Summary: The birth of Ishmael came about as a lapse of faith. Like Abram & Sarah, we sometimes try to “help God out,” when instead we should be waiting and trusting.
The Arab world dominates our thinking these days; it’s our major global concern--with the war against terrorism, hostage-taking, beheadings, and the Palestinian uprising in Israel. All this conflict originates from chapter 16. Jews and Arabs trace their heritage from Abraham, and to his two sons, Isaac and Ishmael. From Ishmael came the genesis of Arab/Israeli conflict.
The birth of Ishmael came about as a lapse of faith. Sarah was unable to conceive, was past menopause, and so she urged Abram to father a son through a substitute, her handmaid Hagar, a servant given by Pharaoh in Egypt. The child would be legally hers. Sarah more than anyone knew the heaviness of Abram’s heart. She knew the sadness he tried to mask. In those days childless couples were objects of pity and ridicule. Sarah also knew of God’s covenant and wondered how it could be fulfilled. Her scheme was socially acceptable, a common practice in those days, but her plan was outside of the will of God. Society’s approval isn’t always the measure of whether an action is correct.
There are basically 3 answers to prayer: yes, no, and the toughest of these is wait. It’s great news when God says yes and gives us what we want. It’s hard when we have to accept a negative response, but at least the issue is settled. However, when God puts us “on hold”, the waiting can seem intolerable. Someone prayed, “God, give me patience, and I want it right now!” This is probably how Abram and Sarah were feeling…which led them to carry out God’s promise in their own way. Sarah’s proposal did not come from prayer or faith.
Sarah may have even felt like a victim, as though God had forced her to act outside of His promise. God’s delays are not God’s denials. The fault was in her bad choice. There are lots of consequences for which God gets blamed. A prizefighter killed an opponent in the ring and at his press conference he reflected, “I wonder why God does the things He does.” An unwed mother lamented, “I was dating a man and became pregnant. I was devastated! I asked God, ‘Why have You allowed this to happen to me?’” A couple who drowned their children cried out, “Oh God, no! Why did you let this happen?” What part did God play in their choices? These are simply examples of people blaming God for their own actions. We can add Sarah and Abram to the list.
By the way, Abram wasn’t exactly a young man, and this scheme could have been Sarah’s way of showing that the “failure” wasn’t hers alone, but that Abram also was unable to produce children…this of course, backfired.
On a positive note, this incident demonstrates the strength of God’s unconditional covenant with Abram. That covenant, made in chapter 15, did not depend on Abram’s conduct; if it had, his attempt to fulfill God’s promise through Hagar would have nullified the agreement. Time and time again, we see how God puts up with us in spite of our failures and faithlessness. God didn’t give up on this couple--nor will He give up on us.
On the other hand, the end never justifies the means. We shouldn’t take advantage of God’s leniency. People may agree with us, the law may support us, circumstances may seem favorable, but if God can’t bless us, we better not do it! Abram’s action shows a weakening of trust. His faith was defective--not in the substance of God’s promise but in how that promise should be fulfilled. This was a tragic detour.
Abram and Sarah’s true covenant son Isaac would be the result of a miracle. A lot of people scoff at miracles. Admiting that God could, they doubt if He would. Abram failed to see how God could provide a son through Sarah. Abram limited his perception of the scope of God’s ability. A student at the Army War College stated, “I don’t just believe in miracles--I depend on them!”
Technically Hagar was a concubine, but let’s face it--Abram had 2 wives. Polygamy was discouraged in the Old Testament and clearly forbidden in the New. This is the principle of progressive revelation. Having a child by means of Hagar only produced envy and marital discord. The plan appeared to be successful--Hagar provided what Sarah could not; she succeeded where Sarah failed, giving Abram what he yearned for, but not according to God’s promise.
There’ve been numerous studies on the legal, bioethical and psychological impact of surrogate motherhood. We have before us the first recorded incident, and it’s not a positive picture. Hagar upstaged Sarah and flaunted her pregnancy--those descendants “more numerous than the stars” will now look to Hagar, not Sarah! Hagar began to smirk in a superior manner, and the scorn Sarah felt was devastating. She was replaced and humiliated. And in her fury, she turned and blamed Abram for what she suggested. When we scheme and do things our way, apart from God’s will, our plans often blow up in our face.