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Old Testament Study - Genesis 16

Here, we continue our study in the life of Abraham.

Abram Stumbles Again

1Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2so 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.

The vision of God that Abram had in the previous chapter was magnificent. Thus, the testing he encounters in this chapter is difficult. Satan enjoys throwing cold water on our spiritual highs. Throughout the Bible we find examples of this: Elijah was triumphant on Mount Carmel (I Kings 18), and so Jezebel was out to kill him in the following chapter (I Kings 19); Christ was obedient in His baptism (Matt. 3), and so Satan tempted Him in the following chapter (Matt. 4); Peter, John and James received a great vision of the glory of Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-13), and so immediately Satan (possessing a young man) confronted them at the bottom of the hill (Matt. 17:16); etc.

Many times, it is actually easier for Satan to tempt us when we are at a spiritual high, because our guards are often down. We feel that we are invincible, forgetting that our strength comes through Christ. We also forget that our constant companion, our sin nature, is always with us in this world. We just cannot shake off our sin nature, and so, unfortunately, even the best of us yields to temptation. If anything, our guard should be more vigilent, we should be extra careful of temptation, right after a spiritual high. As Paul said: "If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!" (1 Cor. 10:12). Certainly, if Abram stumbled after a visitation from God, we must beware. "[W]hen we see Abram, who, through so many years, had bravely contended like an invincible combatant, and had surmounted so many obstacles, now yielding, in a single moment, to temptation; who among us will not fear for himself in similar danger? Therefore, although we may have stood long and firmly in the faith, we must daily pray, that God would not lead us into temptation."[Footnote #1]

It is a testimony to the truth of the Bible that the weaknesses of Abram (one of the Bible's greatest heroes) are not hidden or even glossed over. His great fall after his great triumph is not ignored. The Abram we see in this chapter is so unlike the Abram of the previous chapter. There we saw faith, here unbelief. There, "Abram believed the Lord" (Gen. 15:6); here, "Abram agreed to what Sarah said" (v. 2). There, Abram was led by the Spirit, here the flesh.

The elements of Abram's failure in this chapter are outlined in the first verse. First, "Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children." Now, Sarai was barren all the days of their long marriage; Abram was well aware of this fact even before he came to the promised land (see Gen. 11:30). Nothing had changed except for the fact that Abram received the promise of God that he would have offspring. And so, it was not Sarai's barrenness that led to Abram's failure, but the fact that Abram was reminded of her barrenness by the reiteration of the promise of God. Second, "[Sarai] had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar." The presence of Hagar contributed to Abram's fall by giving Sarai a candidate for a surrogate. Hagar was a remnant of Abram's imprudent journey to Egypt during the famine in Canaan (Gen. 12:10ff). That journey was a result of Abram's failure to trust in the providence of God. So, a remnant of that failure contributes to Abram's failure in this chapter. Sin often has farreaching consequences, many times leading to more sin.

It was Sarai who conceived the plan: "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.'" (v. 2). Notice that Sarai's justification for her plan was that "the Lord ha[d] kept [her] from having children." She excuses herself for her worldly plan, by saying in effect that God led her into it by refusing her children. Rather than waiting on the Lord and letting Him work, Sarai interprets her barrenness as God allowing her to take action. So, she decided to take things into her own hands. Silly us. We often think that God needs our help, and so we try through our own means to accomplish His work, instead of waiting on His will.

Sarai said, "I can build a family through [Hagar]." Her language is reminiscent of those of Babel, who said, "Let us build...a tower that reaches to the heavens" (Gen. 11:4). In both cases, we find people through their own efforts doing the work of God. It is God, not those of Babel, who brings people to heaven; it was God, not Sarai, who would fulfill His own promises. Also, in both cases, the "builders" efforts went for naught. As Solomon said, "Unless the LORD builds the house, its builders labor in vain" (Ps. 127:1).

What Sarai suggested was a custom of the surrounding culture at the time. It was accepted by the culture for a matron's servant to be a surrogate mother. It was not, however, accepted by God. God had told Adam, in instituting marriage, that "a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife" (singular) "and they will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). Sarai (and Abram for that matter) should have realized that Sarai's plan was not within the will of God because it was against His previously revealed Word. God does not contradict Himself. He will never sanction us to do that which is against His Word, even if it is accepted by society. "Everybody does it" is not an acceptable excuse in God's eyes.

Certainly, we cannot place all of the blame on Sarai, for if Abram had vetoed her plan, she could not have gone anywhere with it. Unfortunately, "Abram agreed to what Sarai said." Temptation can come from the most unlikely places. For Abram, it came from his godly wife (cf. I Pet. 3:6). We must be careful. "For not only does [Satan] induce wicked and ungodly men openly to oppose our faith; but sometimes, privately and by stealth, he assails us through the medium of good and simple men, that he may overcome us unawares."[Footnote #2] This stresses the importance for Christians to marry Christians, for if we can be tempted even by godly spouses, how much more we would be by ungodly ones.

Strife from Sin

3So 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. 4He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. 5Then 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."

6"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.

