1 Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. 2 And Sarai said to Abram, “Behold now, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.” And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. 3 So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife. 4 And he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. – Genesis 16:1-4 ESV
To understand this chapter, one must remember the promise that God reiterated to Abram at the beginning of chapter 15.
“This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” – Genesis 15:4 ESV
Abram had become convinced that, due to his wife’s barrenness, the only way God could fulfill His promise to give Abram more descendants than there are grains of sand on the seashore, was if Abram adopted his servant, Eliezer as his heir. But God deemed that option as unacceptable. The divine plan would not be based on a household servant or even a blood-relative such as Lot. God was emphatic that the heir He had in mind would be a child born to Abram and Sarai.
Abram had expressed his strong doubts about God’s plan by stating, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir” (Genesis 15:3 ESV). In other words, he had reached the conclusion that, for God’s plan to be fulfilled, there would need to be a work-around. Yet, that’s when God had informed Abram that his very own son would be his heir. And that’s when God confirmed His statement by commanding Abram: “number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he assured Abram, “So shall your offspring be” (Genesis 15:5 ESV).
With this as a backdrop, chapter 16 begins to make more sense. Moses opens the chapter begins with a statement that is, excuse the pun, pregnant with meaning.
Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. – Genesis 16:1 ESV
Despite all the assurances from God, Abram still found himself fatherless and struggling with doubt concerning the promise of abundant offspring. At this point in his life’s journey, he had no children and, therefore, no tangible evidence that God was going to do what He had promised to do. If anything, from Abram’s point of view, he continued to face a hopeless situation that appeared to have no chance of fulfillment. At this point in the story, Abram had been living in Canaan for an extended period of time. Yet, he still owned no property and his wife had born him no heir. In other words, not much had changed since the day he had arrived in the land of Canaan from his home in Haran.
This where it gets interesting. Sarai, the one whose infertility seemed to be throwing a wrench into God’s plan, decided to come up with her own solution to the problem. There is a palpable sense of guilt in this passage. Sarai felt personally responsible for the predicament in which her husband found himself. As his wife, she had, quite literally, failed to deliver. She had given him no son. In a sense, she was burdened by her inability to produce an heir and felt compelled to come up with an alternative plan. And Moses reveals the logic behind her thinking.
She had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. – Genesis 16:2 ESV
Since God had refused to consider Eliezer because he was not a blood-born son of Abram, she reasoned that there was another way to fulfill God’s requirement with a little ingenuity. If Abram was to impregnate Hagar, any son she delivered would be a true son of Abram and not an adopted servant or nephew like Lot. Since she viewed herself as the problem, she decided to remove herself from the equation.
But up to this point, Sarai had been a major player in the story of Abram’s call and commission to move his family to Canaan. Chapter 12 reveals that “Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. And Abram took Sarai his wife… ” (Genesis 12:4 ESV). Sarai had always been part of the plan. And God knew all about her inability to bear children. In fact, Moses made it clear in chapter 11 that, even before Abram left Haran, Sarai’s problem was readily apparent.
Sarai was unable to become pregnant and had no children. – Genesis 11:30 NLT
None of this was a surprise to God. He knew and had planned for Sarai’s infertility. As the sovereign God of the universe, her physical disability was a preordained circumstance through which God was going to reveal His power and presence. He was going to prove to Abram and Sarai that He was the God of the impossible.
But in a sincere attempt to help God out, Sarai shared her ingenious idea with Abram.
“The Lord has prevented me from having children. Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT
And according to Moses’ account, “Abram agreed with Sarai’s proposal” (Genesis 16:2 NLT). One can almost get the impression that Abram quickly and, rather eagerly, bought into his wife’s plan. He doesn’t question her suggestion or argue with the potential efficacy of the arrangement. He simply decides to play along.
So Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian servant and gave her to Abram as a wife. (This happened ten years after Abram had settled in the land of Canaan). – Genesis 16:3 NLT
In an attempt to bring about the fulfillment of God’s promise, Sarai decided to share her husband with another woman.
“It was a serious matter for a man to be childless in the ancient world, for it left him without an heir. But it was even more calamitous for a woman: to have a great brood of children was the mark of success as a wife; to have none was ignominious failure. So throughout the ancient East polygamy was resorted to as a means of obviating childlessness. But wealthier wives preferred the practice of surrogate motherhood, whereby they allowed their husbands to ‘go in to’ . . . their maids, a euphemism for sexual intercourse (cf. 6:4; 30:3; 38:8, 9; 39:14). The mistress could then feel that her maid’s child was her own and exert some control over it in a way that she could not if her husband simply took a second wife.” – Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16-50, pg. 7
But unbeknownst to Sarai, her decision would have long-term ramifications, not only for she and Abram, but for their future descendants as well, and for generations to come. As Eve convinced Adam to disobey God and eat the forbidden fruit of the true of the knowledge of good and evil, so Sarai convinced Abram to question God’s word and fulfill the promise through purely human and fleshly means. Hagar was never intended to be the vessel through whom God would work. She was a surrogate or substitute, chosen by a barren woman who was so desperate to have a child that she would do anything.
Sarai truly believed this was a good idea. But when her husband “had sexual relations with Hagar, and she became pregnant” (Genesis 15:4 NLT), Sarai quickly discovered just how flawed her plan really was. Abram’s encounter with Hagar produced immediate results, which must have enhanced Sarai’s feelings of inadequacy. And, to make matters worse, Hagar flaunted her pregnancy in Sarai’s face.
…when Hagar knew she was pregnant, she began to treat her mistress, Sarai, with contempt. – Genesis 16:4 NLT
Hagar sensed that, with her pregnancy, she had been elevated to a position of primacy in Abram’s household. No longer a mere maidservant, Hagar relished her new role as the seed-bearer to Abram. She believed she would be the one to fulfill the promise of God and bring Abram the offspring for whom he long been waiting. Jealousy and an unhealthy atmosphere of competition crept into Abram’s household, and it was not long before his wife’s clever plan produced some disheartening and difficult decisions for God’s servant.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.