Friday, December 6, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 73, God Repeats His Promises Again

Abram messed up pretty badly in Chapter 16. Have you ever messed up so badly that you wouldn't blame God if He never blessed you again? This may be how Abram feels right now. He knows he didn't stand firm in faith against Sarai's idea to use Hagar as a surrogate mother for their child. He didn't wait for the Lord to fulfill the promise of a son but instead took matters into his own hands without consulting the Lord. Thirteen years have gone by since he made this mistake and he's had a lot of time to think about it and to beat himself up for it. I think he knows Ishmael is not the promised son, but the promised son still hasn't arrived, and he's ninety-nine years old now. He has probably convinced himself that God's promise has been voided because of his sin.

But God is the God of second chances. And of third and fourth and fifth chances. And of more chances than we can count. While it's true we can knock ourselves out of some blessings by getting out of step with God, when we repent and commit our ways to the Lord it's amazing how willing He is---over and over---to pick us up and dust us off and set us back on our feet. This is what Abram needs in Chapter 17, so God appears to Him and repeats the promises He's made before.

"When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, 'I am God Almighty; walk before Me faithfully and be blameless. Then I will make My covenant between Me and you and you will greatly increase your numbers.'" (Genesis 17:1-2) When the Lord urges Abram to be "blameless", He doesn't mean sinless. No human being is going to be sinless. In the original Hebrew the word translated as "sinless" means "whole". We can never be whole without a relationship with our Creator. The Lord is urging Abram to get back in step with Him, to walk with Him daily, and to believe His promises without thinking he has to do something to "help" the Lord to perform the promises. This is why the Lord uses the title "El Shaddai" for Himself in verse 1. This title means "all sufficient". The Lord doesn't need Abram's help to follow through on the promises He's made. Abram's help hasn't been very helpful so far; all he did was bring conflict into his home by going about things the wrong way. So now the Lord says to him, "I am the all sufficient God. I am able to do everything I promise to do---and more! Just trust in Me and believe what I say. Stay close to Me and watch to see what I'm going to do."

One time some years back a terrible situation arose in which I owed a pretty big debt that wasn't my own fault. Someone in my family used my computer login for one of my credit cards to take out a  cash loan from my available credit, which was sizable. This many years later I don't recall the exact amount of the cash loan but I'm thinking it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000. I could have reported this as fraud and had the person arrested, maybe, although in the legal advice I received was that it would be difficult to prove someone had access to my laptop and my saved passwords without my permission. The person who had taken the money was a person who desperately needed the Lord and I felt like the Lord was telling me not to do anything to them but to let Him handle what was wrong in their heart. Instead of going the legal route and charging them with fraud, I consulted the credit card people to explain the situation and see how I could fix the mess. I was told they would write off the majority of the debt if I made a payment of a certain amount by a certain date. They forgave about two thirds of the debt, but the amount I still had to pay seemed astronomical at the time because my husband was out of work.

I was frantically trying to figure out how to raise the money. I was at the point of going to the bank to take a lien against my paid-off car when the Lord said in my spirit, "Stop! Don't try to work this out yourself. Stand back and watch what I'm going to do." All He asked me to do was calculate how much money I needed to save every week in order to have the full amount by the date it was due, and I was to put that money in an envelope every Friday when I got paid at work. I didn't know how I was still going to pay household bills and put food on the table while saving enough money to pay the bill, but by the date the payment was due I had enough money in that envelope right down to the penny! I don't know how He did it. I don't know how He kept my household going while at the same time telling me to put so much money aside. Somehow He made the money stretch enough to cover everything it needed to. In addition, He dealt with the heart of the person who had wronged me. Since then, that person has repented of their sins and accepted Christ as their Savior and has apologized to me for what they did. This person is living an honest and responsible life now.

I had nothing to do with how the money multiplied or with the person turning to Christ. That was all God's work. But what if I'd disobeyed the Lord? What if I'd refused to trust that He would provide? What if I'd taken legal action against this person in spite of the Lord telling me to let it be? My financial problem may not have worked out very well. The person who wronged me might have continued to resist the Lord for a lot longer after I---a Christian---had them prosecuted even though the Lord told me not to. I wish I could say I've always heeded the word of the Lord instead of trying to fix things myself and making a mess of them. But that wouldn't be true. So the lesson here is: when the Lord wants us to participate in the work He's doing, He will tell us what to do. But if He wants us to stand back and watch Him work, we better stand back. In our passage today the Lord is telling Abram to stand back and let Him do what He intends to do.

