17. When Women Wear the Pants (Genesis 16:1-16)
Several weeks ago Bill Gothard came to Dallas to speak to 2600 pastors. There he made a statement that was condemning to all of us. He said that, by far, the greatest complaint of pastors’ wives was that their husbands were failing to take the spiritual leadership in their homes.
Stories abound to authenticate this charge. The most common is the one in which the pastor is downstairs praying about the Lord’s leading in moving on to another church while his wife is upstairs packing his bags.
Not long ago, I read the account of how the pastor of one of the great churches in America was called. He had been asked to serve as a supply preacher by this large church. Fearing that accepting would indicate an intention to campaign for this coveted position, he declined. But his wife disagreed and accepted the invitation for him. Fulfilling this commitment, the man later accepted the call and became the pastor of this same church.
Not all such situations work out so well, as our text in Genesis 16 teaches. Abram, the man of faith, revealed that he had feet of clay even in his own home. The devastating results of his passivity in the face of pressure should serve to warn us all.
While here Abram is shown to have failed by listening to his wife, let me quickly say that many of us fail because we don’t listen to our wives when we should. Do not come to this text as a club to employ on your wife, men, for that is a serious error. Let us not come to this passage to prooftext our preconceived ideas and prejudices, but to enlighten our hearts and minds, and thus, to grow in faith.
The first six verses are not merely a condemnation of Sarai’s attitudes and actions. In reality we find a concert of sins with Abram, Sarai, and Hagar all contributing to the discord which results. Nevertheless, it was Sarai who initiated this particular sequence of events, and thus we must begin with her.
Sarai, Abram’s wife, was prevented from having children. An heir was perhaps the one thing any ancient man would desire above all else. This was especially true of Abram, for he had been told that a great nation would originate with him:
“And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2).
Sarai felt personally responsible for the absence of this son. She assumed that since she had not given birth to a child, and her age seemed to prohibit it, something else must be done to enable Abram to have a child through another woman. She must have been thinking in this fashion: “Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children” (Genesis 16:2).
Abram could thus father a child, although Sarai would not be the mother.
The culture of that day provided the means to accomplish Sarai’s intentions. Ancient documents reveal that when a woman could not provide her husband with a child, she could give her female slave as a wife and claim the child of this union as her own.159
The consequences of Sarai’s plan inform us that such a proposal was wrong. Several evidences of this sin can be demonstrated. First of all, Sarai seems to have considered it her responsibility to produce a son for Abram. No basis for this assumption can be seen in Scripture:
Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go forth from your country, and from your relatives and from your father’s house, to the land which I will show you; and I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the Earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12:1-3).
In the Abrahamic covenant here given, Abram was commanded to do one thing—leave Ur. God, on the other hand, had promised to guide Abram (verse 1), to make him a great nation (verse 2), and to bless the Earth through him (verse 3). Nowhere is either Abram or Sarai given the responsibility for producing the son. Implied, at least, is the assurance that God will provide a son.
Sarai’s words betray a reluctance to accept the fact that God sovereignly prevented her from having a son: “Now behold the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children through her” (Genesis 16:2).
Here is the sin of presumption. Failing to trust God to provide a son, she forced the situation by pressuring Abram into taking Hagar as his wife.
Strangely, the great commentator, Leupold, attempts to diminish Sarai’s guilt by stressing her faith in the promise of God160 and her self-sacrifice in giving Hagar to her husband.161 I do not agree with either explanation. Nowhere is there any expression of faith in the promise of Genesis 12:1-3. It seems to me that she wanted to remove the social stigma of barrenness, and to strengthen their relationship by giving a son to Abram, even if it involved the sacrifice of principle.
While monogamy may not be clearly commanded, it was presented as that which was original and ideal (Genesis 2:18-25). The first mention of polygamy is far from complimentary (cf. Genesis 4:19ff.). Further on in the book more than one wife is always accompanied by conflict and competition (cf. Genesis 29:30ff.).
In my estimation Sarai did not act in faith, but in presumption. Her primary concern seems to be with the social stigma upon her barrenness. She may well have persisted in her proposal until Abram gave in. Faith never tries to force God to act, nor to act in God’s place, nor to accomplish what is supernatural in the power of the flesh.
