Genesis 16

This verse by verse Bible study on Genesis is an inductive verse by verse study with extensive reflections, teaching points, cross-references, and applications. They are the personal study of notes of a very good doctor friend of mine. His native tongue is Mandarin, but his English is amazing as you will see below. It is refreshing to take a look at this important book of Genesis through the eyes of a believer from another culture. Without further adieu: The Scribblings According to David.

Genesis 16 Inductive Bible Study

An Unlikely Man of Faith (V)

Outline

XVI 1-6.      An Indelicate Decision Made

XVI 7-14.     An Inconceivable Protection Granted

XVI 15-16.    An Illegitimate Son Born

Textual Summary

Sarai persuaded Abram to marry an Egyptian maid Hagar, who later conceived a son. Hagar was then treated harshly by her resentful mistress, but later, in an angelic encounter, received divine protection and promise. Eventually, Ishmael was born to Abram.

Interpretative Challenges

Why would Sarai let her maid to be Abram’s concubine?

In ancient times, the primary, if not exclusive, contribution of a wife to her family was the bearing and raising of children. And the widely believed idea about the procreative process was, man deposited into woman the child as a “seed”, which was then supposed to grow like a plant. So when the “seed” failed to grow, women were always to blame. Infertility was thus considered to be a divine judgment on women and carried tremendous social stigma.

Historians will show us, from the Old Assyrian marriage contacts, the Code of Hammurabi, and the Nuzi tablets, that in such circumstances, a surrogate mother (a slave-wife) could be sought in order to provide heir to the father and not be regarded as immoral. And the ancient Near Eastern custom was, at the time of birth, the barren wife would undress herself and stay near the surrogate mother, and the baby was placed on the wife’s body immediately after birth, signifying the baby being born on behalf of the barren wife.

Sarai, expressing her grief by saying, “the Lord had prevented me” (v.2), did understand correctly that conception is from the Lord, for in Ps. 127:3, the Bible says, “Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward.” Sarai was also well aware of the fact that God had promised to make her husband to be a “father of multitudes”. Were they not aware of God’s design for marriage, which is one man and one woman to be one husband and one wife till death do’em part? Of course, they knew it clearly. In many ways they had conducted their lives separately from the pagan world around them. But after ten years of waiting, both had grown impatient; after ten years of exposure to pagan culture, both had been pulled by the wicked custom of the day. Without seeking counsel from God and men, they proceeded in their own way, in the socially accepted yet unmistakably sinful way. “Please go in to my maid”, says the desperate wife, and the debilitated husband gleefully consented, without any knowledge whatsoever about the agonizing consequences of this indelicate decision.

How do we see this? The NIV Study Bible made a poignant summary, “A failure in faith leads to a brazen attempt to provide by human means what the Lord is accused of withholding.” In other words, what was at stake here was the faith of the Patriarchal couple.

In the previous chapter, Abram believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. In this chapter, the father of faith second-guessed God. The patriarch is not so different from us, after all. Or borrowing the words of apostle James when he was referring to Elijah, “[he] was a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17). Abram was a man of strength and weakness, of integrity and fragility. And as his life went through various ups and downs, his faith correspondingly flows and ebbs. Yet that, I believe, is one of the things that make him such an unlikely man of faith.

Who has maternal rights over Ishmael, Sarai or Hagar?

As discussed above, as per the tradition of the patriarch’s time, Sarai would be considered the rightful mother of the infant.

Just to add a footnote, we might not realize that millennia before the advent of modern reproductive technologies, the ethical problem of genetic surrogacy had subtly and silently landed on human society. Is it acceptable for Christian couples to adopt such strategy to have children? What aboutgestational surrogacy? For a more detailed and thoughtful discussion about the ethics of IVF and surrogacy, please refer to the excerpt at the appendix, quoted from Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong.

Why did God preserve and protect Ishmael?

