Genesis 16:1-16.
Our Way or God's Way

American Journal of Biblical Theology, www.biblicaltheology.com
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV


Trying to fulfill God's purposes by means contrary to God's Word brings difficulty, heartache, and disappointment.  Would you not agree that all people have many decisions to make in their daily lives?  There are often many paths to choose.    What are some of the important decisions we make?  Some important ones might determine where we live and work, with whom we spend our time.  Many decisions, though subtle, can make tremendous changes in our lives.  In 1992, following being laid off from work, I was presented with four job opportunities in four various parts of the country, none near home.  The decision was to move from our upstate New York home to North Carolina.  In the intervening years our children have grown, and are settling in North Carolina.  The choice of North Carolina as the location of our next job turned out to form the context of many remaining years:  where we would live, where we would attend church, where our relationships would develop, and where our ministries would be.  We were not ignorant of the impact that our decision would make, and were very sensitive to God's purpose in our lives as we made that decision.  We knew that the choice was upon us, and that choice would not take us out of "God's will," but we still wanted to honor God with our choice.  We truly desired to go in the direction that would best benefit our obedience to God's call in our lives.

When you make decisions, whether important or not, how much of God's purpose do you engage in your choices?  Young people make choices every day that can significantly impact their direction:  who they associate with, the kind of entertainment they choose, the decision to abstain from sinful behaviors (or the decision to partake of them.)  The very well-known "What would Jesus do" movement, inspired by Charles M. Sheldon's "In His Steps" promoted making decisions based upon God's purpose in one's life.  

As we form a set of decisions, we create a plan for our lives.  We establish dreams and goals.  Today's society provides means for meeting those goals, and where society fails, our socialist government will often step in and provide means. Do you have a plan for your life? What is that plan? How did this plan get started? Ultimately, God has a plan for your life. What do you suppose that plan is?  Certainly, that plan is one of obedience to Him and an appropriate testimony of your salvation and your faith to others.  Whether you are called to the task of ministry or simply to minister to others in a secular career (such as mine as a university professor), this model of obedience and testimony does not change.  As one continues making decisions, the best way is always to follow our best understanding of God's choice.

As God has a plan for your life, he will provide the means for you to complete that plan. However, in God's wisdom He will provide those resources in His way and His time.  As a person with an impulsive nature, I tend to want to tackle every problem or every unfinished task I see.    Such impulsiveness can lead us to make choices that are based upon our own logic or desires, choices that are not consistent with God's ultimate purpose for a situation.  A good example is our bent to relieve suffering.  We want to "fix it," and do so immediately, not considering that God may be doing a work through that suffering.  By taking a task into our own hands we may be circumventing an opportunity for growth that God has provided.

But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing.  James 1:4

Sometimes the work of patience must be completed, taking more time that we would desire.  In this lesson we are going to observe some of the consequences of taking things into our own hands and circumventing God's method of attaining His goals for our lives.

Genesis 16:1. 

Now Sarai Abramís wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar.

What has happened in the lives of Abram and Sarai up to this point? At the age of 75, Abram was called of God to leave his home and his inheritance and go to a place where God would later reveal. God said that the result of his obedience would be the birth of a child who would be the beginning of a great nation which would ultimately bless the world.  What did Abram do as a result of that promise? He gathered together is close family and his possessions, and traveled into Egypt, and was now near the southernmost borders of what we might refer to as Canaan, near the point where the Children of Israel were turned back into the wilderness because of their doubt, the area of Kadesh Barnea. 

Having obeyed God, Abram saw no significant change in his life.  He and his wife were far beyond the age of bearing children, so their barrenness certainly did not illustrate an answer to God's promise.  Abram has had to defend his worldly nephew, Lot, from the wickedness of the society that his nephew had chosen.  He saw an ungodly world surrounding him, with no other people trusting God as he did.  He saw no fruit of the promise that God had made.

