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Genesis 16:1-16

We are in the middle of the narrative of the life of Abram, or Abraham, as he will soon be called. Twice now the Lord has promised this man a son, an heir, from whom a great nation would eventually arise, a nation that would inherit the land of Canaan and, eventually, the whole world. But still there is no baby.

Text Comment

v.1       That fact leads to what follows. Hagar was apparently one of the slaves that Abram acquired while he was in Egypt.

v.2       According to the information provided, Sarah was about 75 years old at this time. Presumably menopause has come, a conclusion made explicit in 18:11.

In any case, she didn’t consult the Lord about her plan, as Abram had in the opening verses of chapter 15, and, alas, Abram didn’t either. A great deal of grief would have been avoided if they had!

v.3       “…to be his wife” indicates the formal, official nature of this relationship and device to produce children. It was a custom well documented in ancient near eastern materials, though this chapter will be proof of the sin in it. Hagar would, of course, remain Sarah’s slave and only a secondary wife to Abram. Surrogate motherhood, again an accepted practice in our time, is nothing new. It is simply another way in which ancient paganism has made a comeback in the modern west.

Abram no doubt reasoned that the promise God had made to him ten years before would have to be fulfilled in this way since so many years had passed and still no child had appeared. However, Paul in Galatians 4:22, likens his plan to a religion of self-effort, to a failure to trust the promise of God. Here Abram listened to Sarah, not to God. The Hebrew phrase occurs only elsewhere in Gen. 3:17 where the Lord cursed Adam because he listened to the voice of his wife, Eve. An ominous echo from the past!

v.4       Hagar’s reaction, however human, however predictable, was not only sinful, it was contrary to law and custom. The legal codes protected the first wife against this natural response. The Code of Hammurabi reads: “If later that female slave has claimed equality with her mistress because she bore children, her mistress may not sell her; she may mark her with the slave-mark and count her among the slaves.” The Law of Ur-Nammu prescribed that an insolent concubine should have “her mouth scoured with one quart of salt.” [Sarna, 119-120; Waltke, 252n, 253]

v.6       See the sin everywhere: Hagar’s arrogance in v. 4; Sarah’s blame-shifting in v. 5; Abram’s doing the same in v. 6; and Sarah’s hatred and jealousy in v. 6. It was Sarah’s idea and she was the first to suffer for it. Her concern for justice, expressed in such a high-minded way in v. 5, where she appeals to the Judge of all the Earth, descends quickly, as it so often does, to a lust for revenge.

v.8       Lest we miss the significance of this for the Bible’s view of women, their dignity and their equality with men as equally bearers of the image of God, this is the only known instance in ancient near eastern literature where a messenger of God or a divine personage, addresses a woman by name. But notice, he addresses her as the servant of Sarah, an identification that Hagar then humbly accepts for herself.

v.11     Ishmael means “God hears.” What follows, of course, concerns not only Ishmael himself but his descendants.

v.12     Which came to pass, as we will read in 25:18. As you know, the Arabs trace their descent from Ishmael and the hostility between them and the Jews they themselves ascribe to this ancient prophecy. The point of the remark is that her son would bend his neck to no one’s yoke. A worthy son of proud mother. The wild donkey is a metaphor for the proud individualist. His passion for going his own way will lead him into perpetual conflict with others. Herman Melville famously begins Moby Dick with his narrator saying in the very first line, “Call me Ishmael.” That is to say, call me someone who is a man alone, a man who is alienated from others.

v.13     The angel of the Lord is now disclosed to have been the Lord himself, in a pre-incarnate appearance, a theophany. This happens other times in the OT. The whole of Scripture teaches us to think of Yahweh here as the second person, God the Son, who would later come into the world as Jesus Christ. These theophanies are anticipations of the incarnation and prepare us for the appearance of God in human nature.

v.14     “Beer-lahoi-roi” means “Well of the Living One who sees me.”

v.15     In 12:4 we read that Abram was 75 when he came first to the Promised Land.

