Monday, July 31, 2017

Genesis 16 : “The Tragedy of the Shortcut”

·        Gen.12:1-9:  God's covenant with Abraham. God would bless him, make him a great nation;  through him all the families of the earth would be blessed. His descendants would inherit the land of Canaan. God would bless those who blessed him, and curse those who cursed him.
·        Gen.12:10-20:  Abram's faith is tested and he fails because  he does not trust God  when he  goes to Egypt. 
·        Gen. 13 &14,  by contrast  reveals  the triumph of Abram’s faith. 
·        Gen. 15: Here God reaffirms His covenant with Abram in a most striking and picturesque way. Here we also find that great declaration that Abram was justified by faith.  Genesis 15:6 is a fundamental text for Paul when he established the doctrine of justification by faith. This covenant  is more fundamental than Sinai, and its basis  was  grace and not law. Here God does two important things for Abram.
(i)                God reiterates His covenant promises to Abram.
(ii)              God confirms that covenant by a  sacrifice of blood. God binds  Himself  with a strong  oath to Abram. 

That is the background which brings us to Genesis 16, and sadly here we find another crisis in Abram’s faith.   This chapter   teaches us something about the unhappy consequences of trying to force God’s hand. It is the age old tragedy of taking the spiritual shortcut.   Just when we had thought that Abram had learned all the vital spiritual  lessons   following his  previous lapse of faith,  just when we  would have expected him to  move on in  spiritual victory, we find him capitulating  yet again to faithlessness  and unbelief.

Central to the story of Abram is the promise of a son. The opening verse, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children…” [16:1], needs to be read in the context of the preceding chapter 15. In 15:2 Abram asks God, “What will you give me, for I continue childless?” God answers him,“… your very own son shall be your heir” [15:4].  And in 15:8   Abram presses God concerning the promise of land again, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  Then, in 15:9-21 follows the making of a solemn covenant of which God is the instigator. In this irrevocable covenant God binds himself to giving Abram a promised land and an heir from his covenant wife Sarai.

Now, back to 16: 1b-2 and these tragic words: ” (Sarai) had a female Egyptian servant whose name was Hagar. And Sarai said to Abram. Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children (never mind the promise of 15:4). Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram  listened to the voice of Sarai.”
You would have  thought that if you had  had such a close encounter  with God  and such strong reassurance  from  God  as Abram did,  or from a NT perspective,   if you had  seen the miracles, works, wisdom  and weighty words  of Jesus,  you would have  thought  that you would never doubt God again. Think again.  All these experiences failed to keep Abram from trusting in God’s promises.   
And all this  begs us to ask  those  great questions  again, “Who then can be righteous?  “Who can be saved, if no one is righteous…if no one is faithful?”,[1] and, “How can I be saved from this corrupt and faithless mind and body?”[2]  The entire basis  of  Abram’s  justification  and our justification  becomes  a talking point  for us , and we know  that it cannot be  our personal righteousness or faithfulness  that justifies us  before  this holy God.   The Bible insists that our justification is by grace through faith in God alone. Our works do follow, and in the main we see that Abram loves  and follows God, but he would never meet the criteria  of having perfectly obeyed  God in everything.  Only Jesus would do that!

And so, the very first   insight from this passage is this: Our salvation  and our life before God  is all of grace and never on the basis of our works. Our salvation is a miracle.   God  sovereignly chose Abram out of a pagan society , and God  eventually chooses  to glorify  Himself in  a miracle birth. Sarai’s  eventual conception of Isaac, will be against all human odds. God remains that God who brings  things out of nothing , and He shares His glory with no one!

The second insight is this: We human beings, even we Christians  have a hard time trusting God for His promises.  God has made a clear and strong commitment  to Abram and Sarai in Chapter 15 , and   yet according to  Abram and Sarai things are not happening fast enough. And so Sarai began to scheme. The modern equivalent of that scheme is called ‘surrogate motherhood’. Many years ago a woman came to me  and  told me that she had  been approached to be  a surrogate mother. Having studied the ethics and the emotional  implications  I advised her against it. Whether she went ahead or not, I do not know.  
From my reading, I also  learned that it was not an uncommon custom  even  in that day  for childless  women  to obtain children  through  another woman. For instance,  Hamurabi,a Babylonian king (c.1750 BC)  produced a  code of laws. Law 146 refers to a childless   wife giving  a female slave to her husband  to bear children[3].  In Genesis 30, in the family drama of Jacob   we also find this practise repeated as Rachel and Leah take turns in the baby race.  So, the prevailing culture was sanctioning this, but God did not. 
Paul makes reference to this in Galatians 4:21-23 in which he makes a contrast between Hagar and Sarah:  "Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by the free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise…". Paul’s plain point here is that the slave woman’s son was the result of a fleshly act. The sinful will of Abram and Sarai produced Ishmael-  which is  essentially a failure to trust  in the Lord . The will of God was to wait for Isaac, the son of the promise.  And here is the problem. Patience and trust in God’s purposes! It has been 10 years since Abram has arrived in Canaan, and still no offspring.  And so, he buckles under the persistent pressure of his wife, and the consequences are there for us to see. In many ways this story reminds us of the Garden of Eden.  That was exactly what Sarai’s first parents, Adam and Eve, did.   And why did Abram not rebuke Sarai for her unbelief and remind her  of the promises of God?  Why did he not say to her, “Sarai, God will provide a child. He always keeps his promise. Let’s keep trusting him. We don’t need  Hagar to get a child.”    But he did not do that. And so they went against God’s explicit command.  

