It’s only natural to have doubts after someone has promised us the same thing time and again but hasn’t followed through. It can be difficult to maintain patience in the wake of disappointed expectation. Inaction, whether real or perceived, can erode trust and confidence. Eventually, we need an incredible amount of assurance before we can accept that person’s word again.
In Genesis 15 Abram expressed this kind of doubt regarding God’s promise of a son. God’s promise remained unfulfilled, and Abram needed new reassurance from God. But even after God provided this reassurance, Abram and Sarai still hesitated to fully trust that He would keep His word. They came up with a plan to overcome Sarai’s barrenness and provide Abram with the son he longed for. Ultimately, they looked beyond the promise and took matters into their own hands.
In Genesis 16 Sarai worked around her infertility by providing Abram with a surrogate mother for his child. Since God’s promise up to this point had only specified that Abram would have offspring, not that the offspring would be through Sarai, her actions were reasonable. Sensing that she was the obstacle preventing God’s promise from being fulfilled, Sarai offered her maid, Hagar, to Abram as a secondary wife. Hagar’s status as Sarai’s slave meant that any child born to Hagar would have had the same legal standing as Sarai’s child. Abram agreed to Sarai’s plan, and Hagar became pregnant. Abram and Sarai likely failed to recognize their plan for what it was: an attempt to hurry the fulfillment of God’s promise.
While we don’t learn of God’s disapproval of Abram and Sarai’s actions until Genesis 17:19 their attempt to influence the outcome of His promise quickly led to unforeseen strife. Hagar’s pregnancy became a source of contempt between her and Sarai. Hagar likely felt proud that she conceived, and Sarai was jealous of her success. Hagar unwisely developed an overconfident attitude toward Sarai. While the plan was Sarai’s idea, Sarai blamed Abram for the outcome. After Abram gave Sarai free rein to discipline Hagar, Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she ran away.
In the wilderness, an angel appeared to Hagar and convinced her to return to Sarai and Abram. The angel instructed her to name her son Ishmael (meaning “God hears”) and promised that he, too, would become a great nation. The angel also revealed that Ishmael’s life would be characterized by conflict and hostility, not peaceful blessing (Genesis 16:12). Hagar accepted this and prayed to God before returning to Sarai. She called Him the “God of seeing,” or “El-Roi” (Genesis 16:13), unwittingly affirming what Sarai and Abram had overlooked: God oversees and directs everything, and those who follow Him never have any reason to doubt His plan.
This adapted excerpt, courtesy of Logos Bible Software, is from Abraham: Following God’s Promise. An eight-week self-study program on the life of the first patriarch, Abraham comes with graphics, reflection questions and “fill in the blank” boxes where users can record and save their answers. Abraham can also be purchased as a complete church curriculum which adapts the study material for small group study and preaching. Purchase the book or the curriculum today.
Douglas Mangum is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at the University of Free State; he holds a Master of Arts in Hebrew and Semitic Studies from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is a Lexham English Bible editor, a Faithlife Study Bible contributing editor, a regular Bible Study Magazine contributor, and a frequently consulted specialist for the Lexham Bible Dictionary.
Publication date: December 4, 2012