There are, as always seems to be the case, many intriguing and important lessons in this history. We have, of course, the matter of Abram’s failure of faith and the trouble that ensued when he sought to bring to pass in his own way and by his own effort what God had promised to give him. Waiting for the Lord can be exquisitely difficult, but it is what we must do. How realistic this is. Abram waited ten years, but then decided to wait no longer. His faith had sustained him for a long time, but finally failed him. How often this is the case with us. We can wait for a time but often not for as long as the Lord requires. We have in this chapter the account of a believing man who was reduced thinking that “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” And the result of his taking matters into his own hands instead of waiting on God was a personal and familial disaster.

What is more, we see again the compassion of the Lord. He went to help Hagar, after all she had done to complicate matters, found her in the desert, and made her an encouraging promise. It wasn’t the promise he had made to Abram, but it showed her some measure of favor. The Lord clearly wanted to undo an injustice against her that should not have been committed. The Lord cares for human beings, even very sinful human beings. Here we are shown that; elsewhere in the Bible we are also taught that.

But, it does not seem to me that these, or others like them, are the great lesson of this piece of history, important as they are. These are not the first reason that these events were recorded for us in Holy Writ. It is not for these reasons that we are given a record of the Lord’s promise to Hagar in vv. 11 and 12. And what the Lord says is obviously extraordinarily important and when the Biblical narrator chooses to quote the Almighty, the very words of the Lord, we are obviously being told something fundamentally significant.

The fundamental significance of this scene in the history of Abram and of God’s dealings with him is instead the division it draws between God’s chosen people and all the rest. That is certainly the meaning of the prophecy the Lord made about Ishmael and his descendants. This man and his descendants would remain outside of the covenant. The life the Lord described in this prophecy is not the life of a righteous man! The Lord here predicted a future for Ishmael very different from the future he predicted for Abram in the previous chapter. Though Hagar and Ishmael lived for a time under the shade of God’s covenant, neither she nor her son would remain there. As will be made still more explicit in the next chapter, in 17:20-21, God had no intention of making his covenant with Ishmael. And with the promises God made to Abram in chapter 15 and the promise that he made to Ishmael cheek to jowl with it in chapter 16, we are given to see how different the futures of these men will be. Ishmael grew up in spite and envy, became much like his mother apparently, and in chapter 21:8-21 we have the account of Hagar’s departure, with her son, from Abram’s tent and from all contact with the people of the covenant. Yahweh was kind to them but he made no promise of eternal life to them!

If Gen. 15 is the good news – Abram will have a son and God will fulfill his promise to Abram and to the world through that son — Gen. 16 is the bad news — not everyone will be the recipient of the blessing of that promise. There is a lot of bad news in the Bible, as there is in the world! It is a relentlessly honest book! But our culture, even our Christian culture, does not like bad news and so we largely ignore it. And in this way we denature our faith! The fact is, not everyone is included in the promise of eternal life; Ishmael was not!

To be sure, there are many similarities between Abram and Sarah and Hagar and Ishmael. None of them covers himself or herself in glory; there is sin all around. As always in the Bible, the difference between the saved and the lost does not originate in the people themselves! God had made Abram his man by his own initiative; God had made a covenant with him. God had promised himself to Abram’s descendants but not to Ishmael. Such is the discrimination of God’s grace. It is a fact as mysterious as it is obvious.

Already, here at the headwaters of the revelation of God’s salvation, of his drawing sinners into relationship with himself, we have insiders and outsiders. We have those who really belong and those who do not, those God has chosen and those he has not. We have that division even within the household of faith. We not only have God’s people separated from the people of this world, we have God’s people separated from those who belong to the covenant community but only in a superficial way, not in the way of God’s grace, not in the way of the transformation of life and of true and living faith. This is, as you know, a hugely consequential reality in the rest of the Bible. The Bible largely takes for granted the unbelief of the world and its rebellion against God. But huge tracts of Holy Scripture are devoted to dealing with the problem of unbelief in the church, among the people of God. Hosea will warn that God will call those who were his people, not his people; Jeremiah will speak of those who were circumcised but uncircumcised; and Paul will later remind us that not all Israel was Israel.

