A False Start
Genesis 16:1 – 16
A False Start
Famous last words!
Famous last words, they can tell you a lot about somebody can’t they?
Have a listen to these last words, spoken on people’s deathbeds.
“Friends applaud, the comedy is finished.”
“I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.”
This one from Dominique Bouhours, a famous French grammar expert. “I am about to, or I am going to die: either expression is correct. “
Of course there are some other kinds of famous last words that aren’t necessarily literally last words, but sometimes feel like it.
It will be a short meeting.
No, honey, I don’t need to read the instructions.
One trip to McDonalds won’t blow my diet.
Don't worry, he won’t bite!
I know a shortcut!
I know a shortcut!
Perhaps your family has a navigator who specialises in shortcuts!
No matter how well we know the journey, we can shave off a few seconds if we take this shortcut.
And off you go down some obscure back road, and sometimes you make it to your destination, ahead of time, but other times, the shortcut actually proves to be a monumental mistake doesn’t it?
It makes you late,
It costs you money,
And it just proves to be a huge distraction.
Genesis 16 is about taking a shortcut,
A shortcut that proves to be exactly that kind of shortcut,
And no matter what kind of marital disharmony, that someone in your family’s navigational shortcuts might bring, that would pale in comparison, to the trauma and relationship breakdown caused by this shortcut.
Of course it wasn’t a navigational shortcut, but a shortcut to what God had promised.
God’s taking too long to honour his word,
So we’ll give him a helping hand.
Chapter 16 verse 1, Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian maidservant named Hagar; 2 so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my maidservant; perhaps I can build a family through her.”
Abram agreed to what Sarai said.
God had said to Abram, a son from your own body would be your heir, and so when Sarai suggests taking her servant as a shortcut, it sounds like technically, God’s promise could still come true.
Now we’re horrified, I’m sure, at this arrangement, but it was relatively common in the ancient near east, for a servant to serve as a concubine slash surrogate. There were laws about when it could happen and when it couldn’t.
But just because it was common in the world around about them, doesn’t mean it’s OK with God, does it?
And in fact God had clearly expressed his intention for what a marriage relationship looks like. It’s only a few pages back.
Genesis 2:24 - For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.
The German pastor and theologian Martin Luther once said “I defer to my wife in all matters domestic, and to the Holy Spirit for everything else!” Andy Buchan gave me that wise piece of advice!
But for Abram it wasn’t so wise was it? Because God actually does have something to say about the “matters domestic”!
The question is, Who’s Abram listening to?
Whose advice is he following?
His wife says “Let’s take a shortcut.”
The culture around them says “Sure, this is OK”
His own doubts and uncertainties say, “God doesn’t seem to be acting quick enough on is own.”
But who’s he not listening to?
He’s not listening to God.
Even though we know he’s a man who had faith, who trusted in God’s promises, here he turns his ear away from God’s Word and tunes in to the message of those around him.
And the consequences of this shortcut are disastrous, as we’ll see in a moment.
A sin we’ve seen before
As you may know, this is the second part of our series in Genesis, having finished up in chapter 11 in about August 2010.
And one of the drawbacks of spreading our journey out over such a long time is that we can easily miss the connections between what we’re being presented with now, and what’s already happened in those previous chapters. It’s one of the reasons I said a couple of weeks ago, it would be great if you could read through all of Genesis. If you could find an hour on 3 different days this week, you’d have it done.
But Abram and Sarai’s behaviour here, should sound familiar to us, because we’ve seen this kind of thing before.
The story is told in a way that highlights that similarities with Genesis 3, where Eve is led to doubt God’s word,
And the goodness of God’s promises,
And she comes to her husband Adam, with a solution to the problem that she sees, and Adam, instead of trusting in the Word of God, listens to his wife, and disobeys God’s command.
You could draw up the parallels down the page, to show that this is just the same kind of faithless sin and rebellion as in Genesis 3.
Each of the main verbs and key ideas in this episode is copied from the the account of the Fall in Genesis 3.
So for example, Abram listened to his wife instead of to God, that’s the literal translation of the original, just as Adam had listened to Eve.
Sarai took Hagar, just like Eve took the fruit,
Sarai gave Hagar to her husband, just as Eve gave the fruit to her husband,
And so on and so on, and in both cases, the husbands, the ones to whom God had directly and clearly spoken, both men participate, willingly and knowingly.
And although Abram isn’t explicitly condemned for his lack of faith or his sinfulness, in this episode, the overt parallel with Genesis 3 makes it obvious that his chosen pathway is clearly not God’s intention.
Because, really this “shortcut”, is typical of all sin, isn’t it?