We have been hard on Sarai. Some may think too hard. But while Sarai was the instigator of this fiasco, Abram was at fault, also. Indeed, in some ways this sin can be traced back to Abram’s unbelief, when he left Canaan and went down to Egypt (Genesis 12:10-13:4). Is it mere coincidence that Hagar was Egyptian?
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children, and she had an Egyptian maid whose name was Hagar (Genesis 16:1).
The probability is great that Hagar was a gift from Pharaoh to Abram, a part of the dowry for Sarai: “Therefore he treated Abram well for her sake; and gave him sheep and oxen and donkeys and male and female servants and female donkeys and camels” (Genesis 12:16).
The chickens always come home to roost. I believe that Hagar was one of the consequences of Abram’s failure of faith in chapter 12. While Sarai may have been the prodder in chapter 16, the proposal was only possible, thanks to Abram’s decision to sojourn in Egypt.
In chapter 16 Abram is more of a pushover than a patriarch. His wife never mentioned God or the covenant He had made with Abram. Faith did not seem to be a factor, nor was God’s will ever sought. What a time for Abram to stand firm, but instead he fizzled. Seemingly with little or no protest, he passively followed the instructions of his wife. She wanted an heir. She planned the honeymoon. Abram did as he was told.
‘Abram listened to his wife,’ we are told (16:2). Listen in the Old Testament is often a synonym for obedience. Abram’s failure was not in listening, but in heeding her instructions without weighing their implications. I doubt that Abram really did ‘listen’ in the sense of grasping what Sarai was trying to say. Was she asking for reassurance of Abram’s love, even if she could not provide him with a son? Was she asking for reassurance of God’s love and infinite power? Did she need to be reminded of God’s promise? Did she wish Abram to turn her down? Abram may have obeyed without really hearing what Sarai was trying to say.
Hagar was not without her own share of guilt. She was not wrong in going to bed with Abram, so far as I can tell. She was a slave, subject to the will of her mistress. She had little or no voice in this decision. But she was wrong in the false sense of pride and smugness she felt toward Sarai.
And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress was despised in her sight (Genesis 16:4).
Hagar forgot that God had closed Sarai’s womb. She disregarded the fact that ‘children are a gift of the Lord’ (Psalm 127:3). She seemed to bask in the affection of Abram, especially when he knew she was to bear his child. She felt exalted above her mistress, and yet was still her slave. She gloried in that which was no cause for pride.
And so we have seen a sequence of sins, beginning in Egypt, and ending in the bedroom of an Egyptian slave. It is ironic how the tables have been turned. In chapter 12, Abram’s unbelief caused him to agonize while Sarai was in Pharaoh’s palace. Now, Sarai, due to her proposal, is left to ponder what is going on in Hagar’s bedroom.
Each of the three: Sarai, Abram, and Hagar, has been caught in the web of sin. Sarai acted in presumption; Abram lapsed into passivity; Hagar was the victim of pride. In yet another round of sin, each responds wrongly to the dilemma into which their sin has brought them.
Sarai found that her scheme had backfired. A child was born, but while loved by Abram (17:18,20; 21:11), Sarai despised him (21:10). Ishmael had driven a wedge between Abram and Sarai, rather than drawing them together. Even the once loyal Hagar now despised her mistress.
Abram had given Sarai what she had wanted, but now she insisted that he had failed her in doing so: “And Sarai said to Abram, ‘May the wrong done me be upon you. I gave my maid into your arms; but when she saw that she had conceived, I was despised in her sight. May the Lord judge between you and me’” (Genesis 16:5).
In spite of all the pious words Sarai spouted, they did not cover her blame for what had happened. While Sarai was angry with Abram, she must have known that it was she who had made Hagar’s bed. No confession or repentance of sin is found as yet on Sarai’s lips, but only bitter remorse.
Abram did not change his course either. He should have learned that his passivity was not piety. Letting Sarai have her way was relinquishing his leadership. He was the accomplice to sin by refusing to resist it or to rebuke Sarai. Sarai’s stinging rebuke served only to cause Abram to retreat further. He did not acknowledge his sin, nor did he confront Sarai with hers. Instead he persisted in allowing Sarai to have her own way.
