About a decade has passed since God had called Abram and promised to make him a great nation (cp. Genesis 12:1-4; 16:3, 16). Although he had been reassured that his seed would be as innumerable as the stars (Genesis 15:5), Abram had yet to father his first son. Sarah’s infertility and advanced age (now about 75 years) convinced her and Abram that she would never bear the child of promise. Desperately wanting to see the Lord’s promise of a son come true, yet convinced that life’s circumstances stood in the way, they acted to take their circumstances out of God’s hands and help them along. What followed is a classic example of problems created when God’s children second guess Him and substitute their own agenda for His, although none of us would put it that way.
What impresses me is that God never rebuked Abram or Sarai for what they had done. Rather, when problems developed between Sarai and her servant, Hagar, God had mercy on Hagar and even named the child yet in her womb, saying Ishmael (meaning “God will hear”) would become a great nation and told her to return to her mistress. Why would God do that, if Abram and Sarai acted in a manner that opposed His will? I’ve heard it said that, because Abram didn’t consult God, Ishmael was born, and there exists today Arab nations who are always opposed to the Jews. While this may be partially true, the statement gives the impression that Ishmael should never have been born, and the Arab nations have no part in God’s plan in the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham. This simply is not true, and I’ll speak of this at greater length in a future blog.
While the whole account and all its details are not a parallel for today’s church, I do see some parallels worth mentioning. First of all, I’ll reiterate that what occurred was not God’s will, but neither was it against God’s will. That is, the child that would be born was not the child that would fulfill the purposes of God. Nevertheless, the child was not the fruit of rebellion. That is, it was the work of a sincere desire to please God, and God was not angry with such a desire, even though its fruit was not according to God’s plan. If certain parents poured their resources into their son’s education so that he would become an MD, the fact their son also became a talented sports figure with some college fame would neither be helpful nor opposed to the son’s parent’s efforts. Similarly, the birth of Ishmael neither helped God’s overall plan nor did his birth hinder God’s will for Abram and his descendents.
In Genesis 16:2 Sarai says that God has kept her from having children. Is this true? Well, yes, but the problem is that no one asked why God kept Sarai from conceiving. While both Sarai and Abram believe God would bless their son, neither of them understood or even thought to ask is God intended to provide that son through Sarai. Some try to make a point in the fact that God isn’t mentioned at all in Genesis 16:1-6 except to say he had closed up Sarai’s womb and to ask for judgment between Sarai and Abraham when Sarai perceived she was ill treated. Yet, what example would either Abram or Sarai have to pray to God for answers to these everyday matters? We have them and others to point to for our examples, but who did they have? Isn’t such an argument read into the text? I see no reason to fault Abram or Sarai in what they had done, and more importantly God doesn’t fault them.
What about Sarai’s remark, asking God to judge between her and Abram for what was taking place? Does this indicate that either Abram or Sarai had sinned? While the fair treatment Abram may have given Hagar, the mother of his child, could have been viewed by Sarai as betrayal, it is not proof of wrongdoing. It was Sarai’s suggestion that she could obtain a son through her servant, Hagar – this according to the custom of the time. It wasn’t Abram’s idea to take Hagar to be his wife so unfaithfulness on his part must be read into the text. The most that could be said is that he agreed with his wife upon the course they should take to please God and obtain a son he could bless.
The fact remains that nothing in the texts suggests God was angry with Abram over what had occurred. The fact that God later promises to bless Ishmael shows Abram was innocent of sinning against God or showing a lack of faith in God’s promise to him. Why would God bless sinful or unfaithful behavior? Abram was wrong to believe he could do God’s will through his efforts alone, but he believed he was correct in his behavior. His intentions were to honor God.