What does pretty much every sin have in common?
It’s a failure to trust in God’s Word?
It’s me deciding that “actually, God doesn’t know best”
I can do a better job of sorting things out,
Putting the various pieces of my life together in a way that seems good to me.
I’ll listen to those around me,
I’ll do what my culture tells me,
When God doesn’t seem to be acting quickly enough, or in the way that I want, I’ll leave him and his Word and his instructions to one side, and put things in motion on my own.
Great experiences of God are no guarantee of faith and obedience
See we might think that after everything that Abram’s seen God do.
Leading him into the Promised Land,
Saving him in Egypt,
Allowing him to rescue Lot,
And then of course, as we saw last week, God making the unilateral covenant with Abram, and sealing the deal with the fiery, smoking symbols of God’s presence,
Surely after all of that, Abram’s faith in God would be rock solid!
I mean, those are exactly the kind of things that, often, we find ourselves wishing for, aren’t they?, to give our faith a bit of a boost.
If I could have something like this, a word from God,
A voice in my ear,
A dramatic appearance from God, complete with pyrotechnics and special effects then, I’m sure I’d believe God,
My faith would never have an off day, ever again!
Then I’d become a Christian and obey God forever.
But Genesis 16 makes it pretty clear, doesn’t it, that trusting in God and obeying his Word, is a hard slog, and great experiences of God are no guarantee of faith and obedience.
Don’t spiritualise bad decisions
See, sometimes, and I said this once recently, sometimes if you’re determined to do something stupid, God will let you do it.
God will let you go down that path, and reap the consequences.
Christians sometime like to spiritualise their choices, don’t they? Don’t we?, “God opened a door” for me, that kind of thing.
You can imagine Abram saying that, can’t you, trying to justify his behaviour to his Bible Study Group on Wednesday night!
“Well, God opened a door for me to have a son”
The opportunity was there, it was obviously from God.
No, sometimes God will just let you choose something really stupid, even sinful.
Perhaps God didn’t open the door, and in Abram’s case we know that for certain, maybe you were just so determined to bash down that door that God had said was to remain well and truly closed.
It’s one of the great challenges for us as we’ve spent the last 6 months considering whether or not we ought to try and buy this property.
Yes, it’s an opportunity, but just because it’s an opportunity doesn’t mean that it’s a door that wants us to walk through.
We might face an opportunity, that God calls on us to use our wisdom, and our discernment, and the guiding of his Spirit and his unfailing Word in order for us to realise not to go down that path.
Reaping the consequences of bad choices
And ignoring God, and his pattern for life, has consequences.
Like some of you, My wife Kathy and I are trying to raise kids, trying to figure out how to discipline our kids,
And one of the things we do is say to our kids that actions have consequences. Sometimes it’s a consequence that we impose as parents, so you knock down the tower of blocks that your brother has spent the last half an hour building, and in which he is enormously emotionally invested, well you get sent to your room.
But other behaviours and actions have their own consequences, don’t they? Natural consequences.
If you climb onto the dining table and jump off, you’ll get hurt.
If you hit your sister, she’ll hit back! Natural consequence!
And what Sarai thought of as a solution to her problem of childlessness, has consequences that create even bigger problems, and which remain for generation after generation.
See there in verse 12, his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”
And while you’re not likely to win any friends today calling someone a wild donkey, that animal was a picture in Old Testament times, of someone who was a wanderer and a nomad, antagonistic to everyone else.
This shortcut, gave birth to a conflict that would continue for thousands of years, so even today Muslims believe that Ishmael was an ancestor of the prophet Muhammad, and that the great tribes of Arabia are descended from him.
As the story unfolds, the descendents of Ishmael become a thorn in the side of the nation of Israel.
But we don’t even need to look to the future generations to see the consequences of this bad choice.
They play out almost immediately, in the lives of Abram and Sarai, and their household, including Hagar.
Verse 4, When Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.
And then verse 5, Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering., May the Lord judge between you and me.”
This decision based on a lack of trust in God, is now starting to unravel the marriage relationship between Abram and Sarai.
At one level Sarai’s not really right, saying you are responsible, it was her idea after all, but truthfully, Abram does bear the responsibility.
He was the one to whom God had made the promises.
He was the head of the family, and yet he went along willingly with Sarai’s suggestion, and now she’s cursing him.
This idea of calling on God to judge between two people, it’s the language that King David uses for example, to call on God to vindicate him before his enemies.
And the relationships continue to unravel as Sarai mistreats Hagar, and the language there is what’s used to describe the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt, and so she flees, for her life, that’s the sense of it.
Oh how often, sin and selfishness, and a lack of trust in God cause just this.