Abram surrenders wholly to God on this matter. There have been times when I've meddled in things I should have left alone, and when confronted with God's immeasurable ability to sort things out, there's nothing I can do but surrender and submit. When we get even the tiniest glimpse of His awesome power, we see how puny our own efforts are. Abram sees this and falls at the feet of the Lord. "Abram fell facedown, and God said to him,  'As for Me, this is My covenant with you: You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish My covenant as an everlasting covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.'" (Genesis 17:3-8)

Abram is going to end up with two sons: the one he obtained by human effort and the one obtained by a miracle of God. This is why the Lord says he will be a father of "nations". Originally the Lord promised He'd make a great nation come from him (Israel) but now that Abram has messed up the Lord mercifully blesses the other family line that will come from him. Ishmael's line will also be fruitful. The Lord changes his name from Abram (which means "exalted father") to Abraham (which means "father of many"). For all the years when he had no child, Abram must have found it sad and ironic that his name meant "exalted father". But now he is a father of one, and although it was not the Lord's will for him to obtain a son in this manner, the Lord isn't going to cut off Ishmael's line. It's not the fault of Ishmael, or of his mother Hagar, that they were used in an ill-advised plot. The Lord is still going to fulfill His promise of the son He intended to give Abram by miraculous means, so now He calls Abram "father of many". Abram will be the father of two sons and, through their offspring, will be the father of many peoples and nations.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 72, Hagar The Egyptian Slave, Part Three

Today we conclude our study of the Lord's conversation with Hagar in the wilderness.

Yesterday we closed with Him telling her that her descendants would be too numerous to count. "The angel of the Lord also said to her: 'You are now pregnant and you will give birth to a son. You shall name him Ishmael, for the Lord has heard of your misery.'" (Genesis 16:11) The name "Ishmael" means "God will hear". Hagar, alone and heartbroken and frightened in the desert, thought no one cared about her. She thought no one heard the sound of her weeping and that they wouldn't help her even if they did. But God heard her cries and knew what was in her heart. He saw her circumstances. He came down in person to prove to her that He knew her name, that her problems mattered to Him, and that He loved her. Every time Hagar says her son's name, it will be a reminder to her that God is aware of everything that happens to her and that He cares.

"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 toward all his brothers." (Genesis 16:12) Ishmael is not the son promised to Abram by God. He is not going to be Abram's heir or the one to carry on the family line. He is not going to be of the bloodline of the coming Messiah. God is still going to bless him and make a great nation of him because nothing that has happened to his mother has been her fault. She can't help it that she was used in Sarai's ill-advised plan to obtain a son through a surrogate mother. She can't help it that Abram took her as his second wife long enough to conceive a child with her. Hagar is the victim in this story and the Lord knows it. He promised her yesterday that her son will be the father of many descendants.

It is believed that Ishmael was the ancestor of several Arabic tribes, and if this is so, then the prophecy has already come true. For example, Mohammad claimed to be a descendant of Ishmael, although his claim cannot be proven because not enough is known about the genealogy between Ishmael and Mohammad. The lineage can't be accurately traced and there are some scholars of today who don't believe the two men were connected genetically at all. But, assuming Mohammed was correct, then the Lord's prophecy regarding Ishmael has certainly come true, for his hand is against "his brothers" (the Jewish people). Ishmael and Abram's son Isaac were half brothers, but there's no loving relationship today between the descendants of Ishmael and the descendants of Isaac. Indeed, most of Israel's neighbors would love to see her wiped from the face of the earth. In our world today, the United States is the best friend the nation of Israel has, and heaven help us if that ever changes, because the Lord said to Abram in regard to his descendants, "I will bless those you bless, and whoever curses you I will curse." (Genesis 12:3a) If we ever turn our hand against Israel, God may turn His hand against us and remove from us the great blessings He's granted our nation.

Now Hagar gives a name to the Lord. She is the only woman in the entire Bible who does this. "She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: 'You are the God who sees me,' for she said, 'I have now seen the One who sees me.'" (Genesis 16:13) Her statement lends further credence to the theory that any time we see "the angel of the Lord" in the Old Testament, this is a reference to the pre-incarnate Christ. She says she has seen the Lord, and she is referring to "the angel of the Lord" who sought her in the desert to tell her He cares.

The name she gives Him is "El Roi" in Hebrew and it simply means "The God who sees me." Hagar doesn't merely mean that the Lord is aware of her as He looks down on the earth from the heavens. She means He really sees her. He sees all the way into her heart and mind and soul. He sees her circumstances. Sometimes we go through periods in life when we feel unseen and uncared for. Sometimes we're the victims of someone else's mistreatment or mistake. We can begin to feel like we are unseen, unheard, and uncared for. But the Lord says to us the same thing He said to Hagar, "I hear you." And we can say to Him what Hagar said, "You see me and You've allowed me to see You." The Lord wants a two-way relationship with us. He hears what we have to say and He wants us to hear what He has to say. He sees us and He wants to make Himself known to us so that we can "see" Him. On what must have been one of the worst days of her life, the Lord proves these things to Hagar.

Because in this desert place the Lord saw Hagar and Hagar saw Him, the well there was given a special name of memorial. "That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered." (Genesis 16:14) This means "well of the living One who sees me".