The Arabs in history were famous for their fiercely aggressive temper, especially towards Israel (Ps. 83:5-6), truly like an un-tamable “wild donkey”, whose “hands will be against everyone” (v.12). Islamic jihadists engaged in despicable acts of terrorism in recent years only make that impression all the more indelible. One has to ask, why would God preserve the descendants of Ishmael in the first place, and later even make them prosper (Gen. 21:14-20)?

The “why” questions of the Bible are never easy to answer. In fact, there aren’t necessarily answers for every specific thing God had ordained or allowed to happen in history. Deut. 29:29 is a fitting response in situations as such, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.”

Nevertheless, if we, in our finite and corrupt faculties, were to glimpse into the unfathomable wisdom of God and pose this inquiry, it seems that in such an event, in which divine preservation of Ishmael and his descendants was guaranteed via a promise which is so remarkably similar to the Abrahamic Covenant, several possibilities from various angles might seem plausible:

God is the helper of the afflicted (Ps. 72:12-14), especially those who so closely related to Abram (v.11; and Ishmael means “God hears” in Hebrew).
As a form of “common grace”, in later times, Islamic civilization made great contributions to the world history in many areas, such as mathematics, medicine, etc.

After the restoration of the state of Israel in 1948, the hostile surrounding Arabian countries launched several wars against Israel, all of which ended with the military victory and territorial expansion of Israeli.
The Arabs seem to have a major role to play in the End Times (e.g. The ever-escalating conflict in Palestine is going to make the Anti-Christ’s 7-year peace treaty to Israel all the more attractive, cf. Dan. 9:27).

If anything, we should always remember that God is the author and finisher of history, just as He is the author and finisher of our faith. As Job had put it, “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2) He is sovereignly in control of every single detail that runs through the vast universe and human history. He is Yahweh Adonai, forever on the Throne, high and lifted up, to Whom all authority on heaven and earth are due. Isn’t that the most comforting knowledge of all?

What’s so special about “the angel of the Lord”?

This is the first of fifty plus time in the whole Bible that “the angel of the Lord” was mentioned. The fact that the Hebrew word for “angel” can also be translated as “messenger” has led some to believe that this angel was an ordinary angel among the angelic hosts commissioned by God to speak on His behalf. However, a careful study of this section, in comparison to other angelic encounters in the Bible (e.g. Matt. 1:20-21, Lk. 1:11-20, 1:26-37, 2:13-14; Jude 9), raises another possibility: “the angel of the Lord”, though at first time distinct from Yahweh, was in fact equal with Him, based on the following observations:

The angel of the Lord spoke in the first person of God (v.10).
The angel of the Lord gave direct promise and command (v.9, 11-12).
The angel of the Lord was referred to by Hagar as God Himself (v.13).
Other references show that “the angel of the Lord” bears a name that is “wonderful” (Jdg. 13:18), received sacrifice and worship (e.g. Jdg. 6:21), etc. In addition, the Jn. 12:38-41 is also a reference of Isa. 6:8-10, indicating equality with God in essence yet with a distinctness from the Father inperson. Another interesting fact is that, “the angel of the Lord” never appeared after the birth of Christ.

Based on the above observations, one can reasonably conclude that “the angel of the Lord” is the pre-incarnate appearance of Christ. References of other Christophanic events in the OT include: Gen. 22:11-18, 31:11-13; Ex. 3:2-5, 23:20-22; Num. 22:22-35; Jdg. 6:11-24, 13:2-24; 1 Ki. 19:5-7; Isa. 63:9; Mal. 3:1.

Is Jesus merely an “angel” of God? May it never be! “For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him.” (Col. 1:16) From the 1st chapter of Hebrews we also know that Jesus is infinitely superior to angels, “For to which of the angels did He ever say, ‘You are MY Son; today I have begotten You? And again, I will be A Father to Him, and HE shall be A Son to ME’” (Heb. 1:5). As is mentioned above, the Hebrew word for “angel” can be translated “messenger”, and the Son is the “messenger” of the Father in one and only sense, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and SENT His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10, emphasis mine).