We stop trusting God, and trust in our own ideas,
We make bad choices,
We reject God’s pattern for our life,
And when our pattern for life goes pear-shaped,
We blame God,
And we blame other people.
Some of you use Facebook I know. Some of you, I imagine, are conscientious objectors to Facebook. That’s what I used to be, until I started using it! Just for ministry, of course!
But a week or so ago, one of my friends, my “friends”, posted on his wall “I swear, someone up there has it in for me.”
Now, I don’t really know everything that’s gone on in his life, behind that comment,
But I know some of the decisions that this friend of mine has made in his life,
I know some of the natural consequences,
I know that he is not at all interested in living according to God’s pattern for life,
Not interested in acknowledging Jesus God’s chosen king and Lord of his life,
He’d much rather decide for himself what’s right and wrong,
And yet, when things go badly,
When he reaps the natural consequences of his decisions, what does he do? He blames God!
Now I don’t want to have a go at him, . I know that when things go wrong for me the first thing I do is look for someone to blame.
The clearest example of this is when I hurt myself.
You know that really painful, annoying, banging of your head on the boot of the car, because you weren’t paying attention.
The first thing that goes through my head, is “who’s to blame?!”
If you ever see me do that, please, I beg you, the first thing you need to say to me is, “Clayton, it wasn’t necessarily someone else’s fault”! And then once you’ve said that, run! Before I can blame you!
How easily relationships unravel, because of our sin and sinful choices. I’m sure we’ve all been on both sides of that equation.
Here, Sarai’s lost her servant.
Hagar’s lost her home, and her livelihood,
The marriage bed has been dishonoured, and the relationship is pulling apart, as curses from God are called down,
The 2nd wife that Abram should never have taken but nevertheless did, is now gone, and with her, Abram’s unborn son.
Pretty much on every measure, the shortcut has been a colossal failure!
God’s sovereign grace at work
And yet, in the 2nd half of the story, we see God’s sovereign grace at work, turning around the complete mess that resulted from this shortcut.
The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”
You may have noticed as we read through, this messenger of God, that’s what angel means, it’s just “messenger”, he’s described as the angel of the Lord, not just an angel of the Lord.
And then in verse 13, you might have seen Hagar says, I have now seen the one who sees me. She thinks she has seen God!
This isn’t just a created angel like the Angel Gabriel who appeared to Mary, and to others. No one thought they’d seen God when they met him.
I told you last week that if you could spare $25 you should buy the New Bible Dictionary. This week, if you can spare it, get a copy of its companion volume, the New Bible Commentary. It’s a one-volume commentary on the whole Bible.
The New Bible Commentary describes the angel of the Lord here as God in human form, who most often appears in dire personal crises to bring assurance of salvation.
This is God himself.
Elsewhere in the Old Testament, we discover that the angel of the Lord bears God’s own personal name, and has the ability to forgive sins, which is something we know that only God can do.
This is God himself, breaking into the story and seeking out Hagar.
And the title “the angel of the Lord”, appears 58 times throughout the Old Testament, of which, this, is the very first.
The very first time that God is described in this way, in a way that pre-figures and looks forward to God coming in human form in Jesus, who comes into a crisis situation not just for individuals, but for the world, and who offers the assurance of salvation not just for individuals, but for the world, for all who would believe in him, the first time that God is described as breaking into human history like this, it’s to meet with Hagar, a fugitive-slash, slave, slash-concubine, who is on the run because of human foolishness and distrust.
And in his sovereignty, and in his mercy, God is able to bring good out of this mess.
And so Hagar becomes both the first woman, among others like Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, to receive to receive a divine announcement of the birth of a child.
And not only that, but she’s also the first woman in the Bible, to receive promises from the mouth of God.
What a privileged group God elevates her to! First among all these favoured and honoured women.
And while being sent back to Sarai, who mistreated her so badly, perhaps seems to us, unfair to Hagar, it is, in fact, an act of grace, it’s the means by which God will salvage something from among this train-wreck of human relationships
It’s the means by which the promise about her son will come true, as a member of Abram’s family, I will so increase your descendants that they will be too numerous to count. It’s kind of like off-shoot of the promise to Abram, isn’t it?
And in fact it’s a partial fulfilment of another of the promises to Abram. Hagar and Ishmael, and his descendents, becomes examples of those nations who either find blessing or cursing, because of their relationship to Abram.
It’s also a reminder to us, that God’s people can’t choose to sin, and expect to be free from consequences.
Consequences have to lived with.
And this consequence, called Ishmael, will live under Abram’s roof.
God sees and hears
And yet even his name, is a sign, a reminder of God’s grace.
