Genesis 16 begins a fascinating story of Abram (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Abraham) and his descendants.  In the previous chapter, God promised Abraham he would be given an heir, a son “who will come from [his] own body” (Gen 15:4).  In Chapter 16, Abraham and his wife Sarai (later re-named and hereafter referred to as Sarah) are said to be childless.  Consequently, they concoct a plan for Abraham to be able to bear a child.  As with basically all human ambitions and endeavors in the Bible, this plan goes awry. 

The first problem with Abraham and Sarah’s plan is clearly that they had lost trust in God’s promise.  Rather than waiting patiently for the promise to be fulfilled, or even praying to God for its completion, Abraham and Sarah devise their own scheme.  The second problem is Abraham and Sarah resorted to polygamy in an effort to force God’s promise in their own time.  I will briefly expound on each of these problems below.

Regarding trust in God, remember from chapter 15 that Abraham was deemed righteous for believing in God.  In the Hebrew and Greek, the words faith/trust/belief are summed up in one word and, therefore, could be translated any of these three ways in English.  So Abraham is straying from righteousness by doubting God, as shown by his effort to speed up or force God’s promise through his own devising.  Later in Genesis, we will see how everything works out much better when God fulfills His promise in His own time.  When Isaac, the son of promise, is given to Abraham, everything falls into place.

With respect to the issue of polygamy, or Sarah giving her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham to bear him a child, we see the disastrous results.  Before I discuss this any further, I want to dispel a notion many people have about the Old Testament.  Many people assume polygamy was OK or accepted in Old Testament times, and to a degree they are correct–it was the normal practice in the ancient Near East during these times.  However, an important distinction needs to be made.  Although things like polygamy, prostitution, and concubinage were more acceptable in those times than ours, the Bible, if ever so slightly, challenges those norms.  I plan to discuss in depth later how monogamy is upheld as the ideal since the three prime examples from Genesis–Noah, Isaac, and Joseph–are all monogamous.

But, for now, back to the main point.  The polygamous (or, perhaps more properly, simply extra-marital) relationship between Abraham and Hagar complicated the household of Abraham.  As we should expect a woman to do, even after giving her consent, Sarah becomes jealous and angry towards Hagar since Hagar was able to bear a son for Abraham.  After confronting Abraham, Sarah is allowed to expel Hagar from the household.  Genesis is quick to point out that God will continue to take care of Hagar and her son, Ishmael (multiplying his descendants also), but clearly serious, irreparable damage has already been done to the household of Abraham and to the relationship between Abraham and Sarah.

Again, these complications resulted from Abraham and Sarah forcing their own timing on God’s will.  As Genesis (and, God willing, this blog) unfolds, we will learn the proper response Abraham and Sarah should have had towards God’s promise.  Of course, these stories are related to us not to recount mere factual events, but to instruct us in the way we should behave towards God (1 Corinthians 10:11).  With that in mind, we are reminded by Genesis 16 to be patient in waiting for God to fulfill His promises and to refrain from forcing our own will on situations.