The world is full of unbelief and, alas, much of that unbelief is found inside the church. Hagar and Ishmael were part of Abram’s family. As we learn here, Hagar returned to live in Abram’s house, Ishmael was Abram’s son, so much so that Abram would later circumcise Ishmael because he was a member of his household. But Ishmael was not to remain in Abram’s house, he was not to be a child of God or an heir of the promises that God made to Abram. He would not have Abram’s faith or Abram’s love for God. Here we have, as we will have countless times hereafter, divine election making a separation between people even within the covenant community. There are two kinds of people in the world, believers and unbelievers, but the latter group is found both inside and outside the church of God.

It entirely changes the meaning of God’s covenant with Abram — which in the Bible is the medium, the instrument of salvation and eternal life (God’s promises to Abram and Abram’s faith in God) — if, in fact, that covenant does not distinguish Abram the man of faith from the rest of the world. It is this biblical antithesis – that there are those whom God has brought into fellowship with himself and those who remain apart from God – that has become in our time the principal objection to the Christian faith as it is described in the Word of God. Our age, sentimental as it is, cannot abide the fact that there are insiders and outsiders, that there are those who belong and those who do not, that some are included and others are excluded.

We’ve already said that what is promised in God’s covenant with Abram is nothing less than eternal life. The Promised Land was much more than literal real estate; it was the sign and seal of the heavenly country. The whole Bible teaches us that. The Bible is also repeatedly going to draw from the history we are reading the conclusion that there is an antithesis between faith and unbelief, between salvation and judgment, between peace with God and the wrath of God. This is the great presupposition of biblical history and so of human life: some are in and others are out. You will not find anywhere in the pages of the Word of God the contemporary shibboleth that everyone is free to create his or her own truth. In the Bible from Abram to Jesus and beyond, there is a broad way that leads to death and a narrow way that leads to life, and every human being is on one road or the other. This is why the Bible is such a relentlessly serious book. Life is serious. Eternal life hangs in the balance!

To be sure, the Lord did here speak of Ishmael’s descendants. But what does it say? There is certainly no promise of anything remotely resembling the future God promised Abram and his descendants: no land, no blessing, and no blessing of the world through them. Rather, Ishmael and those who follow him, will live a life of conflict in the world, of alienation, being troubled by and making trouble for others. The difference between the promise of chapter 16:11-12 and the promises the Lord made to Abram in chapters 12 and 15 is stark and meant to be noticed, set side by side as they have been in the Word of God. Ishmael was given the leftovers because Abram had already been promised the banquet. The Bible shows us God’s compassion to the unbelieving many times, as it does here, but it never minimizes the enormity of the difference between them and their future and that of those who trust in God. Ishmael’s future life was to be nothing like Abram’s!

We have here, in Genesis 16, the first comprehensive statement of this biblical antithesis, this division between the haves and the have-nots. It is put in these ancient terms, to be sure, but the point is clear already here and will become clearer still as we work our way through the Word of God. Here already we have the end of religious pluralism as that concept is so widely understood in our day. In virtually every American and European University, in virtually every class on the philosophy or history of religion, it is taught as a dogma needing no demonstration that all the religions of the world are valid; that each expresses the religious impulse of mankind in a different but equally authentic way; that each represents a true way of salvation, whatever salvation is taken to mean.

What is more, it has increasingly become the teaching of a large part of the Christian church itself. Those versions of Christianity that imagine the Christian faith can still establish itself while denying the supernatural origin of the Bible and the supernatural character of its history and message, in other words, those versions of Christianity that deny virtually everything distinctively Christian about Christianity – the absolute authority of the Bible, the incarnation of God the Son, his death on the cross for our sins, his resurrection from the dead, his coming again to judge the living and dead – I say those versions have long denied that there is but one way to God and heaven and that Jesus Christ is the only Savior of sinners. For them, the difference between the pagan idolaters of Ur and Canaan and Abram who trusted in the Lord and his Word was more a matter of taste or opportunity than of truth. We are well used to such thinking in liberal Protestant and, increasingly, in Roman Catholic circles.

