and we know that Sarai noticed because soon Sarai is going to Abram and she’s saying, “Hagar despises me” (v.5). Soon Hagar is taking credit for this divine and sovereign gift of a child. Soon she is boasting – as if it were through her body this work has been done, and that her pregnancy speaks of her superiority over ancient Sarai.

 

Soon there is a rift not only between Hagar and Sarai but between Abram and Sarai. Sarai now feels the victim, and she is complaining to him about what he has done; “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me” (v.5). Did Abram raise his eyebrows? “I thought that this was all your idea.” Soon Abram is just standing back and playing the role of the helpless husband. He just shrugs as if to say, “Anything for a quiet life. This was obviously not such a good idea after all. Sarai, you do just whatever you want to do to ‘your servant’” (v.6). Notice he doesn’t mention her name . . . Hagar, the woman he’d been sleeping with, the one who was bearing his first-born child . . . There are ways that seem right to men and women, sinful ways, but their end is death, and death is very near to Hagar, because Abram is saying, “Then get rid of her,” and this marriage of Abram and Sarai is under the greatest strain it’s been under for almost fifty years. Remember these are two believers! Two Old Testament Christians, that is, Jehovahists, Messiahists, and they are behaving abominably especially after all the unique blessings they have had from God.

Now Abram knew that what he was saying was wrong. Abram knew the law; it allowed a concubine to be made a wife; it allowed a maidservant to be made a wife; it allowed that maidservant to be returned to her status as a slave. What it forbade was that maidservant being expelled from the household. The law safeguarded her, because once she was expelled from the household, her chances of being able to support herself and her child in some honourable way were nil. Therefore, Abram had a covenantal responsibility to take care of Hagar. But our father Abram let Hagar down and let us down. He is no example to us is he? Sarai was on the warpath and she was a formidable woman, and so Abram sought to keep the peace. He said, ‘Look Sarai, you do anything you want to do with Hagar. I’m just going to leave it in your hands.’

Remember, men and women, that Abram was supposed to be a blessing to all the nations, yet now for the second time in the book of Genesis Abram is being anything but a blessing to the Gentiles. The first time was at the end of Genesis 12 when they went to escape the famine and arrived in Egypt and the result was serious illness breaking out in Pharaoh’s palace, and now here again in Genesis 16 it is disaster for a Gentile. Abram was not proving to be a blessing to the Egyptians. The first time he met them Abimelech was ill because of Abram and Sarai’s deceit, and now it’s Hagar getting ostracised and fleeing into the desert. Rich and poor Egyptians alike are in deep trouble because of Abram. Instead of being a blessing to them, Abram is being a curse. That’s such strange twist in the life of Abram. What is this whole passage teaching us but this old truth, that the best of us limp through life as sinners, and that it is nothing in ourselves that evokes God’s love for us. God is the one who took the initiative in choosing Abram and all his people. God loved us with an everlasting love; he drew us to himself. It is because he loved us that his goodness flowed into our hearts, the new birth, and praying for mercy, and saving trust in him are all his free gifts. It wasn’t because of our goodness that his love settled upon us but it was all because of God’s grace and distinguishing mercy. Where would we be without that?

  1. GOD HELPED THE PERSON WHOM ABRAM HAD COMPROMISED.

 

For many of us that is the most wonderful message in this whole chapter. I am not surprised at the awful behaviour of two Old Testament Christians, saddened, yes, but not shocked because I know my own heart. I would have behaved in much the same way as these patriarchs, but I am thrilled at the personal care God shows to Hagar. There are people in the past whom I’ve hurt in my folly, Christian people, and I can see their faces now and I remember some of their names, and I wonder how are they doing these days. Did the way I messed them up have a permanent effect on their lives? I hope not, and this chapter gives me such encouragement though Abram can get no credit for Hagar and Ishmael’s blessings, indeed Abram is ignored by God.

 

i] God’s care for Hagar. Sarai mistreated Hagar and the pregnant servant fled from her into the desert going back to Egypt, and we’re told (v. 7) that th
e Angel of the Lord came searching after her and found her by a spring of water in the desert. The Lord was watching and guiding her – the loving One who later became incarnate to seek and to save that which was lost – he found her. Here we see the Good Shepherd’s care for the wandering sheep. Though wretched Abram showed no concern for Hagar (who had given her body to him and was bearing his child), God cared for this defenseless woman. Our God has great redemptive designs for the entire cosmos – the new heavens and the new earth, and his saving love homes in on the whole mighty family of Abram as numerous as the sands on the seashore, but God still has the desire and the time to look for a single mother-to-be without a home wandering in the desert. That is our God! Hagar wasn’t passed over here in Moses’ account in the book of Genesis; she mattered to the living God, as you matter. God goes into some detail to show us how he cared for Hagar, even though with regard to the stream of redemptive history, she was quite insignificant.

