Genesis 16 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. 5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the LORD judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.
7 The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the LORD said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her,
“Behold, you are pregnant
and shall bear a son.
You shall call his name Ishmael,
because the LORD has listened to your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild donkey of a man,
his hand against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
13 So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God of seeing,” for she said, “Truly here I have seen him who looks after me.” 14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies between Kadesh and Bered.
15 And Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram called the name of his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.
I know I say some version of this most weeks, but this is truly a remarkable passage. On the surface, it’s a two scene act in the larger story of Abram, it’s a description of a couple taking the fulfillment of God’s promises into their own hands, and it’s a tremendous display of God’s mercy and kindness toward a distraught foreigner. Even on the surface then there is a great deal of glory for us to see, savor, and share. Just below the surface, however, there’s an even greater reservoir of glory, sufficient to power God’s people into eternity. With just a little digging we gain great insight into both human and divine natures, glimpses into how God means His plan of salvation to unfold, powerful explanations for much of our suffering, God’s heart for the vulnerable, and the perfect reign of God over all.
To help you grasp and hang on to all of that, there are two parts to this sermon. In the first part I’ll quickly retell the simple story contained in the chapter. I’ll highlight a few things that might not be obvious in the text, but mostly I just want to help you see the basic story line. In the second part we’ll dive a bit deeper into a handful of Christian-life-critical themes that are embedded by God into this story.
Would you pray with me that God would use all of this to fill us up with glory and grace and then ignite us for true, powerful, gospel-driven, and risky kingdom-life and ministry?
Again, this strange and sad, yet hopeful story has two basic scenes. Both take place when Abram was 86 years old, around 10 years after his initial call from God (3, 16). The first scene (vs.1-6) involves Abram’s wife, Sarai, determined to jumpstart the covenant blessing of God (the promise to have countless offspring). Being barren herself (by the LORD’s hand according to Sarai), she offered her Egyptian servant to Abram to be his wife and to bear a child in Sarai’s name. Apparently this was a common practice in this time period. For reasons not told to us Abram consented without any pushback; he took Hagar as his second wife. And as planned, Hagar conceived.
Perhaps unsurprisingly this is where things began to go off the rails. Having conceived by Abram (which confirmed that it was Sarai who was unable to have children rather than Abram), tension began to build between Sarai, Abram, and Hagar. Hagar looked at Sarai with “contempt” (this is the same word that God used when He promised to punish any who treated Abram poorly in 12:3). Sarai blamed Abram (“May the wrong done to me be on you!”). She also treated Hagar “harshly” (it’s the same word in God’s description of how Abram’s descendents would be treated at the hand of the Egyptians in 15:13). And Abram sat back and watched it all unravel. In fact, Sarai treated Hagar so poorly and Abram showed such indifference that the first scene ends with Hagar fleeing Abram’s house. Evidently, both Abram and Sarai had already realized that their plan to speed up God’s covenant promise wasn’t going to work; that Abram and Hagar’s child wasn’t going to be God’s promised offspring.
The second scene (vs.7-16), then, opens with the run-away Hagar sitting alone by a well in the wilderness. It appears that Hagar was on her way back to her homeland, Egypt (Shur [the city v.7 tells us that Hagar was in at the opening of the scene] is between Canaan and Egypt). Then, unexpectedly, “the angel of the LORD” “found” her there and what she was up to. There are two things that the immediate context, the larger context of Genesis (Genesis 22), and the larger context of the OT (Exodus 3:1-6, Numbers 22, Judges 6, 1 Kings 19, 1 Chronicles 21) all make clear: 1) the angel of the LORD was God himself appearing in the form of an angel, and 2) as such, the “angel” knew exactly where Hagar had been, was going, and why even before Hagar answered (v.8b).
What a remarkable thing this was that God would visit this Egyptian woman in her distress. What a remarkable command it was that God sent her back to her master’s house. What a remarkable promised it was to multiply her offspring in much the same way that He had promised Abram. Though there’s no specific mention of Hagar praying to God, truly God heard Hagar in her affliction; remarkable!