Note that God made two promises to Abraham: (1) He would be led to the place God had for him, and (2) he would be blessed and have an heir. Had God fulfilled any of these promises? By entering the Canaan region, God had brought Abram to the land that he and his inhabitants were to possess.  However, by now ten years had gone by so Abram was now 85 years old, Sarai 86. What part of God's promise was left unfulfilled?  Having seen God work in their lives already, they had no doubt that God's promise would be fulfilled.  However, they both realized that Sarai was far beyond child-bearing age, and so they certainly doubted her ability to bear a child.  They had, probably, fifty years of infertility, and her advanced age to prove that, if God intended them to have a child, it would not be through Sarai.  

Many people face similar choices.  Infertile couples who desire to have children often are forced to make some very significant decisions as to how to go about doing so.  Often, God provides the means for success, whether through adoption, or other medical and clinical means.  As a result, many couples are blessed with families.  Certainly, the choice of having children is not the only area in our lives where we can circumvent God's purpose in our lives by taking the issue into our own hands, but since this scripture passage illustrates this example we will not explore other areas.

So, let's get back to Abram and Sarai.  It is now 10 years since the promise, and there still is no child.  At this point, Sarai and Abram chose to take matters into their own hands. They made several assumptions:

  1. Their failure to have children was because of the barrenness of Sarai.
  2. Sarai was too old to bear by now
  3. They could obtain the heir they desired by a surrogate mother, Hagar, the Egyptian servant of Sarai.

When we are faced with decisions, we are often presented with a multiple of solutions.  Abram and Sarai had at least two options, either to continue to wait, or to allow Hagar to produce a child for them.  Which choice would Sarai and Abram see as God's purpose for them?  It is not unrealistic to think that Sarai and Abram could have seen Hagar as the means that God provided for His promise to be fulfilled.  Certainly, when we are faced with choices, we often find ways of rationalizing (logically defending an inappropriate answer), and can come up with a fully acceptable, but incorrect, answer.  Whether or not Sarai and Abram fully considered that God still wanted them to wait, they had been seriously considering a plan to complete the second part of God's promise.

Genesis 16:2. 

And Sarai said unto Abram, Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai. 

At some point Sarai came to Abram with her plan.  Most likely, it is one they had talked about, and this is the point where Sarai agrees to the process.  What was the ancient cultural opinion towards this type of arrangement?  Because of the lack of other opportunities for people who are in this situation, it was quite accepted to make use of a surrogate mother.  To our "modern" sensibilities it may seem to be an inappropriate thing to do, but in their day it was considered reasonable. The need for an heir was the basis of their society. Only through children could the elderly be cared for. Ownership of land was maintained through the heir. If a landowner had no heir, his land would be seized by others upon his death. Also, polygamy was accepted in the pagan cultures of their day.

So, to Sarai this was not a radical solution. It was an obvious solution. When we come up against problems which clearly stand in our way, what is our typical response?  We will often attempt to solve the problem in the quickest, most efficient and effective manner. Many times, particularly if you are an "in control" type of personality, all problems must be defined and solved. When a problem arises, it must be analyzed, its impact considered, and objectives put in place which will culminate in the solution of the problem. This type of person always stands in a position of making what kind of error?  Such problem solving techniques have the potential of stepping outside of God's way to solve the problem. Often we find it difficult to wait on God's way when an obvious solution presents itself.  What can we do when such a solution arises?  Instead of jumping into a solution, weigh the solution against the plumb-line of God's Word and what he has so far revealed to you.

What did Abram do in this case, when an obvious solution was offered? Abram agreed to Sarai's suggestion.  Rather than seeking out God's solution for the problem, he listened to the voice of his wife.  Still, there was some propriety with the arrangement that Sarai was suggesting:  for Abram to have a child by Hagar, he would have to take her as his wife.  This would necessitate Abram's acceptance of the pagan practice of polygamy, a practice that God had never intended, a practice that God often spoke against.  Consequently, if Abram went through with this plan, the consequences of that solution would be far greater than one might first assume.

Genesis 16:3.

And Sarai Abramís wife took Hagar her maid the Egyptian, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife.

There is some wording used here that is interesting. 

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.  Genesis 3:6.

