Finding Jesus in Genesis: Lesson Eight
© C. O. Bishop 2012, revised 2018
Genesis, chapters 16 and 17
There are many ugly histories in the Bible: God doesn’t pull punches when telling “what happened,” and “who did what.” Actually, that is one of the things that helps convince me that this actually is God’s Word, and not the word of man: God does not put his “heroes of the faith” on pedestals: he lets us see exactly what kind of flawed individuals they really were, and then shows us what He can do with such shabby, unpromising raw materials. We saw the sin of Adam, the drunkenness of Noah, and the foolishness of Lot: but all were saved individuals.
Virtually all the patriarchs, judges and kings also had deeply flawed lives; some far worse than others. But God chose them because of what He could do with them, not because of what “wonderful people” they were. He is still choosing that way today. He deliberately chooses “losers” through whom He will bring about victories. He leaves the “self-sufficient” to be just that…self-sufficient, self-satisfied, and self-centered. They feel no need for a Savior, and they see themselves as great people. (Perhaps they are, in fact, from strictly a human perspective.)
This story is about a couple of “failures, and losers,” living in the midst of a culture of failure, idolatry, and slavery, where life was cheap, and “human rights” were scarce, or even unheard of. We don’t like these subjects, as they make us uncomfortable, at least, and sometimes angry.
Genesis 16: Faith can Stumble
Back in chapter 15, God had made a promise of offspring, but Abram and Sarai were evidently tired of waiting. So Sarai had a “brilliant idea,” which was evidently a common “cultural norm.” She suggested that Abram impregnate her servant, Hagar, and she herself would simply claim the child. Abram, a typical man, apparently thought that was a great idea.
We would be horrified, today, in our culture, to even hear of such an idea, let alone to hear of someone attempting to carry it through, or, worse yet, actually doing such a thing. But there are actually more slaves today than ever before, and we simply are unaware, because it is mostly hidden, or in particular parts of the world. And, in those places, such a plan would be taken as a matter-of-fact solution, not a gross moral violation (which it certainly is and was.)
We will eventually see how Hagar felt about it all, but not in detail. However, this little scheme produced deep, serious trouble of the “fatal” kind, which continues still today. All the Arab peoples claim Ishmael (and Abraham) as their forefather, and believe that they are the chosen people of God (the Q’uran tells them so).
This incident occurred about ten years after Abram had moved into Canaan, so he was at least 85, since he left Haran at 75 years of age. The end of the chapter says he was 86 when Ishmael was born. We are not told how old Hagar was (much younger, evidently), but I can sympathize with her in this matter—as a slave, she was given no choice. She was being treated as a thing, an object…a possession; she had no more self-determination than did a domestic animal. She probably was not in favor of the plan, being forced to sexually serve her mistress’s husband; to be a surrogate mother; not even being allowed to claim her own son. She was not exactly a sex-slave, as that was not the intent: it was strictly for procreation, but when forced upon a woman, it isn’t much different. Whatever her initial feelings had been; once she was pregnant, she felt some satisfaction, or vindication, knowing that she could bear a child, while Sarai could not.
Sarai saw Hagar’s satisfaction (and the smugness and disrespect that followed it) and blamed the whole plan on Abram (how quickly we forget!) She called on God to judge him for his sin. But Abram said, in effect, “Hey, she’s your slave; you take care of it”. So Sarai physically abused Hagar (we don’t know how: the text just says “dealt hardly with her”), and Hagar ran away.
The Consequences of Sin
The story could have ended there, with a poor, lone, pregnant woman lost in the desert. But God met with Hagar in the desert at a spring where she had sought refuge, and He told her to go back. He further told her that she would have a son, that her son would be called Ishmael, and that he would be the father of a multitude…also, that he would be a “wild man” (some translations say “a wild donkey of a man”), whose hand would be against everyone, and against whom everyone else’s hand would be raised. (Does that sound familiar? The Arab nations all call Ishmael their father (whether he was or not), and they are at odds with the whole non-Arab world. The current pattern of worldwide Islamic terrorism has been deliberately exerted against all parties, in the attempt to start a world war, and bring about some particular prophecy in the Q’uran. Their stated desire is to wipe Israel off the face of the earth…in fact, to kill every single Jew.)