But Abram said to Sarai, ‘Behold, your maid is in your power; do to her what is good in your sight.’ So Sarai treated her harshly, and she fled from her presence (Genesis 16:6).
He had gone along with Sarai’s plan to produce an heir. Now he gave Sarai free reign in dealing with Hagar. Sarai seems to have been within the boundaries of legality,162 while stretching the standards of morality. Hagar, tired of facing Sarai’s tyranny, fled, heading back toward the land of Egypt.163
A Divine Intervention
Did you notice that God is strangely absent from the first 6 verses? It is true that God was given the credit (or the blame!) for preventing Sarai from having children. But no one had consulted God or sought His will. No one had called to remembrance His promise to provide a son.
More distressing is the fact that God has not yet spoken in our text. It would seem that since man had chosen to go his own way, God stepped aside to let him live with the consequences of disobedience. Only to Hagar did God speak. He sought her while she was running away. The reason for this divine intervention is to be found in verses 7-16.
We have said that Hagar was on her way back to Egypt when God found her. His words penetrate deeply into her actions and attitudes: “Hagar, Sarai’s maid, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Genesis 16:8).
Running away does not change relationships, nor does it remove responsibility. Jonah, even in the belly of that fish, was still God’s prophet with a message for the Ninevites. Hagar continued to be Sarai’s maid, and it remained her duty to serve her mistress.
The question, “Where are you going?” seems intended to bring Hagar back to reality. Perhaps some blow-up had triggered her decision to run away. Little thought would have been taken until some distance was put between Hagar and her heavy-handed mistress. But now was the time to consider the future. Where would Hagar go? Back to Egypt? After ten years, and pregnant? Was this a reasonable thing to do?
Raising serious questions regarding Hagar’s decision, God went on to remind her of her duty. He commanded her to return to the one in authority over her: “Return to your mistress, and submit yourself to her authority” (Genesis 16:9).
We cannot read this command without recalling Peter’s instructions to Christian slaves in his first epistle:
Servants, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable. For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a man bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God (I Peter 2:18-20).
These are difficult words, my friend, but they will be ignored or rejected to our own hurt. A commitment to marriage today seems to be only so long as we get from the relationship what we had hoped for. This is not just outside the church, either: “According to Lucille Lavender … ‘Among the professions, the clergy rank third in the number of divorces granted each year.’”164
Here is a frightening statistic. We want to talk much more of pleasure and fulfillment these days, than of duty. But that is what God told Hagar to do—to tend to her duty, even if it was drudgery or downright unpleasant.
With the command came a promise. In fact, the command was the condition upon which the promise would be fulfilled:
Moreover, the angel of the Lord said to her, ‘I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they shall be too many to count.’ The angel said to her further, ‘Behold, you are with child, and you shall bear a son; and you shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has given heed to your affliction. And he will be a wild donkey of a man, his hand will be against everyone, and everyone’s hand will be against him; and he will live to the east of all his brothers’ (Genesis 16:10-12).
I believe Kidner is correct when he says that in the fulfillment of these promises Ishmael would be a parody of his father.165 Overtones of the Abrahamic Covenant can hardly be missed in these words of reassurance to Hagar.
Ishmael’s descendants, too, will be too numerous to count (16:10; cf. 13:16; 15:5). From him will come princes and rulers (17:20). That which might seem a curse was perhaps Hagar’s greatest comfort. Ishmael would live a free lifestyle, unrestricted, unfettered, and a thorn in the flesh of his brothers (16:12). To Hagar, the afflicted slave of Sarai, this was a source of hope and comfort. Even under the cruel hand of her mistress, one can almost hear Hagar mumbling under her breath, “Just wait, Sarai.”
The predominant theme of verses 7-16 is stated by Hagar in verse 13, “Thou art a God who sees.”
The name of Hagar’s child served to commemorate the compassion of God for the afflicted. Ishmael means literally, ‘God hears.’ Even when it is the chosen of God who are the source of affliction, God hears and cares for the down-trodden. This truth did much to carry Hagar through the difficult years that lay ahead.