What similarity to you see between the account of Eve and Adam and the account of Sarai and Abram? We see a similarity in the words that are translated "took" and "gave". We see here a play on words that clearly links the action of Sarai to the woman given to Adam. What was the ultimate result of the woman's action in the Genesis 3 account? We shall see that there is a very similar result in the life of Sarai.  Eve led Adam into a wrong choice, just as Sarai led Abram into a wrong choice.  In both cases the man knew better than to accept the choice given by the wife, and was held responsible for that decision, a responsibility that would lead to judgment.

Note too, that their cultural system already provided for the welfare of the maidservant. What was it?  For Hagar to fulfill the role of surrogate, she was to be Abram's wife.  Because of the nature of the relationship that she already had with Abram and Sarai, she would always have a place second to Sarai.  However, Hagar was now under the protection of Abram, rather than being a simple slave of Sarai. As such Hagar was obligated to Abram as a wife would be.  Hagar would no longer see Sarai as her master, but rather would see Abram as her husband.  As we observe the situation, we want to shout to Abram, "Stop!"  We understand the error he is making.  Like Adam who took of the fruit of the tree of knowledge at Eve's behest, Abram is about to circumvent the original plan that God had for them.  Did Abram not know the nature of his error?  When we make poor choices, we usually know they are not the best choice, and may rationalize away those arguments that would dissuade us.  Abram knew exactly what he was doing. 

Genesis 16:4.

And he went in unto Hagar, and she conceived: and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her eyes. 

Note the sequence of error:  with the plan first conceived as a thought, it was accepted as a possibility, a method of completing the plan was determined, and finally the plan was acted out. Note that this is often the progression of events through which we, as Christians, can take part in sinful acts. The sin is first conceived as a thought. After meditating on it we rationalize away its bite and accept it as a possibility. Once accepting it as a possibility, we can act. What is the final result of such a progression?

Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man: 14But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. 15Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.  James 1:13-15 

The result of Sarai and Abram's sin is beginning to surface even as Hagar finds out that she is pregnant. What happened?  Hagar began to despise Sarai and her barrenness.  One can understand how this could come about.  Hagar sees herself as a "better woman" than Sarai, who now is no longer her slave-master, but her aged competitor for Abram's betrothal.  We do not know the nature of the relationship between Hagar and Sarai prior to this event, but it is certainly clear now.  The pregnancy of Hagar served as a wedge between the two women, and a significant conflict now entered their household.

When we circumvent God's plan in our lives, we open ourselves up for any number of unforeseen events.  Abram and Sarai probably had no idea that their plan would turn out this way.  They simply saw this as an opportunity to have a son, an heir who would inherit the land that had been given to Abram.  Undoubtedly, they saw a future where Hagar still served as Sarai's handmaiden, not as a competitor for betrothal, or a mother who would desire to keep the son away from Sarai.  Had they considered this, they would have never completed their plan.

Genesis 16:5. 

And Sarai said unto Abram, My wrong be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee. 

Go back to the Garden of Eden. What was the response of the woman when she found out that she would experience judgment as a result of her disobedience?  She placed the blame on someone else, the serpent. What was Sarai's response when she found out that she would experience the same judgment?  She also placed the blame elsewhere, on Abram to the point of blaspheming the Name of God, implying that God would judge Abram for his action.  "Abram, this was your fault, and the judgment will be upon you!"  Was Sarai correct?  Was Abram at fault for this situation.  Of course, Abram was responsible for following through with Sarai's plan.  Now that things had gotten so far out of control, Abram responded to the situation as most people would do:  he continued to take matters into his own hands, and prescribe his own solution.

Genesis 16:6. 

But Abram said unto Sarai, Behold, thy maid is in thy hand; do to her as it pleaseth thee. And when Sarai dealt hardly with her, she fled from her face.

Here we see further degradation of the situation. What was Abram's response to Sarai's charge?  Abram instructed Sarai to return Hagar to her previous state as a slave, empowering Sarai to treat her as one would any disobedient slave.   Abram had accepted Hagar as a wife. She was no longer the property of Sarai, even by their own law. For Abram to do this was very inappropriate, and one more step away from obedience to God. When Sarai mistreated Hagar, Hagar fled, which by the way is the meaning of her name. Hagar also did not fulfill her position as a wife when she fled and took the heir of Abram with her.

