Trusting God Through Trials (Genesis 16:1-16)
In Genesis 15, Abram believed that God would fulfill the promise of offspring (12:2) through his servant Eliezer (15:2-3), probably assuming he was too old to physically have a child. But God made it explicitly clear that Abram himself would have a son. But the passage of time continued to put a strain on him and Sarai, and chapter 16 presents us with an example of what happens when we try to circumvent God’s timing.
We should trust God to keep his promises in his own time and way.
It can be confusing and heartbreaking when God doesn’t work according to our timetables. Abram and Sarai knew this all too well. Many years earlier, God had promised to give him the land of Canaan and numerous offspring. Once they arrived in the land, they might have expected children to quickly follow, but that’s not what happened. Years later, Abram assumed that he’d misunderstood God’s promise and tried to make his servant Eliezer his heir. But God explicitly said to Abram that he would produce a son that would be his heir (Genesis 15).
In Genesis 16, we find Abram and Sarai doubting whether Sarai will be the woman to bear Abram a child. A small (but significant!) detail mentioned back in Genesis 11:30 returns here: Sarai is barren. And they’ve been in Canaan for ten years at this point (v. 3). After waiting so long, and after God confirmed that Abram would be the biological father, Sarai’s patience had run its course, and she probably reasoned that the promised offspring was never supposed to come from her. So she told Abram to sleep with her servant Hagar to produce a child through her (vv. 2-3).
This practice of surrogate motherhood was a common practice at that time. But right away, we’re given hints that this was a bad idea. The language of verse 3 (“Sarai…took…and gave…to Abram”) is an ominous callback to when Eve “took…and…gave…to her husband” the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3:6).
Not surprisingly, things went south quickly. According to the custom that Sarai employs here, the surrogate mother wouldn’t supplant the wife’s position in the household. Sarai would still be Abram’s wife, and Hagar would remain her servant. But once she was pregnant, Hagar’s attitude changed. She now “looked with contempt” at Sarai (or “considered her lightly”), and Sarai in turn perceived this as a threat against her place in the household and became defensive. In another echo of Genesis 3, Sarai blamed her actions on Abram who refused to take any responsibility.
It’s important to note that every character in this chapter is a mixture of sinner and sufferer. Sarai was tired and heartbroken after years of wanting a child and seeing no answer to that desire. In response, she came up with the plan that set the chapter’s events in motion, and she treated Hagar unjustly when threatened. Abram too had been longing for a child for years, and he passively stood by and went with Sarai’s plan. Hagar too both sinned (v. 4) and was sinned against (v. 6).
In response to being sinned against, Hagar left Sarai and Abram and attempted to head back to Egypt (v. 6). But in a beautiful scene, God meets her on the road, calls her by name, and then tells her two things. First, she’s to return to Abram’s household and submit to Sarai. Second, he tells her that she’s going to bear a son, and his name is to be Ishmael, which means “God hears”. His name will be a constant reminder to Hagar that God has heard her cries of suffering.
In response, Hagar does something no other character in the in the Bible does: she gives a name to God, calling him “a God of seeing”, because she has “seen him who looks after me.” (v. 13) The name reflects God’s significance to her: she’s seen by him. She’s cared for by God himself. Taken with the name of Ishmael, God shows himself to be a God who hears and sees. Specifically, he hears and sees the cries of the afflicted and moves to act on their behalf (see also Exodus 2:23-25; Psalm 106:44).
- Try to put yourself in Sarai’s position: living for years with an unmet desire and probably feeling cursed by God (note her language in verse 2). What kinds of thoughts and feelings do you think she wrestled with day after day? What do you imagine her internal monologue looking like? When do you experience similar struggles?
- Have you ever felt like God was taking too long to answer a prayer? How did you respond? Have you ever tried to take matters into your own hands instead of trusting in God and his timing?
- How does it comfort you to know that God sees and hears your anguish?
Genesis 16:13 – “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.”