Hagar: The Horrible Mistake

Genesis 16

Copyright © 2005 Jeremy Myers


It is always a bad idea to try to accomplish God's plan in your own way and your own timing. God's plans come complete with His methods and His timing, and when we try to tinker with that, it messes everything up.  In 1 Samuel 13, the Israelites are going to war with the Philistines. They gather together and wait for Samuel to show up to make a burnt offering to God. But Samuel doesn't come. They wait. They wait. Every day they wait increases the chance that the Philistines will attack, and Israel doesn't want to go to war without worshipping God.  Samuel said he would come within seven days, but seven days pass, and Samuel doesn't come. So King Saul takes matters in his own hands. He figures that anybody can slaughter a bull and set it on fire, so this is what Saul did. But wouldn't you know it, as soon as Saul does this, Samuel shows up.  He says to Saul, "What have you done? You have acted foolishly. The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom shall not continue." That's not good news for a man who has only been king for one year (1 Sam. 13:1). But that is what happens when we try to rush God.

David, who followed King Saul, was exactly the opposite. God told David through the prophet Samuel, that he would be king after Saul. And time and time again, David had plenty of opportunity to kill Saul and take the throne. But David wanted God's plan carried out in God's way according to God's timing. This is one of the reasons David was a man after God's own heart.

As we come to Genesis 16 tonight, we see Abram, the father of faith, trying to rush God's plan. God has promised to Abram land and a family, and so far, Abram has received neither. So in Genesis 16, Abram tries to provide a family for himself rather than trust and wait on God.

1Now Sarai, Abramís wife, had borne him no children. And she had an Egyptian maidservant whose name was Hagar.

As we saw back in Genesis 12, Hagar, since she was Egyptian, might have come from the Pharaoh in Egypt when he gave servants and possessions to Abram. Looking back, it might have been better for Abram to turn down these gifts just as he turned down the offer from the King of Sodom. For here, the wealth he received from the Pharaoh becomes a stumbling block to him.

2So Sarai said to Abram, "See now, the Lord has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her."

If we look at the times God has promised a son to Abram, there is one thing noticeably absent from all of those promises. Though God had promised Abram a son, God had never included Sarai in that promise. God never said that Abram would have a son through Sarai, only that Abram would have a son. 

Sometimes God does not give us all the information we think we need to follow Him. Sometimes, He only tells us what He is going to do; not how He is going to do it. Abram and Sarai find themselves in such a situation, and Sarai, realizing that she is barren, comes up with an alternate way to carry out God's plan.  God had promised Abram a son. Sarai knew how much this meant to her husband, and knew that Abram was beginning to wonder if God would keep his promise. And so it dawned on her one day, that maybe the son could come through someone else. Maybe the problem was her.  So she looked around at the surrounding people of Canaan, and saw what they did. When a man was unable to have a son with his wife, he would take another wife for himself. If she was unable to have children, he would take another wife. It was always considered to be the woman's fault, not the man's. Sarai undoubtedly did not relish the idea of Abram taking another wife. She knew that in the beginning, in Eden, God planned for one man to be married for life to one woman.  Sarai knew this, and yet she also knew that Abram needed to have a son. Since she wasn't able to provide one for him, and since Abram couldn't take a second wife and remain obedient to God, Saria came up with an alternate plan. She had a beautiful servant from Egypt named Hagar. She was young, she was pretty, she was loyal, and best of all, she was a servant.

In those days, the men of the household would often sleep with not only their wives, but also with the female servants of their household. If children were born to these servants, most often these children became servants as well. But once in a while, especially if a boy was born to the servant, the head of the household could adopt the servant boy and make him his own son.  This is apparently what Sarai has in mind. She says to Abram in verse 2, go into my maid,; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.  It seems like the perfect solution to help God out.

