Abraham was the human channel through which the world would see the outpouring of God’s redemptive plan. He understood that. Sarah understood and also embraced it. “She judged Him faithful who had promised” (Heb. 11:11 NKJV).
But despite her faith, she knew from a human perspective that her long years of childlessness already loomed large as a threat to the fulfillment of God’s pledge. Sarah must have constantly pondered these things, and as time went by, the weight of her burden only increased.
Yet God kept giving her reasons to hope. In Genesis 15:7–21, YHWH restated and expanded His promise to Abraham, then formally ratified the covenant. It is significant that verse 12 says a deep sleep fell on Abraham; then the Lord single-handedly carried out the covenant ceremony. (Incidentally, the Hebrew word used in verse 12 is the same word describing the “deep sleep” that Adam fell into when the Lord took his rib to make Eve.) This detail about Abraham’s sleep is given to stress the convenant was completely unconditional. The covenant was a unilateral promise from God to Abraham about what He, YHWH, would do. It made no demands of Abraham or Sarah whatsoever. It was a completely one-sided covenant.
If Sarah had simply realized that truth and embraced it, her whole burden would have been instantly lifted.
HER FOOLISHNESS IN THE MATTER OF HAGAR
Instead, Sarah took it upon herself to hatch a scheme that was so ill-advised and so completely fleshly that she regretted it for the rest of her days. As a matter of fact, the evil consequences of that one act had unbelievably far-reaching implications. Frankly, some of the tensions we see in the Middle East today are rooted in Sarah’s foolhardy ploy to try to concoct a man-made solution to her dilemma.
To be fair, from a purely human viewpoint, we can understand Sarah’s despair. Ten more fruitless years passed after Abraham and Sarah arrived in Canaan (Gen. 16:3 NKJV). Sarah was now seventy-five years old, post-menopausal, and still childless. If God planned to make her the mother of Abraham’s heir, why had He not done so by now? It was natural for her to think God was deliberately withholding children from her. As a matter of fact, He was. When His time came for the promise to be fulfilled, no one would be able to deny that this was indeed God’s doing. His plan all along was for Sarah to have her first child in her old age, after every prospect of a natural fulfillment of the prophecy was exhausted and after every earthly reason for hope was completely dead. Thus YHWH would put His power on display.
But as she considered her circumstances, Sarah concluded that a kind of surrogate parenting was the only possible solution to her predicament. If God’s promise to Abraham were ever going to be fulfilled, Abraham had to father children by some means. Sarah thus took it upon herself to try to engineer a fulfillment of the divine promise to Abraham. She unwittingly stepped into the role of God.
Sarah had a maidservant, named Hagar, whom she had acquired during their time in Egypt. Sarah apparently reasoned that since she owned Hagar, if Abraham fathered a child by Hagar, it would in effect be Sarah’s child. “So Sarai said to Abram, ‘See now, the LORD has restrained me from bearing children. Please, go in to my maid; perhaps I shall obtain children by her.’ And Abram heeded the voice of Sarai” (16:2 NKJV).
This was the first recorded case of polygamy in Scripture involving a righteous man. The very first bigamist on biblical record was Lamech (Gen. 4:19). He was an evil descendant of Cain. (He is not to be confused with another Lamech, described in Genesis 5:25–29, who was Noah’s father and who descended from the line of Seth.)
Abraham took a concubine, at his wife’s urging. “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar her maid, the Egyptian, and gave her to her husband Abram to be his wife” (Gen. 16:3 NKJV). This was a sorry precedent for the patriarch of the nation to set. In generations to come, Jacob would be duped by his uncle into marrying both Leah and Rachel (29:23–31); David would take concubines (2 Sam. 5:13); and Solomon would carry polygamy to an almost unbelievable extreme, maintaining a harem of more than a thousand women (1 Kings 11:1–3).
But God’s design for marriage was monogamy from the beginning. “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt. 19:4–5 NKJV, emphasis added). Paul likewise made clear what God’s ideal for marriage is: “Let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2 NKJV, emphasis added). Disobedience to that standard has always resulted in evil consequences. David’s polygamous heart led to his sin with Bathsheba. Solomon’s marital philandering destroyed him and divided his kingdom (1 Kings 11:4). No good has ever come from any violation of the “one-flesh” principle of monogamy. Abraham’s union with Hagar is certainly no exception.
As soon as Hagar conceived, Sarah knew it was a grave mistake. Hagar suddenly became haughty and contentious toward Sarah: “When she [Hagar] saw that she had conceived, her mistress [Sarah] became despised in her eyes” (Gen. 16:4 NKJV).
Here, then, is the first outburst of temper we see from Sarah: “Sarai said to Abram, ‘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’ ” (Gen. 16:5 NKJV).
It is true that Sarah was being unreasonable. This whole sordid plan was, after all, her big idea. Yes, as the spiritual head of the household, Abraham should have rejected Sarah’s plan out of hand—but it’s still not quite fair to pin all the guilt on him. On the other hand, this fit of Sarah’s was deliberately provoked by Hagar. Her insolent treatment of Sarah was utterly indefensible. No doubt, Hagar knew all too well about Sarah’s extreme grief over her own barrenness. Now she was deliberately putting salt in Sarah’s wound. Since Hagar was the servant and Sarah the one in charge, this was the most brazen kind of deliberate impudence.
John F. MacArthur Jr., Twelve Extraordinary Women: How God Shaped Women of the Bible and What He Wants to Do with You (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2005), 37–40.
We have just released a new Bible Study based on the first five chapters of John MacArthur’s book, Twelve Extraordinary Women. This study is based on the Life of Joseph, up until his promotion.
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
- Eve: Mother of All Living Things
- Sarah: Hoping Against Hope
- Rahab: A Horrible Life Redeemed
- Ruth: Loyalty and Love
- Hannah: A Portrait of Feminine Grace
- Mary: Blessed Among Women
- Anna: The Faithful Witness
- The Samaritan Woman: Finding the Water of Life
- Martha and Mary: Working and Worshiping
- Mary Magdalene: Delivered from Darkness
- Lydia: A Hospitable Heart Opened