We should really think carefully about this whole story—it could sound simply like a tawdry tale of sin and abuse; the sad story of a very dysfunctional family, in a primitive, brutal society… and it is all of that. But the underlying lesson, it seems to me, is that sin always has an ongoing effect. Sin has consequences. I can’t go back and undo my errors: the hurts I have caused in the lives of others will have ongoing effects in their lives as well as my own.
Sin always affects more than just the ones sinning. The long-range results in this particular case are several nations of people who are deadly enemies to Israel—who openly state that their fondest dream is to wipe Israel off the map. I have no way to know which failure of mine will have far-reaching consequences—nor how severe. (Probably none as severe as this one, simply because I am not Abraham.) But all sin has eternal consequences: at the very least we will lose potential for eternal rewards. But we also dishonor God; we destroy our testimony, and we “…make the name of God to stink, among the Gentiles.” We drive people away from Jesus.
How many times have you met an unbeliever who has become embittered against Christians in general, and Christianity as a concept, or even against Christ as a person, specifically because of offenses committed by people claiming to be Christians? In fact, for the sake of argument, I will assume they really were Christians. Why would I assume this? Because Christians are perfectly capable of virtually every sin, if not absolutely every sin, commonly committed by unbelievers. We are supposed to be living holy lives, noteworthy for the Agape love displayed in us, and for the unity we enjoy with one another, and the general pattern of good behavior seen in all circumstances. Jesus told us to live in such a way that others will see our good works and glorify God. Unfortunately, none of the above is what the World tends to see. They capitalize on the failures, and assume failure is the “real” norm, and that all the “piety” was just hypocrisy.
I asked an unbelieving co-worker, recently, if, as his children were learning to walk, he had yelled “hypocrite!” at them, every time they lost their balance and fell. He replied that, of course, he had not. I pointed out that failure, especially among untaught or immature believers is quite common, and not necessarily a mark of hypocrisy. He thought a “hypocrite” is someone who says they believe one thing, and then do something else. I corrected his thinking, pointing out that the Greek word “hupocritos” only means an actor: a pretender; a fake. A failure and a fake are two different things. A fisherman who catches no fish is not a fake, but a frustrated failure. A runner who fails to finish a race is a failure, not a fake. Such examples are unlimited in number.
What we saw in this story was a prime example of a total failure of faith. They didn’t even think they were doing wrong: they simply assumed that “cultural norms” were OK with God, and they just didn’t think to ask His opinion. They ran ahead of God (a bad idea) with their own means of “implementing God’s plan.” This is certainly not the only example in the Bible of such choices by believers, but it is one that has incredibly severe long-range consequences.
I encountered a modern-day example of this assumption recently, through a friend in another state: his church is planning to hire a pastor, and they are following the “cultural norm” of soliciting résumés, and reading letters of recommendation. This is a classic abandonment of God’s command to not “lay hands on” (ordain) someone too soon, as it is patently impossible to get to know someone in just a week’s time, and it is therefore impossible for the congregation to know and respect that individual as an elder in that assembly. But the western churches have nearly universally chosen to go with the World’s way of thinking, and have reverted to the pattern of having one hireling, like a CEO, set over a church, with abnormal authority to rule, and an impossible task to accomplish as a servant, even if he is a perfect servant…and he isn’t!
God does give instructions as to how to find, produce, train and select church leaders…and they are always plural. But very few are willing to follow those instructions, and the results are frequently disastrous. Will that church survive the error? Very likely it will! Does the fact that it is a cultural norm make it a good replacement for God’s stated plan? Absolutely not! God says for us to trust in the LORD with all our hearts and to not lean unto our own understanding. Disobedience always has consequences.
Abram and Sarai replaced God’s plan with their own ideas, based upon cultural norms, and they assumed it would be fine. But they were wrong! We are always ill-advised to assume that our “cultural norms” are a good replacement for God’s stated will. I realize that this is a troubling idea, and I have no desire to stir up controversy, but it is important that we carefully examine our practices, traditions and beliefs, in the light of all of God’s Word (not just a pet “proof-text”), to see whether they are actually what God says to do.
