Genesis 16 continues the story of Abraham by narrating another “crisis” point in Abraham’s life. Like most of us, Abram and Sarai continued to struggle with unbelief – despite the clear promises of God and despite past moments in which their faith was strong. Chapter 16 gives us a glimpse into a particular moment of weakness in the life of Abram and his wife. Clearly, this is intended to urge us away from such behavior and to encourage us to trust the Lord and His promises.
In Genesis 12, we read the account of Abram taking his wife to Egypt in the midst of a famine. As we saw there, God uses the sojourn to Egypt to bless Abram – despite Abram’s unrighteous behavior. As the text says, Pharaoh “deal well with Abram; and he had sheep, oxen, male donkeys, male servants, female servants, female donkeys, and camels” (Gen. 12:16). One of the “female” servants (apparently) was a woman named Hagar. And in chapter 16, Sarai convinces Abram to sleep with Hagar in order that God’s promise of offspring might be fulfilled. Clearly, the chosen couple had begun to doubt God’s promise that the two of them would have a child, and they sought to “do God’s work for him”. Because they did not believe God would (or, possibly, could) do what He said, they sought to achieve the blessing by their own efforts and wisdom and strength.
The result is anything but blessing. In line with God’s natural process, Hagar does get pregnant, but then she despises Sarai – who is unable to do so. As a result, Sarai complains to Abram, and Abram gives Sarai permission to do as she wants with Hagar. As a result, Hagar is ejected from the house and sent into the wilderness to survive on her own. While there, the Lord appears to Hagar and calls her to return to Sarai and submit to her (i.e. stop “despising” her). He also promises that her son’s descendants will be many – and that those descendants will be in constant conflict with those around them. Hagar rejoices that the Lord “saw” her, and then she obeys Him and returns to Abram’s house and to Sarai. The child is eventually born and named Ishmael.
At first glance, this seems like a soap opera more than a Bible story. And yet, the “soap opera” clearly teaches us important truth. On a very personal level, the story reminds us that God cares for the oppressed and suffering. Even though Hagar is not necessarily a picture of righteousness in the story, she is treated unjustly by Abram and Sarai – cast out into the wilderness to fend for herself even though she is pregnant. Instead of caring for her and showing her compassion, it seems they sought some measure of vindication and revenge. But God steps in and cares for her because she is in need. As Hagar herself confesses, God is “a God of seeing”. As the rest of the Bible makes clear, God is a “stronghold for the oppressed…in times of trouble” (Ps. 9:9). He sees their need and cares for them, and He calls His people to do the same (James 1:27).
But there is an even deeper, and greater, meaning to this story – found not in Hagar’s actions but in the actions of Abram and Sarai: trusting ourselves, instead of God, will lead only to frustration, despair and hopelessness. This was an instance in which Abram and Sarai chose to trust their own ability and labors instead of trusting the Lord. Interestingly, the plan worked just as they hoped – but the result was not what they anticipated. Instead of bringing blessing and joy, their trust in themselves brought frustration and bitterness.
Paul references this story in Galatians 4 to make a point about salvation. He says that the “son of the slave” (referring to Ishmael and Hagar) was born “according to the flesh” – that is, according to human effort. Isaac (whose birth will happen later in Genesis 21) was born “through promise” – that is, by the power of God. Paul says this is an allegory: Hagar and Ishmael represent human attempts to obtain God’s blessing by means of our own efforts. If we trust ourselves to do what needs to be done, Paul says the result will be “slavery” (Gal. 4:24,25). On the contrary, if we trust the promise of God – that whoever believes in the Son has life (John 3:36) – then we will be “free” (Gal. 4:26,31).
Ultimately, the story of Hagar – though it may seem strange – is a parable of the gospel and of the Christian life. We cannot obtain God’s blessing through our own efforts – they will only lead to despair and slavery. Human beings are sinful, and we cannot ever attain the righteousness God requires. However, in His grace and love, God has sent His Son so that we do not have to depend on our own inadequate attempts at righteousness. We can trust the promise and provision of God. Instead of earning our way to Him, we can believe, and – like Abram – we can be counted righteous by faith.