There are times when passages in the Bible either do not make sense or seem downright wrong. Growing up I did not know how to handle them and my attempts ended up being unsatisfying, making even less sense or leaving me more confused than ever. If you have read the Bible at all you have probably had a similar experience.
I learned a great deal about how to profitably and more accurately handle the Bible while a student at Wheaton. I was already familiar with the whole concept of literary context and how important it is. But figuring out the literary context was not much help with passages like Genesis 16.
The end of chapter 15 has God making a covenant with Abram that contains this promise, “to your descendants I have given this land, From the river of Egypt as far as the great river, the river Euphrates:” That promise presented Abram and Sarai with a big problem. Chapter 16 opens with this statement “Now Sarai, Abram’s wife had borne him no children,” the problem is simply no descendants.
The solution they came up with is the part that caused me so much distress. “So Sarai said to Abram, ‘Now behold, the Lord has prevented me from bearing children. Please go in to my maid; perhaps I will obtain children through her.’” Among the issues here are, this is at best polygamy which I had been taught was absolutely awful. Also, since Hagar is either a servant or more likely a slave she has no say in the matter and the text never indicates whether she consented or objected to this arrangement. If consent was not given by Hagar then in our world today this would be rape. Plus the thought of Abram’s wife setting him up with another woman just felt so wrong!
From our perspective today and viewed through the lens of our culture, those issues and more are very reasonable. Abram’s and Sarai’s actions from our point of view are just awful! This is where my Old Testament Archaeology Professor had a very important lesson for me. In addition to literary context, the cultural context is extremely important.
In this case cultural context means to view Abram’s and Sarai’s actions first through the perspective of their culture. Then use the other tools to examine those insights to more fully understand the passage and ultimately find an application to life today.
So my professor took us deep into Abram’s culture and gave us a fresh look at what Abram did. What we learned was that they had a custom that sounds quite weird and even awful to those of us who are part of the current, western, evangelical culture. This custom was that if a wife was unable to produce an heir, she could and should give him her maid - personal slave for sexual purposes. The idea was he would get the slave pregnant, she would give birth and the baby would be placed on the wife’s lap, therefore making it her child. In this manner she would “produce” a child for her husband. Kind of like an ancient version of a surrogate, except that in this case the “surrogate” has no choice in the matter, is not compensated, and gets pregnant through actually having sex with the husband.
Another example of this kind of arrangement occurs in Genesis 30. In that instance Rachel and Leah continue their sibling and wifely rivalry through giving their maids Bilhah and Zilpah to Jacob so they would produce more children for Jacob through them. That situation at least had a happier outcome; the boys grew up to be patriarchs of Israel. Also, the four women at least got along reasonably well, with Bilhah and Zilpah eventually being acknowledged as two of Jacob’s wives (Genesis 37:2).
So what Abram and Sarai did was not only accepted by their culture but was actually the proper and expected thing for them to do! Looking at the event through the lens of their culture and not ours enabled me to see this important fact. It also opened my mind to look beyond my natural ethnocentric viewpoint to find some important lessons here.
The first lesson was simply that I realized how important the cultural context is in understanding any text, in this case a historical type of text. This lesson has proven itself over and over again since.
Another big lesson involved what boils down to a serious lack of faith on the part of Abram and Sarai. Simply put, they both did not really believe that God would give them a son via Sarai. Therefore, they had to enable God to keep his promise another way.
This lack of belief is reflected in later interactions they had with God. In Genesis 17:15-19 God and Abram have this interaction. Then God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and indeed I will give you a son by her. Then I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of peoples will come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before You!” But God said, “No, but Sarah your wife will bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac; and I will establish My covenant with him for an everlasting covenant for his descendants after him.”
In Genesis 18:9-14 We read about Sarah, as Sarai is now named, and God concerning this matter. Then they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “There, in the tent.”He said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year; and behold, Sarah your wife will have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; Sarah was past childbearing. Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?” And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ “Is anything too difficult for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”
Notice that when confronted again with the promise of an heir, specifically a son via Sarah, both Abraham and Sarah responded with laughter and disbelief. This helps explain the motivation behind the whole take Hagar and get her pregnant episode. It was culturally expected and in that sense the local moral standards would find it the right thing to do. However, that was based on the belief that elderly people cannot get pregnant. Therefore, God cannot possibly be thinking that Sarah would mother this special baby boy. So of course this is how we handle things.
The narrative supplies what God thought of this attitude, And the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am so old?’ “Is anything too difficult for the LORD?
By going into the cultural and literary context, I was able to sidestep my ethnocentric generated issues and get to a very important lesson the passage has for us today. No matter what any particular culture says is proper, our behavior as followers of Christ must be based on belief not unbelief!
The Scripture quotes are from the NASB 95
Written by Daniel B. Baker May 4, 2014