How many times has the Lord refreshed you in the desert places of life? How many times has He stepped in to remind you He sees you and hears you? He's done this too many times in my life to count. Our lesson on Hagar is a timely one for me. There's a particular situation that's been going on for years that is beginning to trouble me more than ever lately. I think soon there will be some changes in this situation, but I find myself worrying about whether these will be welcome or unwelcome changes for me. I've been praying about this and trying to remind myself that the Lord knows everything about my circumstances, that He has seen and heard everything, and that He's going to step in. I feel like I am the victim in this particular story. He knows it. And as He did with Hagar, I think at the right time and in the right way He will take action.

The Lord told Hagar in yesterday's passage to return to the household of Abram of Sarai, and she does. "So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had born. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael." (Genesis 16:15-16) How did Abram know his son was supposed to be named Ishmael? I think Hagar told him what the Lord said to her and Abram listened. Maybe for the first time since Hagar has known Abram, he actually listened to what she (a slave girl) had to say. Not only did the Lord show her He cares about what she has to say, but He's opened Abram's ears to her voice as well. This chapter ends on a positive note for everyone involved, but that's through no efforts of their own. It's because the Lord stepped into what was a human-made mess and started sorting things out.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 71, Hagar The Egyptian Slave, Part Two

Earlier in the week we talked about how getting ahead of God gets us into a mess. Unfortunately, when we make mistakes like this, our actions often affect the lives of those around us. That's what has happened to Sarai's Egyptian maid, Hagar.

Hagar has never been in control of her own life. We don't know when or how she first became a slave. I think she may have been born into slavery on Pharaoh's estate, since she is obviously still a very young woman since being out of Egypt for ten years. But Pharaoh gave her, along with other slaves, to Abram while Abram was in Egypt. Hagar had no say in the matter. Then, when Pharaoh threw Abram and Sarai and everything they owned out of Egypt, Hagar was taken along with them into Canaan. No one asked Hagar if she wanted to go. Life in Canaan was probably not too harsh as the personal maid of Sarai, at least not until Sarai decided to use her as a surrogate mother in order to obtain the child she'd always wanted. Did anyone consult Hagar's feelings? I doubt it. So now she's the second wife of a man she does not love and who does not love her, she's still a slave, and she's expecting a baby that will never be truly her own. But finally she has something that makes her feel special because she's accomplished something the free woman/mistress of the house could never do. This gave Hagar a feeling of pride and superiority, but this didn't sit well with Sarai, so in yesterday's passage she complained to Abram about Hagar's attitude. Sarai was in charge of the household servants, and Abram wasn't in the habit of telling her how to run the home, so he simply replied that she should deal with the problem however she saw fit. Sarai saw fit to go out of her way to be extremely unkind to her maid, which resulted in Hagar running away. This is where we pick up today.

"The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur." (Genesis 16:7) This is what is known as a "Christophany"---an Old Testament appearance of the pre-incarnate Christ. Whenever we find reference to "the angel of the Lord" in the Old Testament, the Bible is speaking of a personal interaction the Lord has with a person before He ever came into the world as a human being. We often find the people who encounter Him in this way bowing at His feet and calling Him "Lord", so if this is not the pre-incarnate Christ, then it must be an angel of such a high order that he has been commissioned to act and speak on behalf of God, with all the authority of God behind him. Even then, it's difficult to imagine an angel allowing a person to bow at his feet in worship. In Revelation we found the Apostle John so overcome with emotion a couple of times that he bowed to the angel speaking with him, and the angel instructed him not to do it. The angel told him to direct his worship toward God alone, so I think if "the angel of the Lord" is not Christ, he would tell people not to bow before him and call him "Lord".

Just think about this: when Hagar is alone and miserable and scared in the desert, the Lord doesn't send a human being to help her. He doesn't send one of the many angels who serve Him. He comes down personally to speak with her! This had to be the last thing she ever expected. She's been treated like a nobody all her life. Her thoughts and feelings have never mattered to anyone. She's not allowed to make any decisions for herself. She's now alone in the desert with no idea how she'll survive long term, and she's probably thinking it doesn't matter because no one cares about her anyway, and then God shows her how much He cares. I love how the Bible says He "found" her. She wasn't looking for Him. For all we know, she was still worshiping the gods of Egypt if she worshiped anything at all. I'm sure that in Abram and Sarai's household she heard about the one true God, but she could hardly have imagined this foreign and unknown God would ever take an interest in her. So she's not looking for Him, but He's looking for her. Isn't that how it is with all of us? I wasn't looking for Jesus. I didn't "find" Jesus. He found me! As the lyrics of an old hymn called "Victory In Jesus" go, "He sought me and He bought me with His redeeming blood. He loved me 'ere I knew Him, and all my love is due Him." The Lord loved Hagar. She didn't even know Him but he loved her anyway. Now He has something to say to her.

"And He said, 'Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?'" (Genesis 16:8a) He knows everything about her already. He doesn't need to ask her any questions, but He wants to engage her in conversation, so He opens with a question about what she intends to do. In a sense, He asked me this same question when I was lost in sin and didn't know Him. When we've made a mess out of things, it's natural He'd ask us to take stock of the situation by questioning, "Where are you going? What are you doing?"

