The Pentateuch: Covenant and Destruction, Genesis 16-21
God had reaffirmed His covenant with Abram. He promised Abram that he would have a son of his own to be his heir, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. He also promised Abram land and showed Abram a sign of this covenant, to establish the authenticity and genuineness of the covenant, and instructed Abram that it would still be many generations of hardship before the land would be given to his people. God made it clear that these promises would take time to fulfill, which meant Abram would need to have faith and patience.
Yet now, here were Sarai and Abram taking matters into their own hands, making up their own minds how God’s will should come about. In their impatience and frustration at not yet having a child of their own so late in their lives, Sarai suggests and Abram agrees to have a child by Sarai’s slave woman, Hagar. God had reaffirmed His promises to Abram multiple times, yet here Abram was. I can’t help but notice how human this situation is. We human beings certainly still lack the patience and faith to wait for God’s timing and will to be revealed.
Hagar and Ishmael
It was a cultural custom of those times that if a wife could not have children, in order to keep her husband’s line going he would have children with concubines or additional wives. Polygamy was very common because of this. If the man had no children, he had no heirs, so he would have them by a woman other than his wife, or take multiple wives to make sure he would have children to carry on his bloodline and legacy. What Sarai suggested was the custom of the times, but that was not what God wanted them to do. He wanted them to have faith in His promises, trust in His plan, and be patient for His timing.
3 Then Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan. 4 So he went in to Hagar, and she conceived. And when she saw that she had conceived, her mistress became despised in her [a]eyes.
5 Then Sarai said to Abram, [b]“My wrong be upon you! I gave my maid into your embrace; and when she saw that she had conceived, I became despised in her eyes. The Lord judge between you and me.”
6 So Abram said to Sarai, “Indeed your maid is in your hand; do to her as you please.” And when Sarai dealt harshly with her, she fled from her presence.Genesis 16:3-6 NKJV
Sarai and Abram decide to have a child through Hagar, and when Hagar becomes pregnant it’s like reality hits them that this was a bad plan. Sarai and Hagar butt heads, Hagar ended up despising Sarai, Sarai became cruel to Hagar, and then Sarai blamed Abram for the conflict. Sarai mistreats Hagar so much that Hagar runs away.
This is a great example of how disobedience to God leads us further from godliness. They disobeyed God by taking matters into their own hands, and then continued to behave sinfully toward one another. The fruits of disobedience were on full display. When God tells us that sin leads to death, death can sometimes mean death to relationships, joy, contentment, faith, and so much more – not just physical death.
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the [a]gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.Romans 6:23 NKJV
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Later, an angel of the Lord came and told Hagar to return to Sarai who had been treating her brutally. He made her a promise that her descendants would be too many to count, and tells her what her yet-to-be-born son’s name and fate would be. She praises God as El-roi – the God Who Sees – recognizing that He sees her, truly, in full awareness of her, her circumstances, her pain, and also of her future. Her son will be named Ishmael, which means “God Hears”, indicating that God heard her in her suffering.
11 And the Angel of the Lord said to her:
“Behold, you are with child,
And you shall bear a son.
You shall call his name [a]Ishmael,
Because the Lord has heard your affliction.
12 He shall be a wild man;
His hand shall be against every man,
And every man’s hand against him.
And he shall dwell in the presence of all his brethren.”
13 Then she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, You-Are-[b]the-God-Who-Sees; for she said, “Have I also here [c]seen Him who sees me?”Genesis 16:11-13 NKJV
Hagar obeyed God and returned, had her son, and when Ishmael was about 13 years old God appeared to Abram once again. This time, God declared Himself Almighty God and commanded Abram to “walk before [Him] and be blameless.” God is telling Abram to trust and obey, and to focus on Him and His will. God again reaffirms the covenant and again takes it a step deeper. Abram becomes Abraham, which means father of nations, promises Abraham the land of Canaan, gives the covenant of circumcision and then confirms that the child promised will come from Sarai, who is now to be named Sarah. Sarah will be blessed, and she will be the mother of nations.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am [a]Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless. 2 And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly.”Genesis 17:1-2 NKJV
The prospect of Sarah and Abraham, both nearing 100 years old, becoming parents was dumbfounding. As Abraham and Sarah received this news, they both laughed in bewilderment. Abraham had questions, and Sarah in her embarrassment at laughing attempted to conceal her laughter.
17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Shall a child be born to a man who is one hundred years old? And shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” 18 And Abraham said to God, “Oh, that Ishmael might live before You!”Genesis 17:17-18 NKJV
Abraham and Sarah were not perfect people. They missed the mark constantly, following their own plans and not waiting to find out what God’s plan was. They trusted to a degree but lacked the faith to remain faithful and obedient. When their plans didn’t work out as they had expected, their responses were again oh-so-human. Yet these imperfect people who struggled to be faithful all the time were who God chose to bless and use as the father and mother of God’s holy people.
It is so encouraging to see raw humans being used by God in such extraordinary ways. God made it clear they would not live to see the fruits of the promise, and this is yet another example for us still today. We do not often see the ways God is working things out around and ahead of us. We must have faith and hang on to the Lord and His promises, trusting in who God is instead of leaning on what we can understand and see in front of us.
Sodom and Gomorrah
When 3 heavenly visitors came to Abraham, they are revealed to be the Lord Himself with 2 angels to accompany Him. They were there to judge and punish the sins of the wealthy yet corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Sodom is where Lot and his family now resided. When Abraham was aware of the impending destruction of the place of his nephew’s residence, he pled with the Lord. What if there were still righteous people living there? What if righteous people could still be found? I can only imagine Abraham’s hope that his nephew was faithful to the Lord, even though he was living in such a sinful place – so sinful that the Lord Himself came down to destroy it.
