In Chapter 15 Moses wrote about Abram’s justification through his belief in God’s promise of an heir that would come from his body (15:6). In Chapters 16 and 17 he records two events that show the limits to that belief. It is almost as if Moses goes out of his way to show that Abram’s salvation has everything to do with God’s faithfulness rather than his own. The stories in these chapters show that every man struggles with his faith and every child of God – regardless of his place in the Bible or in the pantheon of believers – ultimately follows his heavenly Father in fits and starts. This text clearly illustrates that all of us are saved because God is perfectly faithful, not because we are.
It has been ten years since God called Abram out of Ur and Haran and told him to come to Canaan where his descendants will become a great nation. It has also been an unknown time since God promised that Abram’s heir will be his biological son, not his servant (15:4). Abram is now 85 years old and Sarai is 75. It appears that either God has forgotten His promise or that perhaps another method of securing an heir needs to be found.
This at least appears to be Sarai’s thinking. She and Abram are not getting any younger. To continue to wait for what becomes more and more unrealistic every day does not make much sense. If it has not happened yet, why would anyone think it is going to happen at all? Someone needs to act, and apparently it needs to be Sarai as Abram seems content to just keep waiting.
[Before examining Sarai’s scheme, it is important to understand a couple of cultural differences between Abram’s world and our own. First, to be barren as a woman at this time is a HUGE issue (it is a big concern in our time also, but not nearly to the same degree). A woman at this time does not really have value or function outside of a family context. As a matter of fact, a husband is well within his rights to send away a barren wife and marry a different woman who can conceive an heir (presumably, the thought that the man may be the problem does not enter into the equation – low sperm count is likely not on anyone’s radar). Remember that when the author introduced Sarai to the story, his first mention of her included the comment that she was barren (11:30). Second, to remedy this situation it is acceptable to produce an heir through a concubine – a servant used as a surrogate. This seems outlandish to the western mind, but in Abram’s time it is a culturally acceptable solution. If the servant belongs to the wife, then the heir produced by the union of the husband and the servant is considered a child of the wife. The servant has no rights and thus cannot claim the child as her own. This will come into play in a big way in the story of Jacob.]
With this in mind, Sarai approaches Abram and tells him he should conceive a child with her Egyptian maid – Hagar. This is the first mention of Hagar so we know nothing about her. It could be that she came into the family during the trip to Egypt when Pharaoh enriched Abram as a result of taking Sarai into his harem (12:16). Nothing is said about her age but it makes sense that she is considerably younger than Sarai and in her child-bearing years.
Sarai’s words to Abram are revealing. She says, “…the Lord has prevented me from bearing children.” It is hard to know if she says this bitterly or simply as a way to acknowledge that God controls all things in life. Regardless of how she means it, it pretty clearly states that God has not fulfilled His promise (very similar to Abram’s response to God when God last appeared to him – 15:3). Note also that she says, “…perhaps I shall obtain children through her (Hagar).” This acknowledges what we pointed out above – any offspring from the union of Hagar and Abram will be considered Sarai’s child.
There are two perhaps coincidental similarities to the account of the fall in verses 2 and 3. Verse 2 ends with the statement, And Abram listened to the voice of his wife. When God rebuked Adam after the fall (3:17), He said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…”. In both cases the woman takes the lead and the man follows her into what ends up to be a really bad idea. The similarity to the fall continues in verse 3. Just as Eve took the fruit and gave some to her husband (3:6), so Sarai takes her maid and gives her to Abram. There may be nothing to either of these parallels, but it is interesting that they exist.
Before progressing in the study of this passage, let’s pause and consider these first three verses and assume that we don’t know anything about the rest of the story. Does anyone think this will end well? Regardless of the cultural norms of the day, the story still includes a husband sleeping and conceiving a child with a woman who is not his wife and then assuming that the woman and his wife will resume their lives as if nothing happened and both are happy that an heir is finally on his way. The thought that every family dynamic is about to radically change forever apparently does not occur to anyone.
