Summary: The LORD had promised Abram and Sarai a child. After ten additional years, and no child, they decided to help God out. The results weren't exactly what they expected.
Introduction: Genesis 15 has the story where Abram asked God a question after God had told him, “I am your shield and your exceedingly great reward (Gen. 15:1, paraphrased). Abram’s question was “What will You give me? I’m childless, and the only heir I have is Eliezer of Damascus (Gen 15:2, paraphrased)”. The Lord GOD promised Abram that he would have a son and that he himself would be the father of that son (verse 4). This and other communication from God prompted Abram to believe in the LORD, if he had never done this before, and this belief, this faith, was “counted . . . to him for righteousness (verse 6)”. So far, so good.
But a number of years came and went. Instead of seeking the LORD and His guidance, Sarai led Abram to take matters into his own hands. The results of this “solution” affect the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, to this day!
1 The childless wife (and a suggestion)
Text, Genesis 16:1-3, KJV: 1 Now Sarai Abram's wife bare him no children: and she had an handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar. 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. 3 And Sarai Abram's 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.
Sarai and Abram had been married for several years but Scripture never gives their ages when they married. We do know Abram was 10 years older than she was, and that he was 75 years old when they left Haran (Gen. 12:4). For all the years of their marriage, up to this time, Sarai was never able to give Abram a child. Even then that was a concern for women; some commentators have observed that Sarai was the first woman in the entire Bible to be called “barren”.
And there didn’t seem to be any help for this situation.
Apparently there was a loophole or “Plan B” to obtain a male heir, and Sarai seemed to be aware of this. Abram believed that Eliezer of Damascus would be his heir, but God had said No in Genesis 15. By this time, 10 years had come and gone, Abram was around 85 and Sarai 75. The chances of her having a child by this time seemed to be shrinking more and more.
Yet, Sarai had another plan, as mentioned. She could arrange for another woman to become a “wife” to her husband, and perhaps give him a male child as an heir, while the first wife would retain her position, prestige, and so forth. This seems to be the program Sarai had developed. And she already had a prospective “bride” already in mind for her husband!
2 The servant bride (and other problems)
Text, Genesis 16:4-5, KJV: 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. 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.
Notice how “matter of fact-ly” Moses records this “marriage”. There is nothing in the text to describe a ceremony, if there was one; only that Abram took Hagar as a wife. Of note is that Hagar was specifically mentioned as an Egyptian woman (verse 1). Did she retain her Egyptian style of clothing and appearance, or did she wear the same kind of garments as Abram, Sarai, and the other members of the household? Even more important, did she ever come to believe in the God of Abram, or did she continue to worship the idols of Egypt?
Besides all that, some people, myself included, have wondered how Abram and his household would have “acquired” any Egyptian person at all, male or female, especially since Abram and all of the others there with him were basically kicked out of Egypt at Pharaoh’s direct command (see Genesis 12:17-20)!
Then notice how quickly Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child. The text does not mention a specific period of time between the marriage—such as it was—and the conception of the new child. The text also does not directly state the emotions or feelings of Hagar or Abram, but Abram must have been pleased. He was going to have a son! This son was going to be heir of his estate once Abram departed this life. At the very least, Abram knew his estate was going to a blood relative, not to someone who wasn’t even from his hometown of Ur.