And at the end of verse 2, we have a very interesting statement. It says, And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai. Sarai comes up with a plan for how they can accomplish God's will, and goes and tells Abram about it, and Abram follows her lead.  Where have we seen this sort of thing happen before? In the Garden of Eden. Eve is deceived by the serpent into thinking that God is holding back from them. That God has something more for them, but God isn't giving it to them right now, and so they should just take it. So she goes to her husband and presents her plan to him and they eat the fruit.

Ladies, you must allow your husband to be the spiritual head of the household. You must allow him to make the spiritual decisions. And men, you must step up to the plate to make them. Your wife wants you to lead, and you were made to lead, but if you forsake your responsibility in leading her, disaster most often results. It happened with Adam and Eve. It's happening here with Abram and Sarai.

It happens later with Moses and Zipporah. In Exodus 4, God calls Moses to go to Egypt and rescue the people of Israel. Moses goes, but on the way, God comes to kill him. We don't know all the details, but God was upset with Moses for not circumcising his son. We do not know whether Moses simply didn't do what God wanted, or Zipporah persuaded Moses to not hurt her son by circumcising him. But either way, Moses neglected his duty to be the spiritual leader of the household, and he almost lost his life as a result.

Men, you must disciple your wives. You must train your children. You are the spiritual leader in the home, and your wife and children desperately need you to lead them in this way. How? At the bare minimum, be in the Bible every day, asking God to teach you something. Do not stop reading and studying up until you learn something. Then, when you do, go and teach your wife and your children what you have learned. This is the simplest and easiest way for you to begin to fulfil your God given responsibility as a husband and father.  Abram was not being this for Sarai, and so he follows her advice to go in and sleep with Hagar.

3Then Sarai, Abramís wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. 4So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her eyes.

So at first, things seem to work out just fine. Everything went according to plan. Hagar conceived just as Sarai wanted. But, as with all sin, there were unexpected, negative consequences. Hagar began to despise Sarai.  In those days, it was always seen as a curse to be barren, and so now that Hagar had conceived by Abram, there was proof that Sarai was barren. Hagar probably thought that since she had conceived, she was better than Sarai.  Sarai probably went through this whole thought process as well. Aside from the mental turmoil she went through of having her husband sleep with another woman, she now must deal with the emotional anguish of feeling cursed by God, and despised by her servant. Her plan worked, but not quite as Sarai had imagined.

But that's the way sin is. It makes great promises, but never tells you about the drawbacks. Sin is like those medication commercials you see on television. The thirty second commercial spends two seconds telling you what benefit this new miracle drug will have for you, and then the next twenty-eight seconds explaining all the negative side effects including death, diarrhea, vomiting, heart attack, and grass growing out of your ears.  The only difference between these commercials and sin, is that sin never tells you what the negative side effects are until after you've committed the sin. Then it says, "Oh yeah, here's the fine print I forgot to tell you about. You got what you wanted, but your life is now going to be miserable. Enjoy!"

Another negative consequence of Abram's and Sarai's sin is seen in verse 5. There is now marital strife.

5Then Sarai said to Abram, "My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me."

In effect, Sarai is saying to Abram, "Why did you listen to me? You should have known better to go and sleep with that woman. Now look what has happened." And you know, she is kind of right. Abram should have known better. He is the one who was always talking with God. He knew what was right and what was wrong. He knew, deep down, that God had intended the son to come not only through him, but also through his wife Sarai.  So when Sarai says in verse 5, "My wrong be upon you!" she is right. Though she implanted the idea in his mind, it was he who sinned, and he who should have known better. Abram cannot blame Sarai even as Adam tried to blame Eve.

And you know, even though Eve did sin first, and even though Sarai did tempt Abram to this sin, I am of the persuasion that God holds the husband at fault for the sins of the wife. Maybe not completely, because she has her own will and makes her own decisions, but I am convinced that to one degree or another, God holds the husband accountable for the actions, behavior and decisions of the wife.

