Abram and Sarai had taken some major risks in obedience to God. They had left their own land and all of their comforts to become Bedouins, journeying to the land of Canaan, trusting that God would one day give it to their descendants so that they could bless the world. They had hung all of their hopes on His promises. Eleven years later, Abram and Sarai still had no child. In the eyes of everyone around her, Sarai’s barrenness was seen as a great weakness and failure. She was costing Abram a family. She was disgraced.
Sarai began to grow impatient for a son for her husband. If the LORD was not going to bless her own body with a child, perhaps He would bless someone else. So she made a plan. They were not the plans of God, and they were not built on faith.
Sarai went to Abram with her idea. Sarai had a servant named Hagar who tended to all of Sarai’s personal needs. Perhaps if she gave Hagar to her husband, her servant would give birth to a son! In the time of Abram and Sarai, this was common. When a wife could not have children, another woman, usually a slave or a servant, would be brought to the husband. The child from their union would then become the adopted child of the husband and wife.
Abram agreed to do what his wife suggested. Apparently, Hagar agreed to take part as well. It was a way of helping Sarai out of her disgrace. So Abram and Hagar came together, and Hagar became pregnant. A child was on the way. It would seem that everything was going just as Abraham and Sarah had planned. The only problem was that there were things they did not anticipate when they stepped outside of God’s plan.
Now that Hagar was with child, her attitude toward Sarai changed. The disgraced wife of Abram had given him no child, but now she was providing one for him! She began to carry the pride of her pregnancy around like a crown. The most painful loss of Sarai’s life was now being thrown in her face every day…and by her own maid. Hagar treated Sarai with contempt in her own home. She treated Sarai as if she had replaced her as Abram’s wife and head of Abram’s household.
Sarai’s attempt to solve the problem of her barrenness in her own power was unraveling into a nightmare. She went to Abram and said, “‘You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the LORD judge between you and me.’”
Even though Hagar was Sarai’s special maidservant, Sarai turned to her husband and handed Hagar over to him. Sarai yielded the situation to Abram, honoring his position of authority and giving him the responsibility to make it right. It was his role to put an end to this destruction. It was his job to create the right order in their home. He had to protect their marriage and Sarai’s position as his wife. Then she appealed to God as her protector. He was watching over Abram and would hold him responsible to his role as Sarai’s husband. All of this took great faith, for Sarai had to let go of her own control and trust others to end her pain. What if they failed?
Abram said to his wife, “‘Your servant is in your hands. Do with her whatever you think is best.’” Instead of handling a situation where his wife was clearly in over her head, Abram excused himself from the mess and let the burden fall on Sarai.
The way Sarai responded is the darkest mark on her character in the story of her life. Sarai turned the tables and began to mistreat her servant. Now it was Hagar’s turn to be miserable. Who knows the harsh words or beatings Sarai gave. Who knows what abuse Abram allowed. The tensions that come up in a home when the most tender things are at stake can tear apart the integrity of the finest heart. Whatever the sins of Sarai and Abram, they were harsh enough that Hagar would rather risk death in the desert than live with the torments of her mistress. She fled away from the home of Abram and Sarai out into the wilderness.
God was watching as all of these sad events unfolded. How differently these women could have treated each other. The angel of the LORD came to Hagar as she sat near a stream in the desert. This is the first time in the Bible that someone was visited by an angel. When they came to earth, it is because they were sent on a mission from God. They come as His holy messengers. What an honor to receive such special attention from the Divine King!
It is remarkable that in the Bible, God’s first message from an angel was to this weeping servant woman. What does it teach us about the character God? In all of ancient literature, with all of the other religions and idol worship that was going on, thiswas the only time a divine being spoke to a woman by name. She had great worth in his eyes. See how gently he came:
He said, “Hagar, servant of Sarah, where have you come from, and where are you going?’”
“‘I am running away from my mistress Sarah,’ she answered.
“Then the angel of the LORD told her, ‘Go back to your mistress and submit to her.’ The angel added, ‘I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count.’
The angel of the LORD also said to her:
‘You are now with child and you will have a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the LORD has heard of your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man;
His hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand will be against him,
and he will live in hostility toward all his brothers.’”
Who was this God? He had come to speak to a lowly servant woman, an outcast, someone that nobody in her culture or world would have any time for? Who was this LORD that saw her crying in the desert? Hagar wondered at his tender care. She said: “‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” And she was right. Though she was a woman and had no great importance in the eyes of the world, she could trust the God of the universe to look on her with love.
The angel of the LORD explained to Hagar that this son would truly be blessed. He would be as a wild donkey, so passionate for freedom that he would not easily share life with others. He would also be the father of nations. Yet he was not the son of God’s covenant promise with Abram. That could only come through his sacred marriage with Sarai.
Hagar obeyed God and returned to Abram and Sari. She gave birth to a son. Abram was eighty six years old. Hagar must have told Abram what the angel said, for Abram named him Ishmael. His name meant, “God hears.” I wonder if Abram and Sarai felt convicted by the LORD when they realized that God listened to the cries of Hagar as much as He listened their own?
Sarai was the true wife of Abram. They were one flesh. When God called Abram, Sarai’s life was wrapped in that calling. It was through their marriage and their union alone that God would bring about His great and precious promises. But that required radical faith, a faith that had to increase with time. Sarah was seventy five years old when Ishmael was born. As they waited on the LORD and watched their bodies age, their trust in God had to intensify. They had to believe in Him for the impossible. Would this man and woman of God bear through the final stages of their testing? Would they take hold of the faith that God meant for them to have?