But, what is more worrisome is that this kind of thinking has been creeping into so-called evangelical or Bible-believing Christian circles as well. There it is still believed that Jesus is the only Savior and that Christianity is the only fully authentic religion, but, more and more evangelical thinkers are ready to say that one can be saved without an active faith in Jesus Christ, without believing in the message of the Word of God, without living according to that message, without Abram’s living trust in the promises of God. We are urged, in the words of one such theologian, to “adopt a more positive approach towards those of other faiths.” He even refers to a class of people he calls “pagan saints.” These are people who have faith in a god of some kind but who are not part of the people of the covenant or, as we would say today, do not belong to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. [Clark Pinnock, A Wideness in God’s Mercy.]

A growing number of evangelicals are speaking this way. And no wonder. It is the unforgivable sin of our relativist day to claim that your religion is true, that all the others are false, and that all men must believe in your Savior or they cannot be saved. I fully understand, as you do, the attractiveness of this broader and easier view. It has many advantages. It frees us from worry about so many who are not Christians. We don’t have to fear their judgment because they are outside of Christ. It frees us from the obligation to share our faith with them (hard and often embarrassing work), as faith in Jesus is not necessary for their salvation. It frees us from the opprobrium of so many in our day who find the historic Christian message that faith in Jesus Christ is essential to eternal life impossibly arrogant, discriminatory, and old fashioned.

But let us be honest enough to admit that, attractive as it may be, this is not the teaching of the Bible. We could go on to speak at length about how nonsensical a view it is in many other ways, how sentimental, how logically inconsistent, but we are Christians, so we start and end here: the Bible does not teach it or permit us to believe it. Genesis 16 is just the beginning of that teaching; it will become much more explicit throughout the Bible and dramatically so in the teaching of the Lord Jesus himself. But it is clear enough already here. Ishmael’s future in not Abram’s. Ishmael was not the descendant of Abram through whom the promise would be realized. Ishmael was closer to Abram than the idolaters of Ur where Abram had been, and happily so before, but we will not find him in the family at the end. Ishmael is the Bible’s first example of a person who may be in the covenant in an outward way, but not be in the covenant in the way that finally matters. In that most important way Ishmael and the idolaters in Ur had more in common than did Ishmael and Abram. That one can be saved outside the covenant, outside the gospel, outside living faith in God and Jesus Christ, the Bible never says and often denies in the plainest and most emphatic language.

What is more, throughout the entire course of biblical history, the people of God’s covenant were rubbing shoulders with folk who practiced other religions, or refused to submit to the Word of God. God was as compassionate then as he is now, but never once in his Word were they taught that these other faiths were authentic routes to God or that among their practitioners might be found sincere folk who were humble before God and recipients of his grace. Quite the contrary. And when the church made its way out into the world after Pentecost, it did so in the unshakable conviction that the world had to hear of Jesus Christ and believe in him because otherwise there was no possibility of salvation. As Paul said, “All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved, but how can they call on him of whom they have not heard?”

As David Wells says in a particularly powerful passage in his book No Place for Truth [p. 104]:

The apostles asserted that Christ alone is the truth in the midst of a world that was more religiously diverse than any we have known in the West until relatively recently. We today are far closer in religious temper to apostolic times than any period since the Reformation. Indeed, most of the modern period in the West has been quite unlike apostolic times inasmuch as we have been spared interreligious conflict and much of the doubt that invariably accompanies such conflict.  It is, therefore, hard to imagine a more specious argument than the one advanced along many fronts today, backed actively by the World Council of Churches and implicitly by the documents of the Second Vatican Council, that the contemporary experience of religious pluralism is the reason that the apostolic formulation of faith can no longer be held! Such assertions make the apostles and often Jesus himself look like innocents who were spared the dreadful dilemmas that, sadly, we have to face with such flinty honesty, in the process divesting ourselves of the very truth that they insisted must be preserved.”