The holy and perfect Son of God knows the name of a poor Egyptian slave girl. He makes this obvious to her right off the bat. No wonder she answers Him! For the first time in her life, someone is interested in knowing her name and in knowing what she's thinking and feeling. "'I'm running away from my mistress Sarai,' she answered." (Genesis 16:8b) To be a runaway slave was a serious thing, but she doesn't try to pretend she's anything but a runaway. She confesses to the Lord what she's doing.

He doesn't rebuke her when she makes her confession. He simply tells her what to do next. "Then the angel of the Lord told her, 'Go back to your mistress and submit to her.' The angel added: 'I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.'" (Genesis 16:9-10) The Lord is not condoning slavery. Slavery, as it was practiced later in Israel, was nothing like the type of slavery we once had here in the United States. In many other cultures it wasn't, either, such as in the Roman Empire of the New Testament. Strict rules and laws were in place regarding the treatment of slaves and regarding how long a person could be expected to serve as a slave (as in the case of working off a debt). The Romans allowed slaves to work for themselves during their free time and they could sometimes earn enough to buy their freedom. The Bible expressly forbids the kidnapping of persons and the selling of them into slavery, which is what was happening during the time slavery was practiced in our own country. I don't believe for a second that Abram and Sarai beat their slaves or mistreated them at all; this is why Sarai's mistreatment of Hagar (which was probably emotional or verbal) threw Hagar into such a panic that she fled the estate. She'd never been talked to this way before and she knew no way of dealing with it other than to run away. The Lord tells her to go back home and perform her duties as she should and in the right attitude. Then He makes her an awesome promise, the same promise He made to Abram. Her descendants will be too numerous for any man to count.

Hagar's descendants will form a different family line than the line that will come from the son Abram later has with his wife Sarai, but the wording of the promise is the same. Living in Abram's household, Hagar is probably aware of the promise the Lord made to Abram. I'm sure Abram talked about it often. And now the Lord makes the same type of promise to a slave girl from Egypt---a young woman who was brought up in pagan idolatry, who does not have a personal relationship with the one true God, and who never imagined the one true God knew her name or cared about her. Her interaction with the angel of the Lord makes such an impression on her that she is the only woman in the Bible who gives God a name. There are several instances in the Bible of men giving God a name, such as "the Lord who provides", or "the Lord my healer", or "the Lord our peace". These are just a few of numerous examples. But Hagar is the only woman who ever gives a name to the God who meets with her.

Join us tomorrow as we talk about the name she gives to the Lord, why she gives it, and what the Lord says to her about the son she will have.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 70, Hagar The Egyptian Slave, Part One

If you've been studying with us the past two days, you know that Sarai has offered her Egyptian slave, Hagar, to be Abram's second wife. Sarai has been unable to conceive a child during all the years of her marriage and now she is past the age of being fertile. She knows God promised Abram a son of his own flesh and blood, but she doesn't see how Abram can father a child with her, so she intends to use an ancient legal custom in order to obtain an adopted son and heir.

As we've learned this week, a barren wife in those days could take one of her slave women, give the woman to her husband as a legal but secondary wife (a concubine), and allow her husband to father a child with the slave woman. Because the slave belonged to the couple, any children born to the slave automatically belonged to the couple. This is how Sarai intends to gain the child she's always wanted and the child she feels she has kept her husband from having.

Hagar was probably what we would think of in more modern times as a "lady's maid" or an "upstairs maid". I don't think she was a mere houseworker or cook. I think she was more intimately involved in Sarai's life than that. A lady's maid would have access to the most personal details of the life of her mistress. She'd often become a confidante of her mistress. And even if the mistress wasn't the type to take her maid into her confidence, the maid could hardly help knowing very personal things about her mistress, about her marriage, and about her health. Hagar would have known Sarai's struggles through observation if through nothing else, but it's possible Sarai told her very private things during the years Hagar was her maid. This may be the reason Sarai chose Hagar, out of all the female servants, as a surrogate mother for the child she wants.

Any friendship that may have existed between Sarai and Hagar comes to an abrupt halt. Sarai thought she could make herself forget how her adopted son was begotten. She thought she'd still be able to deal with Hagar's presence in her life even though Hagar had sexual relations with Abram. Nothing in the Bible makes us think Abram had relations with her more times than it took to conceive a child. But still, what woman could forget that her husband had to sleep with another woman in order to produce a son? Who would ever want to look that woman in the eye again? Sarai was so blinded by her desire for a child, and the guilt she felt for not being able to have a child, that she failed to consider all the ways this would change the life of everyone involved. She thought she could adopt the child, raise him as her own, and forget how he came into the world. But the human mind doesn't work that way. And it's not just Sarai who will feel disgust for Hagar; Hagar is going to feel the same way toward Sarai.

We don't know whether Abram fathered a child with Hagar on his first try or not. This next verse makes it sound as if it happened that way, but the Bible isn't in the habit of providing private details about the physical relations between a husband and wife. I'm glad it doesn't; it's none of our business. "He slept with Hagar, and she conceived. When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress." (Genesis 16:4)

Hagar realizes she's expecting a child and now she hates Sarai. I can think of several reasons why she would hate her mistress.