 

Even when God’s people fail to live up to the covenant’s requirements, God remains a caring God. Even though Abram had been unfaithful in his dealings with Hagar, God remained faithful to her. There’s an interesting parallel to this in the book of Joshua. In Joshua 9 we are told that as God’s people began to take over the land of Canaan they entered into a covenant with a tribe called the Gibeonites. The children of Israel had failed to enquire as to who or what actually were these Gibeonites and where were they from, and so in blithe ignorance they made a covenant with them thinking they were distant Semite cousins. Then, soon afterwards, they found out that the Gibeonites were part of the Canaanites. Horror! Immediately the people wanted to break that covenant, to tear up the treaty, the promises that they had been made not to harm the Gibeonites. But God told Joshua and the leaders of Israel, ‘No way. These people had been brought into a covenant with me, and I’ll protect them.’ Even 400 years later when king Saul attempted to persecute the Gibeonites, God still remembered them and he sent a plague against Israel because of the persecution of the Gibeonites.

 

Even though God’s people failed to live up to the covenant, God is faithful. Abraham and Sarai behaved shabbily towards Hagar but God was loving towards this young woman, and aren’t we glad he was? Think of the people we have hurt whom God has found and blessed in spite of our wretched witness to them. There isn’t a Christian who hasn’t been let down on a number of occasions by other Christians. So we are delighted to read that “the angel of the Lord found Hagar” (v.7). Incidentally that is the first occurrence of the word ‘angel’ in the Bible, but it’s fairly clear from this passage and elsewhere that this angel is not simply a heavenly messenger, but is Jehovah himself coming to deal with Hagar in her time of distress. You can know that from what he says to Hagar in verses ten to twelve and especially in verse thirteen where we are told that Hagar “gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are the God who sees me’” God showed this Egyptian slave that he cared for her by coming and meeting her himself as she was intent on fleeing back toward her native land. Six centuries later, at the time of Moses, when Moses was writing this history, the well by the side of which the angel first met Hagar (v.7) was still giving refreshing water to desert nomads (v.14). It was situated between Kadesh and Bered, and for all I know it is still there today, and it is called Beer Lahai Roi and the footnote in your Bible will tell you that that name means, “well of the Living One who sees.” That is exactly where our tents are pitched today.

 

So, the Lord came to Hagar; he revealed himself to her; he blessed her; he promises her protection, and he pointed her eyes to the future. He said, ‘Hagar you have a son in your womb, and you will bear that child, and he will become a great nation.’ So God focused Hagar’s eyes on the future, not on the bad deal that she’d had in the house of Old Testament Christians. He reminded her of his promises and not on the wrongs which had been done to her. Hagar is quite overwhelmed at all this. She’d despised Sarai her mistress, cruelly mocking the fact that Sarai had had no children, and yet God is good to her. She calls on the name of the Lord who is not silent, “You are the God who sees me. How have I even remained alive after actually seeing you?” Think of Hagar, bedded by Abram and then rejected by him. How much confidence did she have in the religion of a man like Abram? Abram had wronged her, and yet the mighty God of Abram comes looking for her in the desert and meets her face to face just like he’d met with Abram, and just like he would later meet with Moses at the burning bush. Our God is the God of sinners. Hagar is stunned by this, and she says, “How can it be that I can live after I’ve had a glimpse of the one who sees me?” The name that she gives to this God is ‘the one who sees.’

 

The idea of God ‘seeing’ in the Old Testament is identical with the idea of God ‘caring.’ If he sees, then he cares, and this woman felt cared for by God, the God of Abraham, even if she’s not been cared for by Abram and Sarai. So Hagar is sent back to Sarai. You notice how the Lord addresses her. His first words are, “Hagar, servant of Sarai.”  He calls her by her name; he knows her personally, and he also reminds her of her office and so of her obligations to Sarai from which she is fleeing. Then, notice how he interrogates her, “where have you come from and where are you going?” (v.8). God doesn’t need that information as though he is ignorant of anything – any more than when he said in the Garden, “Adam, where are you?” The question was a rebuke. Hagar had left the place of duty, the place where God had been blessing. She had left it because her mistress was being spiteful and cruel to her. Plenty of us have mean bosses and our daily work is like walking on eggshells. She had stolen herself from the service of Sarai because she was still Sarai’s property. She was leaving the land of promise for Egypt. “Turn round Hagar. You go back to your mistress, and you submit to her” (v. 9). God cared for her but God reminded her of her duties.