Abram goes into Hagar as Sarai urged him and Hagar does in fact conceive. Nothing is said about what goes through his mind when he decides to go along with Sarai’s idea, and the absence of any commentary is maddening. Does he struggle with this decision? Does he think about consulting God? Does his belief in God’s promise come into play or does he simply agree with Sarai that this is a reasonable solution? Does this show that he has doubts about God’s promise or is he simply mistaken in how he acts out his belief? Is there anything in his mind warning him that this could come back to haunt him? Something to note – based on his actions toward Hagar after she becomes pregnant (6) and years from now when Isaac is born (21:11-14), it does not appear that lust enters into his decision – he does in fact seem to see her simply as a means to producing an heir. The bottom line? He is a man who even in light of hearing promises about his future directly from the mouth of God, still wavers in his faith and still makes bad decisions that show a lack of thought – like we all do. God is great and faithful and we’re not. That’s the message of the Bible in one statement and Abram acts it out in a big way in this story.
When Hagar finds that she is pregnant, she develops a different perspective on Sarai. Sarai is no longer simply her master – Sarai is the woman who could not conceive. And since Sarai is so clearly lacking, it is hard for Hagar – who is in her own eyes now superior – to submit to her authority (this shows the cultural importance of producing children – Hagar has a completely different self-image as a result of being pregnant). Hagar is an illustration of the proverb – Under three things the earth quakes, and under four, it cannot bear up; under a slave when he becomes king, and a fool when he is satisfied with food, under an unloved woman when she gets a husband, and a maidservant when she supplants her mistress (Prov 30:21-23).
Hagar apparently does not hide her disdain for Sarai because Sarai goes to Abram and lets him know in no uncertain terms that something needs to be done. Verse 5 at first seems irrational, as if Sarai blames Abram for the fact that Hagar is pregnant (when it was clearly her idea). What seems to be the case, however, is that she complains to Abram about the state of the relationship between her and Hagar. Hagar treats Sarai badly and Abram allows it – or at least that is Sarai’s view. She tells Abram that she is despised in her (Hagar’s) sight. She ends by saying if he does not do something, then “May the Lord judge between you and me.” Abram needs to establish the hierarchy of wives.
Abram takes the hint and reassures Sarai that her place in the family has not changed. She is still the wife and Hagar is still her servant. Just because Hagar fulfilled a wife’s duties to Abram and is carrying his child, it does not mean she has supplanted her mistress. Hagar is under Sarai’s authority and Sarai can treat her however she wants. “Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.” This appears to be a fairly callous reaction by Abram (and perhaps a little cowardly), but it shows that Hagar is not the focus of any part of the plan. She is a servant who is the vehicle for producing an heir – nothing more.
Once Sarai gets her authority back she treats Hagar harshly (and apparently Abram allows it – he allowed Hagar to treat Sarai poorly and he now allows Sarai to have her revenge). She treats her so poorly, in fact, that Hagar runs away. Nothing is said about Abram’s or Sarai’s response to her going, but if nothing else, the plan is now at risk. He slept with the servant and they have nothing to show for it. The chance at an heir leaves with her.
It is interesting that God does not respond at any point in this story. It is almost as if He simply lets the ramifications of the people’s actions take place and allows them to be the punishment for the scheme. Perhaps Abram and Sarai do not need to be rebuked beyond having to live the rest of their lives with the results of their decisions.
The text does not say how long Hagar is gone, but if Abram still lives at the oaks of Mamre – as he did when Lot was kidnapped (14:13) and as he will when God comes to him before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (18:1) – then she travels roughly 70 miles based on the location of the well between Kadesh and Bered (14 – and based on the direction she travels it is likely she is trying to get back to Egypt). Assuming it takes her several days or even a week to cover this distance, it is interesting that nothing is said about Abram going after her. This is the man who has a 300+ man army at his disposal (14:14). He tracked down kings and armies but apparently either cannot or does not track down a pregnant girl walking alone. Sarai may not be all that unhappy she is gone, but if Abram does not worry about her leaving either, it is surprising in light of the heir she carries.
