Sunday, 11 July 2010

Abraham and Hagar (Genesis 16)

Abram had been tested in several ways since he arrived in the promised land. First, he had been tested by famine, and he had failed that test because he chose to find help in Egypt rather than remain in Canaan and depend on God. Second, he had been tested by family ties when the land became too small to cater for his herds and those of his nephew Lot, and Abram passed that test by allowing Lot to go where he wanted. Third, he had been tested by the prospect of reward by the pagan king of Sodom after the invading kings had been defeated, but passed that test by refusing the king’s offer. Each of these tests had come shortly after times of spiritual triumph. In Genesis 15, Abram had gone through a mountain-top experience when God enlarged for his servant the content of his covenant. So he, and we, should anticipate another test soon. And it came, through his wife Sarai, when she suggested to him a plan for fulfilling God’s promise.

There are different ways of reading the account of this incident. Wonderfully it reveals much about human character and about divine grace. It is the story of a woman (Sarai) who is desperate that God’s promise to her husband will be fulfilled. It is also a story about how Abraham was not spiritually alert to the dangers inherent in her suggestion. And it is the account of how the Lord cares for an insignificant person (Hagar) in the eyes of the world, who has been harshly treated, who has been abandoned by those she knew best, but who discovers grace in an unlikely way.

The advice of Sarai
Abram and Sarai had been a decade in Canaan, but yet there was no sign of the promised heir. They had been assured by God that the heir would be their child and not a servant in their household. Obviously Sarai had been thinking about the matter and her conclusion is given in verse 2: ‘Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ It is possible to read her words as blaming God for the situation, although I suspect she is merely acknowledging his providence in her life. She had attempted to read providence and used her deduction as to how God’s word should be understood. Yet instead of reading providence through God’s Word, she had read God’s Word through providence, and there is a big difference between the two responses.

Her error was connected to two factors: her own inability and the presence of a solution. Perhaps she imagined that God’s promise was not to be taken literally when he said that they would have a son. The fact that he had not given them one was proof of this. Before their very eyes was the answer, providentially provided by God and in agreement with the practice of the times. It was regarded as appropriate behaviour for a wife to use her female slaves in order to obtain children by her husband. We can see this practice in action in the family of Jacob when his wives, Leah and Rachel, each use their female slaves in this way. So Sarai imagined that she had found an answer to a real dilemma, and like most people who imagine such a discovery she was quick to pass on her insight.

What was the cause of Sarai’s suggestion? I don’t think it came initially from unbelief. Instead it came from impatience with God. She wanted the Lord to operate according to her timetable – after all, she was getting old. A correct response to the Lord’s delay in fulfilling his promises is one of the most difficult achievements in the Christian life, especially when it concerns an issue or a person precious to us. Of course, we know that the Lord was testing Sarai and that eventually he would fulfil his word to her and Abram. But it is easy to remind another person to hold on in faith than to maintain that attitude for ourselves.

Is there any ways we can help ourselves develop this outlook of patience? One obvious way is continue in prayer and leave the working out of the answer to God. This spiritual activity is not escapism, instead it is an expression of confidence in God’s love, wisdom and power. Another way is to recall how we have been dealt with personally. A common burden among disciples is unconverted relatives. Many people prayed for me for years before I was converted, and I suspect that none of them could have imagined the way that the Lord would use in answering their prayers. The fact that God answered these prayers eventually is an example of his choosing the best way, arranging all the circumstances and persons involved, and bringing the answer in his own way.

Moving on to other matters about which we pray, but for which we have not yet received an answer. Perhaps we want a certain legitimate position or possession for ourselves or for others. We have prayed about it, and so far God has not given it. Yet we realise that it is possible to manipulate circumstances to increase the chances of getting it. We can argue that God has placed these circumstances in our way in order to use them to attain our goal. The danger about this type of trying to get an answer to our prayers is that God does not stop us proceeding with our plan. Sarai received no indication from heaven that she should not go through with her plan. Yet we should know that divine silence is not a sign of approval.

An obvious conclusion from Sarai’s proposal is that shortcuts are never a method of fulfilling God’s will. There is a sense in which the devil’s temptation to Adam and Eve concerning the way to obtain knowledge was a shortcut. He tried the same policy with Jesus when tempting him in the desert, offering him highest success if he forsook God’s path for an easier and shorter way. We should be suspicious of shortcuts to spiritual success.