First of all, it's doubtful Hagar was presented with a choice about whether to accept this arrangement or not. She was a slave and, terrible as it is to think about, this made her the property of Sarai and Abram. Her status as the second wife of Abram didn't change that. She would never be Abram's primary wife and would never hold the social or legal standing of a primary wife. She may have been legally married to him for the purpose of bearing a child, but she was still a slave. She was still at the mercy of her owners. We don't know how she felt when she was told she was about to become Abram's legal wife in order to bear a son for him. She may have felt thoroughly repulsed. She may have wanted nothing to do with this scheme. But she would have had to participate whether she wanted to or not. I can't blame a woman for despising the mistress who forced her into this situation.

Second, Hagar has never been her own person. She's never been free to come and go as she pleases or to do with her life what she wants. But now she has accomplished something the free woman in the household has never been able to accomplish: she is pregnant with Abram's child. Immediately this gives her a sense of elevated standing in the house. She's second to no one but the mistress now, and in her heart she doesn't even feel second to her. She's pregnant with the master's child; the mistress of the home has never been pregnant with the master's child. Hagar begins to look down on Sarai. She begins to feel like more of a woman than the barren Sarai. In order to deal with her circumstances in life, I think Hagar needs something to make her feel better about herself. It just so happens that pride is what she uses to soothe herself. Pride, of course, is a sin. But we can't help understanding why Hagar revels in the feeling of superiority over the woman who owns her. Now she goes around with a smug smile on her face all the time. Sarai has dealt with the pitying looks of fertile women all her life. Sarai has endured the whispers behind her back and the suspicion that she must be a sinful woman for the Lord not to bless her with children. Now her own maid has joined in with the pity and the contempt. In addition to this, Hagar may no longer feel she needs to obey the instructions of her mistress. It could be that she begins ignoring Sarai's orders entirely.

Sarai cannot bear it. In her distress, she irrationally blames Abram for the current problem. "Then Sarai said to Abram, 'You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.'" (Genesis 16:5) This whole deal was Sarai's idea in the first place. Now she's angry with Abram for going along with it. Granted, Abram should have said no when Sarai first presented him with her idea. But in yesterday's passage we discussed various things that may have led him to give in. He did fail to properly perform his role as the spiritual leader of the home when he gave in to Sarai's request, and now she realizes it. Now Sarai is saying, "If only you'd put your foot down and said no, this would never have happened! Look what you've done! May the Lord take you to task for not telling me my idea was a terrible idea!"

All Abram wants is for things to go back to normal. He wants peace in his home. He wants his wife to be happy. He isn't in love with the slave woman with whom he has fathered a child. According to the custom of his day, the physical interaction between him and the surrogate mother of his child was a legal transaction and nothing else. If the child he has fathered is a son, he will need to have no more physical relations with his second wife if he doesn't want to. He doesn't even have to speak to her again if he doesn't feel like it. He tells Sarai to handle this matter however she pleases. "'Your slave is in your hands,' Abram said. 'Do with her whatever you think best.' Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her." (Genesis 16:6) By not handling the matter himself, is Abram still failing to properly fulfill his role as spiritual head of the household? Maybe, maybe not. Sarai, as his wife, has full authority over the household servants. Sarai runs the home and she is in charge of the servants who perform all the work done inside the home. She is the one who tells household servants what to do and she is the one who administers discipline when servants disobey her orders. She's not in the habit of consulting Abram in these matters and he doesn't expect her to. So when she complains to him about Hagar's attitude, he tells her to handle it in whatever way seems best to her. Sarai has managed the home well in all her years as a married woman. She is experienced in dealing with servants who are insubordinate or lazy. Abram trusts she'll know what to do to restore order.

Did he intend for her to be cruel to Hagar? I don't think so. I doubt she's in the habit of being mean to the servants and he doesn't realize she'll be cruel to Hagar. I don't know how Sarai normally handled insubordination, but she didn't handle it the way she handles the attitude of Hagar. With Hagar she goes out of her way to be difficult to deal with. She may have taunted her, insulted her, and made up extra work for her. She may have demoted her from her position of household maid and given her the worst and most disgusting tasks of the household. The Bible doesn't give us the specifics, but whatever Sarai did, it was wrong in the eyes of the Lord, for the Bible tells us she "mistreated Hagar". Sarai did way more than she needed to do to correct Hagar's prideful and disdainful attitude. For all we know, a heart-to-heart talk between the two women may have solved the problem of their resentment toward each other. Hagar, after all, didn't seduce Abram. She didn't "steal" Sarai's husband. None of this mess was Hagar's idea. Sarai's plan to obtain a son through a surrogate was a bad idea, but I think she was in so much emotional pain and was so caught up in her own struggles that she failed to consider the impact this plan would have on Hagar. Maybe the two of them could have found a way to live peacefully with each other even if they could never like each other again. But instead Sarah is cruel and Hagar becomes a runaway slave.

