I feel like it’s been awhile since we’ve taken a look at Genesis. We were last looking at Genesis 15 where God made a covenant with Abraham formalizing the promises of land and of an heir for the land. Now with a context like that you might expect to see Abraham trusting in that reiterated promise and formal ritual to solidify the promise even more. However, what we see in Genesis 16 is not just blind trust, but a very human reaction to a promised unfulfilled and the human desire to make that promise come to fruition ourselves.
Looking at Genesis 16:1-6 we see that Sarah (Sarai) is still without children. God may have reiterated and formalized the promise to Abraham, but the promise is still unfulfilled. Even with the faith Abraham showed in the last chapter, it has not changed the situation all that much. Sarah is still childless, there is no heir, and without an heir land will not really be an issue.
One can only imagine the desperation that is in what happens next. Sarah comes up with a plan. Since Sarah has been unable to bear any children and Abraham was told that the promised son would come from his body, perhaps what is needed is another woman to bear his child. There is this parallel track that seems rather contradictory. God is promising an heir, but Sarah is still unable to become pregnant. Abraham has been given reassurance, so perhaps Sarah is the problem.
With this line of thought in place she offers Abraham her maidservant Hagar to him to see if he can have a child through her. He consents and the plan is a success of sorts and Hagar becomes pregnant. However, the plan in its success also backfires on Sarah. Hagar is now pregnant, pregnant with the child believed to be the promised heir from God (assuming Hagar knew of it and there is no reason to believe she didn’t).
The new reality for Hagar causes her to look down on and despise Sarah. This, of course, makes Sarah irate and blames Abraham for this situation. Abraham then tells Sarah she can do as she feels is right to Hagar. So Sarah mistreats Hagar and she runs away.
This new plan, while effective in producing a pregnancy, was also very effective in producing a fairly large mess. It certainly doesn’t seem like it was the best way to handle the situation, but to me it is a very human way of going about things. So before we “Tsk, tsk,” Sarah for coming up with the plan and Abraham going along with it I think we have to realize a few things.
First, Abraham and Sarah may have trusted in God, but time can increase doubt. When we’re promised something that never materializes for years upon years, it is not unusual to start questioning. Sometimes that may result in questioning the one who gives that promise as Abraham did in Genesis 15. Other times we start to question ourselves wondering if we’re doing something wrong and if there is another way to solve the problem. I think you can kind of see that mentality in this chapter.
In some ways this whole situation feels somewhat removed from me because I’ve never really had God promise me anything directly. I think it is easy for me to say if I had a promise directly from God’s mouth then I’d be sure to trust in it. The reality is if I had to wait years and years to have a promise be fulfilled (we’re somewhere around 11 years of waiting at this point) I might be trying to fulfill that promise in creative ways too.
Second, simply saying that Sarah and Abraham are wrong for trying to do anything without relying on God seems like too simple of a conclusion to come to. Do I think their actions were really in line with faithfulness to God? No, but the reality is that they probably made a lot of decisions in their day to day lives that were not centered around God telling them what to do or not to do. To be honest God isn’t recorded talking to Abraham that many times considering the amount of time between interactions.
This is the same with us today, perhaps even more than with Abraham. I think that the majority of us go through our daily lives without specific promises from God involved. Do we still have to decide and do things everyday without this direct miraculous intervention from God? I sure do. Does that mean that God is not on my mind during the decisions, yes for some of them anyhow. However, reducing the lesson of this passage to the need to wait on God instead of making our own plans is partially there, but just doesn’t really cover the passage and the surrounding context well enough in my mind.
Lastly, this incident with Abraham and Sarah seems more like a warning against cutting corners and trying to do things our way thinking will be more effective. Maybe they aren’t illegal, because many commentators point out the practice that Abraham and Sarah used was not unheard of. However it seems to go against the waiting and trusting in God that Abraham was presented with the chapter before.
Today it may not look like this for many of us. Unlike Abraham we may not have a promise of an heir. However, I think things like this can still happen. When we focus on the results of pastors and leaders in the church rather than focusing on their character and how they achieve their success. When we begin to focus more on tradition or preferences than showing the love and grace of God. These things aren’t necessarily morally wrong in and of themselves, but they’re our own devised shortcuts that we think God will rubber stamp for us.
We’ll look at how much a church has grown over the last how ever many years, but ignore the shallow teaching or the major character flaws in the leadership that should be addressed. We lift up tradition and the way it has been as the way to succeed in following God. Or we try to figure out our own way to accomplish the promise that God has given us like Sarah and Abraham.
There is simply this desire to focus on human success and human solutions. Sometimes it is the right thing to do. We sometimes have ideas and they’re fine. Maybe we pray about them and seek God’s wisdom, but we may not hear anything directly. We have to make that decision.
There are other times though, that I think we try to accomplish what we think God wants but don’t really care how we get there. It’s about the end and not the means. I often think that this doesn’t really work out the best. It can create a mess just like Sarah’s plan did. People can get jealous, hurt, or angry when plans like this fall apart. Perhaps the most pertinent example of the would be the whole drama with Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll over the last year.
Within the whole Abraham story is the idea that faith has a way of being a slow method in the world. There are plenty of quick fixes we can turn to, but God doesn’t seem to always work in the way of quick fixes. In fact more often God’s movement appears very slow to us. Our desire for speed and results can sometimes hurt us, especially when we start to put the results above the path we use to get them. Then we often wind up with more problems than we did at the beginning.