Sarai quickly realised that she had made a big mistake. Her slave Hagar no longer should her any respect, and she immediately blames Abram. Our initial response is to gasp at her accusation because, after all, she had suggested it. She discovered that her impatience with God’s will and her suggested solution had merely shown up a weakness in her husband’s outlook. Sarai learned by hard experience that Abram could not be trusted to act the right way at all times. Of course, there is a word to husbands here: ‘What do you do when our wives make a wrong suggestion?’ Abram did what Adam did in the Garden of Eden – he went along with his wife’s suggestion instead of reminding her that her idea was inappropriate.

Abram also reveals another inappropriate response when he fails to take responsibility for taking care of Hagar and her infant. Instead of ensuring that compassion be given, he allows cruelty to be shown towards them. At no stage does he intervene in the harsh treatment and say that mercy should be shown. Sarai’s response is based on jealousy, but Abram’s response is based on indifference and a failure to ensure that she behaved in a godly way. But there was One who cared for Hagar, and his eye was on her as she was expelled from the safety of her home (presumably she had been with Abram and Sarai for the decade since they had returned from Egypt).

Of course, what all this tells us is that God uses sinners in his own plans. We are not here to point the finger at Abram and Sarai. Instead they are pictures to help us see where we come short.

The Angel and Hagar
Moses introduces us to this mysterious Figure called ‘the angel of the Lord’. This is the first of many references to him in the Bible. We can see from his words in verse 10 that he is not a mere angel, because an angel could not bring to pass the promise of a great number of descendants. Only God can perform such a feat. The fact that this angel is divine is also revealed in the response of Hagar to him in verse 13 when she says that she has seen God. This divine appearance is called a theophany and it is generally suggested that the person who appears in this manner is the Son of God. In other words, the person who spoke to Hagar is the same divine person who would later be called Jesus.

The first point to note is that the Son of God knew where Hagar was and he came to her in her time of need. He was prepared to do what neither Abram or Hagar was prepared to do. This reveals to us the great compassion and kindness of God, his willingness to descend into a location where a poor woman was alone. Is this not a foretaste of what he would later do with regard to the woman of Sychar when he met with her by the well near her village (John 4)?

The second detail to observe is that the Son of God called her by her name (v. 8). No doubt, her initial response would have been to wonder how a stranger would know who she was. When a person calls you by name, it is usually a sign of friendship, a sign of interest in us. Friendless Hagar discovered that she had a friend that sticks closer than a brother.

Thirdly, the Son of God addressed Hagar as to her position in life when he calls her the servant of Sarai. Sarai may have thrown Hagar out, but that was not how he saw her position. The action of Sarai had been wrong and here the angel of the Lord ignores it in the sense that it had not changed anything concerning the relationship between Hagar and Sarai. I suspect that here Hagar is being reminded of her entrance into the world of grace. Ten years previously, she had been a pagan in Egypt. Through the providence of God, she had been brought into the community in which his name was known. In that community she had discovered the true God and become one of his people. Although she was still a bondslave, she had known for ten years that it was better to be with the people of God than to dwell in the tents of sin.

Fourthly, the Son of God asks Hagar where she had come from and where she was going. These questions are not displays of ignorance. Instead they are designed to point out to Hagar where she had gone wrong. In other words, the Saviour is leading his child to confess her fault. Hagar seems to realise this because she confesses that Sarai, despite having cast her out, was still her mistress. Although Sarai had been harsh, Hagar had also sinned when she despised her mistress. Hagar is being called by her Lord to deal with her personal sin and return to her mistress and acknowledge that she is a slave. She is being called by God to repent and return to live with his people.

Fifthly, the Lord gives to penitent Hagar a wonderful promise that deals with her current fears. Although she is a slave, her son would become a mighty warrior. The Lord also reveals to Hagar that he had listened to her prayers, even although up till then his providence suggested otherwise. This is a remarkable experience that was given to Hagar. During the decade that she had been with Abram’s family, she would have heard him speak often of the gracious God who had revealed himself in Ur and many times since then, giving promises and other aspects of divine help. Perhaps Hagar had wondered if she would ever experience such blessings from her master’s God. Well, she did. She received assurance that the Lord watched over her, listened to her, and was taking care of her future. It would have been straightforward to return and confess her faults to Sarai, knowing that God was with her and helping her.

Sixthly, Hagar gave God a name. She called him, ‘The God who sees me.’ This means that from then on she and God had a secret to share, a matter about which she could have fellowship with him. She had had a personal encounter with the God of grace and she would never forget that she had met with him. This encounter would give her great confidence for whatever the future would bring her way.

Seventhly, she had a message for Abram and Sarai. The message was that God has comforting words for sinners, that he takes care of them and provides for them. I wonder what Sarai thought when she saw Hagar walking back into their camp. This was a unusual providence for her to think about, but hopefully she noted that her God was also the God of her servant.

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