 

Francis Schaeffer has a sermon entitled, “No Little People” and though there may be those in our own experience who seem marginal to God’s purposes, and insignificant in the great flow of things, yet they are the little ones who belong to Christ. Some of them are physically handicapped, or they have learning difficulties, or they are extremely poor and yet they are to be brought under the influence of the kingdom of God. Are we seeking for them in the wilderness of this world as God sought Hagar in a desert place? So God cared for Hagar.

 

ii] God’s care for Hagar’s son. “You are pregnant,” said the angel to her, and it was going to be fine. She would go full term, “and you will have a son. You shall name hi
m Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery
” (v.11). His name reminds her of God’s kindness to her. Ishmael means, “God hears.” Then God gives this prophecy about her son, “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 towards all his brothers” (v.12). What do we have here? A parody of Abram his father. So like Abram, able and energetic, the father of descendants too numerous to count (v.10) – just as Abram was to have. A loner like Abram was in Canaan, not belonging to the people of that land, but restless, not going somewhere on a pilgrimage as Abram did, not waiting for his inheritance as Abram did. Ishmael wandered like a wild donkey who couldn’t be broken in. Ishmael was always on the road, a Kerouac, unable and unwilling to put down roots, his non-conformism a habit of mind. Ishmael was a bruiser, a divisive influence everywhere, even against his own brothers. And when God blessed Ishmael his blessings were temporal blessings, and earthly blessings.

 

  1. GOD IGNORES ABRAM AND SARAI.

 

How does this chapter open? With these two words,  Now Sarai . . .” (v.1). How often do you find Sarai’s name in the first half of the 16 verses of this chapter? Seven times, almost once for every verse. Then in the second half, in the last eight verses, how often is Sarai referred to? Not once. And Abram? Not once. They thought they would have a son and it would be by the ‘rentawomb’ method of the maid-servant Hagar, but this was not Sarai’s son at all. Sarai has no part in any promise or blessing made to Hagar’s baby. That silence at the chapter’s denouement is God’s quiet rebuke of her and Abram for believing that they could devise a way that the extraordinary promise of God could be fulfilled.

 

Do you also notice this, that the Lord doesn’t make any appearance in the first half of this chapter? When he does appear then Abram and Sarai are not there. He has made himself known a number of times so far, but always to Abram, but at this juncture, after they have devised this fleshly scheme, God does not appear to Abram and his wife. Rather, he makes himself know to the one they cruelly treated. She is the one who sees the Lord, and Abram doesn’t. He was denied that blessing because of his unbelief. How tedious and tasteless the hours when Jesus no longer I see.

 

Do not grieve the Lord by your impatience. Do not seek ways of accomplishing what God alone is able to do. Men and women are born of God alone into his family. The new birth is his work in us. It is not mine to start. It is not yours. God alone does it in its conception and continuance. You must travail again in birth until you are born of God and he is born in you. When it doesn’t happen quickly enough in your children or your family or in the Sunday School or in the Young People’s meeting or in the congregation then do not try to take over. Don’t devise your own sure-fire guaranteed methods of getting new life into the ones you love. Trust the Lord who loves those people far better than you do. Trust the Lord who can do exceedingly abundantly above all you can ask or think.

 

Abram didn’t need to produce the promised Seed by his own wit or his own strength. He needed God to come and do what he had decided to do. He needed God to give him assurance that he was in control, and he was able to work how and when he chose to. Do you see that after all these machinations of Sarai and Abram and Hagar, after all these attempts to work out their situation, that as regards the fulfilment of the promises of the covenant, Abram is right back where he started from? He hasn’t taken one step forward towards obtaining God’s promise. He has certainly had new troubles, much tension and guilt, but he is not a single step forward in the progress of redemption because God is going to do things his way not Abram’s way.

 

You know we pray after so many sermons, “Thank you, Lord, for saying this to me, and now I’m going to do something about it,” and that is good, but this passage reminds us again that God is not dependent on our strategizing and scheming. God will bring about his purposes without our injecting our own nifty new ideas and innovations and inventions. This passage teaches us that we must not only trust God’s promise, but we must obtain God’s promises in the way, and by the methods which he sets out for us to use. May God help us do so.

 

7th June 2009   GEOFF THOMAS