Join us tomorrow as the Lord steps in and provides comfort for the woman who has been so horribly used in this whole matter. He has kind words for her, even if no one else does.

Monday, December 2, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 69, Abram and Sarai Make A Mistake, Part Two

In yesterday's passage Sarai offered Abram her personal maid, a slave named Hagar whom they acquired in Egypt, to be his secondary wife in order to use her as a surrogate mother. We discussed the custom that existed in Sarai's day that allowed a barren married woman to make this arrangement for the purpose of acquiring a child to be her adopted son and heir. We also talked about all the reasons throughout the years that led Sarai to make what must have been a difficult decision.

Today we take a look at what happens next. "Abram agreed to what Sarai said." (Genesis 16:2b)

Why did Abram agree? Was he going through his own crisis of faith? Maybe, because ten years have passed since the day the Lord promised him a son of his own flesh and blood. "So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife." (Genesis 16:3) On the one hand, Abram had such a close relationship with the Lord that we find it difficult to understand any doubts he may have harbored. On the other hand, we live in a society that's used to having what it wants right now. How well would we do if the Lord made us a very clear and specific promise but ten years go by without anything happening? Could we even hold out ten years as Abram did without trying to take matters into our own hands?

Maybe Abram didn't lack faith but was overcome with compassion to the point of doing anything to give the wife he loves what she wants. He knows, more than anyone other than the Lord, what a toll childlessness has taken on her. He's aware of every time she's had to force a smile when listening to someone's birth announcement. He realizes she's had to bear up under the pitying looks of the people of their community. He knows she's had to deal with whispers behind her back from people who suspect something must be wrong with her character if the Lord hasn't blessed her with a child. He has been with her during the nights she's cried herself to sleep. The one thing she wants most in the world, he can't give her by the usual means a man gives his wife a child. Something in her body has prevented conception and he's powerless to do anything about it. My own husband will tell you how sad and helpless it makes a man feel when his wife has a serious problem that he can't fix. It makes a man want to do something---anything---to make his wife feel better.

A third explanation for Abram's agreement is that, although the Lord promised him a son of his own flesh and blood, as far as we can tell from the Scriptures the Lord didn't specifically say that the child would be of Sarai's own flesh and blood. Abram was aware of the custom in which a wife could give her husband a female slave to be a second wife to him for the purpose of conceiving an heir. But just because this practice existed in the heathen communities surrounding Abram's homestead doesn't mean the Lord wanted Abram to do it. Just because the Bible tells us something happened doesn't mean the Lord approved of it; the Bible is simply telling us about life as it was in those times. Did Abram consult the Lord when presented with this offer by his wife? I don't see how he could have, for the Lord intends to give him a child with his wife Sarai, and the Lord would have given him a firm "no" in answer to his question. It may be that after ten long years of waiting for the Lord's promise to come true, Abram thinks Sarai's offer is the answer he's been waiting for. She has come up with this idea apparently on her own. She has reached the point of wanting a child so desperately that she thinks she can stomach the idea of placing her husband in another woman's arms long enough for him to conceive a child who can become her adopted son. I think when she presented this idea to Abram it seemed like the solution to all of their problems at once, and I don't feel he took time to consult with the Lord. Abram wants a solution and he wants it now, before more time passes and before his wife grows more despondent and before he himself (for he is getting old) dies without producing a son to carry on his name and to look after his widowed wife.

Join us tomorrow as we look at the third person involved in this unnecessary mess: Hagar, the Egyptian slave.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 68, Abram And Sarai Make A Mistake, Part One

In Chapter 15 we were told that Abram believed the Lord's promise of a son. As Chapter 16 opens it is ten years later and the promised son has not yet appeared. Abram and Sarai decide to take the matter of the promised son into their own hands instead of waiting any longer.

Getting ahead of the Lord is always a mistake. It doesn't matter if He's already promised us the thing we want; we need to let Him work it out in the right way and at the right time. We shouldn't move forward until He tells us to move forward. Believe me, I've made this mistake several times in my life, to my own regret. As we walk with the Lord through this life, we have to learn to do what the children of Israel did while the Lord led them through the wilderness: we must stop when He says stop and we must move when He says move. When we don't abide by this principle, we are going to learn a hard lesson.

Abram and Sarai haven't learned this hard lesson yet, but they're going to in time. Not only that, but the mistake they make in Chapter 16 is partly an ongoing result of a mistake Abram made in Chapter 12. You'll recall that during a famine in Canaan, he lacked the faith to stay put in the land to which the Lord had called him, but went down to Egypt where food was easier to obtain. While there, he made yet another mistake by lying and saying the beautiful Sarai was his sister and not his wife. He did this because he was afraid someone would kill him to take her away from him, so we see that he didn't trust the Lord to protect him. Pharaoh took notice of the beauty of Sarai and had her placed with his harem until such time as he could get around to making her one of his wives. Because Pharaoh intended to make Sarai his wife, he lavished Abram with gifts. He paid Abram, whom he thought was Sarai's older brother and the head of the household, a "bride price". This doesn't mean he was purchasing Sarai as if she were property, although women in Sarai's day had little to no say in the matters of marriage, but he was giving Abram gifts to make up for the loss of Sarai in Abram's household. The primary female of the household would have performed much valuable work, and in return for her hand in marriage Pharaoh gave gifts (including Egyptian slaves) to Abram to make up for the inconvenience of losing Sarai's services in the home. One of these Egyptians was a woman named Hagar who became Sarai's personal maid after Pharaoh found out Sarai was Abram's wife and threw them all out of Egypt.