How do we understand the allegorical allusion of Hagar and Sarah by Paul in the New Testament?

The historic event of Sarah and Hagar was quoted in Gal. 4:21-5:1, in Paul’s powerful refute of the Judaizers’ attempt to adulterate the Gospel of grace with legalism. MacArthur’s commentary on this passage is attached separately with this study note. Yet a couple of points need to be addressed here.

First of all, in a general sense, allegorical approach to Scripture does not do justice to the plain and simple meaning of the text. An allegory, usually, is “either a fanciful or fictional story carrying hidden meaning or a true story in which the apparent meaning is meaningless” [1], and thus is “tenuous and dangerous means of interpretation… Because allegory does not need to be based on fact, it is limited only by an interpreter’s imagination and is easily influenced by his personal predispositions. … It frequently leads to biased and often bizarre conclusions.” [2] In other words, allegorical approach often yields an interpretation at the cost of the text by adding unintended meaning to the text. Classic examples of allegorical interpretation of Scripture include, for example, the two coins given by the Good Samaritan to the innkeeper, in Jesus’ parable, were said to signify the two NT ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Or, Job’s seven sons represent the twelve apostles; his friends, heretics; his 7,000 sheep, the faithful of God; and his 3,000 camels, depraved gentiles, etc… Therefore, “Allegory is a Pandora’s box that ignores the literal, historical meaning of Scripture and opens biblical interpretation to every extreme. Because of man’s finiteness and fallenness, it inevitably leads to arbitrariness, absurdity and futility” [3].

The exact reason why Paul employed an allegory in this passage is not given, but three things are certain and beyond question: (a) he is under the Holy Spirit’s guidance to do it; (b) he used the example of Sarah and Hagar more as an illustration than an argument; (c) he is comparing the similarities between the historic facts and the spiritual truths. For these reasons, Paul’s approach is perhaps better understood as an analogous, rather than allegorical, allusion. It is more of a figurative, rather than fanciful speech, which is exactly the NIV rendering of Gal. 4:24. In summary, inGal. 4:21 – 5:1, the allegory per se (i.e. the spiritual truths when comparing the two covenants in light of the two women) ought to be received as equally inerrant and authoritative as are other parts of Scripture, but such an approach to a specific passage (of interpreting Sarah and Hagar each with allegorical significance) should never be served as a precedent in order to justify normative application of allegorical interpretation to any and every passage in the Bible.

More could be said on the subject, but one should always remember, in the delicate process of rightly dividing the Word of God, one’s own ideas and imaginations must never be tossed into the pure meaning of Scripture. Instead, let the Bible speaks for itself. And as the saying goes, “when common sense makes sense, seek no other sense, for to do so is nonsense.”

Going back to the Gal. 4:24 – 5:1 passage, it is loaded with rich spiritual significance. The comparison of the two women, the bond and the free, vividly serves as a figurative illustration of the two covenants, that of law and of grace.

Lessons and Reflections

Family tension most often rises from weak (or failed) leadership of the husband.
Genesis XVI is about one theatrical family conflict. And like all family conflicts, it rises from a weak leadership of the husband. The Biblical role of the husband as the leader of the family is beyond the scope of this essay. But to take a closer look in the melodramatic story and draw spiritual lessons from it, perhaps we could ask a series of questions in our 20/20 hindsight: what should he have done to learn, love and lead his wife?

When Sarai had borne Abram no children for more than a decade, he should have learned her by discussing the issues with her, loved her by comforting her that his affections for her would not change whether or not they will have children, and led her by reaffirming their trust in a God Who never makes a promise He isn’t willing or able to keep.

When Sarai nudged Abram to marry Hagar, he should have learned her by knowing the true intention of her heart in devising this plan, loved her by refusing to do so and reassuring her that she is wife of his covenant, and led her by reiterating God’s design for marriage to be one man and one woman for a lifetime.

