We are continuing in a sermon series on the lessons we can learn from the lesser known people of the Bible. Last week we looked at Gideon and how God works through our weakness to show his strength. Today we’re going to look at another person in the Bible who is not well known and yet we can learn some great lessons from her life. She shows up in the Bible in the sixteenth chapter of Genesis. It says, “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar….” (Genesis 16:1) That’s where we begin. Now, I want to warn you that Hagar’s story is very strange. In fact, it’s one of the stranger stories in the Bible, heart breaking even. It shows us that we can’t always understand why God does what he does. Why would he roll out his plan of salvation for the world in such a strange way?
That’s the FIRST LESSON we learn from Hagar’s story. WHAT GOD DOES DOESN’T ALWAYS MAKE SENSE TO US. Sometimes God acts in strange ways. Some things are beyond our ability to grasp. Some things just seem terrible to us. The story of Hagar is one that makes us scratch our heads and say, “Why did God let all that terrible stuff happen to Hagar?” If we’re honest, we all have times in our lives when we ask that same question. God doesn’t always make sense to us but that doesn’t mean that what he does is senseless. The Bible says, “Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things.” (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
Now the problem of Sarai’s barrenness is a serious issue because Abram was told by God that he would be the father of a great nation, that the number of his descendants would be so great, as great as the stars in the sky or the sand on the shore. So the fact that Sarai hasn’t had any children yet is a real problem. So Sarai takes matters into her own hands and says to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her. Abram agreed to what Sarai said.” (Genesis 16:2) Horrible, right? Abram listens to his wife and sleeps with Hagar and she conceives. He goes along with Sarai instead of saying, “That’s not God’s plan. We shouldn’t take things into our own hands.”
Abram listens to the voice of his wife rather than the voice of God. Does that sound a little familiar to you? It should. It happened to another couple earlier in Genesis. Remember: Eve gave her husband a piece of fruit from the forbidden tree and he ate it. Adam should have said, “That’s not God’s plan for us. We shouldn’t take things into our own hands.” But he didn’t. So God pronounced a curse on Adam, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you….” (Genesis 3:17) Adam listened to the voice of his wife instead of listening to the voice of God and he fell into sin and took the whole human race with him. Now Abram is making the same mistake. By listening to his wife he sins against God. He is a sinful and corrupt human being, and yet God continues to work out his plan of salvation of the world through Abram. That’s the SECOND LESSON we learn from the story of Hagar. GOD WORKS HIS WILL THROUGH US IN SPITE OF OUR CORRUPT AND SINFUL NATURE.
Let’s not be too hard on Sarai for telling her husband to take Hagar as his wife. That would have been a perfectly proper and respectable course of action according to the social mores of the ancient Near East. It was a serious matter for a man to be childless in the ancient world, for it left him without an heir. It was equally important for a woman to have children and large number of children was a sign great success. A couple was expected to have lots of children. But Sarai and Abram were no ordinary couple. God had promised that Abram would be the father of multitudes of nations. His descendants would outnumber the stars of the sky or the sand of the ocean shores.
The story goes on. “He slept with [Hagar] and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress.” (Genesis 16:4) That means she began to look down on Sarai. I think we all could have seen that coming. Hagar liked her new role. She was now a wife to Abram and her child would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abram of descendants that would outnumber the stars of the sky or the sand on the shore.
Sarai is livid over the arrogant attitude of her slave girl. The word she uses to describe Hagar’s new found pride is the same Hebrew word used elsewhere to describe the sins that prompted the flood. Perhaps that was an over exaggeration but that is how violated Sarai felt by the haughtiness of her slave girl. She blames it all on Abram. So Abram tries to appease Sarai by reaffirms her authority over her slave rather than trying to protect Hagar and his child growing within her.
Sarai responds by mistreating Hagar, making her suffer for her attitude. The Hebrew word used to describe Hagar’s suffering is the same word used earlier in Genesis to describe the suffering of the Hebrew people at the hands of the Egyptians. So Hagar flees. She runs away. This first scene in Hagar’s story ends in total disaster. Hagar loses her home. Sarai loses her servant. Abram loses his second wife and unborn child. The THIRD LESSON we learn from Hagar’s story is that SIN ALWAYS MAKES A WRECK OF OUR RELATIONSHIPS. The Bible says, “Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.” (v. 6)
Scene two is set in the wilderness, on one of the roads that leads to Egypt by way of the Sinai Peninsula. Hagar is making her way back to her native land when the angel of the Lord appears to her. The Lord commands Hagar, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” (v. 9) That seems rather harsh for God to send Hagar back into an abusive situation. How could God tell her to submit once again to such a mean and nasty master. Here we need to be reminded that God’s ways are higher than our ways. We don’t always see the whole picture that God sees. By going back, the relationships that were broken have a chance to being salvaged. Maybe some healing can take place. Maybe some changes can be made. God also gives Hagar a promise which sounds very much like the promise God gave to Abram. He said, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” (v. 10)
Then the angel of the Lord gives her unborn child a name. That’s very special when God names the child before he is born. “You shall call him Ishmael, (which means God hears), for the Lord has heard of your misery.” (v. 11) Then the angel of Lord tells Hagar what her son will grow up to be like. “He will be a wild donkey of a man…” That sounds horrible to us, but to Rahab, that was not a bad thing. The wild donkey was far more like a horse than a donkey back then, and this was a sign that Ismael would enjoy a free-roaming Bedouin like existence. He would be able to come and go as he pleased. The freedom Rahab sought by running away from Sarai would one day be her son’s. He’s going to love his freedom, although it will at times bring him into mutual conflict in his dealings with other men, but he will be free.