If Abram hadn't disobeyed the Lord in the first place by going down to Egypt, he wouldn't have lied about the identity of Sarai, and he wouldn't have ended up with gifts from Pharaoh, and he wouldn't now own a slave whom Sarah plans to use as a surrogate mother. "Now Sarai, Abram's wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, 'The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.'" (Genesis 16:1-2a) Infertile couples in modern times who can afford it will sometimes use a surrogate mother. This is done without any sexual contact occurring between the married man and the surrogate. The joining of sperm and egg is done by a medical professional in a petri dish or test tube or something of that nature, and then the fertilized egg is implanted in the womb of the surrogate. But it couldn't be done this way in Sarai's time, so a custom existed in which a married woman could allow a slave she owned to sleep with her husband and conceive a child. That child would then become the legal heir of the married couple. Sarai has given up on having a child of her own flesh and blood, so she intends to become the adoptive mother of a child conceived between her husband and her slave.

In the days before medical science taught us that men can be infertile as well as women, infertility was assumed to always be the woman's problem. It was believed that all men were virile and fertile, so if no children were born to a couple, the woman was declared to be barren. In Sarai's case this was actually true, for we will find Abram being able to father a child with Hagar. But how did Sarai know she was the infertile person in the marriage? Did she just assume it because it was customary to assume it? Or had she always suffered from some sort of "female trouble" that led her to conclude that something in her anatomy didn't work the way it should? We don't know, but in ancient times there was a huge stigma attached to infertility. A woman who could not give her husband a child was pitied and looked down upon. She was treated as if she weren't a real woman at all. Imagine the toll this must have taken on Sarai's feelings of self-worth. Imagine going to the market and having to interact with pregnant women, with women who had multiple children tagging along behind them, and with women proudly showing off new grandbabies. Women in our own day, who struggle with infertility year after year, find these situations difficult. But for Sarai it must have been even worse, for she'd have had to deal with the pitying stares and the whispers of fertile women who either feel sorry for her, look down on her, or suspect there must be terrible sin in her heart if the Lord has prevented her from becoming a mother.

It was considered a shame to be barren in Sarai's time, and she's dealt with this year until she's past the age of menopause, and now she's given up on becoming a mother by natural means. The years of disappointment and disgrace have taken a heavy toll on her. She's reached the point of desperately offering her personal maid to be the secondary wife of her husband just so she can at last call herself a mother. She can bear the shame no longer. She feels like she can't take one more pitying stare or one more whisper behind her back. She is a virtuous woman but knows some people think she's a sinner and that her infertility is the punishment of the Lord. She wants to be the woman proudly holding a child by the hand in the marketplace. She wants it so badly that she's willing to do anything in order to be a mother---even if that means giving her husband a second wife. This is the low point to which the expectations of her culture and the years of disappointment have brought her.

Does she lack faith in the Lord? Yes, I think she does, but I can't help feeling sorry for her. She's a victim of her culture, of her time in history, and of her medical inability to produce the one thing she wants above all others. I can see why she makes the request she makes of her husband, and although it's not a request I can imagine making of my own husband, I understand what brought her to this point. Whatever amount of faith she has in the Lord, it is not strong enough to stand up to the pressure she's under, and she breaks. Could she and should she have stood strong and waited on the Lord? Yes, but haven't we all become impatient while waiting on the Lord? Haven't we all messed up because we wanted something so badly that we didn't wait for the Lord? If you haven't, odds are that if you live long enough, you'll get ahead of Him somewhere along the line. It's a human failing and we are all humans.

I can understand Sarai's reasoning better than I can understand Abram's, but tomorrow we are going to talk about what may have caused Abram to agree to Sarai's request.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

In The Beginning. Day 67, God Performs A Sign For Abram, Part Three

Abram has asked for a sign that the Lord is really going to give his descendants the land.

"So the Lord said to him, 'Bring Me a heifer, a goat and a ram, each three years old, along with a dove and a young pigeon.' Abram brought all these to Him, cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other; the birds, however, he did not cut in half." (Genesis 15:9-10) We discussed yesterday the ancient practice of "cutting covenant". The parties to a very serious, irrevocable agreement would sacrifice an animal swiftly and humanely, then cut the body in half, then walk together through the blood. This signified that if one of them broke the covenant, he owed his own blood (his life) as the penalty for his treachery. We know Abram sacrificed these animals before he cut them in two, so we need not worry that this was done while they were alive. For proof of this, the birds were dead just like the rest of the animals, but unlike the other animals he didn't cut the birds in two. This shows us that the sacrificing was all done first, then the cutting in two.