Now, it is clear that Sarai knew that her childlessness was from the Lord - cf.  16:2, and as far as that was concerned she understood the doctrine of the sovereignty of God. So what was the problem? Well, the doctrine of the sovereignty of God  was in conflict with her desire!  And so, even though Abram and Sarai knew good theology , they weren’t good at  practical theology  in terms of waiting upon God’s  fulfilment, and so  they  began to think pragmatically , and they began to scheme as to how they might help God  out  this matter – after all , as the oft quoted Proverb says, “ God helps those that help themselves!”  This is  probably the most often quoted phrase that is not found in the Bible. Whatever the original source of this saying, the Bible teaches the opposite. God helps the helpless!
From this impatience and this lack of trust in God flow all the negative consequences in this decision and so in vv. 3-6 we see a  string of  consequences of Abram and Sarai's decision.  It's a mess!  And no one is happy. 
Hagar, as soon as she conceives, looks with contempt on her mistress (vv. 4,5).Sarai herself is filled with envy and with bitterness, and that bitterness overflows into blaming Abram (v.5). Abram in return does what men do so well. He throws the ball back into her court:   ‘I thought this was your idea’, and he takes the hands off approach … ‘Do as you please… I’m out of here!’ (v.6)    The next  thing which happens is that Sarai abuses Hagar  to the point  at which she can take it no longer and she flees from her.  Abram’s unhappy, Sarai is unhappy, Hagar is unhappy.  Nobody wins. This is the tragedy of the  shortcut.


vv. 4-14   The results of Sarai's  abuse.  Hagar flees into the wilderness, where she is  comforted by an  angel of the Lord at  a spring of water in the wilderness. Here we see the next great   see the next great  wonderful truth in  terms of the character and the attributes of God. God cares for the vulnerable. Although God’s great  redemptive plan  through Abram remains the central  focus of  the Bible story, yet we learn also  that  God cared for Hagar, and her offspring even  though she was insignificant with regard to  redemptive history.  We learn that even though God has a particular love for His people , we can also  truly say that God loves the world! Even though Abram had been unfaithful in his dealings with Hagar, God was faithful to her.  He gives her a son.  Ishmael means, "God hears.” He reveals Himself to her, He blesses her, He promises her protection, and  promises that her  offspring  would  also  become a great nation.  But  the kind of blessing that is given to her and the words that are spoken about Ishmael remind us of the difference between the blessings upon Jacob and Esau. God blessed Esau, but all the blessings that He gave him in Genesis 27 were earthly and temporal blessings. All the spiritual blessings  and eternal blessings went to Jacob. So also, we will see  that the promises given to  Ishmael  were not spiritual but temporal blessings. Again and again we see the distinction that God makes in His plan of redemption.

God gives this prophecy about her son, “He will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he will live in hostility towards all his brothers” (v.12). That proves to be the history of Ishmael. He wandered like a wild donkey, always on the move, unable to put down roots, a divisive influence everywhere, even against his own brothers. In Islam, Ishmael is regarded as a prophet and an ancestor to Muhammad. He also became associated with Mecca and the construction of the Kaaba, as well as equated with the term "Arab" by some.[4]

Vv. 15,16. The birth of Ishmael is recorded, but in terms of the promises of the covenant,  this  has not taken  Abram forward towards the fulfillment of God's promises towards him. In fact, he has complicated things, and as a result of this there will be many troubles waiting for Abram.  In the mean-time  God was still going to have to do a miracle to bring the son of promise into the world through Sarai.


We say after so many sermons, “Thank you, Lord, for saying this to me, and now I’m going to do something about it,” and that is good, but this passage reminds us again that we need to be  not only careful listeners and theologians. We need to be careful and patient hearers who do not  chose the  shortcut , but who wait upon the Lord.  
We need to remember that God is not dependent on our scheming.  And God will bring about His purposes without our interference.  We must learn to trust God’s promises.  
Perhaps God has you in a place where all you can do is stand still.   By nature we do not like that. But we need to be careful not to be tempted to take the shortcut.  Do not grieve the Lord by your impatience. Do not seek ways of accomplishing what God alone is able to do.  

Nowhere can this be more challenging than in the urgency we sometimes sense in getting kingdom work done.  We must remember that men and women are born of God alone into His family. The new birth is His work. Not ours! When it doesn’t happen quickly enough in your children or in the church don’t try to help God out. Pray and wait upon the genuine work of God. Abram didn’t need to produce the promised Seed by his own strength. He needed God to come and do what He had decided to do. He needed to believe God- and  so do you!   Amen .

[1] Rom  3:9-18
[2] Rom 7:15-24
[3] Philip Eveson: The Book of Origins , Evangelical Press,  pp 299-300

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