Our text exposes a problem which frequently confronts those who are people of faith, namely, ‘When do I work and when do I wait?’ Saul was wrong to go ahead and offer the sacrifice, even though circumstances seemed to demand it (I Samuel 13), for Saul had been commanded to wait (I Samuel 10:8). Working was wrong because God had forbidden Saul to do Samuel’s task. In Acts chapter 12 it was wrong to wait, when the Christians gathered should have worked. Peter was in prison, condemned to death (12:1-3). The saints had gathered to pray for Peter (verse 5). Many may have prayed for a quick and painless death. Some may have dared to pray for deliverance. But when Peter was standing at the door knocking, continued prayer was an act of unbelief. Then it was time to work (to open the door), not to wait (in prayer).
But how do we learn the difference between the times we should work and the times we should wait? I believe that God has supplied us with a number of principles in Genesis 16 to help us discern the difference between the two courses of action. Let me suggest some of these principles.
(1) We are to work when God has clearly given us the responsibility and the authority to do so. God had never placed the responsibility for producing a child on Sarai, or Abram. God had promised to provide the child (cf. Genesis 12:1-3; 17:6,16, 19). Just as God had prevented Sarai from conceiving (16:2), so He would provide an heir. In my estimation, we are treading on dangerous soil when we ‘step out in faith’ in an area where we have no promise of God’s presence or blessing, or where we have no principle or imperative on which to base our activity.
Furthermore, we cannot hope to succeed in any activity for which God has not given us the power to produce spiritual fruit. As Paul has shown (Galatians 4:21ff.) Ishmael was a result of the work of the flesh, not the spirit. Isaac was the result of divine activity in Abram and Sarai. No work of faith is the work of the flesh. God’s work is that accomplished through His enabling Spirit (cf. Galatians 5:16-26).
(2) We should move ahead only when our motivation to do so is that of faith. Sarai seems to have felt compelled to act because God had prevented her from having children (cf. 16:2). Despite the efforts of a number of commentators to prove otherwise, Sarai’s actions (and Abram’s) betray a motive of fear, not faith. Paul has spoken clearly when he wrote, “… whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
Several conditions should provoke us to wait, or at least to take some precautionary measures. Let me suggest some factors which may suggest that we should wait rather than work.
(1) We should be reluctant to ‘work’ when it appears that God has been preventing what we have been seeking. Here is a difficult matter, for sometimes God wishes to strengthen our faith by allowing us to overcome obstacles (cf. Exodus 14:10ff; Nehemiah, e.g. 6:1-9). At other times barriers are put up to change our direction (cf. Acts 16:6,7). Knowing the difference between problems and prohibitions requires the wisdom which God freely gives as we ask for it in faith (James 1:5-6).
(2) We should be very cautious about undertaking a work that appeals to fleshly appetites. Stop and think of the inclination Abram could have had to follow Sarai’s instructions. Remember, Sarai was essentially encouraging Abram to go to bed with her servant (cf. 16:2,3,4,5). Undoubtedly she was both young and attractive. Do you think Pharaoh would have given Abram a slave girl as part of a dowry if she were unappealing to look upon? Seemingly noble acts can have very carnal motives. I suggest that we question any work that appeals to our carnal appetites.
(3) We should hesitate to undertake any work when our primary reason for doing so is to relieve pressure, rather than to practice some principle. So far as I can tell the only reason Abram took Hagar was to appease, and perhaps silence his wife. Pressure from others is usually a poor reason for taking on any task.
(4) We should never work when our methods are inappropriate to our goals and to our God. While the goal of Abram and Sarai’s efforts was the birth of a son, an heir, the means were not such as to bring glory to God. We must grant that these means were legal and culturally acceptable. But they appear to fall short of the divine ideal. Union with Hagar attempts to accomplish God’s work with the world’s methodology.
Abram, as a result of this failure of faith, learned the painful consequences of trying to help God. In this sense, God does not need and cannot use our help. God wants to work through us. God purposed to give Abram and Sarai a child. Their efforts at producing a child on their own has resulted in the conflict between the Jews and the Arabs through the centuries.
Speaking of waiting, that is something many of us find difficult to do also. We have a little piece of plastic that frequently tempts us to work rather than to wait on God to provide. It is called the credit card. Why pray about that meal? Go out for dinner and charge it to Master Charge. There is nothing intrinsically evil about credit cards, but they surely do tempt us to act presumptuously, rather than to wait for God’s timing.