Gary Smalley wrote in one of his books that "If a couple has been married for more than five years, any persistent disharmony in their marriage is usually attributable to the husband's lack of understanding and applying genuine love." He goes on to say, "After five years of marriage if a husband has failed to understand or seek help for the major causes of disharmony, either he doesn't understand what genuine love is, or has chosen to ignore God's command to shepherd his family wisely." It's five years because prior to that, she is responding to how her parents, friends and siblings loved her. But after five years, she is responding to how her husband treats her.

Abram and Sarai have been married much longer than five years, and she is right in blaming their current crisis on him. She knows God's promises to Abram, and that she wasn't providing for him. She doesn't want to hold Abram back from God's best for him. So she told Abram to go sleep with Hagar. Yet she was hoping that he would say, "No. I love you. God will provide for you. I will stay faithful to you."  That's what Abram should have done, but he didn't. And in verse 5, Sarai rightly accuses Abram. But Abram is a wily character, and in verse 6 he scoots away from his responsibility and makes another mistake.

6So Abram said to Sarai, "Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please." And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence.

Hagar had a son because of Abram's fault, Abram's mistake, Abram's sin. Abram should have been the one to deal with Hagar. He should have been the one to provide for her, and protect her. Sure, it probably was not the best idea to keep her around, but he should have taken responsibility for his actions, admitted his fault to his wife, and to Hagar, and then sent Hagar off with enough money and possessions to live and provide for herself. Maybe he should have provided a husband for Hagar.  But Abram does none of this. It's just like us when we sin. We always want to ignore the sin, and avoid the consequences, and never assume responsibility for our actions. We like to sweep the sin under the rug, and let those we have hurt suffer for our neglect.

This is what happens with Sarai and Hagar. Abrams tells Sarai in verse 6 to do whatever she wants with Hagar. So Sarai starts to abuse and deal harshly with Hagar. Hagar was despising Sarai, so Sarai abused Hagar. Maybe she beat Hagar. Maybe she put too many demands on Hagar. Maybe she withheld food from Hagar so that Hagar was weak and tired while pregnant. We don't know how far Sarai went in her abuse, but it was so bad, Hagar had to run away.

Abram should have seen how bad the abuse was getting, and intervened, but again, he was trying to avoid the consequences of his sin, and he allowed a woman to be abused because of it. But God, the righteous and just judge, always sees the plight of the abused and the forsaken, and though Abram has not provided for Hagar, God does.

7Now the Angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, by the spring on the way to Shur.

We cannot be certain, but in Exodus 15, after the Israelites have passed through the Red Sea and God has delivered them from Pharaoh's army, they travel into the wilderness of Shur to find water. When they get to the spring, they found the water was bitter, and so it was called Marah, which means bitter (Ex. 15:22-27).  It is very possible that the spring of Exodus 15 is the same spring here in verse 7, though we do not know if it was bitter in Hagar's day or not. Down in verse 14, we learn where this spring is, and what Hagar names it, but as far as I can tell, nobody really knows where the spring is exactly, so the possibility remains that it is the same spring the Israelites come to hundreds of years later when they flee Egypt.

There in Exodus 15, God makes the bitter spring sweet by having Moses cast a tree into the water near Shur. And I am "sure" that Hagar is feeling very bitter right now as well.  She has been mistreated, abused, and dealt with unjustly. She has basically been raped, because her master, Abram, couldn't have a child with his own wife, and now she is pregnant, out in the wilderness with no food and no place to go. Probably, she is on her way back to Egypt. On her way, the Angel of the Lord appears to her. I personally think that the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is a preincarnate Jesus Christ, but I cannot be dogmatic about that. Whoever it is, He speaks to her in verse 8.

8And He said, "Hagar, Saraiís maid, where have you come from, and where are you going?"

He knows where she is going, and where she has come from. He asks her because He wants to see if she knows, and if she will be honest. He also wants to provide direction to her.  But the thing I love most about verse 8 is that He calls her by name. This is significant, because up to this point in chapter 16, nobody has spoken to her or about her by name. Sarai, in verse 2, calls her "my maid." Same thing in verse 5, "my maid." Abram then does the same thing in verse 6. He says to Sarai, "Your maid." But when the Angel of the Lord speaks to her, He says, "Hagar."