An angel of the Lord appears to Hagar by the spring and addresses her as “Hagar, Sarai’s maid.” Apparently the angel also wants to make it clear whose authority Hagar is under. The angel tells her to return to Sarai and submit yourself to her authority. Interestingly, the angel does not tell her Sarai will treat her better. He just says she is to return.
The angel goes on to tell her about the son she is carrying. He says the son will have so many descendants that they shall be too many to count (in 2015 the population of majority Arab nations is 390 million). He also tells her to name the son Ishmael (God hears) because the Lord has given heed to your affliction (so even though he does not promise that Sarai will treat her better, God understands that her treatment has been bad). The son will be a wild donkey of a man (just what every mom wants to hear – sounds like the teen years will be easy) who will be against everyone and everyone will be against him (hard to know if this applies to his descendants or just to him).
Hagar is amazed at her audience with God (or with His angel) and calls God “The God who sees.” She cannot believe that He has appeared to her and that she is still alive after hearing from Him. As a result of the conversation she returns to Abram and Sarai.
Sometime after Hagar returns, she gives birth to a boy and Abram names him Ishmael (presumably Hagar tells Abram what the angel said to her). Abram is 86 when Ishmael is born and Sarai is 76. There is no reason to think that the relationship between Sarai and Hagar gets better after the birth. Events in the future will show that it remains strained for as long as they are in the same house. Abram and Sarai have an heir, but it would be interesting to know if Sarai is happy her plan worked.
Thirteen years elapse between the end of Chapter 16 and the beginning of Chapter 17. Abram is 99 years old. Sarai has still not given birth and is now 89 years old. They have been in Canaan for 24 years (!). Nothing is said about whether or not God has communicated with them since the birth of Ishmael. If He has not, then it has been over 13 years of simply living life and assuming that Ishmael is the promised one. At this point there is no reason to believe that either Abram or Sarai still expect Sarai to conceive.
Abram experienced silent times from God just like we do! Abram wondered what the heck God was doing just like we do! Abram made decisions without knowing if they were in God’s will just like we do! Abram lived in a confused state just like we do! The Bible is awesome in how it shows real people living real lives in a real world stained by sin that makes every man and woman who have ever lived crazy and confused from time to time.
God comes to Abram and tells him it is time to establish a covenant between them. He repeats some of what He has said before, but goes on to tell Abram that he will be the father of a multitude of nations. This could be a reference to the gospel, where Abram’s descendants will someday include all who believe on the Messiah (it also is likely a reference to the multitudes who will descend from Ishmael). He then renames him Abraham (‘Abram’ means “exalted father” whereas ‘Abraham’ means “father of a multitude”).
God tells him the covenant is everlasting and that God will be his God and the God of his people forever. Canaan will also belong to his descendants for all time (something to consider in light of current events).
To mark the covenant, every male born to Abraham or any of his descendants is to be circumcised (this is the first time God has asked Abraham to do something as part of the covenant – everything up to now has been on God’s side). Circumcision is likely already practiced at this time in other cultures, typically as a puberty or marriage rite. A man might be welcomed into a family through circumcision or perhaps it would mark the onset of manhood. God is not instituting something unknown. He simply coops it and establishes it as a mark of the covenant for His people. All males among His chosen people will carry the mark of the covenant on them. Every male is to be circumcised on the eighth day of his life (perhaps the wait is to prove that he will survive).
[Interesting to consider what goes through Abraham’s mind as he listens to God. Remember that he is 99 years old. He might be thinking, “Couldn’t we just get tattoos or something like that? What about matching jackets? That would show that we’re different, right? Couldn’t we do SOMETHING other than circumcision? Did I mention I’m 99??”]