Several hours must have passed after Abram did what the Lord told him. "Then birds of prey came down on the carcasses, but Abram drove them away." (Genesis 15:11) Abram has to wait for the Lord to perform His part of the transaction. I think the Lord makes him wait so that he will understand that a period of time is going to pass between Him making the promise of the land and Him fulfilling the promise. It's human nature for us to want things to happen right now, but things don't always happen right now. This is because we are not the only people involved in what the Lord is doing. Sometimes He has to work on the hearts of others to soften them toward us. Sometimes He has to keep urging someone to repent and do the right thing so He can use them as a blessing in our lives. It's not all about us. Every time the Lord works out one of His plans for our lives, He involves other people in it. Sadly, sometimes these people resist His will for a time before doing what He wants them to do. Worse yet, they may reject Him wholeheartedly and then He has to remove them from their role in His plan for our lives. But we have to remember that there are things going on behind the scenes that we don't know about. What seems to us like an unnecessary delay is very necessary from the viewpoint of God.

The long day has taken its toll on Abram. As darkness falls, he can no longer hold his eyes open. "As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him." (Genesis 15:12) The Lord is going to speak to him while he's in this deep sleep, but why is the darkness so dreadful? I think it may be because of the news the Lord gives him in verse 13: "Then the Lord said to him, 'Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.'" (Genesis 15:13) This is not good news. But during the four hundred years Abram's people are in captivity, the Lord will be dealing with the hearts of the people of the land of Canaan. He will be urging them to turn back to Him from useless idols. They won't turn back, and He knows it because He's already promised Abram's descendants the land of Canaan, but God is so faithful and righteous that He must give them every opportunity to repent even though He knows they won't. The people of Canaan will never be able to stand before the great God and Judge and claim He never gave them a chance. They will never be able to say He was impatient with them. Instead they will have to admit He has been more than patient with them.

The Lord gave Abram the bad news first and now He will provide the good news. I don't know about you, but if someone asks me whether I want the bad news or the good news first, I want to hear the bad news first. That way, hopefully, the good news will make me feel better. "But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure." (Genesis 15:14-16) The Amorites are one of the tribes who inhabit the land of Canaan. Sin has a tipping point. It's like hanging a bucket on a rope and gradually filling the bucket with water. Eventually the water will start to spill over, tipping the bucket and causing everything in it to pour out. In the Scriptures we often find the Lord comparing sin to something that fills and overflows its container. It's at that point that He must judge sin. He was patient while the container filled up. He kept pleading with the people's hearts to stop filling the container with sin and to repent and be filled with the Holy Spirit instead. But if they do not listen, a tipping point is reached in time, and that is when He has to say, "No more!" A day will come when the sin of the Amorites reaches this tipping point, and then the Lord will call His people Israel out of Egypt and bring them to the land He has promised to them.

Abram himself will not live to see that day. I'm sure he longed to see that day, but the Lord makes i clear to him that he will die in peace, as an old man, before his descendants take possession of the promised land. There are far worse things, aren't there, than dying peacefully in our sleep in our old age? Though Abram won't see his descendants taking possession of the promised land, he must have felt comforted by the promise of a long and fulfilling life and a peaceful end to that life.

Now here is something we don't want to miss. When two men of Abram's day "cut covenant" with each other, both of them had to walk through the blood. This is because the keeping of the covenant depended on both of them doing what was required in the agreement. But in the covenant the Lord makes with Abram regarding the promised land, only the Lord walks through the blood. This is because the keeping of the covenant depends solely on the Lord performing His part of the agreement. Abram's descendants won't be perfect, just as Abram himself wasn't perfect. They won't always do what is right. They won't always be faithful to God. But God is going to give them the land anyway. There is nothing Abram can do that will prevent the Lord from keeping His promise. There is nothing Abram's descendants can do to keep God from calling them out of Egypt and helping them to take possession of the land. It's going to happen, and it depends entirely on God's unbreakable promise, so He walks through the blood alone. "When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking firepot with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces." (Genesis 15:17)

The Lord offers this covenant; all Abram has to do is accept it by faith. This is a beautiful picture of the Lord's glorious plan of salvation: the Lord offers it and all we have to do is accept it. The Lord Jesus Christ did all the work of salvation for us. Just as God the Father walks through the blood alone in today's passage, Christ walked through the blood alone (His own blood) in order to offer us redemption freely. He paid the price, not us. There was nothing we could do to save ourselves, so He did for us what we could not do, and all we have to do is accept it on faith. With His own body and blood on the cross, the Lord Jesus Christ "cut covenant" with us. He is the One who saves us and He is the One who keeps us saved.

The Lord concludes this legal and binding transaction by speaking the terms of the agreement aloud to Abram. "On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram and said, 'To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates---the land of the Kenites, Kenezzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and Jebusites.'" (Genesis 15:18)