And she said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman (Hagar) and her son (Ishmael), for that woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.”
The matter distressed Abraham greatly because it concerned his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave woman. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the slave into a nation also, because he is your offspring.” (Genesis 21:10-13)
Those familiar with this story usually have sympathy toward at least one of the characters. Armchair moralists have engaged in analysis of this story for centuries. The harshest criticism seems to be reserved for Sarah. However, in this passage, God supported Sarah’s directions. Puzzling, isn’t it?
Where did things start going wrong regarding God’s original plan to give Abram (Abraham) and Sarai (Sarah) a son? Let’s start here:
Now there was a famine in the land, and Abram went down to Egypt to live there for a while because the famine was severe. As he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are. When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”
When Abram came to Egypt, the Egyptians saw that Sarai was a very beautiful woman. And when Pharaoh’s officials saw her, they praised her to Pharaoh, and she was taken into his palace. He treated Abram well for her sake, and Abram acquired sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. (Genesis 12:10-16 NIV)
Further in the narrative, God sent plagues to Pharaoh’s household before Sarai was selected from his harem to consummate marriage. When Pharaoh realized the plagues happened because Sarai was Abram’s wife, he sent Abram packing along with Sarai and all the gifts Pharaoh had given him, including the Egyptian slave Hagar.
If I could read Genesis 12 through Sarai’s eyes, I see a woman who reluctantly lied to save her husband’s life, who was sexually objectified, and who was fearful for her future. I see a husband/wife relationship with broken trust in the aftermath. I see no attempt by Abram to acknowledge what he had put his wife through, and therefore, emotional landmines potentially lay in the road ahead. But on to the good news:
And behold, the word of the Lord came to him (Abram): “This man (your servant, Eliezer) shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” (Genesis 15:4 ESV)
Ten years after this promise was delivered, Abram and Sarai understandably wondered how and when God would act. Because Sarai was well beyond childbearing age, she assumed the ancient version of surrogate parenting might be the answer and Abram (unlike his reaction in Chapter 21) did not consult God before proceeding with a solution that seemed reasonable at the time.
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. (Genesis 16:3 ESV)
If this situation were repeated in our modern world (where adoption, IVF, and surrogacy options have become available), a psychologist might anticipate a tangled web of emotionally explosive triggers that could ensue: Abram and Hagar had the strong attachment to the child (and the child to them) that biological parents possess while Sarai could never achieve that connection. Once Isaac was born and Sarai’s most cherished dream fulfilled, all the emotionally triggered landmines were laid and every move this family made held a potential seismic explosion.
God didn’t sanitize this narrative about Abraham and his family. He allows us to view tensions resulting from misunderstandings, missteps, and unprocessed emotions experienced by heroes of the faith. God wants us to know He isn’t flummoxed by our mistakes nor can our ultimate salvation be thwarted.
Is a messed up family situation beyond redemption? Have you been praying without much hope for your family or someone else’s? Meditate on this narrative in Genesis and renew your outlook on how the Holy Spirit might be leading you to pray.