You shall name him Ishmael,
for the LORD has heard of your misery.
Ishmael means God hears.
Maybe you know what your name means. I don’t think my name means anything particularly exciting, like “valiant warrior” or “handsome chieftain” or something.
But my family has always named our cars. I don’t know why!
When I lived in Darwin we had a Holden Commodore that was called “Eric”, because we knew a man named Eric who had been a Commodore in the Navy, so that kind of made sense, to us, at least!
But some years later when we got a second Commodore, this one was called Joan, because Commodore Eric, the man not the car, had been married to a lady named Joan.
And so every time we talked about this car, we were reminded of something someone, back in our family history, this man that we had known, purely because of the connection with the names.
That’s the point of Ishmael’s name.
Life for Hagar, and Ishmael, it’s not going to be easy.
She has to go back to a mistress who is jealous of her.
She’s still a servant,
But every time she bounces her baby on her knee,
Every time she speaks his name,
Every time she calls him, “Ishmael, tidy your room,
Ishmael, come in for dinner”
God has heard of my misery,
God has heard of my misery,
And in fact Hagar recognises that God doesn’t just hear . but God sees.
And so she makes up a name for God.
Again, strange family habit confession time, in the Fopp family, our 3 kids have nicknames, that only our immediate family use.
And they’re names that reflect something of our family’s experience of growing together, learning about each other.
So it’s not that no one else is allowed to call our kids by these names, it’s just that no one else really understands the meaning and significance of the nicknames, and so they have no reason to use those names.
You are the God who sees me, is Hagar’s nickname for God. It reflects something of her journey of coming to know God and learn who he is.
It reflects the aspect of God’s character and action that she finds most comforting, at this significant turning point in her life.
As far as I can tell, she is the only person in the whole of the Bible, who gives a name to God!
And yet, she’s a foreign servant, pregnant with an illegitimate child.
She gives a name to God, and in doing so, marvels at his grace, that he would see her, seek her out, and take pity on her, even though she was, culturally and socially, a nobody.
And I take it when Hagar says “God sees me”, she doesn’t just mean, he saw me, physically, he knew where I was, but “he sees what I’m going through, and what I’m like”.
Which also means he sees the bad stuff too, the pride and resentment in her heart.
The way she despised Sarai because she was pregnant and Sarai couldn’t conceive.
And yet still she’s thrilled to bits about it, isn’t she?
When you understand the grace of God shown to us in Jesus, the fact that God sees everything, is not a frightening thought, but a comforting thought isn’t it?
Do you know that comfort?
That God sees and hears everything about you, and still offered his Son to die in your place.
Feeling like Hagar?
In the story of the Bible, Hagar is really a minor character.
Abram’s a major character.
He casts a shadow throughout the whole Scriptures.
His name appears in the first sentence of the New Testament.
The promises made to him, find their ultimate fulfilment in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, the one through whom and because of whom, all people on earth can be blessed, reconciled to God.
And although Hagar holds these unique and privileged places as one who speaks to God and is spoken to by God, she is a minor character.
Her name doesn’t appear in the genealogy of Jesus. In the New Testament, she’s pictured as a slave whose children are born into slavery.
She’s not one of the great ones in the story of salvation history.
Sometimes it’s easy to feel like one of the minor characters isn’t it?
When the promises of God look like and feel like they’re just for the major characters, those people, I dunno, who, look like they know the answers,
Who can pick up the Bible, and read it, and instantly they seem to know what God is saying to them,
They get how it all points to Jesus,
Their life looks like a major part of God’s plan to bring blessing to the world through Jesus,
Their conversations all seem to be about spiritual things,
They look like they can pray easily,
They can talk to their friends about Jesus, and even invite them along to church,
They look like major characters,
But, it’s easy to feel like a minor character, and so to think that the promises of God aren’t for me, and equally, if I’m not really on God’s radar, if I’m not squarely in his field of view, then how I live my life doesn’t matter either.
No real privilege, but no responsibility either.
There’s a funny line in one episode of The West Wing, where one of the admin assistants in the White House complains that if anything bad ever happens to her, it will be when she’s surrounded by the most famous and powerful people in the world. She says she’ll be an “also dead”, you know, if the president and all his staff get wiped out in a plane crash, her death will be 2 lines at the end of the newspaper article, and they’ll spell her name wrong.
It’s easy to think like that sometimes isn’t it?
But do you see, it’s an also dead, it’s a minor character, who God seeks out on the road to Shur.
It’s a minor character, who comes to the realisation, “God sees me!”
“God hears me!”
God doesn’t just hear the Abrams, he hears the Hagars, too!