20 And the Lord said, “Because the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave, 21 I will go down now and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry against it that has come to Me; and if not, I will know.”
22 Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 And Abraham came near and said, “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? 25 Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?”Genesis 18:20-25 NKJV
God knew the conversation He was going to have with Abraham. He knew the responses He would get from Abraham, and He also knew what was happening in these sinful cities. He knew there were no righteous remaining there, and He knew He would save Lot for the sake of Abraham. God knew all the ins and out, befores, durings, and afters. He knew all the details, and He gave Abraham the opportunity to know God’s plan, reasons, and means. He let Abraham plea, knowing that it was futile – there were no righteous people left in these places and He knew it. Abraham expressed his understanding of God’s righteousness and His judgment. Abraham was given an opportunity to trust the great Judge of the whole earth, and to speak up for the possibility of righteous people who might be saved. God knew there were none, but He heard Abraham out nonetheless.
This is a beautiful example for us. Even while God knows all the same in our lives and circumstances, He knows the beginning and end, He knows the decisions we will make – God still gives us the opportunity to act, speak up, stand up, respond, ask questions, seek Him, and praise Him. No matter what we’re going through, we can speak to God truthfully, whatever is on our hearts, and He will listen. He already has a plan, but He wants us to trust Him with our hearts, minds, and deeds.
Unfortunately, Sodom and Gomorrah were so far embedded in sin that there had been a great outcry against their sinfulness, and God was going to destroy them and everyone there – except Lot and his daughters. Lot’s wife and sons-in-law were offered the same opportunity to be saved, yet the sons-in-law refused, not taking it seriously, and Lot’s wife disobeyed and looked back. She seems to have clung to the sinful place she was fleeing, and because she failed in this she was turned to a pillar of salt, possibly representing the earthly wealth Sodom was known for and had corrupted so many hearts and lives leading to this horrifying level of utter destruction.
24 Then the Lord rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the Lord out of the heavens. 25 So He [a]overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground.
26 But his wife looked back behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.Genesis 19:24-26 NKJV
Lot’s family had gained status in Sodom, and the behavior of his wife, and then later that of his daughters, was evidence of how much the sinfulness of the city had influenced them. Lot’s own daughters deceived Lot to a disturbing extent and ended up bearing their father’s sons. These sons ended up fathering the Moabites, who would later be responsible for some of the most carnal seduction of Israel’s history, and the Ammonites who were responsible for human sacrifice. The seed of deep-rooted sinfulness was carried on with these children who were saved from fire and brimstone.
Ishmael and Isaac
After Abraham again fearfully claims Sarah as his sister rather than his wife to save his own neck, God prevents any harm or dishonor from coming upon this chosen woman, and they are yet again shown great mercy. God blesses them, preserves them, and leads them to an alliance of sorts with Abimelech.
God then fulfills his promise and Sarah and Abraham become parents of a son, Isaac. As Isaac grew, Ishmael was caught mocking Isaac. I can only imagine the strain of these relationships at this point. Ishmael would have been well into his teen years at this point and along comes the son that had been promised to his father by God, the one who would replace him and claim the birthright promised by God.
8 So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned.
9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing.[a] 10 Therefore she said to Abraham, “Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac.” 11 And the matter was very [b]displeasing in Abraham’s sight because of his son.
12 But God said to Abraham, “Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called. 13 Yet I will also make a nation of the son of the bondwoman, because he is your [c]seed.”Genesis 21:8-13 NKJV
God cleared matters up by encouraging Abraham to send Ishmael and Hagar away, and eventually, Ishmael’s descendants became 12 tribes who were primarily in what we know today as Arabia. To this day, there is conflict between the ancestors of Ishmael, the son of Hagar, and those of Isaac, the son of the promise. This child was Abraham’s, so God blessed him in a similar way to how He blessed Isaac – Ishmael’s descendants, too, would be too many to count.
When Hagar had Abraham’s child, they had no idea the agony and conflict this one decision would cause. According to many historical records, Hagar and Ishmael settled in Mecca after they were sent away. Mecca, which is in modern-day Saudi Arabia, to this day is considered a holy Muslim city. Today, many Arabians trace their lineage back to Ishmael, and Muhammed, the founder of Islam, claims to be a direct descendant of Ishmael. The Quran, which is what Islam holds as a sacred text, esteems Ishmael as a prophet and messenger and claims Ishmael is the promised son rather than Isaac.
This is in direct contrast with the descendants of Isaac who would become the nation of Israel, the Jewish people, God’s chosen people. This is also a fulfillment of what God told Hagar while she was pregnant – that her son would be in constant conflict with his brother and his brother’s people, and that he would dwell near them. He was in the adjacent deserts and to this day there is still immense conflict between Arabs, many of whom trace their ancestry to Ishmael, and the Israelites, the descendants of Isaac.
- Read more: Ishmael | Meaning, Facts, & Significance | Britannica
- Read more: Ishmael, Generations of – Amazing Bible Timeline with World History
- Read more: The Sons of Ishmael – Israel My Glory
The decision to make up their own minds rather than wait for God has had thousands of years of impact so far. When we choose to follow our own ways instead of seeking and obeying God’s way, we never know the full scale of the ripple effect. We never understand the immensity of the impact. God knows every ounce of it, though, so thankfully He has a plan for all of it, but with our free will comes great responsibility to cling to the Lord and prioritize His will and timing in all things.