Abram and Sarai think of Hagar as a slave, a foreigner, a possession, someone to be used, and abused, and mistreated and neglected. But God looks upon her as a person. He knows her name. He speaks to her gently. Abram and Sarai may have looked upon her as expendable, and an expedient way to have children, but God sees her differently. He knows her true needs. He cares for her as a person.  When others may ignore you and mistreat you and abuse you, never forget that God sees and He knows, and He cares. He wants to show Hagar that He cares for her, and so He asks her the lead in question in verse 8. Hagar answers at the end of verse 8.

She said, "I am fleeing from the presence of my mistress Sarai."

Notice that she only answers one of the questions, and that not very well. The Angel of the Lord has already indicated that He knows Hagar is Sarai's maid, and that Hagar has run away from her, and Hagar doesn't really provide any new information. She is vague about why she is fleeing, or where she is fleeing. Maybe she feels guilty about what she is doing. Even back then, it was not right to run away from your master.  But the Angel of the Lord doesn't rebuke her in verse 9. He just gently corrects her and tells her what to do.

9The Angel of the Lord said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit yourself under her hand."

This is not the advice Hagar wanted to hear. The treatment she had received from Sarai was horrible. The last thing she wanted to do was go back and submit herself to such inhumane treatment. But that is what God is telling her to do.  God's command to Hagar reminds us of God's command to all employees in Ephesians 6. There, God tells bondservants to obey their masters, to serve them as if they were serving God, to respect them, and submit to them (Eph. 6:5-8). Not popular advice these days. Not popular advice ever. Of course, there are instructions in Ephesians 6:9 for the masters, the employers, as well. But that's beside the point.

Ephesians 5 and 6 contains instructions for three primary relationships - our marriage, our families, and our jobs. Husbands are to love their wives, wives to respect and submit to their husbands. Children are to obey their parents, and parents must not provoke their children, but train them. Servants must obey their masters and masters must treat servants right.  And most of us think that these relationships work both ways. A husband says, "I'll love my wife when she starts to submit to me and give me the respect I deserve." Meanwhile, the wife thinks, "I won't respect him until he starts to love me." And nothing ever gets better.

A teenager thinks, "My dad is just out to destroy my fun. I'm gonna rebel and show him until he starts giving me some freedom." The dad thinks, "Why can't my son see the mistakes he's making? I'm gonna punish him and be overly harsh and critical until he gets back on track."

The employee thinks, "I am not getting paid enough. I have horrible working conditions. My benefits are lousy. My boss hates me. I'm gonna cheat the company. I'm gonna be lazy at work until I get some respect." The manager thinks, "These guys don't deserve a raise. Look how poorly they work! I'm going to threaten them with more work and less pay until they start working harder."

You see, everybody thinks that our behavior toward others depend on how they treat us. But that is completely backwards. The Bible says that we should treat others the way we would want to be treated if we were them. There is no "I'll meet you half way. I'll love you if you respect me." No, these three relationships, marriage, family and work are all one way commitments.  Men, love your wives whether she submits to you and respects you or not. Wives, submit to and respect your husband whether he deserves it or not. Children, obey your parents, even if they are unreasonable. Parents, don't provoke your children even when they just keep pushing and pushing. Discipline and train them, yes, but don't lash back and provoke them. Employees, obey your boss and work hard for him no matter what. Boss, manager, employer, treat your employees with the respect and salary and benefits you think you deserve.

All of these relationships are just like what we saw previously in Genesis 15. God did not meet Abram half way. God made the whole commitment by Himself. He said to Abram, "I'm going to make a covenant with you, and I don't care what you do or don't do in the future, I promise to uphold this covenant no matter what." That's the way you should view your marriage. That's the way you should view your family. That's the way you should view your job.  That is what God tells Hagar to do with Sarai. Go back to her, He says, and submit yourself under her hand.