God also tells Abraham that Sarai’s name will change too. Instead of ‘Sarai’ she will now be named Sarah. Both names mean “princess” so perhaps it is simply a way to designate that she is soon to be a different woman through the birth of a son who will lead to a multitude of descendants. [Do you think Abram and Sarai are ever able to use the new names? They are 89 and 99 and have known each other their whole lives – how hard would it be to change what they call each other?]
God now specifically says the son of promise will come through Sarah. Before, His promise allowed for the possibility that another woman could bear the son to Abraham. But God makes it clear that Sarah will give birth. He clarifies His promise of 15:4.
Abram frankly cannot believe that God still says that Sarah will give birth. It has been forever since the son was first promised. They’re both too old and it has been too long in Canaan to take this promise seriously anymore. Abram literally falls on his face and laughs. Amazingly, God does not call him on it at all (which follows God’s silence after the Hagar/Ishmael scheme).
We can’t read this verse without remembering 15:6. Abraham was justified by his belief in the exact same promise that now causes him to fall down laughing in front of God in unbelief. We can’t say this enough – the story of the Bible is about the great God of men, not the great men of God. And no man stands before God based on his own behavior. God’s mercy and understanding with both Abraham and Sarah in light of this verse and in light of Sarah’s future unbelief (18:12) are amazing. Just as amazing as His mercy and understanding with us.
Immediately after Abraham laughs, it occurs to him that God is rejecting Ishmael. Ishmael is 13 years old and Abraham has been treating and preparing him as if he’s the heir. For God to say that the promised one will come through Sarah means that He does not view Ishmael as the one. With this in mind, Abraham says to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” The promise of a son is not good news to Abraham first because he does not believe it and second because it means God does not accept the son he has. He does not need to hear about another son – he has one.
This shows that regardless of what he thinks about Hagar and regardless of how she and Sarah get along, Abraham loves Ishmael as his son. The scheme Sarah came up with certainly had its downsides, but the son that came out of it is from Abraham’s body just as God promised. And for 13 years he has been Abraham’s own and there is no reason to hope for another.
God, however, does not see it that way at all. He makes it very clear that Ishmael is not the son of promise. He tells Abraham that Sarah will in fact give birth and they will name the son Isaac (the name means “he laughs” – interesting to consider whether Abraham becomes a little embarrassed by this). The everlasting covenant God establishes with Abraham will be with Isaac too. It will not be with Ishmael.
God is not dismissive of Abraham’s desires, however (even though Abraham just blatantly dismissed His promise). He understands how he feels about Ishmael. Therefore, He will bless Ishmael and make him exceedingly fruitful. He will have twelve sons – princes – and they will become a great nation. This is similar to what the angel told Hagar. For the sake of Abraham, Ishmael will become a great nation too. His nation will not be the chosen people of God living under God’s covenant, but he will benefit from God’s blessing.
The last part of what God tells Abraham may be the most important. For the first time He establishes a time for Sarah to give birth. He says that at this time next year they will have a son. FINALLY!! After 24 years they finally have not only a promise but a promise with a timeline! They just need to wait one more year. And since Sarah will obviously have to become pregnant, they just need to wait roughly three more months for her to conceive. They have waited and waited and waited and have never known when anything will happen. But FINALLY God tells them that not only is a son coming but he is coming in just one year.
So Abraham laughs in God’s face and God responds by showing mercy to Ishmael for Abraham’s sake and reassuring Abraham that the promised son is only a year away. Abraham acts unfaithfully and God responds lovingly. God is great. Man isn’t.
After God leaves him, Abraham gathers every male in his household and circumcises them. He also is circumcised along with Ishmael. He obeys God completely and immediately. The sign of the covenant is established and every male born in his household or born to any of his descendants will be circumcised to show they belong to the One who has promised to be their God for all time.
Abraham’s skepticism over God’s promise is replaced by complete obedience to God’s command regarding the sign of the covenant. He still may not believe Sarah will give birth in a year and he may continue to lament that Ishmael is not the son of promise, but he does what he should do (what we all should do) in the midst of his confusion – he obeys.