But there’s more. God did not stop there in His dealing with Hagar. He also told Hagar that she would have a son, that his name should be Ishmael, and that he would be a stubborn man who would know great and perpetual conflict with everyone. Again, all of that really is remarkable.
Because of all of this Hagar blessed God. She called Him “You are a God of seeing,” declared that God not only saw her but cared for her as well, and named the well she was sitting by after the Living God who blessed her. God blessed Hagar and Hagar turned that into blessing God.
The story closes with a simple summary/wrap up (vs.15-16). The most interesting aspect of this part of the story is that Abram accepted Hagar’s report of the events of the second scene, (apparently) without question, and thus received Hagar back and named their son Ishmael. In this there’s a measure of resolution, but the larger issue (Abram doesn’t have an heir of his own) is still unresolved. Thus, once again, the story moves us along in Abram’s life, it moves us along in the march toward the promised son and the Promised Land, it moves us along in the cosmic battle of the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman, and it moves us along toward God’s great and ultimate resolution in Jesus.
The story itself is relatively straight forward and simple to understand. The glory, power, mercy, and love of God is easy to see in this. And yet, once again, embedded within it is a lot more than meets the eye.
THE BIG THEMES
As has been the case with every one of these short stories within the larger story of Abram/Genesis, this passage is packed with important themes surrounding the natures of God and man and God’s will for man. As Christians, these are the most important three things we can possibly hope for. We need to know more of who God is, who we are, and what God wants from us. Let’s consider several of those now; especially as they relate to us today. God is kind to give them to us here. Specifically, consider with me now six big themes for our good.
Our Desires Must Never Replace God’s Desires As First In Our Heart
This chapter tells a story of conflict and difficulty. The key for us to see, though, is that the conflict was the direct result of two people who had placed some personal desire above their desire for the glory of God. For, I’m sure, a mixture of reasons, some good and some bad, Sarai (and Abram too perhaps) had come to love the idea of a child more than God’s promises (which, ironically, included a child—the very thing they wanted). Sarai walked the well-worn path of turning a good thing into a bad thing by making it the main thing.
Likewise, Abram seems to have come to love his own peace and quiet above God’s call to lead his family in faith. Twice his wife came to him with a desire he should have rebuffed. First, she came to him charging him to adopt the custom of the surrounding nations and take a second wife in order to have a child through her. And second, she came to him complaining of Hagar’s resulting scorn, seeking permission to punish her. In each case, Abram ought to have led in righteousness. Instead, like Adam before him, Abram sinned in his passivity. After all that he’d already seen of God’s power and faithfulness consider how easily he slipped right back into abdication. Called to lead, Abram abdicated and suffering followed.
Herein lays the source of so many of Abram’s problems, Israel’s problems, and the problems of all God’s people from the beginning—allowing a desire to rise above God’s desires in our hearts. Where have you done that, Grace? Where you find such a place, confess it as sin, turn from it to God, and know forgiveness in Jesus.
Only A Life Lived By Faith In The Promises Of God Can Please God
The first theme leads directly to this second one. Abram and Sarai had lived much of their lives by faith. And yet at times, like the one described in Genesis 16, they chose to take matters into their own hands; to live based exclusively on human senses and reason. Having already made an idol out of their desire for a child (previous point), Abram and Sarai abandoned faith in God’s promises and made a plan to get their idol; that is, to acquire their desired child in their desired timing (1-4).
“[Ancient Near East] legal customs [not God’s word] made it clear that a barren wife could give her maid to her husband as a wife and that a son born of that union could be the heir if the husband ever declared him to be so” (Ross, CB, 319). Again, then, just like with the famine, this couple (this time according to Sarai’s lead), decided to make their own way; to apply worldly logic and cultural practices to fix their “problems”. This is further proof that Sarai was more concerned with having a child than actually “helping” God keep His promises.
Do you see the flow? Abram and Sarai allowed an otherwise good desire (to have a child of their own) to become an idol by allowing it to rise above their trust in God. From there, rather than acknowledge that as sin and repent of it, they chose to build on it instead; to do whatever they needed to do to get what they wanted to get.
