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Today’s Bible reading brings us to a crisis of faith and a spiritual crossroads in Abram’s (Abraham) life (Genesis 16). Sadly, this passage reveals evidence of how one man’s failure to trust God carried consequences that shadow our world today, 4,000 years after Abram’s sojourn.
Years passed, and Abram’s longing for a son was unmet (Genesis 12:2-3). So he complained to the LORD, “I go childless…to me thou hast given no seed” (15:2-3). God responded to Abram’s complaint and graciously assured him that the offspring of his lineage would one day be in number as the stars of heaven (15:5).
Childlessness in Abram and Sarai’s culture was a matter of shame and considered a judgment of God. Children were essential to a family, and their presence in the home was viewed as a testament to God’s love and blessing. If a wife were childless and unable to bear a son, it was the practice in ancient cultures for her to present her maid to bear children to her husband.
Yet, despite God’s promises and assurances, a crisis of faith took hold of Abram’s heart, as his wife Sarai murmured, “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” (16:2).
Abram was eighty-six years old (16:16), and Sarai seventy-six, when his faith waned under the pressure of her grumbling (the word “voice” indicates a loud, thundering sound, like the bleating of a flock of sheep, 16:2). Sarai was barren and despondent; contrary to God’s will, she pressed Abram to abandon his faith in God’s promise. Instead, she sought to fulfill God’s promise through the methods of the culture and have a son by proxy through Hagar, her Egyptian maid (16:3).
Foolishly, Abram yielded to Sarai’s plea and went in unto her servant. When Hagar conceived (16:4), instead of the expected joy for which she yearned, both women were at odds with the other provoking jealousy and a perpetual division in the household (16:4). Eventually, Sarai’s unhappy spirit affected every part of her life, until finally she “said unto Abram, My wrong [sin] be upon thee: I have given my maid into thy bosom; and when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised [cursed; contemptible] in her eyes: the LORD judge between me and thee” (16:5).
Sarai’s reasoning reflected an easy escape from taking responsibility for her faithless cultural judgment: she blamed her husband, who was ultimately accountable for family decisions. Sarai even determined that God would see things her way because Abram had taken them to Egypt in the first place. Lacking faith in God’s covenant promise, Abram and Sarai sinned. They failed to trust God, defiled the sanctity of their marriage, and entangled Hagar in an intimate area of their relationship, resulting in a dilemma they could never reverse (16:5).
Refusing to accept any further blame, Abram sought to remove himself from the trouble altogether and allowed Sarai to mistreat Hagar (16:6b). Seeking to escape Sarai’s harshness, Hagar fled south into the desert (16:6b), and stopped at “Shur,” a region on the border of northeastern Egypt (16:7). There, we read, “the angel of the LORD found [Hagar]” and said to her, “Return to thy mistress, and submit [humble; be the lesser] thyself under her hands” (16:9), and “I will multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered [counted] for multitude [abundance; i.e., too great to be counted]” (16:10).
“And the angel of the LORD said [commanded] unto her, Behold, thou art with child, and shalt bear a son, and shalt call his name Ishmael [lit, God will hear]; because the LORD hath heard thy affliction” (16:10-11). (Note, Genesis 16:7 is the first mention of the “angel of the LORD” in Scripture, and I believe it was a theophany, a pre-incarnate appearance of Jesus Christ.)
Ishmael was the forefather of the Ishmaelites and a branch of today’s Arabic people. His ancestors have been nomads of the desert for four millennia.
Closing thoughts – The nature and character of Ishmael and his progeny were described as “a wild man [lit. “wild donkey”]; his hand [power; strength] will be against every man [i.e., a man of hostility], and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren” (16:12).
In that statement, we find the nature and cause of today’s conflict in the Middle East. The Jews and those identifying Abraham and Ishmael as their forefathers are perpetual enemies.
Copyright © 2023 – Travis D. Smith
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