Hagar responds by giving God a name. She says, “You are (El-Roi) the God who sees me.” (v. 13) And in the Bible, when God sees you, it means he cares for you. God sees her misery and he cares for her and her unborn child. He sends her back where she will be safe, where she and her child will have a future. That’s the FOURTH LESSON we learn from Hagar’s story. GOD SEES US WHEREVER WE ARE AND HE CARES FOR US. We may feel God is blind to our struggle, but God sees all that we are going through. There is nothing that he does not see. He’s not napping for God neither slumbers or sleeps. He’s not preoccupied with more important matters. He sees what you are going through and he cares for you. He has a command to give you, a directive, and a promise of a better future.
Scene two ends with Hagar giving birth. It reads, “So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne.” (v. 15) This is really significant for it shows that Sarai has relinquished her claim on the child. The boy will not be taken by Sarai and raised as her own. She’s out of the picture now. Sarai may have succeeded in her scheme, but she’s being excluded from enjoying its success. We can conclude that Abram has stepped in to protect Hagar and be the boy’s father. Ishmael will be raised by Hagar and Abram.
Then we don’t hear anything about Hagar for a while. Her story is overshadowed by some really major events. God appears to Abram and changes his name to Abraham. God then makes an even greater covenant with Abraham and institutes the requirement of circumcision for inclusion in the covenant community. God tells Abraham that Sarai is to be called Sarah from now on and she will indeed bear him a son. Abraham laughs because that would make him a 90-year-old father. And really, he’s quite content with Ishmael as his son. When God tells him Sarah will have a son, he says to God, “‘If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!’ Then God said, ‘Yes, [meaning he will] but your wife Sarah will bear you a son, and you will call him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him. And as for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him; I will make him fruitful and will greatly increase his numbers. He will be the father of twelve rulers, and I will make him into a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you by this time next year.’” (Genesis 17:18-21) So even though God is going to fulfill his promise of a son through Sarah, things are looking pretty good for Ishmael and therefore his mother, Hagar.
A year goes by and Sarah does indeed bear Abraham a son. While Isaac is still young enough to be nursing, they seem to be one big happy family. But the Bible says, “… on the day Isaac is weaned [that would be around the age of three], Abraham held a great feast. But Sarah saw that the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham was mocking….” (Genesis 21:8-9) We’re not really sure what that means. Maybe she saw Ishmael laughing at Isaac or maybe she just saw him playing with Isaac. Anyhow, she went ballistic and demanded that Abraham “Get rid of that slave-wife and her son….” (v. 10) The old animosity between Sarah and Hagar suddenly returned. It wasn’t a case of jealousy or pride on Sarah’s part. She was more concerned about her son’s future and knew that Isaac’s status as heir would always be at risk as long as Ishmael was around. So she demanded Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away.
Abraham was deeply distressed because he loved Ishmael and was very concerned about his safety. God came to Abraham and said, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your slave-wife. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be named. But I shall also make your slave-wife’s son into a great nation, for he is your descendant. So early the next morning Abraham took bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. He set them on her shoulders and then sent her off with the boy. She went on her way and wandered in the wilderness in the Desert of Beersheba. When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes and went and sat about a bowshot away for she could not bear to watch the child die. And she began to sob. Then God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What is the matter, Hagar? Don’t be afraid, for God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. Go pick him up and hold him, for I shall make him into a great nation.’ Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. So she filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink. So God was with the boy, he grew up, and lived in the wilderness and became an archer. He lived in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother married him to an Egyptian.” (v. 12-21)
GOD SEES US WHEREVER WE ARE AND HE CARES FOR US! No matter what you’re going through, no matter how much you are hurting, God sees you in your pain and suffering. Even when it doesn’t make sense to you that God would allow you to suffer such things, he has a reason for it, and he has a purpose for your life. He says, “For I know the plans I have for you…. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.’” (Jeremiah 29:11)
God had a purpose in putting Hagar and Ishmael through all the pain and suffering they endured. Let me share with you what Hagar and Ishmael made possible. Let me show you the part they played in God’s redemptive plan for the world.
Fast forward from Hagar and Ishmael’s story to Genesis chapter 37. There we find a guy named Joseph. Remember him? The guy with the coat of many colors. He had dreams of being great and he made the mistake of sharing those dreams with his brothers. They were so jealous that they plotted to kill him. As they were about to carry out their plan, a band of nomads came by on their way to Egypt. So Joseph’s brothers decided to sell him into slavery instead of killing him, and in that way they could at least make some money off of him. So the band of nomads unknowingly saved Joseph’s life. They took him to Egypt where he became very successful. He rose to become the right hand man to the Pharaoh. When his father and brothers were starving for lack of food following a seven-year long drought, they came to Egypt and purchased grain from Joseph. They didn’t recognize him, but he eventually told them who he was. God used Joseph to save the nation of Israel from starvation. God also used Joseph to father children, who fathered children, who fathered children, and so on. One of Joseph’s descendants was Jesus Christ.
That band of nomads that came by at just the right time and bought Joseph as a slave, the were Ishmaelites. They were direct descendants of Ishmael, son of Hagar. God Hagar’s son’s descendants in his plan to bring our Savior into the world generations later.
The FIFTH LESSON we learn from Hagar and Ishmael’s story is that GOD CAN USE EVEN THE BAD THINGS THAT HAPPEN TO US FOR HIS GLORY. He can take our suffering and he can redeem it by not allowing it to be for nothing. He can use our suffering to bring about his redemptive plan in the world.
When you go through terrible times, trust God to use them for his glory.