Genesis 17: God’s Plan Revealed
When Abram was 99 years old—and Ishmael was 13—God met with Abram again, and reiterated his original promise, and, in the process, changing Abram’s name (which meant “exalted father”) to Abraham (meaning “Father of many nations”). But God also added a condition that was to be met by the recipients of the promise. The mark of the covenant was to be circumcision. Remember that this was before the giving of the Law…it was a provision that whoever was to receive the promise was to be marked as a son of the promise. In the New Testament, we see that it was a picture of discipleship—of the “putting away of the flesh.” And it is only a picture. There were countless Israelites (and millions of modern day Gentiles) who were circumcised as babies (or even as adults) but had no heart for the God of the Covenant. The flesh does not profit, at a spiritual level, unless the Spirit is driving the flesh…the physical body, in this case. But both the Jews and the Arab peoples still practice this, in the belief that they are complying with God’s demand, and that they thereby gain an entrance into the promise of God.
God went on to say that Sarai’s name would now be Sarah (meaning “princess”), and that she would bear a son, and that they would name him Isaac (meaning, “he laughs”, because Abraham laughed at the thought of a 99-year old man fathering a child.)
Abraham had his heart set on Ishmael as his heir, but God overruled: He said that, though Ishmael would be a great nation (and the father of many nations), Isaac was the son of the promise, not Ishmael. In Galatians 4:21-31 (read this), we see the explanation of what happened in Genesis 17 and 21. In Genesis 17 God told Abram that his son of the flesh (Ishmael) was not the son of the promise…in chapter 21, he was finally told to send Hagar and Ishmael away…and it deeply grieved him to do so. Abraham sincerely loved his son, Ishmael.
But God set up this picture, using the circumstances, so that we could see, almost 4000 years later that Law and Grace do not dwell together. The Law brings a curse, and Grace brings life. Does the Law have a purpose, today? Certainly, it does! The Law lets us know that we are a condemned sinner and in need of a Savior. Grace joins us to the savior.
“Doctor Law” diagnoses the need for a new heart. “Doctor Grace” is the surgeon who gives the new heart, and binds the believing heart immutably to Christ. They do work in the same clinic, but they never set foot in one another’s offices. Doctor Law always sends his patients to Doctor Grace—if they will go—and Doctor Grace never sends them back. They work well as a team—but always separately!
So, Isaac was a picture of Christ, in the sense that he was the Son of the Promise (and it showed in his life-story in a couple of places). Jesus is the Eternal fulfillment of the promises of God.
Chapter 17 ends with the circumcision of all the men in Abram’s extended household. (In chapter 14, remember, Abram had led into battle 318 fighting men from his own household. By this time there were undoubtedly more, as it was thirteen or fourteen years later. There must have been a lot of grief in that camp that week. That particular “surgery” is not a light thing for adults.
But: the result of obedience is blessing. Abraham continually received God’s blessing and protection. And, every time God gave him a command, Abraham got right in there and did it. We especially see this in Genesis chapter 22, where God tested Abraham.
Conclusion: Final “Review” Questions
- Which came first, Faith or Obedience?
- And, based upon which of those, was Abraham declared to be righteous, by God?
- Which showed him as “righteous” to his fellow humans?
- Abraham believed God, and God declared him to be righteous on the basis of that faith.
- Afterward, Abraham obeyed God, and, because of that, all of us can see the reality of his faith. He “put his money where his mouth was.” He put “shoe-leather” on his faith.
We already had discovered that this was Jesus, personally dealing with Abraham. After declaring Abraham righteous, on the basis of faith alone, Jesus made some demands on Abraham’s life, which we see as works.
Application: He does the same thing for us today:
- He declared us righteous on the basis of faith in His blood at the Cross.
- He then declared us to be his personal possession, as well as his offspring, and set us aside for His service, His purpose, and His blessing.
- Finally, He says there are some things he wants us to do in response to faith, and in a personal response to Him as our Savior and Master. He wants us to walk with him and commit ourselves to His service.
Are you truly willing to follow him? Or is your faith going to be more like that of Brother Lot? Though he was truly saved, Lot was never really willing to make his relationship with God a priority in his life. As we will see next time, the results were not so good.
Lord Jesus, change our hearts and let us step forward in faith, breaking free from cultural norms, and doing what does not come naturally to our minds. Make us tools in your hands, to accomplish your will.