Faith, I believe we can see, is trusting in the promises of God despite the problems, and knowing that with God all things are possible. Unbelief focuses upon the problems and supposes that if God does not act within our time frame and within our expectations, we must give Him a hand. Faith believes not only that God will give us what He has promised, but that He will provide us the means to do so, and if not, that He alone will do it.
Let me mention one further observation. God spoke to Hagar in this chapter, but not to Abram or Sarai. In fact Moses tells us that (at least so far as recorded history is concerned) God did not speak to Abram for 13 years (cf. 17:1). When we choose to act upon circumstances, God may speak to us only through circumstances—loudly and clearly and painfully.
It would seem that Abram chose to get his leading from God through his wife for he never questioned her thinking or sought divine guidance (in our passage at least). Isn’t it interesting that the only way Abram knew what to name his son was by what God told Hagar (16:11; cf. verse 15)? When we choose to be led by others rather than by God, God may let us have our way, for a time. But, oh, how lonely those times will be! What fellowship and intimacy we miss.
Dress it up all you can, this text reveals that Abram’s home was beset by the same difficulties we face today. May God help us not to be presumptuous. May God help wives not to pressure their husbands into doing what seems right. May God help those of us who are husbands not to relinquish our responsibility, but to lead in our homes.
Passivity is not piety, and neither is presumption. May God enable us to walk that fine line between both.
One final note. Many people want to help God save themselves. They want a system of salvation that allows them to participate in the process of salvation. My friend, there is nothing you can contribute to your salvation. As the Scriptures teach,
There is none righteous, not even one (Romans 3:10).
… all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment (Isaiah 64:6).
Just as Abram could not help God produce a son through human effort, so you cannot help God save your soul. Salvation is a gift of God, through faith in what Jesus Christ has done for lost sinners.
For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).
By acknowledging that you are powerless to please God, and that Jesus Christ has paid for your sins and provided your righteousness, you can be saved.
159 “The Code of Hammurabi allowed a priestess of the naditum rank, who was free to marry but not have children, to give to her husband a female slave by whom he could have children: ‘When a seignior married a hierodule and she gave a female slave to her husband and she has then borne children, if later that female slave has claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, her mistress may not sell her; she may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among the slaves.’a While this provision illustrates the general practice, it is less pertinent than a custom at Nusi. One text reads: ‘If Gilimninu fails to bear children, Gilimninu shall get for Shennima a woman from the Lullu country (i.e. a slave girl) as concubine. In that case, Gilimninu herself shall have authority over the offspring. . . .’b” John Davis, Paradise to Prison: Studies in Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1975), p. 188. Davis here quotes from (a) Pritchard, ANET, p. 172 (paragraph 149), and (b) Speiser, Genesis, p. 120.
160 “Calvin’s summary of the case is quite commendable: ‘The faith of both was defective; not, indeed, with regard to the substance of the promise, but with regard to the method in which they proceeded.’” H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Genesis (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1942), I, pp. 493-4.
162 “The Code of Hammurabi law l46, forbids the concubine to assert equality with the wife on pain of demotion to the former slave status. Sarai’s complaint to Abram reflects knowledge of both these social documents. Sarai demands that Abram do something about Hagar’s contempt! Abram refers Hagar’s discipline to Sarai.” Harold G. Stigers, A Commentary on Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), p. 161.
163 “‘Shur’ is regarded by many as meaning “wall,” a meaning quite possible according to the Aramaic. In that event it may be the name of a line of fortresses erected by the Egyptian king, perhaps at the Isthmus of Suez, to keep out Asiotic invaders. In that case Hagar quite naturally was on the way back to her home country, Egypt.” Leupold, Genesis, I, p. 500.
165 “To some degree this son of Abram would be a shadow, almost a parody, of his father, his twelve princes notable in their time (17:20; 25:13) but not in the history of salvation; his restless existence no pilgrimage but an end in itself; his nonconformism a habit of mind, not a light to the nations.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, (Chicago Inter-Varsity Press, 1967), p. 127.
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