At this point, everything had fallen apart. Abram, Sarai and Hagar had each sustained grievous losses. What ultimately caused all of this grief? Abram and Sarai had taken matters into their own hands when God had a different plan for them.  The result was disastrous.  By fleeing into the wilderness, Hagar would surely die, and her child with her.  This was clearly Abram and Sarai's chosen plan.  

Genesis 16:7-9. 

The 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, Saraiís maid, whence camest thou? and whither wilt thou go? And she said, I flee from the face of my mistress Sarai. 9And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Return to thy mistress, and submit thyself under her hands.

Often, when as a result of our own sin we find ourselves at the lowest point, God then steps in to initiate His redemptive purpose. It is in this way that God uses these experiences to bring us closer to Him. When in hiding, a messenger from the Lord (Yahweh, Jehovah) came to Hagar and comforted her.  Had Hagar stayed in the desert, she would surely die.  Her banishment from Abram and Sarai was not God's plan at all, and at this point God intervened.  The messenger from God told her to return to Sarai, and to return as a handmaiden, not as the wife of Abram.  It is clear that even the marriage that Abram and Sarai had arranged was not one that was ordained by God.  Sarai was Abram's wife, and Abram's relationship with Hagar was never God's plan.  If there was any doubt of this up to this point in the mind of Hagar, the messenger would have now cleared that up.  Hagar is to return to Sarai and accept her place as the handmaiden.

Genesis 16:8-12. 

And the angel of the LORD said unto her, I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude. 11And the angel of the LORD said unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction. 12And he will be a wild man; his hand will be against every man, and every manís hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren. 

The messenger then revealed a little about the future of her child.  God had promised Abram that he would have many descendants, and that promise applied to Hagar as well as Sarai.  After all, this child would be a child of Abraham.  This child would be a son whom she would call Ishmael, a name that means, "the Lord hears."  The messenger also reveals the nature of the nations that would come from Ishmael. Ishmael and those after him would continue to dwell in the land of "his brethren" (the descendents of Isaac) and would be in a continual state of war with them.

The Arab nations claim that they are also the descendents of Abram, through Ishmael, who is the rightful recipient of Abraham's blessing, and as the descendants of Ishmael, the children of Israel have usurped that position that is rightfully theirs. This was the nature of the conflict between Ishmael and Isaac, and is still, in part, the basis for the enmity between Jews and their neighbors. This basis for conflict goes back to this very point in history.  The descendents of Ishmael and Isaac have hated each other for almost 4000 years, engaged in a blood feud that, conceivably, will not end until it is terminated by God's direct intervention.

When Abram and Sarai chose to obtain an heir using their own means, they had no idea of the ultimate consequences of their sin.  By circumventing God's plan in their lives, by stepping out in front of God's ultimate solution for themselves, they set in motion events that would shape the most significant nature of the experience of their descendants:  constant warfare with their neighbors.

Genesis 16:13-16.

And she called the name of the LORD that spake unto her, Thou God seest me: for she said, Have I also here looked after him that seeth me? 14Wherefore the well was called Beerlahairoi; behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.  15And Hagar bare Abram a son: and Abram called his sonís name, which Hagar bare, Ishmael. 16And Abram was fourscore and six years old, when Hagar bare Ishmael to Abram.

As the Lord had said, Hagar bore Abram a son. Abram got what he wanted, but at what cost?

Summary: 

  • Though human solutions to difficult problems may be socially acceptable, they may not be in accordance with God's will.
  • Though we may not be all that we should be, God hears our prayers and always is watching over us.
  • Choosing our own way instead of God's way inevitably may bring about disaster at worst, and missing God's blessing at best.
  • Though we are not always faithful to God, He always is faithful to His word.

God's promise to Abraham was later fulfilled in the birth of Isaac.  God's plan would ultimately be carried out in Abram's life.  But the consequences of Abram's "jumping out in front of God" would be unending.  Let us, as we make decisions, never fail to spend time in prayer and consider God's plan for our life when we make those decisions that choose our pathway.  Will we go our way, or will we go God's way?