If we mean to press this theme up against our own lives we’re immediately faced with an important question: What should Abram and Sarai have done? What would God have had them do? Broader still, what is our role in building God’s kingdom? Should we just sit back and wait for God to work or actively try to usher it in?
Grace, the answer is fairly simple, even if it’s hard to follow at times. What should Abram and Sarai have done? What should we do as we long for God to fulfill His promises in this life? Here’s the answer: God’s people must actively obey God’s commands while passively trusting in His fulfillment of His promises. It is wrong to be passive where we have commands, even as it is wrong to be active (other than in prayer) where we have God’s promises. Understanding this is critical and absolutely freeing. And it is only when we live by this that we can please God.
Again, Abram and Sarai forgot this here; thus, Paul’s assessment in Galatians (4:22-23): For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.
God Works In Ways That Shouldn’t Work In Order To Make It Unmistakable That He Did The Work
This is one of the most helpful themes for me personally. Calling it to mind is often what snaps me out of “functional atheism”. God works in ways that shouldn’t work in order to make it unmistakable that He did the work. Just call to mind a few of the countless examples of this in the bible.
- Noah and the Ark.
- Gideon is my second OT favorite.
- The parting of the Red Sea (can you imagine how afraid the Israelites must have been pressed up against the Sea with no logical way across?!).
- Jonah and the fish.
- Elijah pouring vast amounts of water on rocks before calling on God to burn them. My OT favorite!
- Kids, what others come to mind?
- In the NT Jesus walking on water, feeding the 5k, waiting for Lazarus to die so He could raise him from the dead, and most significant of all of these…His being conceived of the H.S., born of a virgin, suffering, death, resurrection from the dead, and ascension to the Father’s right hand; all as a substitute sacrifice for sinners—all as the ultimate fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abram!
No one would have thought of any of these. And no one but God could have performed any of these.
As for Abram and Sarai, again there was no logical, human way in which God could fulfill His promise to them. Sarai was long past child-bearing age. Local custom made provision for issues of barrenness, but God is not bound by customs. Indeed, it seems clear that God allowed much of this to happen in order to exhaust every human means of bringing about the child of the promise. It would be by God’s miraculous hand alone. The less humanly, physically, and biologically likely this was, the more glory God would get. Just like with the famine, there was no conceivable way for God to fulfill His plan in a woman who couldn’t conceive. How could His promise of countless descendents be kept through a barren woman?
We must remember this, Grace; every minute of every day. You are never in a situation that is so bad that God cannot turn it into beauty. No sin is unforgivable. No brokenness is unrepairable. No suffering is ever unredeemable. God often works in ways that only God can work so God alone will get the glory. Where do you need to believe this today? Where has your failure to do so turned the peace of faith into the angst of sight?
Sin Causes Bitterness
Abram and Sarai momentarily left a life of faith and entered into a life of sight. As is always (eventually) the case, their sin led to bitterness. What woman can share her husband with another and not feel jealous? In fact, a lack of jealousy would be a second sin. Sarai’s choice to have her husband marry another planted a seed of jealousy that quickly bore the fruit of bitterness. She’d hoped for joy, but sought it where it cannot be found. Once again, sin only promises what it can’t deliver and only delivers on what it doesn’t promise.
And the suffering only grew from there. Hagar looked on Sarai with contempt and then Sarai looked on Hagar with condemnation. Worse still, in an act that surely failed to bring true healing Sarai sent Hagar off, pregnant and alone on a long, dangerous journey. Imagine Sarai’s guilt. Imagine Hagar’s anger, fear, and sadness.
Seeing all of this provides us with the opportunity to ask ourselves, how often have you been a Sarai? That is, how often have you made a sinful choice that wounded another and only produced bitterness inside of you? How many of you are in a situation like that right now? This passage has no commands for you (narratives rarely do), but perhaps more powerfully still it shows you and helps you feel the folly and destructive nature of such a choice. See this, feel this, learn from Sarai’s mistake, and then, unlike her, confess it as sin, repent, let the forgiveness of Jesus wash over you, and then walk in true freedom and righteousness.
