The God Who Sees and Hears Everything (Gen 16:1-16)

Gen16sarah_presenting_hagar_toWhat is a major theme of Genesis and of the entire Bible? Is it that good people do good things so that God blesses and rewards them? Or is it something else altogether?

Theme: Grace comes to those who do not deserve it, who do not seek it, who continually resist it, and who do not appreciate it even after they receive it.

Goal: Reflect upon our understanding of grace.

Application: Does the depth of sheer grace inform and touch and transform your heart and life?

3 major world religions look at Abraham as the model for courageous living, for authentic living, and for faithful living. Why did Abraham triumph? Gen 16:1-16, which is like a soap opera, shows us that it is not because he is made of better stuff than we are. This text shows Abraham to be a deeply flawed and very fallible human being, which is putting it mildly. The English translations do not show the rawness and the brutality that is conveyed in the Hebrew. It beautifies, sanitizes and makes it PG or G that which was conveyed in Hebrew as R or even X rated.

When this text is read, it may seem to condone slavery and oppression, and demean women.  It sounds awful/horrible/offensive to our modern sensitivity. We might wonder how the "heros of the faith" could act in such an inhumane ungodly way. But let's look at the 4 main characters in this text and see what we might learn from each of them:

  1. An exploited slave
  2. A barren woman
  3. A stupid man
  4. A mysterious friend
I. An Exploited Slave

Gen 16:1-2 say, "Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, 'The LORD has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.'” God had promised Abram great blessings which were all contingent on him having a son (Gen 12:2-3; 15:2-5). But after 10 years, nothing happened. So Sarai made her proposal and Abram consented (Gen 16:3-4). What Sarai suggested was common, legal and completely culturally acceptable.

We do not see the rawness and brutality in the English translations here. Robert Altar, in his Genesis: Translation and Commentary, says that the tradition of English versions that render these terms "handmaiden," "maid," or "maidservant" imposes a misleading sense of European gentility on the sociology of the story. The fact is that Hagar belongs to Sarah as her property. The ensuing accounts in this story all build upon this fundamental fact. The reason Hagar's children would belong to Sarai is that Hagar is owned by Sarai.  Hagar is Sarai's property. Therefore, Hagar's children would be Sarai's property as well.

Gen 16:4-6 show 4 brutal ensuing complications: "He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, 'You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.' 'Your slave is in your hands,' Abram said. 'Do with her whatever you think best.' Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her."
  1. Hagai despises Sarai. Hagai realizes that she now has a status in her community, since she is bearing Abram's child. She no longer acts like a slave before Sarai. In Asian cultures an inferior does not look a superior in the eye. Perhaps, this is what Hagar began to do. She could no longer be subservient toward Sarai. Sarai must have been deeply conflicted with this new bond of intimacy between her slave and her husband.
  2. Sarai uses X-rated language in blaming Abram. "I put my slave in your arms" is not what it says in Hebrew. It is an euphemism (agreeable or unoffensive expression). The Hebrew says, "I put my slave in your lap. I put her between your legs." The reason Sarai uses such graphic language is because of the rawness of her own tortured emotions. It shows her anger, her despair, her despondency, her deep humiliation. She is saying, "I put my slave between your legs, and this is what I get for it."
  3. Abram callously lets Sarai do to Hagar whatever she wanted. He is saying, "She is still your slave. Treat her as a slave. Do with her whatever you want." How could our great hero of the faith act in such a callous, heartless way?
  4. Sarai beat Hagar until she fled. When Sarai "mistreated" Hagar, it is the same word used for the Egyptians when the Israelites were not able to make their daily quota of bricks (Exo 5:14). She beat Hagar.
What is the moral of this story? People think that the Bible is about the heros of the faith. Yet they acted and behaved in such ways. Aren't they our moral exemplars? How could they demean women? Condone slavery? Look at all the exploitation, oppression, injustice! Many reject the Bible because of what they think the Bible and Christianity is about. It's a book of virtues, a book of stories with morals in them that show us how to live. If we then emulate them, God will bless us.

This text proves that the Bible is not a book of virtues. It is a book of gospel. It is not a story of moral exemplars. It is a record of God's intervening grace into the lives of those who do not deserve it, are not seeking it, who continually resist it, and who even do not appreciate it, even after they have been saved by it. This text shows that even the best people whom God chose are moral and spiritual failures. They can't rise above their own culture. They can't rise above the brutality of their own times. They can't escape the self-centeredness of their own hearts. But God continues to come to them. God continues to not give up on them, to patiently speak to them, to help them, to aid them, to rescue them, to save them, again and again.

Many think that the Bible teaches that we should give God a righteous life, and then God will bless us. But it is not that we give God a righteous life and then God owes us. Rather, the theme of the Bible is that God always comes to each person only by sheer grace, and as a result we owe him. The Bible is not primarily about man and what we must do. Rather it is primarily about God and about what He has done.