Waiting on the Lord is difficult. Abram "had been living in Canaan ten years" under the promise of God, waiting for Him to fulfill it. His waiting caused him to listen to the ungodly plan of his wife, failing the test of patience. And though waiting on the Lord is difficult, when we give up on waiting and take matters into our own hands, the situation invariably gets worse, as we experience the despairing results of sin.

So here, no one wins; all the parties involved suffer hurt, including God. Hagar, "when she knew she was pregnant,...began to despise her mistress." She presumably did not enjoy conceiving and bearing a child that would not be considered hers. Sarai, unreasonably, blames Abram for her distress, telling him: "You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering." Then, dangerously, she adds: "May the LORD judge between you and me."

Though Sarai had no right to point it out, Abram did indeed share in the blame. He was the patriarch of the family, and the Patriarch of his people. He was the great man of faith, who should not have succumbed to the tempting plan of his wife. In any case, Abram also attempts to dodge responsibility, saying to his wife: "Your servant is in your hands...Do with her whatever you think best." By saying this, though he could have repented and remedied the situation, he inappropriately abrogates his role as head of the household and lets Sarai do what she will. Sarai chose to ill-treat Hagar. As a result, "[Hagar] fled from her."

Hagar Flees; the Lord Brings Her Back

7The angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8And 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.

9Then the angel of the LORD told her, "Go back to your mistress and submit to her." 10The angel added, "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count."

11The 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. 12He 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."

13She 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." 14That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

Later, "the angel of the LORD found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur." The "road to Shur" was the road back to Egypt. Sadly, Abram and Sarai chased Hagar from the promised land back to pagan, worldly Egypt. It is unfortunate when the people of God, through their poor witness, chase the unbelieving back to the world and further (so to speak) from God.

In His dealing with Hagar, we see the love of God. He, through "the angel of the LORD," unsolicited by Hagar, seeks her out to bring her back to the promised land (she most likely would have died in the desert). "The angel of the LORD" (a term that many consider refers to Old Testament appearances of Christ) asks her probing questions: "[W]here have you come from, and where are you going?" These two questions could be asked of all backsliders who flee to the world from the promised land. The Lord is trying to get Hagar to reflect on the fact that she was fleeing from the promised land and that she was returning to pagan Egypt. Notwithstanding the latest episode, certainly she was treated better as a servant by Abram's godly family, than she would have been as a slave in Egypt.

God's advice to her, in order to bring peace to the situation, and also blessing to her, is to "submit" to Sarai. This is wise, Christlike advice from "the angel of the LORD". God requires submission by us to our authorities, for our own good, even when our authorities are in the wrong, as long as our obedience to our authorities does not cause us to be disobedient to God. Hagar's submission to Sarai, and for that matter to the LORD, will bring her blessing, for the LORD promises her: "I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count." As James points out: "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up" (James 4:10).

To support His promise, the LORD gives her a prophecy concerning her son. First, He says: "You shall name him Ishmael, for the LORD has heard of your misery." Ishmael (which means "God hears") was a beautiful name for her son, and the name must have been a comfort to Hagar all her life, for Hagar was reminded of this episode and the blessing of God every time she called his name. Less comforting, though, was the prophecy concerning Ishmael and the nation he would found: "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." Later, we will read of Ishmael's hostility toward his brother Isaac. Many believe that this prophecy extends to the hostility of the Arabs (widely recognized as the offspring of Ishmael) hostility toward Israel. Thus, we have seen this prophecy fulfilled, throughout the Old Testament, and right down to the present day. What a long lasting effect the sin of Abram has had!

Hagar appreciated and acknowledged God's care for her. She said: "You are the God who sees me." Many people intellectually acknowledge that there is a God. They think of Him as some cosmic force who is unconcerned with their lives. Hagar here came to the realization that God indeed sees her and cares for her. On one hand, one might think, why would the Creator of the universe care about me, personally? However, on the other hand, one could answer, why would God go to the trouble of creating the universe, only to turn His back on His creation? It only makes sense that God is concerned with His creation. When we create something, say, when we write a book, we are interested in promoting the book, we are curious about who reads the book, we are concerned about what they think about the book, so much so that, if it were possible, we would monitor the expressions and thoughts of everyone who reads the book. Certainly, God shows the same kind of care for His creation. Or, think of the care that we show for our children. They are special to us. We work very hard to provide for them, to bring them up in a godly way. We sacrifice lots of time to attend to their needs. God made us in His image, and so gave us the ability and desire to care for our children. Why then would God not be able to care for the people of His creation, His children?

Hagar experienced and recognized God's care, and realized that God is a God "who sees". In honor of this, Hagar named the well "Beer Lahai Roi", meaning (roughly) "well of the Living One who sees". Then, she entrusted herself to God's care and obeyed Him by returning to Abram and Sarai. She bore a son, and Abram (as God had said) named him Ishmael.

Lord, help us by Your Spirit to trust in You and obey You. We praise You that You are a "God who sees", a God who cares for us personally. Help us to walk in Your way and to wait patiently for Your will to be done. Give us the faith to know that Your purposes will be carried out and Your promises will be fulfilled. In the name of Jesus, we pray, Amen.


1. Calvin, A Commentary on Genesis, Vol. I, pg. 426.

2. Ibid.

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