Can you hear the objections? "But it's not fair!" No, it might not be. "But I'll be mistreated!" Yes, you might. "But you don't understand how difficult it will be." Well, it's not about understanding. It's about doing what is right.  But you know, God does understand. And when we do the right thing even when it is very hard, God sees, God notices, and He blesses. In verses 10-12, the Angel of the LORD says to Hagar that she will be blessed.

10Then the Angel of the Lord said to her, "I will multiply your descendants exceedingly, so that they shall not be counted for multitude."

From Hagar will come a multitude of descendants. This is very similar to the promise God had given to Abram in Genesis 15. But whereas Abram's descendants through Sarai will bring blessing to the world, Hagar's will bring strife.

11And the Angel of the Lord said to her:

"Behold, you are with child,

And you shall bear a son.

You shall call his name Ishmael,

Because the Lord has heard your affliction.

The son will be named Ishmael, which means "God hears." God heard Hagar's affliction. Verse 12 tells us what kind of man Ishmael will be, and what his descendants will be like as well.

12 He shall be a wild man;

His hand shall be against every man,

And every manís hand against him.

And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren."

He will experience great affliction at the hands of others, and will cause great affliction as well. This prophecy is almost an understatement as we see the descendants of Ishmael in many countries of the Middle East. But the descendants of Ishmael are also spiritual in the Muslim religion. Just as Abram has physical and spiritual descendants, so also does Ishmael.  Muslims claim that God actually promised the land of Israel to Ishmael, and that the Jews stole it from them, and that the Bible is a Jewish lie. This is why there is such a struggle in Israel between the Arabs and Jews even to this day. I am not sure if verse 12 is really a blessing as much as a prophecy, but nevertheless, Hagar responds to God in verse 13.

13Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, "Have I also here seen Him who sees me?" 14Therefore the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; observe, it is between Kadesh and Bered.

She has been mistreated and abused, but she recognizes that God does see all. Do you know that God sees you? It is one thing to know that He loves you and that He hears your prayers, but it is quite another to know that His eyes are upon you. He is watching you.

This doesn't mean He is spying on you to punish you when you fail. No, the concept of God seeing us is a loving concept. He watches us because He is concerned about us, and loves to see us. Just like parents love to watch their children sleep, and play, God loves to watch us. It gives Him joy to see us go through life, and learn about Him, and interact with other people. And He also watches to protect us from harm, so that if something starts to go wrong, He can immediately be there to help us through it.

God sees you. God watches you. Why? Because God loves you. Hagar, knowing this, returned to Abram and Sarai, where she had her son. It even appears Abram might have stepped up to the plate and taken some of the responsibility for his actions.

15So Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael.

Notice that Sarai is no longer mentioned here. Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram named him Ishmael, just as God had told Hagar. Certainly there was going to be further strife and problems because of Hagar and Ishmael, but for now, Abram appears to have understood that these problems were his fault, and he needed to do what was right for Hagar and Ishmael. He made a mistake because he tried to get ahead of God, but now that the mistake is made, Abram owns up to it, and trusts God for the future.

16Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abram.

Genesis 12:4 indicates that Abram was 75 years old when he first received the promise of God for a son, so it has now been eleven years waiting for this promise. God sometimes moves slowly, and He will always allow us to outrun Him if we want, but when we do, we inevitably make a wrong turn, and find ourselves in a dead end. Then God has to come lead us back to the right road, and continue on from there. Running ahead of God never speeds things up, it only slows things down, and causes great heartache and headache later on.

God-fearing people sometimes try to fulfill God's will in their own ways -- and complicate things. But God can even be in their mistakes and use their mistakes to work out His plans. If you have made a mistake in your past, do two things. First, own up to it. Admit what you did was wrong. 1 John 1:9 calls this confessing your sin. Take responsibility for your actions. Then, once you have done this, move on. Trust that God, in His sovereignty, can even bring good from your mistakes, and that your mistakes never thwart God's plan and purposes for you.