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The birth of Ishmael, son of Abram and Hagar, is a tale that in some sense at least should never have been. From it emerges a familial and ethnic strife that lasts to this very day. It is a tale of marital strife, of hobbling faith and catastrophic consequence.
There is an interesting and devastating parallel in the way Moses recounts the tale of Adam’s fall in the garden of Eden and Abram’s lapse of faith in Genesis 16: both employ the phrase, they “listened to the voice of…” (Gen. 3:17; 16:2). And in both instances, the men are said to have listened to their wives! Adam listened to Eve’s suggestion that eating of the tree that God had forbidden would bring rewards. And Abram listened to Sarai’s suggestion that because of her infertility, Abram should sleep with her servant Hagar instead (for the purpose of conceiving a child). The parallel is exacerbated by the identical use of two more verbs, “took” and “gave.” The suggestion is clear: Moses intends for us to see that Genesis 16 is a re-run of Genesis 3! A fall takes place in the life of the great patriarch.
Two lessons emerge, the first of which concerns the nature and reality of temptation. Temptation is a hydra-like beast that attacks from many directions and methods. Abram listened to his wife — not in itself wrong, of course. Sarai was often wiser than her husband, and when she later suggests that Ishmael needs to be “cast out” of the home because of his disastrous influence on Isaac, God tells Abraham to listen to her (Gen. 21:12). Sensible husbands will always listen to their wives when their wives’ wisdom is greater than theirs. The point is not that he listened to her; rather, it is that he listened to her without discernment of God’s counsel in the matter. The issue is complex. Ancient Near-Eastern documents suggest that it was not unusual for “pre-nuptial” agreements to include the provision of concubines in the case of infertility. Furthermore, God’s promise to Abram had not specifically mentioned Sarai as the mother of the seed. And ten years had gone by with no pregnancy in sight! The explosive cocktail of temptation was set. And Abram is ready to take things into his own hands.
Waiting on God to fulfill His promise is always difficult. But it is the way of faith — the way a believer should live. “Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Ps. 37:7). We are pilgrims, journeying to a city with foundations (Heb. 11:10), unable to see it with our physical eyes, but trusting our Father in heaven to get us there. We must put on gospel armor (Eph. 6:11–18) and trust in God no matter what. God’s timing may not be ours and the attempt to out-run His providence — something that some of us are adept at doing — always proves a mistake even though God will sometimes cover our mistakes and not allow the consequences to fall upon us fully. As William Cowper put it in his hymn, “God Moves in Mysterious Ways”:
Blind unbelief is sure to err
And scan his work in vain;
God is his own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
The second lesson from this sorry tale has to do with the consequence of temptation and the culture of blame that ensues. Just like Eden (where Eve blames the serpent, and Adam blames Eve) this tale, too, is a tennis match of counter culpability. Sarai, who had first suggested the idea, is filled with envy when Hagar becomes pregnant and thrashes out at Abram (Gen. 16:5). She feels wronged. Abram responds by washing his hands of all responsibility by telling Sarai to do whatever she wanted with Hagar (Gen. 16:6). This marriage is under stress and now engaging in the game of blaming one another. It is all so very predictable.
Who is to blame, Sarai or Abram? It would take a dozen counselors to sort this mess out, but evidently neither emerges without some fault or another. Abram failed to exercise his role as the spiritual leader in the home by trusting in God’s promise. Sarai failed by allowing envy (“she looked with contempt on her mistress,” Gen. 16:4) to enter her heart. A culture of blame characterizes our contemporary world. No one is willing to say, “I did it. And I’m sorry.” And its roots lie deep in original sin. Grace is meant to transform, and the Hagar story is evidence that Abram, though justified, is still capable of falling back into a reliance on the flesh when the future looks dark. Paul’s question to the Galatians now seems appropriate to ask here: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
Hagar was an Egyptian, and Moses, in telling us this story, is providing us with a underlying sub-plot that will haunt the patriarchial period for years to come. God blesses Israel’s enemies and thereby tests the faith of His people. And the temptation in such circumstances is always to question the promises of God. Christians do it all the time, and this story is a reminder to us that God may take longer to fulfill His promise than we think reasonable. But God’s reason and our reason are different commodities.