After Hagar runs away from Sarai, God meets her and tells her to go back to the one who was beating her (Gen 16:7-9). Why? Because God wants to bless her with descendants too numerous to count (Gen 16:10), which is one of the foremost blessings. Surely, Hagar couldn't understand why she had to go back to the brutal oppression she had just experienced. But God had her good in mind. At the very best, she would be a fugitive all her days as a runaway slave. At the very worst, she would have been overpowered and killed. God wanted to bless her. But she had to go back. Later, after Isaac was born, Sarah demanded that Abraham cast her out (Gen 21:10). When she was cast out, God found her again and rescued her (Gen 21:19-21).

We learn here that God often calls us to a situation of extreme difficulty, or one which is highly unpleasant or distasteful, but which will eventually lead to his blessing. We do not like it because we can't see the whole picture and don't know the reason why. Can we trust God when we do not understand the present? God will answer every single of our prayers if we knew and saw everything that God knows. But we do not. Are we able to joyfully trust God when God keeps us in extremely difficult situations?

II. A Barren Woman

Hagar is the victim, the one who was harmed. Sarai and Abram are the perpetrators. Sarai, the barren woman, is infertile and unable to bear children (Gen 11:30; 16:1-2). Thus, she is a failure as a woman. Such a view is so oppressive to women in those times, and in some cultures today. We think we no longer live in such a culture today, because we think that in our culture we can be whoever we want to be, and marry whoever we want to marry. Is this really true?

In past cultures the family/group was considered more important than the individual. Decisions that benefited the family/group was always placed above individual needs/desires. Marriages were arranged by families as ways to benefit the entire family/group, which led to the oppression of women. Today, however, individual needs supersede the consideration of family/groups.

So are we at an advantage today compared to "primitive" cultures? In Sarai's time, women did not suffer from eating disorders and bulimia. The truth is that every culture has its own definition of barrenness. Every culture says, "Unless you have THAT, you are barren. You are a nobody. You are nothing. You are a failure." In traditional cultures you had to have family and children. That's how you knew you were not a failure; you were not barren; you had worth and significance.

But today, we think we can choose who we want to marry. But the truth is that you can only marry who you can attract. Today's culture screams at women, saying, "You better be good looking. You better be smart, be successful, be popular." There has never been a culture that does not say, "You better be THIS, or you are nothing." Depending on our culture, we will hate ourselves if we think we do not measure up to what our culture tells us. We will feel barren unless we are able to satisfy the demand of our culture. We will hate our self or beat ourselves up if we don't achieve it, or if we don't have it.

This is not just a cultural and psychological transaction. It is a spiritual one. Read Gen 16:2. Sarai was religious. She believed in God. She prayed. She practiced her religion. But when she was pushed to either trust in God or having a child, w0hen the pressure to overcome her barrenness came upon her, what did she choose? When she had to choose between God and the baby, what did she want? The baby.

What do we learn here? Every culture will do this. It will tell you that unless you have this, you are nothing. You are a nobody. It is not just that our culture is constructing us. But there is something spiritual going on. We take this into ourselves, and that will become our real God and our real salvation, and our real significance. This is what happened to Sarai. When push came to shove, Sarai showed that the real thing she wanted most to feel like a somebody, and to be a significant person, was based on what her culture told her. It was not God, but a baby.

The irony of the narrative is that she is a slave as well. She has an inward slavery, just as Hagar had an outward slavery. She is inwardly chained, while Hagar was outwardly chained.

What is the point? The point is: What are you a slave to? Those who think they are not chained are very chained. Those who think they are free, are not free, because they are still bound by something that their culture or sub-culture tells them. Everybody tells them in some unspoken words that unless you have this you are barren. Without realizing it, we take this into ourselves and it becomes our God and our salvation.

Everyone will be chained until we know, until we are told, until we realize that even apart from that, we can be loved. That we are somebody. That we are significant. We need someone to justify us.
How are we going to get out of the demands of our culture and subculture?

III. A Stupid Man

Gen 16:2b says, "Abram agreed to what Sarai said." But the Hebrew literally says that Abram hearkened to the voice of his wife. All the commentators are agreed that Abram is the one who is failing the greatest, not Sarai, because this is the same word in Genesis 3, which says that Adam hearkened to the voice of his wife (Gen 3:17). Abram is failing and falling, not primarily because he was listening to his wife, but that he was doing the same thing Adam did. What is that?

These 2 women--Sarah and Hagar--are 2 approaches to blessing. To get the blessing of the son through Sarai, he has to receive as a complete act of grace. He has to wait on God/trust God for a miracle because Sarai can't have kids. But to get the blessing through Hagar, he can do so by human ability because Hagar is able to have kids, since only Sarai is infertile but Abram is not.

Thus, Hagar is the way of works; Sarah is the way of grace. Hagar is the way to get God's blessing through achievement; Sarah is the way to get God's blessing through receivement. With Hagar he can get God's blessing by performing with his own power. But with Sarah, all he can do is to wait for some supernatural divine intervention. Gal 4:22-23 says, "For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise." Thus, Abram was faced with 2 choices: Save yourself by Works. Or save yourself by Grace.