Likewise, how often have you been a Hagar? How often have you responded to the sins of others against you, not with the grace God has shown you, not in light of the gospel, but by focusing exclusively on how it effects you? How often have you treated sin against you as if it were first or mainly or exclusively against you (instead of God)? How many of you are in this right now? Again, look to the fruit of Hagar’s choice and respond in faith.
God Sees and Hears All
And now to the final two themes and the absolute key to this text: God sees and hears all. What was clearly the case in this story is most certainly still the case today.
Hagar calls God, “You are a God of seeing”. The name Ishmael means “God hears.” God “listened to [Hagar’s] affliction” (11). Hagar named the well “the well of the living one who sees me” (14). God sees and hears all.
Here’s what I love most about this passage…this is not obvious in the first scene (1-6). Why would I love that? Because the first scene is almost exactly like our everyday life. Truly, 1-6 feels a lot like our own experience day in and day out. We usually think and feel and act without any direct, sensible divine intervention. We’re faced with all kinds of circumstances that we need to figure out how to navigate in faith. Typically we hear no audible voice from God and knowing how to apply God’s word to our specific situation is often tricky. In the first scene of our passage, experientially, it’s almost as if God isn’t there. How many times has life felt like that to you, Grace? There is comfort in knowing that you are not the first one.
And yet, what is hidden in the first scene is unmistakably revealed in the second; namely, that God was never far off. He saw and heard everything. It wasn’t as if God just showed up in v.7. He immediately engaged the situation perfectly because He’d perfectly seen and heard everything that had happened. May we never forget this, Grace. Things are rarely as they seem. One vital component of a truly Christian worldview is the simple fact that most of reality is invisible to us. Just as most light waves are invisible to the human eye (as David Oman likes to remind us in The Fact) so most of God and His creation are invisible to us as well.
And yet, this is not to say that God is merely a passive observer. It is not as if God, from some respectable distance, watches all you do and listens to all you say but remains unengaged. Rather, this is another way to say that God is aware of, cares about, and sovereignly reigns over all of our choices (7-12). This is evident by God’s intervention in the misery of Hagar and the promise to bless Ishmael even though he was not the child of the promise. God was shown to be sovereign over Sarai’s barrenness, sovereign over Hagar’s conceiving, sovereign over the life of Hagar’s son, and sovereign over the child’s name (Abram confirmed this by naming him Ishmael as God had told Hagar). And most importantly, sovereign over all of this for good…for His divine glory and our eternal, redemptive good. God sees and hears all.
God Especially Sees and Hears the Cries of the Hurting
Finally, the last theme we cannot miss from this passage is the simple fact that God especially sees and hears the cries of the hurting. This is made clearer and clearer throughout the bible, but we catch an early and unmistakable glimpse of that here. There is no earthly reason that God should have cared about Hagar. She was not of Abram’s line and she was from a pagan people. And yet God’s kindness to her cannot be missed.
Grace, God loves His people. He sees and hears us at all times. And He is especially attentive when we are hurting. Would you recommit to looking to God in your hurt today? Would you recommit to turning to Him before anything in this world? And would you recommit to trusting that He truly cares and is more than able to help and heal and restore joy no matter what the source of the pain because of Jesus? This passage puts all of this on display and therein calls us to this, convicts us of our failure to do so, shows us what happens when we don’t, and reveals God’s power to restore. God knows your hurt and cares for you in it.
All of this is why Abram and Sarai should have waited on the LORD in faith. What’s more, at the end of all of this Abram and Sarai still lacked the land and the child of the promise. That is, they still needed faith. And all of that, of course, is a powerful reminder to us that God’s promises (while just as certain today as they were then) are not all fulfilled yet. We too must live by faith as we await the return of Jesus and our final salvation. May we learn from this story how much we need God’s help and may we also learn from this story that God—the all-seeing and all-hearing God—is always present to give it by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.