See that truth here in Genesis 16. Ishmael would not be a humble man recognizing his own unrighteousness before a holy God and trusting himself to God’s promise of salvation. There are no such men in themselves in this world and there is no such recognition without the Spirit of God at work in the heart. Ishmael did not receive that grace. His was to be a life of self-assertion, not submission to God. His sin; his fault.

Ishmael enjoyed some kindness from God as many do; he became the father of a people; but this did not make him a saint, nor does the mere benevolence of God make any human being a saint. God’s grace alone can do that and anyone who denies that grace is necessary to salvation does not know what salvation is! Ishmael’s life was no pilgrimage to heaven. He was not a friend of God. He would finally be cast out of the covenant circle because of his hateful mockery of Isaac whom he viewed as a rival. And so the spiteful young man left the circle of salvation never to be heard from again.

The Bible never suggests that anyone’s life can be acceptable to God that is lived outside of the covenant God makes with his people and the life of faith in God and Christ. There is a lovely verse of the poet, the blind Scottish minister, George Matheson, whose most famous composition is the hymn, “O love that will not let me go.” He was speaking of the seven colors of the rainbow.

                        Each sees one colour of Thy rainbow light,

Each looks upon one tint and calls it heaven;

Thou art the fulness of our partial sight;

We are not perfect till we find the seven;

Gather us in!

What a lovely thought I thought to myself when I first read that poem. Christians of various stripes, seeing a part of the truth, but at the end of history all of them together will see it all! But I was dismayed to read in a sermon of Matheson’s what he meant by that verse. His text was: “Who are these that are arrayed in white robes?” On that occasion he was preaching to a united congregation in a great hall in Edinburgh. He portrayed heaven as a vast concert hall, and asked his audience to take a sweeping glance over the great multitude gathered there. “Who are these in the centre, before the throne… And who are these over here, and these over here? He replied first by mentioning different classes of Christians. Then he asked: “Who is that man at the very back of the hall, the man with the pale, thoughtful face? That is Spinoza. He has only got an angle of the truth, but he is working his way to the front, to the centre.” And, as Matheson said that, from all parts of the hall there came cries of “Hallelujah!” and “Help him, Lord; help him, Lord.” [Gammie, Preachers I Have Heard, p. 17]

If you know anything about Victorian Christianity you can easily imagine such an enthusiastic response to that message at that time in Victorian Britain. Sentimental universalist ideas were in the air; they were becoming very popular in places they never should have been given even a toehold. But, brethren, if Spinoza, the 17th century pantheist philosopher, who denied the existence of a personal God, is in that banquet hall, then everyone is in that hall, the Gospel is an irrelevance, the Bible is untrue, and Jesus Christ didn’t know what he was talking about nor did his apostles after him. You needn’t be here this morning. You might just as well have slept in or taken Sunday brunch at a local restaurant. I am relieved to say that Matheson came to know better later in his life.

Heed the warning of Bernard of Clairvaux, that man whom Luther said loved Jesus as much as anyone can: “…many laboring to make Plato a Christian, do prove themselves to be heathens.” And still better, the Apostle Peter:

 “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” Acts 4:12

The necessity of knowing Jesus’ name is that we must call on him to save us. And, believe me, brothers and sisters, when the present silliness finally passes, and believe me what you have in our culture today as highbrow philosophy is pure silliness, and when men and women come face to face once again with the true seriousness of human life, nothing will make more sense, nothing will seem more necessary, but hunting for and finding the truth about God and about themselves and about salvation. And when people begin caring about the truth once more, they will once again be concerned less about the fact that so many deny the truth and more and more about whether or not they themselves have found it.

And, as unpolitic and unwelcome as the message of “Christ alone” may be in our proud, superficial, and ephemeral age, we must be inflexible in proclaiming it. For the Lord Christ is the way, the truth, and the life and only those who trust in him will be saved. If Jesus Christ is God and the Creator and the Judge of heaven and earth; and if he came at immeasurable sacrifice to himself into the world to die for our sins; then it is to dishonor him to imagine that anyone can be saved in this world by any other means than by his cross and by faith in his name.