Our father of faith chose to save himself by works. He chose to get the blessing by his performance. Whenever anyone does this, everybody's life will blow up, as it did with Abram and his family. Why? Because it is extremely trying to earn our salvation and blessing by works.

How are we going to be freed from our inner bondage?

IV. A Mysterious Friend

Gen16gobacktosaraiWho is the hero of the story? Hagar, the victim? Abram or Sarai, the perpetrators? There is one other person. When Hagar was running away, in comes a mysterious figure who turns her life around (Gen 16:9-14). Later, when Hagar and Ishmael were dying in the desert, in comes this mysterious figure who again saves them (Gen 21:8-21). Who is the hero of this story?

This mysterious figure is "the angel of the Lord" (Gen 16:9-11), not "an angel of the Lord." Why is he a mysterious figure? Most angels who show up say, "I am not the Lord." This angel says in Gen 16:10 that "I will increase your descendants..." as though he is God. He is doing what none of the other angels ever do.

What did Hagar herself realize about this encounter? Gen 16:13 says, "She gave this name to the LORD who spoke to her: 'You are the God who sees me,' for she said, 'I have now seen the One who sees me.'” She is saying that the One she met is the LORD.

How have others responded when they met God? "Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him" (Gen 15:12). When God comes down on Mount Sinai, there is thunder and lightning and smoke and the people trembled in fear and stayed at a distance (Exo 20:18). When Isaiah "saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple" (Isa 6:1), he said, “Woe to me! I am ruined!" (Isa 6:5)

But in this text, this is the Lord, yet he is so accessible and so ordinary, without thunder and lighting and nothing spectacular. Hagar wonders "Have I seen the One? Why am I still alive?" How is possible that the Creator of the Universe is having a tender conversation with a slave girl?

Years later, Mal 3:1 says, “'I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,' says the LORD Almighty." Then in Matt 11:10, Jesus quotes this verse in Malachi and identifies himself as the One who fulfills this promise. Jesus is saying that through him, the glory of God can come near in grace and be safe.

How can this be? When Ishmael is dying after he and his mother Hagar were cast out of his father's house, Gen 21:17 says, "God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, 'What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there.'" Ishmael's life has been one long rejection and now he is dying. But the angel of God says, "God has heard the boy crying." What does this mean?

Centuries later there is another Son who was cast out of his Father's house. He also faced repeated rejection all his life (John 1:10-11). Eventually, he was tortured and was dying.
But there is a difference between this Son and that of Abraham's son Ishmael.

As he died in excruciating agony, he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34) But his Father forsook him. God did not hear him. Yet why did God heard Ishmael crying when he was experiencing far less agony? It was because God did not hear Jesus' cry.

Jesus came and took what we deserve--suffering and death--in order to give us what we do not deserve--peace and life. Jesus took what Hagar and Ishmael, and what Abram and Sarai deserve, and what we all deserve. God did not hear the cry of His boy, so that God, through Jesus Christ, could hear each of our cries. In this way Jesus is the Just and the Justifier of those who believe.
Does this mean anything to us? Does this become the central theme of our life?

This text is teaching us that we will always be a slave to our culture and to the identity that culture gives us, until we are convinced that God loves us, and that we are worth loving as we are. We are worth loving not on the basis of any performance at all, but purely on the basis of Jesus' performance on our behalf on the Cross. This is the only liberation we can experience from the enslavement of our culture.

God's boy cried and he sank into darkness, so that all others who cry, God can hear and deliver from darkness. Only knowing this gives us freedom and liberation. Only knowing this will enable and empower us not to oppress others. When we experience liberation, our hearts will no longer cry out: "Unless I have THIS, I am barren. I am a nobody. I am not significant."

Finally, this mysterious figure not only gives us inward freedom from our cultural enslavement, it also shows us what to do with our new found freedom. What did God do here?

Hagar and Ishmael are not the main characters in God's redemptive history. They are not in the chosen line. They do not show any particular faith in the covenant promises of God, unlike Abram and Isaac. They eventually move off in another direction. Yet, God is concerned about their exploitation. He is concerned about them. Though God chose Abram and Sarai, God is not exclusively committed to Abram and Sarai. God's concern is not confined to the elect line. God is concerned for the troubled and exploited even of those who are outside of the elect line.

What are we supposed to do with our inward freedom? So that we can look outside and work for the inward freedom of anyone who is oppressed, regardless of who they are. God never gives us our freedom just so that we can live our own happy life. But we can only lay ourselves out for others, when we know that God has laid himself out for me. This is the picture of the Christian life.
Why was Hagar so excited that God noticed her. God sifts universes and stars through his hand as one sifts sand. Yet this God noticed Hagar and she was excited. How much more excited should we be, since we know what Hagar did not know. God would say to us who are in Christ: "Notice you? I died for you!" If Hagar was excited, how should we be? Hagar was willing to go back to Sarai who beat her when she knew that God noticed her. How much more should we be willing and able to face or do anything?

This is from a sermon by Tim Keller (Real Freedom and the Listening Lord).