When Abram did go into Hagar and she was conceived, he should have learned her (Sarai) by asking her how she felt after the insensitive plan became an irreversible reality, loved her by apologizing to her about all the emotional damage he had wrought, and led her by coming to God and confessing their sin.

When Sarai was despised in her maid’s sight, Abram should have learned her by listening to her expressing feelings of despondence, loved her by showing her the appropriate love languages in terms of giving of gifts, physical caresses, words of affirmation, quality time spent together, or acts of service, and led her by taking the initiative to publicly uphold her family role as his wife and meanwhile maintaining just treatment of Hagar rather than simply handing Hagar over to the jaundiced Sarai.

In addition, in such convoluted relationships, Abram and Hagar could in a sense be considered husband and wife, yet he did not do anything to protect the Hagar, who was pregnant with his son.

In a word, Abram’s weak leadership in the family was the primary culprit for the heart-wrenching consequences of this tragedy. He should have known better and done better. He should have acted in more honorable ways to learn, love and lead his wife. The lessons from Abram are still relevantly full of significance to Christian husbands today.

Presuming on God is a subtle form of unbelief.
Ten years had eclipsed since God first called Abram to leave Ur. Nothing had happened in terms of Abram being made “into a great nation” (Gen. 12:2). It was tough enough leaving behind his own country and people, in order to head for a new place, completely unknown and strange, populated by pagans and haunted by wars. But to have a son? After all these years of barrenness? That was most assuredly unbearable. It totally sounded like a pie in the sky, even though it came from the mouth of the Lord.

At that point, the patriarch might well have reasoned (perhaps even discussed with his wife), God had promised me an heir, but hey, He never said who would be the mother. So… What if…?

And then came the fateful birth of an illegitimate son.

Matthew Henry commented, “It was a bad example, and a source of manifold uneasiness. In every relation and situation in life there is some cross for us to bear: much of the exercise of faith consists in patiently submitting, in waiting the Lord’s time, and using only those means which He appoints for the removal of the cross. Foul temptations may have very fair pretenses, and be colored with that which is very plausible. Fleshly wisdom puts us out of God’s way. This would not be the case, if we would ask counsel of God by His Word and by prayer, before we attempt that which is doubtful.”

“… keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; Let them not rule over me; then I will be blameless, and I shall be acquitted of great transgression.” (Ps. 19:13) Presuming on God is what the Psalmist was deliberately praying to avoid. It is, indeed, “great transgression”, doing what God does not want while thinking that He does. The pages of Scripture are filled with such cases. Saul disobeying Samuel’s instruction about completely wiping out the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15) is perhaps the most famous example. Presumptuous sins are by nature a subtle form of unbelief, because “I don’t trust God and so I’ll do it my way” lies at the very core of it.

The right way out of presumptuous sins is two-fold. On the one hand, we need to know more about how God thinks. And there is no other way to do that except by the diligent study of His Word. When we are not familiar with His Word, we are not familiar with His Mind. When we are not familiar with His Word, we are a million miles away from being “adequate, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). Spiritual discernment is built on the solid foundation of Truth. And those with it do not automatically have it out of nowhere, but “because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Heb. 5:14). On the other hand, to avoid slipping into presumptuous, willful sins, we need also to examine ourselves regularly, for Scripture exhorts us, “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!” (2 Cor. 13:5a) It is thus a healthy habit to take a moment of prayer every now and then to see if there are things in our lives that we might be tempted to presume on God.

Personal Applications

1. Be a good leader in the family. Learn, love and lead my wife well.

2. Never presume on God or “help Him out”. Seek His Will first and foremost in everything, especially in grey areas.

3. Submit to authorities for the sake of obedience to God and conscience, even the authorities are not righteous or just.

Reference

[1] The MacArthur New Testament Commentary – Galatians. Moody Publishers.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Study Genesis 17

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